It’s funny how one’s senses can go into hyper speed in a fraction of a second, he thought. Just a second earlier he had been leaning back in his boat, watching his two buddies pull the fish out of the water, and now he was in the water, his body and brain working overtime trying to figure out what was going on.
The water was cold, they said. It was dark, and he could hardly see anything. The lake didn’t smell, but he heard sounds of struggle behind him. He spat out the water that had got into his mouth when the boat had capsized.
“I’m in the water,” he told himself, just to make sure he’d stay afloat. His first instinct was to get back into the boat, but there was something wrong with it, and when he had finally made out the boat’s silhouette in the moonlight, he saw that there was only a half a boat. The rest was under water, and going down fast.
The worst part? He couldn’t see, hear, feel, or smell his friends.
He held onto the boat for as long as he could, trying to figure out which way to swim, because swimming was his only alternative. He’d swim back to the cottage, and then he’d give his friends some hell for leaving him out there on his own.
“Guys? GUYS!” he yelled, and he heard the echo, and he knew that people on the other side of the lake would hear, but he never heard a reply.
Even in the darkness, it didn’t take him long to make up his mind on which way to swim. He knew the lake like the back of his hand, after thirty years of fishing for salmon there. He knew every bay, every current, every little rock.
Rock. There was one not far from the boat, he thought.
“OK, let’s swim to that rock, and then figure out what to do,” he said out loud and kicked his rubber boots off his feet.
“Too bad about the boots,” he muttered. “I liked them.”
Thirty years earlier he had put on those rubber boots every morning as he went for his morning run. He ran alongside the river that cut through his hometown, picking up rocks and carrying them with him for a while, then dropping them somewhere else. The bigger a rock he could find, the better.
The boots were his secret weapon on his way to the top. One day he’d be the greatest hockey player in the world. He’d be the fastest, the strongest, and the most creative one. The whole world would look at him skate, and they’d stand in line for hours to get his autographs. He’d win medals, and he’d win championships, and he’d get rich.
That was the plan. And what is a dream but just a plan without a deadline. He had a deadline. He was going to get out of his little hometown by the end of the season, and that’s why he wanted to be the best.
Every morning he ran to the river, and then alongside the river, in his rubber boots. A few kilometer down the river, he hit a small forest and there he pretended the trees were defensemen, and he practiced his dekes. A step to the left, then two quick ones to the right. A step to the right, a step to the left, and the around the tree on its right side. He ran over the roots, he ran backwards, and he carried big rocks from one place to another.
On the other side of that small forest was a bridge that took him to the other side of the river, and into the swamps. That’s where he really needed the rubber boots, as he ran around, sometimes waist deep in the wetlands.
In the winter, he took his boots out to the river and ran in the knee-high snow, to make sure his legs got stronger, and stronger, even though he also skated more than ever. And scored more goals than ever.
The following season he got out of that town, and he took his boots with him.
He couldn’t see the rock anywhere. Maybe he had missed it in the dark, that sure was easy to do, even for somebody who knew the waters. He couldn’t see land anywhere, and he knew that he had at least a few kilometers back to his own cottage, which was also the closest one.
He turned on his back to save his energy, and swam slower. He looked at the moon, and the stars, and he felt calm. “I’m a star, too,” he said, and started to swim backstroke. After just a few strokes, he felt a pain in his shoulder, like somebody had stabbed him there.
He grit his teeth, and then he smiled.
“You think that’s going to do it?” he said. “You think I’d give up just because my shoulder hurts?”
Instead, he started to swim faster. And faster. Just to prove a point … to whom? Maybe to himself so that afterwards he could tell everybody what he had done.
He could deal with physical pain. He’d had his nose broken, his legs broken, ribs smashed in, lungs punctured, and eyes almost pulled out of their sockets. Pain was nothing, pain passed with time. One doctor had told him he’d never play hockey again, “not with that knee”, and he’d played 200 games after that.
It was supposed to be his big coming out party. He was in the best shape of his life, after a full year of running in his rubber boots, and he was coming off a strong season in the league. He had moved form his hometown to the City, and the new team had got him a nice job as a car salesman, but he had quit that just a month into his new career, so he could focus on hockey.
Hockey didn’t pay him much, but it paid enough for him to live comfortably, especially since he was a bachelor who shared an apartment with two roommates a stone’s throw from the rink.
He knew that for a fact, it had been one of those things the guys had done late at night when there was nothing else to do, or at least when nobody else was doing anything. They had climbed to the roof, and threw rocks to see if they could hit the arena.
Life was hockey, nothing else mattered. He’d worked hard that summer, harder than ever, and he was in the best shape of his life; stronger, leaner and faster than ever.
And yet, one October night, he was flat on his face on the ice, lying in a pool of blood after an open ice hit. The photo of him lying motionless in the blood was in the papers, and even today, people remembered that image. Nobody remembered that he’d been sidelined for eight weeks because he had torn the ACL in his right knee. That’s why he had been lying on the ice, the blood was nothing, there just happened to be a lot of blood when a human being breaks his nose. But that didn’t hurt. The pain was in the knee, and that’s why he had been carried off the ice on a stretcher.
He had come back that time, his first comeback, and he had scored a hat trick in his first game back. His leg hadn’t been even close to being as before, but he had wanted to play. The only place where he felt alive was out on the ice, inside the rink, in front of thousands of fans.
He was always the last player to come on the ice, and he’d blow kisses to the fans, and to the referees. He’d done spin-o-ramas, he had faked naps in the penalty box, and given the choice between scoring an ugly goal and trying, but failing, to score a trick goal, he always went for the latter.
Even when he wasn’t trying, strange things happened. One time the puck broke into two pieces when he shot it, and one half went in, the other half didn’t. The referee scratched his head for a while, but called it a good goal.
He was their Elvis, their Muhammad Ali, their Beatles. It was the era of stars, and he was the closest thing to a superstar for the people in the City.
“I’m the greatest,” he said, mimicking Ali. “Put me on the team against the Soviets, and I’ll show you, and them, how hockey should be played.”
He was out of breath, and the land didn’t seem to get any closer. He knew he was heading in the right direction, and every once in a while he thought he saw lights, so he kept on swimming.
What choice did he have?
The water seemed colder now, the night a little darker, because there were clouds across the moon now. The wind was picking up, too, and even though he was simply in a lake, and it wasn’t even a big lake, the waves were getting just a little higher, making it just a little more difficult for him to move forward.
He turned back onto his back, trying to save some energy. For the first time, the thought of not making it to the shore hit him. He had no idea how long he had been swimming, no idea of how long he’d been in the water. He turned around to see if he could see the boat, or something, anything to get an idea of how far he’d come, but everywhere he looked, he saw the same thing: just water.
Maybe he’d been in the water for just ten minutes. Fifteen? How long would take for somebody to realize they’d been gone a little too long.
But they knew he’d come back. He had always come back.
He came back after the knee injury. He cam back that season, but he back too soon and wasn’t his usual self, so he went back to the river, pulled on his boots and worked all summer to regain the strength to his legs. The year after, he broke the record for points in a World Championship tournament.
In his first game against the Soviets, he was a man possessed. Nothing could have stopped him that night. He had a half a dozen scoring chances in the first period alone, and at least twice, he broke his stick when he was about to shoot.
No matter, he scored two goals, even though the team lost.
He was floating on the ice, like a butterfly, like Ali had said. And he, too, stung like a bee. That winter when he was running in snow twice a day, in his rubber boots, by the river, he had cooked up the plan to be the best in the world.
He could have still gone back to the river, and show anyone who asked the exact spot he had decided that he’d become the greatest hockey player ever. Not that many people did ask, be he still knew.
That’s also where he had come up with his wraparound trick, his triple spin. Everybody tried to just skate around the net and shove the puck in at the far post, but he’d taken it two steps farther. He decided to spin behind the net, and then do it again. He was so fast on skates that had he made two spins, the goalie would be waiting for hime simply because he wouldn’t have even had time to react. So, he needed a triple spin wraparound.
He scored two triple spin wraparound goals in the World Championships.
He was back.
Five years later, he was lying on the locker room floor, back in the City, after a few years in North America. He knew what people were saying, that he was washed up, that he was out of shape, that he had lost his touch.
With a towel on his face, he did his own version of meditation, but instead of getting calmer, and breathing slower, he got angrier and filled with rage and energy, once again a man possessed. He was back in the City and he’d show the doubters. That time, he didn’t blow kisses to the crowd, there were no waves to the kids in the stands during warmups.
Not until afterwards when he’d make everybody eat their words.
He scored six goals in that game, and after the game, he blew kisses to the crowd.
He didn’t have many people in his corner.
Even the federation had turned its back on him somewhere along the line. It was the year after his record breaking tournament, that year’s World Championship. He’d sprained his ankle earlier that season, outside of the rink, and the arena, and he didn’t want to talk about it. But he couldn’t skate properly, and the triple spin wraparound was definitely out of the question. He made the team, though, but then he got hurt again.
The opposing team’s goalie broke his ankle with a vicious slash. He flew home the next day, but at the Moscow airport they wouldn’t let him use the bathroom. The police? What was he supposed to do? Pee in his pants? Still trying to find creative solutions, he had then asked the the ground crew to let him board the plane a little early so he could get to the bathroom there.
For some reason, they refused to do that, and called the police. Now, that was a little too much and when the Russian police had started to make demands, he had got up and shoved the policeman in the chest with his crutches.
The federation gave him a one-year suspension for that.
“The fuckers stole a year of my career,” he thought and started to swim faster and faster and faster, until, out of breath, he turned to his back again and just floated in place for a while.
He had always come back. He had played beer league hockey during the one-year suspension and came back and turned pro. He would always come back.
Whenever he found himself in trouble, he’d always ask himself the same question: what would Muhammad Ali do? After all, he was the greatest, the fastest, the brashest, the prettiest, and the strongest. And the smartest.
Ali said he was so fast that when he turned off the light switch in his hotel room he was in bed before the room was dark.
What would Ali do if his boat had capsized in the middle of the night? Would Ali have gone back for his friends? Would he have swam to shore?
He thought about the question for a while and then decided that Ali had been in the lake with him, he would have swum. He would have said that he could walk on water, but in the end, he would’ve been forced to swim, like the rest of us.
There was no alternative, he thought. So he kept on swimming. His clothes were heavy now, but he didn’t want to take off his jacket.
He’d always admired Ali. He loved the brashness, the poetry, and how he always came back. Always. He’d followed his career from the Cassius Clay days, and he felt a strange connection to “the Greatest”. Just like Ali had predicted that he’d become a world champion and the greatest boxer there ever was, he also felt that it was more than a goal for him to become the greatest hockey player there had ever been. It was his destiny.
It was one Ali quote that had got him to put on his boots and work as hard as he had. Ali had said that he hated every minute of training. “But I said, don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion,” Ali had said.
And just like Ali, he had always been misunderstood. That, too, was his fate as a genius.
When he had come from North America, Ali had just lost his title to Leon Spinks. Leon Spinks! He’d been looking forward to the fight for weeks in advance. He had a big poster on the wall of his store in the City.
He’d come back from North America the year before, and he’d signed with the other team in the City. The first day back, he had driven his Cadillac to the arena, and he’d gone inside in his white cowboy hat, the one he’d got as a prize for being the first star of his first game in America.
“There’s a new sheriff in town,” he’d told people in the arena.
He’d scored those six goals in the first game, but then things went south fast. He had opened up a hockey store with a teammate, and the first thing he’d done was put that Ali v Spinks poster up on the wall. Business wasn’t great, but it was something, and at least he had something to do. The team only practiced once a day and played just two games a week.
In the beginning, he was at the store first thing in the morning, putting things in place, and making calls to suppliers, but a few months into the season, especially after his ice time went down, when his production went down, he stopped going there at all. That’s why he had a partner, right?
And then, in mid-February, Ali lost to Spinks. The greatest of them all lost to a guy who’d boxed seven bouts before the title fight, and hadn’t even won them all in a KO? That, for some reason, had served as a wakeup call to him.
Ali had been out of shape, he’d let his success go to his head, and that was his downfall.
On February 17, the day after he’d heard that Spinks had beaten Ali, a Friday, he put on his rubber boots, and he went for a run in the snow.
Ali won the rematch by a unanimous fifteen-round decision six months later, and by then, he’d left the City, and moved to a bigger European City. They came after him, the club did, they wanted him because they had wanted a true superstar on the team, he said.
And that’s what he was. He sold his half of the store, took down the Ali poster and left.
Like so many times before -in his first game ever, his first national team game, his first game in the City, his first game in America, his first game back – he scored a hat trick in his first game in the European City. He became a fan favorite, and a month into his stay there, thousands of fans were chanting his name all through the game.
He loved it. He was back blowing kisses, doing fancy tricks in the middle of the game, joking with the referees, always a smile on his face. Always. He was always happy when he was playing hockey.
That made the fans love him even more, and the letters started to pour in. There were first a dozen letter, then dozens a day, and them more, and more, until one day the mailman asked him to get a postbox in the village so he wouldn’t have to carry the fan mail up to his place.
How big was he?
One time, when he signed autographs at a department store, the line went out the door and halfway around the block. And if that wasn’t hadn’t been enough, the janitor at the place had told him that not even Johnny Weissmuller’s visit had attracted as many visitors.
And he was Tarzan!
Now is the time to swim like Tarzan, or at least like Johnny Weissmuller, a five-time Olympic gold medalist. He was tired, though, and he was scared. Just a few hours ago, he’d been sitting on the dock at the cottage with a beer in his hand with two old teammates. They had talked about the old times and games, former teammates and coaches.
They had re-played their best games, and they had made some phone calls to other former teammates.
Every call ended with their variation of a famous quote: “We walk together forever,” they told each other. That’s what Fred Shero had written on the board when the 1974 Philadelphia Flyers prepared for the Stanley Cup final: “We win tonight, we walk together forever.”
They hadn’t won together, but there was a bond nevertheless.
But as far as he could tell, two of them wouldn’t be walking anymore. They wouldn’t walk together forever. But he had to make it back. He always made it back. Like Ali, they couldn’t keep him down, nothing could stop him. There was no pain that could make him stop.
He started to cry, and then he made himself stop.
And right then, when he was at his lowest point in life – alone, in the water, fighting for his life – he had a vision. He saw his wife standing on the dock at their cottage, washing her hands in the water, looking at his direction.
Then he saw her talking to the mailman about his fanmail in the European City, and washing the windows, and sitting behind the cash register in his store in the City. He saw her packing and unpacking his rubber boots before and after yet another a move, and he saw her sitting by his bedside in the hospital when he broke his ankle, and when he tore the ligaments in his knee, and when he fractured the orbital bone above his left eye.
He saw her in the stands in the City, the European City, in America.
And he realized that every time he’d skated out on the ice, blowing kisses to the crowd, there had always been one woman blowing kisses back to him.
He had to get back to her.
She was the greatest and the prettiest of all time.
He put his head down. He felt the cold water on his face, and then he kept on swimming until he saw the dock. She was standing there.