“Hudson, try not to lose any more teeth today!”
“Try not to be such a pussy so I don’t have to save your ass, Billings,” I shot back.
I pulled on my jersey before sitting down to lace up my skates. I was used to the razzing. Everyone gave me shit. It was shit I probably deserved. I did tend to be the one guy on my professional ice hockey team that was going to go to bat for anyone wearing the uniform. I hated unfairness. I hated cheap shots. There was a little demon inside me that demanded I fight back against anyone that messed with one of my teammates.
“Ready for this season?” Chase Lane asked and flopped down on the bench beside me.
“Last one,” I answered. “I’m going out with a bang.”
“Maybe not a bang,” he warned. “If you spend the whole game in the penalty box, you don’t get to make the shots. No shots, no scores, no stats. Are you still thinking about Salt Lake?”
“Yes. Absolutely. I’m not just thinking about it. I’m going to do it. I’m going to get my ass on that team.”
“I can’t believe this is going to be our last year playing together,” he said with a shake of his head.
“Don’t get all sentimental on me,” I groaned.
He stood up and grabbed his gear. “Not a chance in hell.”
I finished lacing up, with my eyes on the prize so to speak. This was the last year of my contract with the Canada Wilders. Then I was going free agent. I wanted to position myself to be the best of the best. The goal was to get to Salt Lake, but if that didn’t work, I wanted a better offer from the Wilders. I had made myself a key part of the team. I was the team’s highest scorer. This year, I was going to cement my position at the top. I was going to be one of the most desirable players—I hoped.
It wasn’t long before Coach Campbell hollered for us to gather around. While he gave his usual pep talk, I was thinking about the future. It was all about getting in the right headspace. I had to ignore the noise and focus. My position as the right wing gave me a prime advantage to score. I wanted to beat my record from last year.
“Let’s do this,” Chase said after the meeting. We fist-bumped and left the locker room to hit the ice.
It was our opening game and the fans had come out in droves. Music boomed through the speakers and lights crossed the ice. It was like getting a huge shot of adrenaline. If and when I left the team, I was going to miss the fans. They were devoted, and boy, did they show up. The ice girls were out in fine form as well. They were wearing their tiny skirts and green sweaters. I felt a little bad for them, but they voted on the uniforms.
After circling the ring and waving at the crowds, we headed for the bench. While the other team skated out, Chase knocked his helmet against mine. “Keep it clean,” he said. “I’m not trying to pick up the rest of your teeth from the ice. No fights.”
I grinned and nodded at the ice. “Do you know where you are?”
“I’m serious. More play, less fighting.”
“Just trying to keep everyone safe.” I laughed.
“That’s my job,” he reminded me.
He was a defender but he protected the goal, not our teammates. That was my job, and I took it seriously. My defensiveness had earned me a bit of a reputation and cost me an agent, along with countless hours in the penalty box. Somewhere along the line, the media had spun some wild stories about me. My reputation was talked about more than my talent.
“Good luck out there,” one of the ice girls said with a flirty smile. Her eyes were screaming fuck me as they roamed over me.
“Thanks,” I said.
I didn’t do the ice girls. I didn’t do any of the fans. It was too risky. I had enough drama in my life. The last thing I needed was to have some woman accuse me of anything. I knew I could have them. I knew a lot of them wanted me because I was untouchable. There were plenty of rumors on social media about me having a secret girlfriend. Of course, there were also plenty of rumors about my sexuality. I refused to give in and answer to any of it. It was nobody’s business.
“Let’s do it.” Chase clapped me on the shoulder.
We got into position. I felt like a coiled snake. I was poised and ready. This was my moment. The puck dropped, the center whacked it toward me, and I took my moment. I beat my old record and scored within the first sixty seconds of the game.
The crowd was losing their shit. The stomping, shouting, and screams energized me even further.
I skated around and welcomed the slaps on the back from the team. The rest of the game was going well. We started strong and I wasn’t about to let up. I had to show how damn good I was. At thirty-one, I was quickly moving toward being one of the older guys in the game. I had to prove I wasn’t too old. I could do this. I could still lead my team to victory. I’d pay the price later when I was at home soaking in the hot tub.
Throughout the game, one guy from the other team continually tried to provoke us into a fight. He’d shoved every one of my guys. He’d been screaming stupid insults and was just really trying to piss me off in general.
“Let it go,” Chase said as he skated by me.
“Do it again, fucker, and I’ll lay you out,” I hissed at the dude.
He laughed and clacked his stick against the ice. “Bring it, bitch.”
The taunting was a strategy. If they got me out of the game, they’d kick our ass. It wasn’t being arrogant. It was the truth. I was the lead scorer. They would only have a chance if I wasn’t on the ice kicking their asses all over the place.
I ignored him and focused on the game. There was nothing worse than someone cheating. The fucker was making illegal moves and getting away with it. Sometimes, the ref didn’t see. Other times, the asshole knew just how to get away with it.
My attempt to be a good boy and not throw down was thwarted when the fucker purposely stuck his stick out in an attempt to trip me. It was the third time. I managed to avoid wiping out on the ice, but dammit, a man could only take so much.
I dropped my hockey stick and shoved him hard enough to send him flying backward. One of his teammates managed to keep him from falling.
“I told you to back the fuck off!” I shouted around the mouthguard.
He came back at me and shoved me hard. With all the padding we wore, it wasn’t like it hurt. The typical shoving turned into more when he pulled off his gloves first. I knew what was coming next. I wasn’t letting him get the first blow. While I was pulling my gloves off, he got me. Pain radiated through my jaw but didn’t stop me from swinging back. I hit twice with a one-two punch. After getting the upper hand, my rage took over.
When he fell to the ice, I followed him down. As always, a few of his teammates jumped in. I felt a kick to my side. At some point, my helmet fell off. That was never good. I struggled to get to my feet to avoid getting a sharp blade to my face. There was shouting and then Chase was pulling me up. The two of us were up against five of the other team.
It felt like ten minutes had passed, but I knew it was likely less than two. We were pulled apart and sent off the ice. Chase and I were both forced to the bench.
Coach Campbell stood in front of us with his hands on his hips. “Dammit, Hudson,” he growled. “What did we talk about? What did I say? One game, Hudson. One damn game!”
“Coach, you saw the guy,” I defended.
Someone handed me a water bottle. The team doctor rushed over and used a square cotton pad to dab at the blood dripping down the side of my face. I sucked down the water. Someone tossed our gloves at us.
“I want this to be a clean season,” Coach said. “I don’t want the bullshit. I don’t want the media focused on the fighting. There’s an entire team that deserves some of the spotlight. Quit showboating!”
To argue was futile. “Yes, sir,” I grumbled.
“We need a clean season,” he stressed. “You’re a good player, but dammit, you’re killing your career.”
I nodded again and said nothing. He turned back to the game. Chase looked at my bloody lip. “You good?” he asked.
“I’m good. You?”
“Man, you can’t keep doing that,” he said. “Seriously. I’m way too fucking old for that shit.”
“I had it handled,” I replied cavalierly.
He smirked. “The hell you did. You would have been sprawled on the ice with your head cracked open.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” I said.
“Coach isn’t wrong,” he said. “I have to have a clean season. You’re the superstar and people are going to ignore your bad reputation. I’m not so lucky.”
“You’ll get better,” I teased.
“You know what he’s going to say,” he said.
“I’m pretty familiar with the lecture,” I said.
“He’s not wrong. You’re fucking yourself. You can’t score from the bench or the box. Your stats are going to suffer. Just because you have ten minutes of great gameplay, it doesn’t negate all the drama that surrounds you.”
“You jumped in,” I reminded him.
He laughed, which told me he wasn’t really pissed. I appreciated that he was looking out for me. We were lucky to have played on the same team for the last few years. We’d been best friends since childhood and managed to get on the same team. But this was the last year that was going to be a thing. I was moving on. He was probably going to go elsewhere as well.
I was going to miss having him at my back. It was nice knowing there was at least one guy that would jump into the fray for me. And I would beat anyone’s ass that looked sideways at him. People always referred to me as his pit bull.
I didn’t mind the nickname. I was a pit bull when it came to defending Chase, my mom, and anyone else I considered under my protection. My attention turned back to the game. I’d be back in shortly. The team doctor was back with a band-aid for my eye.
“I’ll glue it after the game,” he muttered. “I upped my inventory for this year.”
I grinned up at him. “Thanks, Doc.”
“Don’t take that as a goal to use it all,” he said. “One of these days, glue isn’t going to cut it.”
He walked away muttering under his breath. Chase glanced over at me. “You know this is going to be a competitive season. Everyone is going to be trying extra hard to take you out. They all know you’re set to be the number-one pick. You can’t give in to that bullshit.”
“I know, I know,” I said.
“Hudson! Get your ass in there and keep your hands to yourself!”
I hopped off the bench and headed back onto the ice. In the back of my mind, I told myself not to give in to the bullshit. No more fighting. Scoring was the best revenge.