On Christmas Day, after spending the morning with their families, the boys piled into Keenan’s father’s vehicle for the drive to Lake Simcoe, where they would play their annual game of shinny on the frozen stretch of ice outside of Keenan’s stately lakeside cottage. This year would be different, however, given that each of the boys would graduate from high school the following spring. Keenan and Brent would start NHL training camp, while Chris and Josh headed south of the border to play college hockey. It was likely their last holiday scrimmage, before the responsibilities of adulthood took them all in different directions. The boys met, in 2012, at an elite hockey camp in southwestern Ontario. Since then, they’d become best friends and established themselves as some of the brightest young prospects in the country.
Keenan, the most talented player in the group, sat behind the wheel of his father’s black Range Rover. He’d averaged more than 120 points a season in his three-year career with the Kitchener Rangers. Many considered him to be the next Canadian generational talent, in the same conversation as Crosby and McDavid. That winter, he’d decided to skip the World Junior Championships to rehab a nagging knee injury—despite being offered the captaincy. The Florida Panthers, who had selected him first overall in the draft, were happy with the decision.
“I can’t see shit,” said Keenan, driving north on the 404. Outside, flurries swept across the highway, which was flanked by an expanse of white. The wipers waved back and forth with a dull squelch.
Brent reclined in the passenger seat with a half-drunken 40oz of Captain Morgan’s in his lap. “Here, try some of this,” he said, taunting Keenan with the bottle. “It’ll help you see better.” Keenan looked around for a road sign, then at the odometer, trying to discern how far they were outside of the city. He grabbed the bottle and took a pull.
“Atta boy,” said Brent, with little droplets of liquor clinging to his dark beard. “Holy fuck, I’m already starting to feel it.” He shuffled in his seat and fished into his pocket for a pack of cigarettes. Brent had fallen to the third round of the draft, because of his questionable work ethic and what scouts would describe as “character issues.” Still, the Colorado Avalanche desperately needed a physical defenceman, so they took a chance and scooped him up with the 70th pick.
Chris and Josh were in the backseat staring at their phones, with a fat bag of salt and pepper Spitz between them. They’d played on the same team for their entire careers, from minor hockey to the OHL. After going undrafted, they decided to accept scholarships at top American hockey schools. Chris, at Boston College. Josh, at the University of Minnesota.
“Jesus, it’s fucking freezing back here, roll that back up,” said Chris, with a cheekfull of Spitz. Brent had tried to blow a plume of smoke out the window, but it drifted into the backseat.
“No, keep it down. I don’t need my dad’s car smelling like ash,” said Keenan, reaching to his right for Brent’s cigarette. “Let me get some of that.” He grabbed the stub and stuck it between lips, breathed in, then exhaled with a look of relaxed satisfaction. “Look at that, boys. I’m Willie Fuckin’ Nelson.”
The vehicle erupted in a fit of good, clean laughter. As Keenan looked back over his shoulder to take in the reaction of Josh and Chris, the half-smoked cigarette rolled out of his fingers and fell into his lap. Keenan spazzed in his seat and swatted at his crotch, knocking the butt onto the floor mat. “Oh shit,” he said, leaning forward to pick it up. As he bent over, Keenan took his eyes off the road and the car veered into oncoming traffic. An 18-wheeler approached in the opposite lane.
Guttural screams filled the car, while the semi-trailer’s horn wailed. Brent, loosened by the liquor, reflexively snatched the wheel and righted the vehicle. The car rocked as the 18-wheeler roared past. As the sound of the semi’s horn faded in the distance behind them, the boys looked around in disbelief.
“Who knew drinking and driving could actually save lives,” said Brent, puncturing the silence. Chris and Josh chuckled nervously, as Keenan gripped the wheel and drove timidly toward Lake Simcoe.
The snowstorm cleared as the boys arrived at the cottage, a deluxe 5,000-square-foot chalet on the lake. Back in the early 2000s, Keenan’s father knocked down an old wood cabin on the property and spent more than $4 million building his dream cottage. It had four bedrooms and bathrooms; a living room with 20-foot ceilings and a giant stone fireplace; a kitchen with stainless steel appliances and icy slabs of marble; and a basement games room with ping pong, pinball and a 60-inch projector screen.
As the Range Rover lurched to a stop in the driveway, Brent noticed a man in the front yard of the cottage next door. “Who the fuck is that guy?” he said. It was Arthur Finley. An old man with hollow cheeks, wispy white hair and dark racoon-ish circles beneath his eyes. He stood with an axe beside a pile of chopped wood. Mr. Finley had lived in the neighbourhood for 40 years. People in the area affectionately referred to him as Old Man Finley. But ever since his wife died of cancer, five years ago, it was rare to see him outside of his tiny white cabin. He stared across the yard at the boys with a grim expression, his head titled slightly to the side.
“Mr. Finley, how are ya?” shouted Keenan, as he made his way around to the trunk. Old Man Finley looked at Keenan for a moment, then lifted his axe high above his shoulder and went back to chopping wood.
“Yeesh,” whispered Chris, giving Josh a discreet nudge. “That dude is creepy as fuck.”
The boys grabbed gear—sticks, skates, gloves and a few cases of beer—from the trunk and hauled them through the front door. As Chris and Josh stocked the fridge with Bud Light, Brent reached into his pocket and emptied a small bag of cocaine onto the kitchen island. Then he lowered his face to the cold surface and hoovered the drugs into his nose.
“Jesus buddy, it’s like three in the afternoon,” said Josh.
“Gonna need a little extra juice today if we’re gonna beat you boys,” said Brent, blinking, sniffling and pressing the back of his hand to the underside of his nose. For the past eight years, Brent and Chris had always teamed up for the game of shinny. Their complementary playing styles, Brent with stuffy defense and Chris with a knack for offense, made them a solid pairing. They lost last winter, though, bringing the all-time series to 4-4. Whichever team won this year would become the undisputed champs.
Keenan, of course, was always the best player on the ice. Once he had the puck, he could stickhandle from end-to-end, weaving around his opponents like pylons and embarrassing them with every slick maneuver. Sometimes he would tuck the puck between their legs. Or he would cut from side-to-side with teleport-like speed, leaving the defender discombobulated, then dart past them toward the net. With a better teammate, Keenan would win every game. But Josh’s clumsy stickhandling and slow feet meant that Brent and Chris could consistently double-team Keenan, creating enough on-ice chaos to keep things interesting.
“Alright, let’s do it,” said Keenan, using his behind to open the backdoor while he cradled a few beers. “Last one out has to clean up. And bang Josh’s sister.”
“Hey, fuck off,” said Josh, tossing an empty can at the back door. “She’s 14, remember?”
“No way I’m doing it,” said Brent, “She looks exactly like you.” He ran his finger across the counter to pick up any leftover residue, then rubbed it on his upper gum and rushed out the back door.
“Guess that leaves me,” said Chris, playfully. “But, really, who else would you want doing it?”
“Definitely Keenan, you fucking asshole,” said Josh.
“Can’t blame you for that,” said Chris, grabbing a few beers and heading out the door. Josh stayed behind to tidy up. He moved the boys’ overnight bags into the bunk room, collected the emptied beer cans and scrubbed the marble counter with a rag. Then he followed the others outside.
“Don’t worry douchebags, I’ll grab the nets,” said Josh, walking across the back lawn between the cabin and the lake, toward the boathouse. The others laughed and sipped their beers at the fire pit. The sky was blue and emptied, and the bones of the winter-starved trees beside the boathouse hid beneath tufts of powder. Out across the lake, the islands of Georgian and Thorah were visible, squat brownish-green rectangles trapped by the surrounding ice. The frozen tundra unfurled like an infinite white carpet until it met the horizon.
Josh opened the door into the darkened boathouse, then pawed along the wall for the light switch. The room smelled dusty and metallic. When Josh finally flicked on the light, he saw a shadowy figure in the corner of the room.
“Holy fuck!” he screamed, before sprinting out to the fire pit. “Keenan, I think there’s somebody in there.” Brent set down his beer and walked over to check it out. After he disappeared into the boathouse, a chilly silence fell over the other boys. Then came banging from inside.
“Help! Somebody help!” Brent shouted. The other boys wield their sticks as weapons and rushed over. Keenan went in, then Chris, with Josh trailing behind. When Chris finally poked his head into the door, the other boys were standing beside a full set of goalie equipment—mask, pads, blocker, glove, chest protector—that had been propped up to look a person.
“Gotcha!” shouted Brent, and the three boys started howling with laughter. “You fucking idiot. I can’t believe that actually worked.”
“You guys are assholes,” said Josh, as he turned around and slumped out of the boathouse.
As the other boys finished lacing up their skates, Brent grabbed a shovel and started clearing off the ice surface. He skated in a Zamboni-like pattern, sweeping the recent snowfall to reveal the frozen laketop. Keenan followed shortly after and dumped a bag of pucks onto the ice. Then he whipped around, cradling one from side-to-side, his golden hair fluttering in the winter air. He moved with the power, grace and posture of a racehorse.
The makeshift rink was about 100 feet long, with a regulation-sized net at each end. There were no boundaries, per se, except the spot where the lake merged with the beach, which provided a rough sideline. In this version of skinny, scoring involved clanging the puck off the posts or crossbar, instead of simply putting it into the net. Without a goaltender on each team, it was simply too easy to score the traditional way. Hacking, clutching, cheap shots and foul-mouthing were all permitted. Even encouraged. The first team to score ten goals would win.
The boys zipped around the rink, dipsy-doodling among themselves for warm-up. Chris brought the puck back behind his feet, then slid it forward through his legs and up onto his stick. Josh repeatedly passed the puck into his skates and kicked it back out onto his blade. Brent rushed quickly from one net to the other, stopped suddenly, splashing up a wave of ice chips, then churned his legs and went back the other way.
“Ice feels a little soft today, eh?” said Josh, toeing the surface. “I heard a little kid fell through and died last week.”
“No shit,” said Brent, with a fresh cigarette dangling from his lip. “Then I better not do this.” He started jumping up and down. The sound of his blades slapping the surface made the others cringe.
“Fuck off, buddy,” said Josh. “I’m serious.”
Chris paused and looked up at the back of Mr. Finley’s cottage, which was visible from their spot on the ice. There, Mr. Finley stood in his kitchen window, hovering over the sink with a giant kitchen knife in his right hand. “Looks like we’ve got a fan,” said Chris, waving his stick at the old man as if to say hello. Mr. Finley watched the boys and wiped the knife with a white rag, which seemed to be covered in red splotches.
“What the fuck,” said Josh.
“Ignore that shit. Let’s just play,” said Brent, gathering the pucks. “I’m finally warmed up.”
Keenan and Josh started behind their own net. Keenan took the puck, gathered momentum and stormed down the left side of the ice, with Josh staying wide out to the right. Brent and Chris skated backward on defense, parallel and about five feet apart. Their strategy involved staying close together when Keenan had the puck. If Keenan tried to make a move, they would cluster together for the double-team. Keenan fed the puck cross-ice to Josh, who slowed down and waited for an opportunity to send it back to Keenan. Then Keenan jabbed to the left, as if he were headed toward the outside. Brent followed him, creating a bigger gap between the defenders. Then Keenan cut back in-between the two defenders and caught a tape-to-tape pass from Josh. Brent and Chris tried to close the gap, but Keenan had already split between them with a clear path to the net. The sound of the puck hitting the post rang across the lake.
“1-0,” said Keenan, heading back to his side of the ice. “Gonna be quick one today.”
After that, however, there were very few goals. None of the boys seemed to have the precision required to rifle the puck off the post, perhaps because they were all a bit loopy from the beer and nicotine. Every shot either went in the net or skipped 30 feet past it. Eventually, Brent had the puck 1-on-1 against Josh, who skated backwards. Brent pushed the puck right, causing Josh to shift and trip on a bumpy patch of ice. He tried to stay upright, his feet scrambling beneath him like an unbalanced baby deer, but eventually he fell to the surface. Brent stepped around him and, with so much time at his disposal, instead of shooting the puck, he came to a full stop and lightly pressed the rubber against the iron. 1-1.
Both teams started to find their offensive touch. Keenan brought the puck down the right side, with Chris skating backwards on defense. Then Keenan faked to the outside, before stopping and spinning 360 degrees back toward the middle. As Brent skated over to help, Keenan lifted the puck backhand up into the crossbar. 2-1.
After about 45 minutes, with the boys exhausted and the game tied 9-9, Brent and Chris took off on a promising rush. Before the game, they had discussed a special play, in which Brent went down the side, then went wide around the opponents’ net attracting both of the defenders, before dishing it right back up the middle to Chris, who would trail behind the play and sneak into the action. It worked. As Brent circled the net, threatening to come around the other side and fire the puck into the post, both Keenan and Josh rushed toward him. That left Chris wide open. Brent dished him the puck out front. Chris lined it up, with a clear path between him and the net, hoping to bang it off the left post. But he whiffed, leaving the puck trickling toward center ice.
Josh jumped at the opportunity. With everyone else behind him, he snatched up the puck and darted toward the yawning cage. This was his chance to win the game, to make him and Keenan the all-time shinny champions. He could’ve done like Brent, stopped short of the net and wedged the puck to the post. Nothing fancy. He wanted to increase the difficulty, though, show off his accuracy and win the game with a shot from 10 feet out. The puck left his stick and skittered pathetically into the distance behind the net.
“No!” he screamed, realizing his display of pride had cost his team a chance to win. As he skated past the net, in a fit of frustration, he slammed his stick onto the ice. The minor tremor created a crack in the surface. That crack grew. Then a chunk of ice dislodged and fell clean through the surface, disappearing into the frigid waters below. The other boys cried out. Josh stood beside the gaping hole, breathing heavily. The net was gone and the boys would never figure out the winner.
Surprised that a non-athlete like you would nail the dialogue between athletes so well.. Good imagery, and all I want is to know more about the old man. Keep it up