Whether it's watching movie trailers or snacking on free samples at the grocery store, we all like to try before we buy, right? As far as I'm concerned, that philosophy applies to books too so you don't have to just take my word for it that "Hockeywood" is a great novel. Here are the first 3 chapters so you can have a taste for yourself! Here's a little secret though, it only gets better from here…
HOCKEYWOOD copyright G. S. Oppenheim
“Ray Cortez, come get the Prince of Wales Trophy!”
Emerging from the heap of humanity my teammates had become, I barely heard the deputy commissioner summon me to skate over and take possession of what I had come to affectionately call the Whaler, the trophy presented annually to the Eastern Conference playoff champions. A lot of players are hesitant to touch the Whaler because they think it’s bad luck to celebrate a trophy that isn’t the big one, but not me; I’ve always made my own luck.
Before I skated over to receive the Whaler, my dad stepped off the bench onto the ice and approached me. He handed me a crisp new hat with a red Toronto Mounties logo and the words “Eastern Conference Champions” embroidered around it. Disregarding the sweat pouring off me in waterfalls, I slapped it down over wet hair.
“I told you I was gonna get to the Finals this year, son.”
“You son of a bitch! You called it all right.”
I threw my arms around him and dripped sweat all over his expensive blazer. I don’t think he could have been happier to have a jacket ruined. You see, my father, Tomas Cortez, had spent thirty years of his life playing and coaching in the National Hockey League, the last six as head coach of the Mounties, but that victory punched his ticket into the Stanley Cup Final for the very first time.
Oblivious to the world around us, we jubilantly celebrated a moment the entire hockey world had doubted would ever come to fruition; after five decades of futility, we had orchestrated the Toronto Mounties’ return to the Stanley Cup Final.
When our embrace relented, I motioned for my teammates to skate with me to the table on which the Whaler stood gleaming under the lights of Boston’s TD Garden, where we had completed our four-game sweep of the New England Minutemen. Together, we hoisted it, proud of our achievement, but aware that our ultimate goal was far from complete.
My pursuit of a championship with Toronto began a year earlier and a continent away. The sun was shining brilliantly as we paraded through the city streets, but there was nothing unusual about that on a late June day in Los Angeles where beautiful sunny skies were always as routine as winning professional hockey championships had become during my tenure. One year before I took Toronto to the Final, my Los Angeles Coronas, the team with whom I had spent my entire career to that point, were celebrating our own Stanley Cup championship. Standing atop a double decker bus driving through the downtown streets with about a million of my closest friends screaming their appreciation along our route, I was soaking in the moment because I alone knew that I was moments from announcing my retirement from hockey.
Everything has to end eventually after all, and for a guy nicknamed Hockeywood, going out on top after the record run of success I had enjoyed seemed like an ending fit for the silver screen. Two months from my 39th birthday I had achieved all my goals and more without overstaying my welcome. Even at that age, I was still playing at a high level, amongst the best in the league, but I could think of nothing left to accomplish that was worth all those hours training in the gym, all the cross-continent plane rides, and the aches and pains that come packaged with playing professional hockey.
The buses came to rest in front of the Staples Center and confetti cannons exploded all around us. Black and white paper snow flittered among the throng of cheering fans, all clad in Coronas gear, some harkening back to the days before my time when the team wore purple and yellow, but most of them decked out in our current black and white jerseys with the purple crown crest, oblivious to the hot L.A. sun beating down.
Somebody handed me a microphone as my two assistant captains, Sean Black and Andrei Kozlov, lifted the Stanley Cup high above me. Looking out over the crowd I realized how blessed I was to receive this ultimate in send-offs.
The fans’ chants of “We kept the Cup” nearly drowned me out as I began to speak.
“This is phenomenal, you guys. This has been an amazing run we’ve had here and every single one of you has been a huge part of that. It’s just a shame they can’t fit every one of your names on here because without you we couldn’t have done this.”
The cheering was so loud at that point I wasn’t sure they could hear me even with the microphone amplifying my words, but I pushed on anyway.
“You guys aren’t making this easy, but I’ve got something I gotta share with you all today. It’s been a lot of fun playing for all of you over the years, but I think it’s time for me to move on. I’ve decided to retire from the NHL.”
Until the moment the words had escaped my mouth I had not even believed myself that I would go through with it, but once they were out, the die was cast and I felt a sense of unwonted permanence akin to accepting a job you know you are going to hate or promising to marry the wrong person. Mirroring my own feelings, a lot of groaning and a few boos wrestled for space in the confetti-filled air.
“Hey, none of that! This is a party!” I had to combat my own despair so I could quash theirs. “Let’s hear it for the boys who’re gonna bring you your sixth in a row next spring!”
Spartan cheering drowned out the depression, but as we carried the Cup inside the stadium to continue the revelry, an unmistakable chant emerged from the masses, one that made me smile, if not consider reopening the door I had slammed shut.
“One more year! One more year…”
About a month later, my day with the Cup arrived in mid-July. Pro hockey has sports’ greatest trophy. For over 120 years hockey’s best team has raised it over their heads and unlike the other sports that make a new trophy every year when they crown a champion, there’s only one Stanley Cup. It’s living history, every inch of it engraved with the names of winning teams and players, legends whose deeds are recorded for all time. During the summer months, the Cup belongs to the team that won it and everyone associated with the winning squad – players, coaches, trainers, management, and ownership – gets to spend one day with it doing pretty much anything they want.
You wanna eat cereal out of it? Go ahead, it’s yours for the day. You can have a parade through the streets of your hometown or take it fishing or mountain climbing. Heck, some guys have had their babies christened in the damn thing.
For my last time with the Cup, I decided to host a low-key day at my father’s house near Toronto. Although the festivities were subdued, it was a very nice day. My older brother Mark brought his wife Vivien and their twin daughters, Rachel and Sarah, and my younger brother Howie came with his wife Kelley and their son Adam. My little boy Luke came along with me from L.A. Dad seemed very content to have all his boys and grandkids around, a real rarity with the family business keeping us separated most of the time.
In the afternoon, we hosted a barbecue for the neighborhood. Before we ate, the kids laced up their inline skates for a game of inline hockey on the tennis court, my Cortez kin against all comers with the Cup itself going to the victors. At only four years old, Luke had just recently begun learning how to skate so I was nervous about including him in the game, and when he staggered over to me using his stick as a crutch I worried that he planned to back out.
He quickly allayed my fears. “Daddy, are you gonna play too?”
I eyeballed the team full of rowdy Canadian preteens eager to show their mettle against my little boy and my nieces and nephew and determined not to let the Cup slip away. I hollered to my little brother Howie, himself a veteran centerman for Toronto, “These numbers look fair to you?”
“Not really. What do you wanna do about it?”
“I was thinking maybe I’d lace ’em up. You wanna join in?”
Howie’s enthusiastic response elicited grumbling from the kids on the other side that only increased when I strapped on my own inline skates and grabbed a goalie stick to backstop the Cortez team.
This was one of the few times in my entire life that I had played goalie and without question, one or two shots beat me and found the back of the net that a halfway competent netminder would have stopped. I heard “Ah, Uncle Ray, you’re killing us!” from Sarah and Rachel on more than a few occasions that afternoon, but just about every time, little Luke would stumble over and tell me I’d made a good try as I fished another opposition goal from the net. Every time I’d smile and tell him “Thanks buddy, I’ll get the next one.”
I shouldn’t complain too much about the girls’ bemoaning my play because without them the day would have been lost early. Clearly, from the way they rushed up and down the court, whipping the ball back and forth between them, my big brother Mark had taught them a thing or two about how to play. It was thanks to their efforts that we found ourselves tied at seven apiece when Mark, manning the grill, called out from the sidelines, “Food’s just about ready, Ray! How about next goal wins, eh?”
“You got yourself a deal,” I shouted back. “Okay everybody, sudden death overtime! Game Seven! The Cup is on the line!”
Even though it was all just for fun, you could see everyone bear down and grip their sticks a little harder. Nobody wants to make the mistake that costs their team a victory, even a pretend victory.
Playing it safe, one of their players cleared the ball toward my end where Luke was hanging out. He had been hesitant to leave my side the whole game, planting himself in the defensive zone and helping me hold down the fort in our end. I decided it was time for him to get involved in the offense, so I corralled the ball and tossed it gently to his stick.
“It’s all you, buddy. Skate!”
He skated a stride, slipped, and fell to the ground with a thud. “Time out!” I dropped my glove and stick to the court and rushed over to him. To my surprise, he got back to his feet without shedding a tear.
“You okay, buddy?”
“Wanna go win this game?”
I picked him up and shouted, “Game on!”
I hovered him over the court, sort of using him like a little puppet to stickhandle into the opposing zone.
Somebody yelled at me, “Hey, no fair, goalies can’t skate out!”
“My rink, my rules!”
In the offensive zone, I set Luke back down on his skates and instructed him, “Shoot!”
He let go a decent little wrist shot that went right on goal. Their goalie made an easy save and kicked the ball back into play off his big cushioned leg pad. Sarah (or maybe Rachel, I have a hard time telling them apart) pounced on the rebound and flicked the ball up, roofing it over the goalie’s glove and sealing the Cortez family victory.
Luke threw his hands up in the air and I grabbed ahold of him and held him aloft. “Great assist!”
I skated Luke over to embrace Howie, Adam, and my nieces in a victory hug. A makeshift handshake alley formed in the middle of the court as we congratulated our vanquished foes. They’d played such a hell of a game, we decided it was only fair to share the victory celebration with them, and everybody took their turn sipping soda from the bowl atop the big silver trophy. Only Howie relented from having a drink. “I’m not touching the damn thing until I win it on the ice!” he declared proudly.
As the party continued and everyone enjoyed the barbecue Mark had cooked up, I joined my dad on the porch overlooking the spacious yard. He was sitting in a comfortable lounge chair watching the celebrations; I took the vacant chair to his left.
“You hold your glove hand too low, you get beat too easily up top.”
“I’ll remember that if I’m ever playing goalie again in my entire life. How about saving the coaching for the Mounties, eh Dad? God knows that team needs it. What are you doing up here alone anyway? We could’ve used you out there.”
“Wouldn’t be fair to add a ringer like your old man to the team.”
“Uh-huh. Aren’t you gonna at least take a drink from the Cup?”
“You know I’m not gonna do that, Ray. I am not going to touch or drink from that Cup until I’ve won it myself.”
I laughed at his proclamation. “You sound like Howie! Come on, are you going to deny yourself forever? It’s not like you guys are gonna win it in Toronto any time soon.”
It was such a shitty thing to say to him that I regretted it immediately.
“Is that so? Perhaps you didn’t notice that we were in the conference final this season. That’s three straight seasons we’ve done better than the year before. Who’s to say we won’t improve again this year?”
“Maybe you will. I don’t know. I’m sorry I said it.”
“No, back it up. You were so confident a minute ago.”
“I don’t wanna get into this, Dad. Not today.”
“Well I do. Why won’t we win the Cup?”
I sat forward and turned to face him.
“You wanna know the truth? Fine. You made it to the conference final because Florida’s goalie shit the bed and Jersey lost Finnegan for the series and you still needed seven games to win both series. You got to the conference final but the Minutemen swept you and you scored what, three goals in the four games. You’ve got a good defense – maybe even a great defense with Liam back there eating up minutes – but honestly, you’re using Howie as a second line center. Five years ago maybe that was fine, but I hate to say it but he’s a third liner at best today. You don’t even have a 1C. Marek would be great centering your second line but come on, he can’t handle top line duty, he just doesn’t have the size or the skill. And it’s not like you have a centerman in the system who’s going to step in in the next couple seasons and take over that role. Unless you’re planning to trade for someone, I just don’t see you guys coming out of the East right now.”
The brutal honesty of my assessment produced a physical reaction; his shoulders slouched and head drooped, giving me the impression of a slowly deflating balloon.
I tried to soften the blow a little, adding softly, “Hey what the hell do I know? Nobody’s ever named me coach of the year…”
“Or coach of anything,” he interrupted.
“Fair enough. I’m not a coach, and you’re one of the best in the business. If anybody can get the most out of that group and win a Cup in the next few years, it’s you.”
I put my hand on his shoulder, hoping to further undermine my criticism. He turned away and his body shuddered as he began sobbing.
I was taken aback and troubled by this sudden emotional outbreak. The only other time I had ever seen my father cry was at my mom’s funeral. “Dad, are you okay?”
He didn’t answer.
“Dad, are you okay?” I repeated. “What’s wrong?” I scurried out of my chair and knelt at his side. His face was scrunched up and his chest heaved as little rivulets streamed down his cheeks, but he refused to speak. The only sounds that escaped were the half-suppressed whines and rough breathing of a man trying, and failing, to hide his vulnerability.
“Dad, seriously, what’s wrong?”
I rose to my feet and called for my brothers, both of whom came rushing toward us.
“No, leave them alone.” I barely registered the croaked-out words.
“Then you tell me what’s wrong.” I held up my hand to stop Mark and Howie from approaching any further.
My dad looked up at me and dried his eyes, but his chest still spasmed uncontrollably as he could not master the emotions writhing inside him and struggling to make themselves known to the world.
“I don’t have a few years to coach this team to a Cup, Ray.”
“What do you mean? They’re not gonna fire you, not after what you accomp…”
“It’s not that.” He sighed heavily before overcoming his predisposition against sharing his feelings. “I have cancer, Ray. I’m dying.”
Words cannot express the instant grief that overcame me in that moment, or if they can, my verbal explorations have failed to uncover them. Even though he sat not three feet from where I stood, I experienced the lifelong loss I would soon know when my father would be taken from me. Presently, regrets occupied my mind – for time spent apart and harsh words exchanged, for simply not acknowledging adequately the role he had played in making me the man I had become or kindnesses he had shown me – but they did not rule there supreme, joined as they were by moments of nostalgia, thoughts of happy times we had spent together, sitting on the couch and watching hockey when I was a kid, him driving me to games, teaching me to skate. I broke down and collapsed to the floor in shock at this wholly unexpected news.
Mark and Howie must have kept watching us, despite my having halted them from joining our conversation because I had not been sitting on the porch long when they picked me up and carried me inside. Dad followed and soon the four of us were sitting around the kitchen table together.
Both Mark and Howie wanted to know just what was wrong with the two of us.
Sitting across from my father, I looked at him through eyes that were puffy even as I fought back all tears. “Tell them.”
He explained that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer that had spread to his lungs. My brothers’ reactions mirrored my own. Dad sat quietly while the three of us absorbed the shock of his announcement.
“How long have you known?” Mark asked.
“About six weeks. I found out shortly after we got knocked out of the playoffs.”
Mark jumped up and kicked his chair across the room. “You’ve known that long and you are just telling us now?”
Passively quiet, Dad said nothing.
Leaning on the kitchen island several feet away, Mark tried to overcome his anger, running his fingers through his hair and down his face, leaving red trails behind. “Have you been getting treatment?”
Dad nodded softly and whispered, “Yes,” before adding quietly, “but there is no cure.”
Mark threw himself against the island, entwining his fingers behind his neck and squeezing his forearms against the side of his head in frustration such that I feared he might pop his head open like a grape. I glanced at Howie who sat very quietly taking everything in.
Mark retrieved his chair and rejoined us.
My voice barely more than a whisper, I asked, “How long do you have?”
A moment passed without an answer.
“Ray asked you a question. How long?” There was venom in Mark’s voice I had never heard before.
Dad still hesitated to answer. It seemed as if telling us about the cancer was in some ways harder for him than having it.
“Could be a year. Could be two. Probably not much more than that.”
Seemingly encouraged, Howie finally piped up. “Two years? That’s good. Maybe they’ll find a cure by then. Or… something.”
Dad reached across the table to take his hand. “Maybe so.”
“You probably told the team before us too, huh?” It seemed almost as if Mark meant to antagonize him now. “Obviously you can’t keep coaching.”
“Why is it obvious that I can’t coach?”
“Because you’re fucking dying, Dad!”
“Then I’ll die behind the bench!”
Mark threw up his hands. “Oh for fuck’s sake!”
“I have not told the team and I am not going to tell the team. They would try to force me out and I’m not going anywhere. This is the best team we’ve ever had and the best chance I’ve ever had to win the Cup. Isn’t that right, Howie?”
Howie shrugged in a non-committal fashion. “I don’t know.”
“You can’t keep coaching, Dad. You need your strength to fight this.”
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do, Mark. If this is my last chance I’m making the most of it. I know that I’m going to see your mother again soon, and when I do I’m not going to do it as a quitter. I’ll fight, but there’s no reason for me to live if I don’t have this game.”
“No buts. That’s the end of the discussion. Now, we have a party to get back to, so if you’re coming, come on.”
With great effort, he lifted himself up from the table to leave, until I stopped him. “Dad, let me help you win the Cup before you die.”
He repositioned himself to face me. “How? You want to be an assistant coach?”
“Leave me alone, Mark, this is between me and Dad.” I looked my father right in the eye. “I don’t wanna be a coach; I wanna come play for you in Toronto.”
“But you retired.”
I shook my head eagerly, deflecting his objection. “I haven’t turned in my paperwork yet. It’s sitting on my desk back home. Technically, I’m a free agent. I can sign with anyone.”
“That’s an intriguing idea.”
“Dad, you can’t really be considering this,” Mark pleaded.
We ignored him.
“But won’t it seem kind of weird, you changing your mind so quickly after you announced your retirement?”
“Not when we explain why. Everyone would understand a son coming back to help his dying father. I know you don’t want anyone to know, but they’re going to find out one way or the other. Everybody loves you, they’ll support you. Plus, I’ll sign under the condition that they can’t fire you or ask you to step down because I’m there only to do this with you.”
“And what about everything you said earlier about us not being good enough?”
“I said you needed a first line center. If you’ve got me, you’ve got one.”
“This just might work, Ray.”
“I’ll call my agent and tell him to get a deal done.”
Nightmares about retirement and never playing hockey again in my life had kept me from sleeping ever since I had made the announcement. With the bargain my dad and I struck, I put those to rest, delaying the inevitable at least one more year.
That about covers how I ended up going from a championship parade in Los Angeles one summer back to the Stanley Cup Final with Toronto the following spring. The details of the season are mostly irrelevant but to say that after a shaky start we found our groove and entered the playoffs as heavy favorites to win it all. Through the first three rounds we did not disappoint, sweeping Florida, losing only once to the New York Empire, and knocking off the Minutemen in four straight games to reach the championship series.