A Slap Shot Straight to the Heart

While his marriage floundered, his hockey team flourished

"What?! I wanted to call a time-out so I called a time-out!" he exclaims as angry players from both teams circle around him. Calling a time-out is fine normally, except that in this drizzle there's almost no way it will be safe to resume. And sure enough, after the break, the rink is so slick the game ends in a draw. Fucking Dragons.

I sit out a rain delay with the Rocket under an awning by the baseball diamonds. I have two small wrenches in my hands, which I'm using to rotate the wheels on my skates to ensure the rubber wears down evenly. The Rocket is fully dressed in his pads and skates and the terry cloth headband he always wears. Sometimes it's a blue headband. Sometimes it's white. There's apparently a science to his color selection, but we haven't figured it out.

Steve Satterwhite
Steve Satterwhite

I ask him about his divorce.

"She left me," he says quietly. "We were married for fourteen years, then she thought she'd be happier with someone else, I guess. A grass-is-greener kind of thing." The Rocket looks out at the softball fields as he talks. On the hockey rink, some kids are using towels to wipe up puddles in the corners. We'll probably play soon. I don't say anything.

"So she left me for this guy," he continues, "but he decided he didn't want to be with her. Now she's all alone." The Rocket has two kids from the marriage; he won the legal battle for custody. He has a new girlfriend, too, who came to our games last year to videotape his exploits. The Rocket once showed us the tape, featuring nothing but images of him skating in circles, which was funny in a way he hadn't intended. I ask him if he looks forward to playing roller hockey as much as I do.

"This is the most important part of my week, definitely," he says. "I look forward to this. I need the team." Norm once told me that a lot of the guys probably feel the same way.

Even with the Rocket in attendance, and playing a poor team, we barely squeak out a win. Bruce slides a boneheaded pass onto the stick of one of their forwards, who carries it the length of the ice for an easy goal. I completely miss the net on several shots. Norm, the oldest player on the team, is skating so poorly he seems to be leaning on his stick for balance. In the first period he bobbles a puck headed straight at his blade. Moments later a crisp pass from Howard dissects his legs. In the third period, with the game still close, I slide a pass to Norm in front of the goal. The puck is only slightly behind him, yet he doesn't even touch it.

"Norm!" I shout with venom in my voice. "You gotta get those!"

When play stops he gives it back to me. "The pass was behind me!" he barks, implying that I am the one whose skills are lacking.

"Don't even start!" I shoot back as if I am about to unspool a litany of reasons why he sucks and why I'm so damn great. "Don't even start with me."

Norm is funny, engaging, upbeat, generous. I could fill an entire page with glowing adjectives. He's the one who put the team together, recruiting a client from his law practice for the defense and picking up a friend of a friend to man the right wing. He is a successful attorney, managing partner of a substantial law firm headquartered in the tallest building downtown. I've lunched with him there, in the penthouse dining room, a place where you have to wear a sport coat just to be seated. He has a long-term marriage and a son preparing to go to college. Norm is a man of substance.

And here I am, about half his age, chewing him out like I'm Knute Rockne.

Norm is self-assured enough to brush off my grumbling, and I'm self-aware enough to regret my barbs as soon as they leave my lips. Sports reveal our true natures, stripping us down to the kids we used to be, playing touch football after school or pond hockey on Saturday afternoons. Impulses we've been trained to suppress in the adult world have a way of bursting out.

After the game I sit next to Norm on the bench, pulling off my pungent equipment down to a sweat-soaked T-shirt and shorts. I act as though I hadn't snapped at him. He plays along. I compliment his alma mater on an undefeated record in football. I tell him a piece of good news I'd heard about my job. But I never apologize. We walk toward the parking lot separately, Norm veering toward his car without saying goodbye.

Driving home through scattered showers on the Palmetto, my windshield wipers swing a steady beat. Salsa plays on the radio. I'm exhausted and sweaty and very much alone as I ponder why I can be such a jerk.

I met my wife at college. Ours was a small, snowy institution in the Midwest, a school where everyone knew everyone else whether they wanted to or not. She enrolled a year after I, and through some mutual friends, we met soon after she arrived on campus. Although I didn't really pay attention to her at first, I had plenty of opportunity for further observation. By my senior year I realized she possessed the most wonderful laugh I'd ever heard. Looking at her more carefully than ever before, I noticed the unbelievable clarity of her blue eyes.

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