The day after Maya kills him, Kevin sleeps well into the afternoon. His mother doesn’t rouse him. School, practice. It passes in the background like static on a TV left on accidentally. Kevin gets out of bed at 5 PM. He starts when he sees her sitting at the kitchen table.
“Mom,” he says. Just that. He means it as a question, she knows. He wants to know why she isn’t at work. To her, it sounds like, “I need you.”
She stands up and wraps her arms around his middle. She strokes his hair. She wonders if this makes her terrible. She wonders if for the rest of her life being a good person will be at odds with being a good mother. Sometimes that’s all you can do, acknowledge what you do not know.
He doesn’t tell her what happened. But she knows he knows she knows.
She doesn’t pull away. She rubs her hands up his back. “What do you want to do?” she asks.
Apart from the Men’s A-Team, all the Beartown Ice Hockey teams stink. That’s all there is to it. They stink.
It takes a while for the girls of Beartown to realize they’re allowed to play, even longer for their parents. A lot of the dads look a little embarrassed the first time they bring their daughters to practice, even the ones who have been bringing their sons since they couldn’t tie their own skates. Peter doesn’t quite know why, doesn’t know if they’re embarrassed of their daughters’ resolute faces or of the excitement subdued in their own. Doesn’t know if they’re embarrassed by the fact that their daughters are holding sticks, or by the fact that they never let their daughters hold sticks before, or by the fact that it never before occurred to them that their daughters might want to.
The Club is nearly out of money. It can’t afford the equipment is needs. The Club’s 15- and 17-year-old instructors have never taught anything. It’s a matter of trial and error and a lot of losses.
Still, on any given day the Club is as loud as ever, filled with kids’ excited yells, Sune’s puppy barking and scratching at the ice, Adri on the phone with the kennel that splits her attention, Ana skating loops around the rink even when Benji laughs and tells her she’s a little old for Little League practice.
Peter takes a sip of shitty, ice cold coffee and smiles. He’s sworn a lot of promises in his life, but the two most important were this: that Beartown would be a championship town, and that he would protect his family. He will never stop feeling as though he’s broken the latter irreparably. But he will keep that first one.
Beartown is a hockey town. It’s gonna grow to love the hockey team it gets, even if it isn’t quite the hockey team it expected. Peter hopes that maybe it will grow to love its girls just as fiercely.
He watches Maya laugh as she pelts Ana with little rolled up balls of paper from the stands. He knows that they will pick each and every one off the ice later.
Sometimes, Peter can’t believe that there was a time he thought he would have to give up hockey for Maya. He would have done it in an instant. But he didn’t have to. Give it, sure, but not up. He gives it to Maya. The town does.
The very first game of the all-new Beartown Ice Hockey Women’s Junior Team, Ramona sits in the stands next to an empty seat. The team loses in a crushing 4-1, but when they score that 1, the roar of the stadium pins her to her seat. She screams louder than anyone. Her hands are cupped around her mouth. Her eyes are staring at the goalie, at her stoney, determined face.
Kevin plays hockey for the new Hed A-Team, but he never hears a word from a recruiter. Apparently he wasn’t the right kind of guy.
He quits after one season. It’s too much, trying to balance hockey with his mom’s requests: mandated family time and therapy. That’s what he says, anyway. Kevin would like for the real reason to be this: he can’t stand the way he feels when the fans flock to him when he enters the parking lot after a game, when they treat him like a God. But that’s a lie. Kevin loves the way that feels, the same way he loves the stick in his hands and the ice beneath his feet, the same way he loves the cheers of his team and the jokes in the locker room and the pucks from David. The real reason Kevin quits is because that scares him. And because of David. Kevin can’t stand the way David looks at him now. Like a product. Kevin knows that no matter how old he gets, he will never, ever wear that watch.
So Kevin quits hockey and looks into schools, looks into trades, looks into big cities where he can disappear for a while.
The day he tells his dad, he expects him to be furious. All that wasted time, all that wasted energy, all that wasted money. Just to fall short of perfection. Instead, his dad nods, defeated. Kevin had forgotten that hockey was never his dad’s dream. It was his, and he fucked it up. All his dad dreams about is perfection, and Kevin can be perfect at something else.
Kevin moves away. He takes classes. He finds a new therapist. He calls his mother regularly. He almost makes a million calls to a boy back in Beartown. He never does. He meets a girl. He writes a million letters to a different girl back in Beartown. He shreds them all. He doesn’t think he will ever be perfect. He knows he will never stop being afraid of the dark.
The Erdahls are, for a long time, though not forever, the largest sponsor of all the Beartown Ice Hockey Women's Teams. It’s an anonymous donation, every time.
Kevin’s father comes very close to yelling the first time Kevin’s mother tells him that they are going to fund the team. Says it’s his fucking money and their fucking son.
She slams her hand on the countertop and says that she knows. Their fucking son.
She’s not a Beartown girl. She didn’t grow up there, and she may never visit again. She could count the number of hockey games she’s attended on one hand and have two fingers left over, and even then, she was only ever there for Kevin, never for Beartown.
But she understands Beartown. She married a man who demands perfection. So she gives, and she gives, and she gives, and secretly, she is never sure that she is going to make it to the final. But she made her choice. She stands by her husband and son. She keeps lining up to shoot.
Maggan Lyt never stops demanding. Not when Kevin quits or her own son quits soon after. She goes to the games anyway. She sits next to Filip’s mother and screams for him. Her son may have been the one who played hockey, but she’s the one who gave to it. All that money, all that attention, all those years. Hockey will be Maggan’s even when not a single player on the team knows her, even when the referee doesn’t cower in her gaze. No one is going to pry it away from her. She’s a Beartown girl.
Adri is busier than she’s ever been, commuting from the kennel to the rink and back. And every spare moment she manages to claw onto, every second that doesn’t go to work or family, she spends with Jeanette in one of her outbuildings. Jeanette laughs at her when she ends up flat on her back, then extends a hand and helps her up. Adri laughs, too, and keeps fighting.
It happens in reverse when Jeanette lands on her ass on the ice.
Adri will never tell another soul, certainly not Jeanette, that she secretly hopes that Beartown can be a two-sport town.
The next time a student calls her “sweetcheeks,” she doesn’t yell. She doesn’t have to. Instead, Jeanette settles down the noise from the dozen or so students who call her “Jeanette” inside the school and “Sensei” outside of it. In another few years, she won’t even have to do that much. The Beartown Ice Hockey Women’s Junior Team will level any comments by their mere presence. It is with some satisfaction that Jeanette notes that that school’s students don’t look at the team like something mythical anymore. They’re not Gods. They’re the girls who carry the town’s hopes on their back. Nothing more than that.
Benji doesn’t know how to be a coach. The first time he stumbles onto the ice, sees that group of awkward 4-to-7-year-old girls, so eager to learn, he’s not sure how he even wound up in this position. But then Zacharias checks him on the shoulder and laughs. “Quit zoning out, boss.”
“I told you to quit calling me that.”
In the locker room, before their first game, all four teenagers look at each other, but it’s Benji and Bobo who make the longest eye contact. “Win,” says Benji.
“Win,” Bobo repeats.
They don’t. But they will.
David coaches the Hed A-Team and tries to make sense of everything. Tries to work out how to talk to Kevin and how to fill out the first line of the team without one of its most valuable players.
He knows Kevin thinks he hates him. He wishes there were something he could say to impress upon him that he doesn’t, probably never will, even though he will live forever with the shame that he failed Kevin, and Kevin failed everyone.
He wonders if for the rest of his life being a good person will be at odds with being a good coach.
He can never find the words, so he never says anything at all, and a year later, Kevin is gone.
It’s okay. All David wants to do is coach hockey. Hockey is its own world. You have to leave everything else at the door.
Besides, he doesn’t have the time to wonder endlessly over Kevin. He’s got a new team, and even if he knows most of the players, it’s still sort of like having a whole big group of newborn babies. Plus, he has two real, genuine babies on the way. A girl and a boy. He becomes a dad, and suddenly, that’s all he wants to do, too.
There was some secret, shameful part of him that wondered, in the months leading up to the hospital visit that changed him so completely, if one of the things it would change was the love he felt for his team. If the affection he had always regarded as fatherly would suddenly feel washed-out in comparison to the real thing. He’s relieved to find that it doesn’t. His children are his children, and his team is his team. It’s different, and it’s not.
But what does change, in his soul, is that he suddenly understands Peter Andersson a little better, even if he doesn’t think he’ll ever know if he agrees with his choice. David kisses his girlfriend’s forehead. She’s the most beautiful woman he knows, damp and in pain and exhausted and elated and as beautiful as he’s ever seen her. He lowers his head and kisses his son’s forehead, then his daughter’s. Family is like hockey, too, he realizes. You have to leave everything else outside.
He knows he’ll never be able protect his children. But he will try so, so hard.
The first time Benji brings his boyfriend to the rink, his jams his hands into his pockets so that no one, least of all himself, will see them shaking.
“Uh,” he says to the other instructors, jerking his head toward him. “This is John.”
“Hey,” John says, nodding.
They’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder. One of John’s hands comes up to rest on Benji’s lower back.
The three other teenagers introduce themselves with varying levels of bemusement. John greets them all, as well, and then says, “I’m gonna go find a place in the stands.” He kisses Benji’s cheek before leaving.
Benji just stands there, hands in his pockets, wishing he didn’t feel like he was 11 again, stuttering out an answer to Kevin about the cutest girl in school.
Amat speaks first. “Who’s gonna tell Ana?”
It startles a surprised laugh out of Benji, which doubles when Maya and Ana walk up behind Benji and Ana claps him on the back, rolling her eyes in the way only a 16-year-old can. She says, “I’ve been over Benji for a year, Amat. This is why you’re getting a C- in history.”
“It’s almost up to a B!” Amat protests. Soon the whole group is laughing.
It’s Adri who cuts them short when she yells that they’ve got practice or did they forget? She’s not about to let them have their moment, she’s not Gaby or Katia. (Though Katia is there, somehow supervising her kids and grilling John at the same time.)
When he skates onto the ice, Benji feels the way he did the first time he left the locker room to a crowd completely on his side. He glances at the stands where John is watching him, and he smiles.
Bobo lies awake that night, staring at the ceiling. He didn’t get a chance to talk to Benji alone that day, hadn’t wanted to, not with his boyfriend holding his hand and walking next to him.
It’s not that Benji cares. It’s just that even though the Club’s locker room is a nicer place than it used be, Bobo’s was there during “used to be.” So was Benji.
Bobo drops next to Benji the next day. His words are clumsy. “I’m — I just wanted to say, you know. Sorry. About the jokes.”
Benji shrugs. He knows what Bobo means. “We all told them.”
“Yeah, but —” Bobo cuts himself off. He doesn’t say what he first thinks, which is that they shouldn’t have, because neither of them wants to think about the things their old team shouldn’t have done. “We shouldn’t,” he says instead. “I mean, I won’t.” He’s not sure why the next words come into his head, but he adds, “I’m on your team.”
Benji nods. “We shouldn’t.” It’s brief, but Bobo catches the grateful smile before Benji throws it down at the floor.
There are lots of jokes that the Beartown Ice Hockey A-Team (and the seniors, juniors, right down to Little League) don’t tell anymore. No gay jokes. No rape jokes. No jokes about someone’s race or accent. No jokes about the Hollow. No jokes about playing like a girl. Not even many jokes about Hed, anymore.
They still tell jokes. Of course they still tell jokes! It’s essential, the inclusivity of laughter. You need laughter in a community. But that’s just it. Community. It’s as much about what you permit as what you encourage.
There is no formal rule or ban ever enforced at the Club. Instead, Sune pins up a new poster. It’s big, its letters a vibrant red. “RESPECT” is all it says.
Sometimes Benji wants to talk to Kevin so badly it chokes him.
He thinks sometimes, about the life he could have had if he’d forgiven Kevin at the island. If he hadn’t thought he’d had to choose between being a good person and being a good friend. Or if he’d chosen differently.
Benji hates Kevin. It’s pure and it’s true and it’s not simple. Benji hates Kevin for hurting Maya and in a smaller, more shameful part of his soul for ruining the most important thing in Benji's life. He hates Kevin because if he said that to him now, he’s pretty sure Kevin would think he was talking about the hockey match.
Benji hates Kevin and is pretty sure he’ll never have a better friend in his whole life. It’s not simple.
If Benji had forgiven Kevin on that island, he’d be a player in the Hed. He’d have his best friend. He’d have David to train him. He’d have Kevin’s father paying for his equipment.
Benji looks at the Club. It’s rundown and broke and the coffee tastes like shit. He looks at Maya and Ana, at his sisters, at Amat and Zacharias and Bobo. His teammates laughing with his boyfriend in the stands. The most talented four-year-old Beartown’s ever seen pushing her way across the ice, her eyes occasionally darting up to his. His team. His town.
He wouldn’t have that.
Maya hugs each of her family members as tightly as she possibly can the day she leaves for college. Her mom and dad are crying. Leo is, too, though he hides it better.
She knows that her parents just love her. That’s what she reminds herself of every time it gets a little hard to bear, their sadness, their tense, whispered conversations, their endless collection of fliers for colleges close to home. She reminds herself that they don’t mean to make her hurt more.
“You can call if you ever need anything, you know that,” Peter whispers into her hair.
“I just need you to love me,” she says.
“Of course, pumpkin.”
She doesn’t say anything to her mom. They just hug silently for a long time.
The rest of the gang is there, too. She hugs Amat, punches Benji in the arm. Maya loves hockey, even if she never wants to play the game, loves Beartown, even if she never wants to move back. How could she feel any differently, when it’s given her a send-off like this?
Maya doesn’t hug Ana. Instead, they hold hands as they walk further into the airport. Maya has a prestigious music scholarship. Ana has a fiery desire to follow Maya wherever she goes. Ana has reminded her time and time again that she likes the school, that she needs to time to work out a major anyway, that Maya’s not getting rid of her that easily. Maya smiles, nods, accepts. She tries to forget about the cost or the woods Ana is leaving behind. She’ll never know, she supposes, who she or Ana would have been if sophomore year hadn’t happened. If Maya could still stand the dark, if Ana could still stand to leave her there.
You never have friends like the ones you have when you’re 15. Unless you keep them.
Kira has never recovered from that nervous breakdown, the one where she threw herself into the snow to scrape desperately for her children. Likewise, she’s never recovered from lying on the street with a golf club in her hand and her teen daughter’s arms around her, so much stronger than she should have had to have been. Watching Maya leave, she thinks that she will never recover from this, either.
The next day she goes to work. Her colleague runs in. Slams her hands on the table. “I want their HEADS on my WALL.” She’s referring, of course, to her new in-laws. Kira laughs, readjusts her schedule without looking down at the paper.
When she gets home, she sits next to Leo. They play a computer game together, and then she hugs him for a long time.
Every night, she counts her children: 1, 2, 3.
Peter pays for Fatima’s classes. Calls it an investment, even though the club barely has the money to invest in unbroken equipment. Fatima earns a certificate of accounting. She has always enjoyed math, and now she gets to sit down all day, helping the club. Sune tells her once that he doesn’t know how the club would get on without her, and she knows that he really means her, not just her son.
Fatima works hard, but there is one day when not the President himself could not drag her into work. It’s the day of Amat’s first professional game. She paid for her own ticket, even though Amat insisted that he could take care of her now. She’s been saving for this since he was 15-years-old.
Fatima screams his name as loudly as she can, but in her head, she quietly explains the rules to Amat’s father. She knows that he is watching, too.
It feels like David hears it from the whole world at once. He hears it from friends, he hears it from men he used to coach, he hears it from people he hasn’t spoken to in 10 years. Hell, he hears from people who don’t even know he used to coach the Beartown Junior Team. This is a hockey matter, not just a Beartown matter. Benji Ovich, the coach that made the Beartown Ice Hockey Women’s Junior Team the best junior team, period, in the country, that demon on the ice, that bastard. Dead. At 27.
Reports are that he froze to death. It’s too early to be sure. David has texts that say he died saving a little girl when the lake beneath her skates cracked, others that say he was found lying naked and prone in a snow drift.
David doesn’t delete the texts. He turns his phone off. There’s a game in 10 minutes.
Hockey is its own world. You have to leave everything else outside.
He looks at his team. “Win.”
He watches his team storm the ice. They’re a beautiful sight, a force of nature, the result of years of passion and hard-work. David couldn’t be prouder. He watches until the last figure has hit position. Then, he leaves, walks outside and to the back of stadium, and sobs until he nearly collapses.
He calls his girlfriend, and she picks him up. It’s the one and only time he doesn’t meet his team after a game. He turns on his phone, congratulates them over text. Assures them he’ll be there for practice the next day.
He holds the twins well past their bedtimes.
Hockey is its own world, but so is family. In hockey, all you can do is promise to win. In a family, all you can do is promise to protect each other.
It’s always a damn lie, David thinks. We can never protect our children.
Why do people love hockey?
Because it tells stories.