The summer after the breakup, Nick had been relieved to return to New York and training camp. Every year, the veterans were gathered together before the rookies came and the coach always gave the same speech. Just because they had had a place on the team last year didn’t guarantee them a place this year. They were fighting alongside the rookies for a spot on the roster. Nick understood it and for the first few years of his career he’d taken the warning to heart. Now, though, he felt comfortable in his role as a first or second d-pair. It wasn’t cockiness, but he had a decent feel for the rookies this year and there weren’t four other defenders better than he was.
Besides for the rest of the summer, he’d poured himself into hockey. He spent days in the gym, working out despite his trainers telling him to ease off a little bit. It was the only way that he could stop thinking about Brandon. His parents had been worried about him, even Tyler had been a little concerned, but there was nothing they could do or say that would make it better. What were you supposed to say to someone who had lost their once in a lifetime relationship? Nobody knew the answer.
He’d been happy to head to New York, trying to fill up his time so that he wouldn’t fly out to Columbus or call Brandon. And at first it was fine. He felt a bit like a kid returning to school after summer. It was great to meet up with people you hadn’t seen in a long time, grab dinner, drinks, and hang out, but after a while the novelty of it wore off. Nick didn’t realize how much it would hit him when he walked into the Islanders locker room for that first practice of the year- after all it was at training camp in Chicago that he’d first met Brandon.
He still remembered that day clearly. Afterwards, it was almost as though his life was split into a before and after, pre-Brandon and post-Brandon. Nick had been sitting in his stall, pulling on his skates, feeling the excitement of the room. It was good to have people who had already won the cup around. There was the confidence of being able to win intermixed with the thirst to win again. The year before, Nick had just been focused on staying up with the team, winning a Stanley Cup was only an afterthought. This year, though, he let himself be swept up in the excitement. He greeted a few guys as they came in, but then Brandon arrived, and Nick had never known what it was like to fall in love at first sight, he hadn’t believe it either, but here, Brandon greeted him with a shy smile and Nick knew that he was in trouble. “Hey, I’m Brandon,” he’d said.
“I’m Nick,” Nick replied.
“I know,” Brandon had said easily which had taken Nick aback. He wasn’t top billing on the team, he wasn’t even in the top five sold jerseys. But Brandon knew him and he was treating him the way that other rookies treated the veterans. By the end of that first day of training camp, Nick found himself not only hoping that he’d make the team, but also rooting for Brandon.
Now, as Nick walked into the sparsely populated locker room, the memory of meeting Brandon plagued him. He knew that he would never fall in love with someone like that again. He’d only fallen in love like that once, none of his previous relationships had had the same instantaneous chemistry that his friendship and subsequent relationship with Brandon had had. They were divided up between both locker rooms, the veterans in one and most of the rookies in the other. By the end of the day, that other locker room would probably be half-empty as the coaches made their initial cuts. Nick hadn’t paid much attention to the draft aside from looking at a few stats that Anders had messaged him with. He knew that most of these guys wouldn’t stay up anyways their first time.
He was pretty quiet, at least more than usual, as he got dressed and made it onto the ice. Most of the rookies were already there, trying to make a good first impression and insure that they wouldn’t be late. His eyes surveyed them, most paired off or in small clumps chatting when he saw a familiar figure.
For a split second, his heart leapt thinking that it was Brandon. Maybe, somehow, he’d missed it, but maybe Columbus had traded him over the summer, but then the man’s head turned and his face became clearer. It wasn’t Brandon. He felt silly that he’d even thought that it could be. Upon second glance, this guy was thinner, he didn’t have Brandon’s broad shoulders, and he was paler than Brandon would have been after an entire summer. Making eye contact with Nick, he smiled and skated over.
“Hey, I’m Mat,” the guy- Mat said.
Nick tried to hide his disappointment. It wasn’t Mat’s fault that he’d hoped that Brandon was here, “Hey, nice to meet you.”
“Thanks man, it’s crazy, being in New York and everything,” Mat said and Nick smiled, although a little forced.
“Yeah, it’s a lot,” Nick said.
“Any advice?” Mat asked.
“None that you need,” Nick said, “But, I guess, just try and make it through camp, okay?”
For a while, Mat did. He survived the first day, then the second, and suddenly the vets were even talking about him . The problem was Nick didn’t want him to stay. There was enough resemblance that Nick’s brain confused the two of them. And selfishly, he hoped that Mat would get sent back down, if only so that he could fix this. And then, when Mat got called into the coach’s office during the last round of cuts, Nick knew that he hadn’t made the team. Part of him felt guilty for wishing that, but a larger part felt relieved.
“Fuck!” Mat had said as he headed into the locker room after most of the guys had already left. A few, the ones who knew Mat from juniors had stuck around out of curiosity. Nick had stayed out of guilt, as if he had willed it into being.
A few of the guys had expressed their sympathies to Mat, but people like Josh and Tito were staying and any comfort that they might have provided. Mat hadn’t been rude, but he’d been cold and they’d gotten the message that Mat had wanted to be alone.
Nick was going to leave as well, but paused. He grabbed Mat’s shoulder while he was packing up his gear and turned him around. Mat was on the verge of tears, something that Nick realized, but politely ignored. It was bad enough to deal with rejection, it was even worse to cry in front of nearly strangers. “Go back to Seattle and become the best. Prove to them that they made the wrong decision, Mat, and then, we’ll see you next year,” Nick said. He knew that next year Mat would stay up as long as he stayed healthy. Mat was that good. “Okay?”
“Yeah,” Mat said. “I’ll see you next year, then.”
Nick’s conscience was a little cleared by the time he left. He hadn’t made Mat be sent back, it’d probably be good for him anyways. And then, just as it started, camp was over, and they had their final team.
If Nick thought, though, that he would walk away from camp enamored with someone the way he had been with Brandon he was wrong. Training camp ended, the team had been finalized, and Nick just wanted Brandon back.