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The Forgotten Champion
by G. S. Oppenheim
"Say hello to Daddy, Parker."
Molly Flynn picked the child up and placed him in his father's bed. The man's head bobbed slightly as he turned it to face the intruder sitting next to him, his glassy eyes betraying the lack of recognition.
Molly suppressed tears as she took the bedridden man's hands in hers. "Matt, it’s Molly. I brought Parker to see you."
Matt's only response was a deep guttural moan. Whether aroused by pain or panic, Molly could not be sure, but it caused a shiver of fear to run down her back as she looked at the zombie her husband had become. A trail of spit dribbled down his chin. Molly retreated as a nurse intervened to dab at it with a handkerchief. "He has good days and bad days.” Matt groaned, more saliva leaking out of his mouth. “This is a bad day."
Molly knew the nurse was just trying to be helpful, but her comment simply drew her ire. Of course this was a bad day. On a good day, Matt recognized his son. He remembered her. Sometimes they even strolled through the hospital grounds together.
On a bad day, Matt was little more than a breathing corpse, a reminder of happiness lost in the past and an impediment to the future joy his persistent living kept always out of view.
Matt Flynn jumped over the boards and received a pass just before flying over the blue line into the offensive zone. He curled back along the boards and surveyed the situation. Slava Simchin entered the zone wide open, the defender left in his wake. Flynn sent a saucer pass to him between the hash marks moments before a freight train of a defenseman flattened him into the boards. He turned just in time to see the red light flash on. The horn was nearly overwhelmed by the sound of 20,000 hockey fans raucously cheering. Flynn pumped his hands in the air, his stick reaching to the heavens. He and his teammates embraced in the corner, wide smiles across all their faces.
Just over halfway through the second period of the seventh game of the championship series, and Flynn's pass had resulted in the goal that tied the game at two apiece. As he skated back to the bench he felt revitalized. One more goal, he thought to himself, score one more goal and we're gonna win that Cup! Somehow, he knew it was going to happen. Tonight was the night, after so many long years of professional hockey, that he would finally reach the pinnacle of his sport.
As he and Slava took their seats on the bench, he heard celebratory whoops and hollers from his ecstatic teammates and felt their fists pound his gloves and his back.
"Great pass, man!"
"We can do this! Just one more goal!"
He drank in the noise and the happiness. His entire career had built to this moment and he wanted to make sure he remembered everything about it.
The second period was winding down. One minute left. An opposition defenseman lifted the puck down the ice from his own zone.
It should have been an easy icing, but Flynn noticed that his team's defensemen were both skating off to change shifts and he suddenly found himself in a foot race with Niklas Burnstrom to tap that puck in order to draw the call before Burnstrom could salvage it and maybe even create a scoring chance. He skated as hard as he could and pulled away from Burnstrom, beating him to the puck by at least two strides. The whistle blew and Matt felt a momentary sense of relief at having denied the bad guys a chance to take the lead back.
That relief was short-lived.
Only an instant after he had drawn the icing call, Matt Flynn watched his reflection in the glass, horrified as Burnstrom plowed into him from behind, driving him headfirst into the boards.
Quiet. But for that relentless ringing that echoed through his skull.
Eyes open. So bright.
Shapes hovering before him. People?
Yes people. Unfamiliar faces looked down on him, the arena ceiling high above. He was on his back and suddenly recalled being checked into the end boards. He wondered how long he had been unconscious and thought it had probably been no more than a few seconds.
The ringing was replaced by a low rumble from outside his head, the humming of an arena full of concerned onlookers.
So cold. His head was resting on the ice, he realized, his helmet removed.
The nearest face came into focus, but he could not put a name to it. Several others, he knew were teammates. He caught the death's head image painted on the goalie’s mask. It had never looked so hideous as now.
"You okay, Matt?"
He could just make out the trainer's voice through the cacophony of noise bombarding his brain.
For an instant, he did not realize the question had been addressed to him. His senses were returning slowly. He had been through this before and knew that he must respond quickly or the training staff would not allow him to stay on the ice.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"No, you're not. Let's get you back to the room and check you out."
"No, really I'm okay."
He rolled over and raised himself onto his hands and knees, the sudden movement making him feel as though he might vomit. Maybe he should get himself looked at, after all.
Two teammates helped him to his feet and supported his weight as they skated toward the bench and the tunnel that led down to the locker rooms and medical facilities. A loud roar erupted from the crowd, saluting the heroism of the captain. It only made his headache worse. He hated to think it, but he kind of wished they would shut up for a second.
Matt had been in the quiet room before, more times than he liked to admit to himself. He knew the routine, fifteen minutes of quiet time after a nasty hit to the head like he had just suffered before the doctors would even consider letting him back on the ice. Worst case scenario, it could be months before he was allowed to play again. But right now, he did not have months. The only hockey that mattered was going to be played in the next period. He had to get back out on the ice.
"That looked like a pretty bad hit. How are you feeling?"
He knew he was going to have to trick the doctor into believing he was fine.
"I feel good, doc. Got my bell rung, but I've taken plenty worse hits than that, eh."
"Hmm, no head aches?"
"Any ringing in your ears?"
"You feeling nauseous at all?"
"Just that I might miss the rest of this game, doc." Half-lie.
A smile from the doctor. That looked like a good sign, right?
"Who's the prime minister, Matt?"
He drew a complete blank. It's a tall guy with a mustache, isn't it? Or was it the bald one? Better answer quickly, or he's gonna catch on.
"I don't really follow politics, eh."
Good thinking, throw him off the trail. Wait a second, did I start to slur a little bit there?
He closed his eyes, suddenly feeling very sick.
"Are you okay, Matt?"
Unable to hold it back, Matt clutched his stomach and vomited voluminously, dropping to his knees on the cold hard tile floor as he released the contents of his stomach.
"I can't let you go back out there, Matt."
"No please, don't do this."
The bitterness of the vomit still tainted his mouth as he spoke. The puddle of puke pooling around the doctor's shiny black loafers brought Flynn new shame. He rose to his feet, fighting the pain in his head.
"You've suffered a severe trauma to your brain, Matt. I know the game is important to you, but my concern is for your long term well-being."
"I know. I know. But come on, doc. This is the goddamn finals here. Game Seven…"
"If you go out and play the third period you could be exposing yourself to severe degenerative brain disorders. I'm talking about emotional problems, trouble thinking, motor skills. If this was your first concussion, it would be one thing, but we've been through this before."
Matt was desperate. He had to get through to the doctor somehow. There was quite simply no way he was going to miss out on the rest of this game.
"Please don't do this, doc. I've worked my entire life to get here. Since I was three fucking years old I've been trying to get to this moment, and I've never even been close before now. There's a good chance this is it for me. Even if I play next year what are the odds of getting back here, eh? I'm not an idiot, I know they're not good. Are you really gonna stand there and take this away from me? 'Cause I know one thing; I can definitely go out there and play, but all that other stuff you're talking about? Maybe that happens. Maybe. And you know what, if I get to go finish this game and we win, it'd be worth it anyway. I'm willing to be a drooling blithering idiot when I'm 70 if it means I got to carry that Cup tonight. Don't fuckin’ take that away from me, doc. Please."
The doctor took his glasses off and pawed his face, a man fighting his own best instincts.
"You're asking me to violate my duties as a physician and to lie about your condition on official forms."
Hope. He might be going for it.
"I know. I'm sorry to put you in this position, but I've gotta finish this game."
"You promise me that if I let you out there you will come see me every day this summer and you won't bullshit me about how you're doing?"
"You promise if I say you can't play next season you won't fight me?"
Matt nodded, ignoring the pain it caused in his head. "I promise."
A long pause followed. The doctor was considering it, but Matt knew he still didn't think it was a good idea.
"All right, go. I'll take care of this mess and get the paperwork straight. Just don't do anything stupid out there."
Matt threw his arms around the doctor, hugging him like a child who had just gotten exactly what he wanted for Christmas.
The third period was three minutes old by the time Flynn shuffled out of the tunnel and took his seat on the bench. The echoing cheering that accompanied his return elated him even as he strove to conquer the aching in his skull. His teammates welcomed him back with stick taps to his shin pads and he nodded in acknowledgement.
On the ice, a teammate blasted a slapshot from the point, but there was no traffic and the goalie easily snagged it in his glove, drawing a whistle and a face-off in the offensive zone.
Flynn felt a rolled up sheet of paper smack his back and turned to find the coach standing over him.
"Then get the fuck out there!"
He hopped the boards, felt wobbly on his skates, but pushed off and glided his way to the face-off dot, steadying himself as he went. His stomach was twisting itself in knots as he crouched to take the draw. He was a half-second behind the opposing centerman and lost the face-off. Before he knew what had happened the puck had already been cleared all the way down the ice.
His team was still on the power play thanks to the penalty against Burnstrom so there was no icing this time.
Without knowing how he had gotten there, Flynn found himself standing on the blue line as a teammate rushed the puck up the ice. A defender skating backward into his own zone bumped Matt, and he waved his stick in the player's direction but didn't make contact. He was lucky not to get called for a penalty himself on the play. He stepped into the offensive zone and the puck was on his stick. It stayed there only a fraction of a second as he dished it away to a teammate down low behind the goal.
He cruised into the slot area between the face-off circles and in front of the opposing goaltender, watching his teammates pass the puck around, playing keep-away from the penalty killers, waiting for the perfect opportunity to shoot.
Time was ticking away on the power play, maybe the last good opportunity they would have to score the goal to give them the lead late in this deciding match.
Standing in front of the goalie, attempting to screen his view of the play, Flynn struggled to stay on his feet with the incessant cross-checking the big defenseman Randall McDuff continued to administer to his back.
The puck slid down low and McDuff skated away in an attempt to intercept it.
Seeing his chance, Flynn slipped back a few feet toward the blue line, slamming his stick's blade on the ice, and shouting for the pass.
Semchin received the puck in the corner and a split-second before McDuff flattened him he chipped the puck out front to Flynn. No one was between him and the goalie now as he wound up and unleashed a wicked one-time slapshot from one knee. The goalie never had a chance as the puck whizzed by his blocker hand into the upper corner of the net.
Flynn pumped his fists in the air as his teammates mobbed him.
Even though his head felt like it might explode, he was enthused beyond comprehension to hear the blaring horn and the thunderous applause of 20,000 mad fans. His team had the lead and was now fifteen minutes from immortality.
Three… Two… One…
The game was over. They had won. Flynn's goal held up for a 3-2 victory. He and his teammates catapulted their gear – sticks, gloves, helmets – into the air and mobbed each other on the ice. Concussion or not, he had survived and been able to celebrate the greatest moment of his life with his best friends in the world. They were champions and no one could ever take that away from them.
The Commissioner called him to center ice to claim the greatest trophy any hockey player could ever hope to earn, and as he hoisted it above his head, basking in the adulation of thousands, and living out the dream he had fostered since childhood, he knew that no matter what, this was his moment and it would last forever.
Parker was clearly getting agitated as he sat next to his nearly comatose father, tears welling up in his eyes. Before he could start bawling, Molly picked him up and held him in her lap.
"Why don't we watch some TV?"
It felt wrong somehow to leave so soon after having arrived, so Molly fidgeted with the remote control and pressed the power button. The television crackled to life. She bristled at the sight of a spider stealthily tracking down a fly caught in its web and quickly changed the channel. The next program was even worse; the Hockey Network was showing a replay of the championship game from three years earlier in which Matt had scored the winning goal. It was difficult for Molly to see her husband so vibrant and alive.
Did it have to be that game?
Ever since Matt had retired the following season due to post-concussion syndrome, she had been convinced that returning from Burnstrom’s hit had caused the health problems that ended his career and eventually put him in this convalescent home. While others had praised his work ethic and tenacity, hailing him a warrior and a hero, she had admonished him for risking his health needlessly. Even the team physician’s diagnosis that he had been fine that night and his subsequent health issues were unrelated had failed to shake Molly of her resolve.
As the highlights from the game flickered across the screen, she wanted to change the channel, but something stopped her. Looking at her husband's face, she wondered if maybe it would be good for him to see it. She realized how foolish it might seem, but she wondered if seeing his greatest accomplishment might somehow revitalize him.
The smile that crept across his lips gave her hope.
She picked Parker up and pointed at the screen. "See that man up there on the TV? That's Daddy."
The little boy giggled, causing Molly to smile.
"Who is that?"
The words came in hushed whispers. Molly turned to her husband. He was pointing at the screen.
She struggled to maintain her composure and hold back the tears she knew were coming. "Sweetie, that's you." Her voice quivered. "Do you remember? You scored the goal. You won the championship."
His eyes glazed over. "I did?"
She nodded, tears wetting her tightly shut eyelids.
"I don't remember. I don't remember."
He began to shake violently, bawling without inhibition. Molly shut the TV off and leapt to his side.
"I don't remember. I don't remember."
She stroked her fingers through his thinning hair and whispered softly to him.
"It's okay, sweetie. There's nothing to remember. It's okay. Calm down."
Within moments he relaxed, seemingly forgetting what had troubled him. He opened his eyes and looked into hers.
"It's okay, you're all right, honey."
He calmed down in her arms, lying still once more. "Thank you, nurse."