A Slave to the Jungle

Author’s note: Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

I am naked in the washroom of a coach bus travelling from Thunder Bay to Nipigon. There are two naked young men in here with me and we are picking up pennies, nickels, and dimes from the floor. The sticky floor that gets pissed on every time there is a bump—the smell of ammonia mixing with the disinfectant giving us headaches. We play for the same Junior B hockey team and this is our first season. In the parlance of our league, which we call the Jungle, we are being “rookied”.

It goes like this: Three at a time the rookies get naked and squeeze into the bus washroom; then the “vets” shut the lights off and throw in a handful of coins that they’ve counted out. Once the rookies collect all the coins and say how much money was thrown in, they are given back their clothes, which in the meantime, have been tied together in a seemingly impossible knot. With me in the washroom are Roy Cloutier and Devon Lindberg, though they are never called by those names. Roy is “Clooch” and Devon is “Youngblood”. Clooch is our third string goalie and will only dress for a game this season if another goalie is hurt or can’t make it. I guess he just likes to hang out in the dressing room. Youngblood is 16 and the best player in the league. He was kicked off his AAA team because of his attitude. Now he’s trying to survive in the Jungle against 250-pound construction workers and alcoholic bar fighters who hate to be embarrassed. For everyone but Youngblood, the Jungle is the last stop before the adult beer league where even the cleanest, most beautiful hits land you two minutes for body-checking.

I am a third-year English major at Lakehead University. I was reading my Literary Theory textbook up until the bathroom rookieing. As I stand here naked all I can think about is what Judith Butler and all the other Queer Theorists would say about this particular gender performance.

We eventually get the coins counted right and our clothes untied.

A couple guys really didn’t want to do it. They won’t have hockey sticks shoved up their asses or be shunned or anything like that. But they’ll be called pussies and faggots and will have to carry the vets’ bags tonight.

I’ve always been comfortable being naked. Showering at the rink since I was twelve has gotten me used to it. When I was a kid I wanted to be Steve Yzerman—wear number nineteen, kiss the Stanley Cup… Now I want to be Alistair MacLeod or Cormac McCarthy. I drop the names of Atlantic novelists when I talk to my English professors. I pretend, like everyone else in my class, that I understand the feminist cyborg and why Don Cherry is evil.

It’s dark by the time we arrive at the rink. As we pull into the parking lot I turn off my reading light, close my Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, rub my eyes, and yawn. The bus stops and the interior lights go on. Jimmer and Lappy–our first and second string goalies–grimace as they finish their tall-boys of Carling Ice. They have been drinking since the Terry Fox lookout and are six or seven deep by now. Jimmer needed one once he got talking about how coach didn’t pull him after letting in five against the Hawks. He didn’t stop after one. Lappy was drinking because he always drinks when he’s not starting.

Coach gets up from his seat in the front of the bus and hitches up his pants. “Alright boys, half an hour ‘til warm-ups. Get fucking going!” We get off the bus, grab our bags, and go to the dressing room.

The Jungle has a whole oral history on Coach Franklin. I heard from my brother–who he coached more than ten years ago– that he once blindfolded their goalie and shot pucks at him because he flinched on a slap shot. Stories like that.

I looked Coach Franklin up on and here are the facts: He was drafted by the Penguins in ’68 and fought in the Minors for ten years. He is listed at five-eight but that’s exaggerated. In his most prolific year, he had 332 penalty minutes in 70 games. He was called up to the AHL once for a three game stretch–one step away from the big show. But he got 26 penalty minutes and was sent back down.

I’m standing in the dressing room taping my stick, wearing nothing but a jockstrap. In between spits of apple-flavoured chewing tobacco, a fully dressed Clooch tells me about how drunk he was last weekend. I finish taping and take out a stubby candle and rub wax on the tape. From the hallway Coach yells and sticks are knocked over. The door opens and there he stands. “Clouthier, get your shit on! You’re fucking starting,” he says and as he turns away mutters something about “those fucking asshole drunks”.

Clooch stares blankly, and, forgetting about his bottom lip fat with the dip, swallows hard. He turns green and runs to the garbage. He puts his hands on the rim, wretches and heaves, and finally, pukes. Some of the boys grimace in disgust, some yell, some laugh. When Clooch finishes, he wipes his face with the back of his hand and goes to the sink to rinse out his mouth. He is heckled all the way, but he tunes it out. Ultra-serious, he takes his spot next to me, opens his bag, and gets dressed. We make eye-contact and he says, “I’m in the fucking zone.”

I nod and turn away, stifling a laugh. I finish waxing my stick, toss the candle into my bag and kiss the blade of my stick. Then I pretend it’s my penis and hump Youngblood with it. We all laugh. Then I say, “Seriously though boys, let’s fuck up Nipigon tonight. I fucking hate these guys!” The boys yell back with things like “fucking eh!” and we finish getting dressed.

Clooch is awful in warm-ups. He lets almost everything in and looks terrified in net. The buzzer goes and as we do our last laps, Nipigon’s tough guy, a six-four defenseman with one connected eyebrow, starts jawing at Youngblood–who is stupid enough to give it back to him. I pull him away, and tell him to have some fucking sense.

I tape my wrists and look around the dressing room. The boys are cleaning their visors or retying their skates or adjusting their elbow-pads. Some have taken off the top half of their equipment because it’s hot in the room. Inevitably, someone notices me taping my wrists and makes a comment about me having carpel tunnel from jacking-off too much. Youngblood finishes taping his stick and flexes it. Clooch sits with his elbows on his knees and a towel over his head. Coach comes in and begins with his standard greeting.

“Alright boys, shut the fuck up! Don’t worry about those two assholes, they’re off the team. Clooch is starting tonight and we’ll find other fucking goalies. I don’t have time for that type of shit!” But we all know Franklin will take them back if they apologize hat in hand. “Now, we gotta start winning some fucking games, boys. Remember what I’ve been fucking telling you. When you don’t have the puck you’re a fucking tiger. When you do, you’re a fucking ballerina in a pink fucking tutu. And don’t think too much. Hockey should be just like buying a case of beer: routine. You go into the beer store, order your beer, take out your wallet, and give them your money—all without fucking thinking. Then you find yourself sitting in your car and you don’t even remember doing it. That’s how you should feel after every fucking shift.” The assistant coach pokes his head in and says the ice is ready. “O.K. boys, let’s fucking go! Remember, be as vicious as you fucking can without getting a penalty. Cainer’s line starts up front and Macer and Wick on defence. Let’s go!”

I stand on the blue line with my helmet off while a 14-year-old girl sings O Canada. Macer leans over to me and says, “If only it were legal, ” and I smile and call him a pervert.

I put my helmet back on. Clooch looks composed as he scuffs up his crease and I skate by him and hit his pads with my stick. I line up and the referee blows his whistle and drops the puck.

Clooch makes some easy saves early on and gets in a rhythm. Nipigon is really pressing us but we’re keeping them outside and Clooch is making all the saves he should. The first period is uneventful and we go to the room tied 0 – 0. Coach gives pretty much the same speech as he did in the first and out we go.

Youngblood scores an unbelievable shorthanded goal about halfway through the second and celebrates pretty hard afterwards. As he skates past the Nipigon bench he looks at them and winks and they all swear at him and say they’re going to kick his fucking ass.

Later that period, I’m on the ice with Youngblood and he makes a pass from our blue line. He admires it and the big, uni-browed defenseman takes a run at him from across the rink and hits him late and high. Time slows down as I see Youngblood there on the ice. I skate over and break my stick on the tough guy’s arms. He falls to his knees and looks at me and I say, “We’re fucking going!” I let him up. Our gloves are off. I grab his jersey with my left and start tossing quick and heavy rights. All I feel is visor, but then I make contact with his cheek and I feel it wrap around my fist and can almost hear the tiny cracks it makes. He doesn’t hit me at all. We get tired and the linesmen break us up and one of them tells me to calm the fuck down. There is blood on the ice and on my hands. I clench and unclench. I take off my helmet and slick back my hair as the Nipigon crowd jeers at me.

In the dressing room, my hands shake like an old man’s even though I’m young and strong. I remember my grandfather’s hands and think it’s like something from a story. I try to untie my skates but I’m not steady enough and it hurts to close my right hand. I eventually settle down enough to shower. I wash the blood from my hands and it mingles with the water and the suds as it flows down the drain where it will mingle with shit and piss. I see that there is flesh missing from each of my knuckles. The second period ends and the team comes in while I’m still in the shower. Coach pops his head in and says, “Good fucking job, Cainer!”

I get out of the shower and dry off. As I walk back to my spot in the dressing room, everyone tells me how badly I kicked his ass. I just smile and laugh about how much of a pussy that guy is. Youngblood shakes my hand gingerly, and says, “Fuck man. Thanks!” Clooch sits with his towel on his head. He’s working on a shut-out so no one talks to him. Coach is cheerful after the bloodshed, shooting the shit with the guys for a bit before launching back into his speech: “Alright boys, shut the fuck up…”

I watch the third from the hallway. Youngblood scores another and Clooch makes some big saves. We win 2–0.

I’m drinking beer on a coach bus travelling from Nipigon to Thunder Bay. Clooch and I laugh as we dance to some bullshit top 40 song by a pop diva who is a part of the problem. I hear my teammates talking–the racial and gay slurs–and think about the power of language. My Norton Anthology sits in my backpack as I dance and wave my bloody knuckles in the air, a student of the beer, the beat, the body.

Noah Cain has previously published fiction in carte blanche and poetry in The Artery. He graduated from Lakehead University in May 2013 with degrees in English and Education. Noah lives in Winnipeg MB and teaches Grade 5 in Selkirk MB.