The Victory Lap
The St. Albert Silver Rebels sat in silence, the only sounds coming from their heaving chests and the slow-dripping sweat from their brows.
They had just lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals and no one could believe it, least of all their center, Karl Williamson. Karl sat by, not even bothering to take off his pads. He knew if he did, it would be all over.
The game. The series. The season.
It already was over, though. His team had lost. And nothing he did, on or off the ice, could change that. When the coach came in to congratulate his team on the season, Karl closed his eyes and ears, not wanting to hear the man’s condolences, the man’s … excuses, Karl thought to himself, frustration already filling the void left by the loss.
I did everything right. I scored every goal. I made every pass. And for what?
Karl opened his eyes long enough to take one long, disgusted look at his teammates. The guys who couldn’t, wouldn’t carry their weight. The guys who would shank it off the post. The guys who stopped skating when they felt the game was over.
Somewhere far off, the coach was still rallying his team into the offseason. But Karl was stuck replaying every second of the last game.
A soft short-side goal that any half-decent goalie would have stopped.
A blown 5-on-3. Poor play in the defensive zone.
Coach putting out Craig and Dimitri with two minutes left in the game.
What had he been thinking?!
It seemed everyone had an off night when it mattered most.
Except me, Karl told himself. These guys don’t even deserve the Cup. I deserve it … I earned it.
Broken images of the winning team, the DC Patriots, floated before him. He pictured their locker room, the antithesis of his own. Partying, cheering, champagne, glory. Passing the Cup around like a cheap date. Holding it. Kissing it. Drinking beer out of it.
This was supposed to be the greatest night of Karl’s life. Instead …
I hope they break their necks doing keg stands, he thought as he bent to untie his laces, still tuning out the talks of offseason plans. He quickly undressed and tossed his pads on top of the team pile. Karl had arrived to the arena in a stuffy three-piece suit, but now he didn’t feel much like wearing a vest and tie. Instead he grabbed some sweats from the equipment locker and headed for the door.
“Hey Karlie,” someone shouted as he turned his back to the room. “We’re all going out for drinks. You comin’?”
Karl, ignoring the call, left the locker room without responding. See you next season, losers, he thought. He wanted to put the boys, the room, the rink, everything behind him. He’d drink tonight for sure, if only to forget the loss. Sneaking past the media storm proved easier than expected. Guess no one wants to talk to the losing team.
Karl passed by a crowd of reporters huddled around a Patriots player. From the flurry of activity, he guessed it was their captain. A thick Russian accent responding to the reporters’ questions confirmed his suspicion.
“After so many years of coming up short, what do you attribute your team’s success to?” one of the reporter’s asked.
“Well,” the captain responded. “I say at beginning of season, we not going to lose this year. And, well, it worked.”
The crowd of reporters erupted in laughter while Karl walked by unnoticed. Of course he didn’t want to speak to any of the media after a loss like this one. But the fact he seemed invisible only added to the embarrassment of losing. He turned down an adjacent hallway, fists clenched in fury.
Small TVs punctuated Karl’s trip to the parking lot, touting postgame coverage that narrated the worst night of his life. Here a replay showed the game-winning goal, over there the winning coach lauded his players for digging in deep. Above all, clips of the players skating around the rink, Cup in hand, peppered his bruised mind and body. Each player that raised the Cup overhead was just another slap in the face. Another reminder he was robbed of a victory he’d worked toward all season.
Thankfully the television torment ended, and Karl found himself in the back lot of the stadium. Maintenance crews and equipment managers were parading in and out, prepping the away team’s bus for a celebratory night around Alberta hotspots. A few of the crew nodded in his direction, offering words of good game and tough loss.
“Yeah,” Karl muttered, straining not to hip-check a nearby equipment manager into a blue sedan. Skulking toward the away team bus, Karl felt a flicker of relief to find the area mostly empty. Must all still be in the locker room, he concluded as he neared the back of the bus. A large, black crate with silver trim sat unattended by the luggage compartment of the team bus. There was a sad familiarity about the black box — he had seen it at the end of every season, only never in person. Never so close. He knew that it housed the Cup whenever it wasn’t on display. There’s no way it’s in there now though …
Almost in response to his doubt, two white-gloved men in black suits marched out of the building. In between them hung Lord Stanley’s Cup, the trophy’s silver sheen catching and reflecting the overhead parking lot lights. As the Keepers of the Cup neared the crate, Karl released the breath that for some reason sat captive in his throat. The Cup floated through the air, guided by white gloves into its resting place. The top of the crate slammed shut, and the parking lot lost some of its glow. Having the Cup within sight and then taken away only left Karl hungry, aching, desperate to see it once more.
With numb awareness, Karl slinked over to the back of the bus, pressing his body against the warm exhaust fans. Craning his head around the tail lights, Karl watched as the Keepers exchanged a few words before one of them turned and made his way inside the bus.
And Karl was moving again.
He crept along the backside of the bus, finding himself just inches away from crate and Keeper. Reaching out towards the Cup, the gray-haired man with white gloves noticed movement and jumped.
“What the —”
Fear and hunger mixed as Karl leapt forward, grabbing the Keeper by the head and slamming him into the side of the bus with an dull clunk. The man crumpled and stilled as Karl’s heartbeat quickened until it threatened to explode from his chest.
He paused only a moment as he hoisted the black crate over his shoulder with adrenaline-enhanced strength. Holding on with white-knuckle fury, Karl sprinted away from the fallen Keeper and towards the end of the lot where his own silver pickup truck waited for him. Tossing the crate into the bed of his truck, Karl hopped into the driver’s seat. Nerves jittering his fingers, he fumbled the keys out of his sweatpants.
C’mon, he pleaded his hands to steady. Meanwhile shouts rang out back across the lot.
The key slid true and the engine roared. Yes! Wasting no time with the seatbelt, Karl spun his tires and peeled away from the parking lot, the gathering crowd fading alongside the team bus.
Karl drove. Away from the arena, away from the rink, away from his team. He drove until the the city skyline evaporated into rolling hills, until the black, star-filled canopy above drifted and gave away to dull pink and orange.
And then he drove some more.
An Alberta native, he knew the country roads better than those that ran through the greater Edmonton area. He knew that even this late into the spring, cold and ice could still cling tight. That’s what he was counting on as he drove as far north as his gas tank would let him. The chill of the air and the draining of adrenaline left him cold and shivering. Finally, he crawled to a stop on the side of a frost-covered field. Out in the low-lying grass, an icy sheet of lake water extended across the plains.
Ignoring the constant buzzing of his phone on the passenger seat, Karl grabbed the old pair of skates he kept behind the driver’s seat and made his way to the bed of his truck. The black crate had dashed from side to side as he wound through the Canadian countryside. Other than a few bruises in the chrome edging, the crate looked perfect. He hadn’t driven all of this way for a black box though …
Karl slung the skates over his shoulder, and with a heave, he slid the crate off the bed of the truck and onto the frost-covered earth. Tugging and pulling, Karl made his way to the shore of Lake Athabasca. The crate was heavier now that the fury of the escape had passed. Still, he rested only long enough to remove his boots and lace up his skates. At the edge of the frozen lake, the pulling grew easier as the crate slid onto the ice.
The surface complained as the combined weight of Karl and the crate and the Cup skimmed across the ice. Karl ignored the cavernous echoes that rippled through the surface as he glided further and further away from the shore. Reaching the center of the lake, Karl finally stopped. This is it, he thought as he bent over and unclasped the metal hinges on the crate. As the top swung open, Karl’s breath caught in his throat, the silver sheen of Lord Stanley’s Cup catching the rising sun behind him. Reaching down and running his fingers over the silver surface, he could feel the disappointment melt away. The failures, the missed opportunities, the deadweight teammates. All aches were healed, all hungers satisfied as Karl leveled his palms on the Cup. With a steadying breath, Karl lifted his prize into the air.
A few strides later and Karl was flying. The Cup raised high in the air, Karl took the victory lap he knew he deserved. Pumping his arms up and down, he kissed the cool smooth surface of the Cup over and over. Names of past champions engraved on the side pressed into his lips. Closing his eyes he could see his own name etched in silver glory. Somewhere far off he could almost hear the roar of the crowd as he made lap after lap around the rink.
I did it, he told himself, wild laughter breaking free from his lips. I finally did it. I won the Stanley Cup! Warm tears collided with icy air as Karl lost himself in the moment.
And Karl was lost.
Too lost to hear the roaring crowds turn to sickening cracks as the thin lake ice began to fail.
Too lost to notice the hairline fractures in the surface turn to gashes, then to canyons.
Too lost to feel the cold water rushing around his ankles, gripping his legs, seizing his throat.
Karl opened his eyes to the murky blackness of icy lake water, his hands frighteningly void of their prize.
Where is it??
Above, the ice sloshed around in shattered chunks. Already his body began to stiffen as the cold water gripped at his muscles. What breath he had was ripped from his chest as he gasped in frozen ruin. Karl couldn’t worry about the havoc coursing through his body. Not yet. He had to find the Cup. He had to —
His prize caught a shaft of light as it drifted slowly down, beckoning Karl to grab a hold of it once more, to rescue it from the frozen wasteland. Karl kicked his heavy legs, the skates on his feet making the swimming near impossible. He reached out only for the trophy to slide further down into the darkness.
Panic flared and Karl kicked faster, driving himself after the Cup. With each stroke farther down, the Cup sank deeper out of reach. Gritting his chattering teeth, Karl shook onward. Icy tendrils clawed at his throat while a roaring fire threatened to rip through his chest.
He urged his body forward as his back broke out into spasms and his vision blurred. One second of torment later and the Cup was gone — swallowed up by the darkness, leaving Karl all alone at the bottom of the lake.