Since he was thirteen, Aaron has saved his finest moments for the ice. It was easier then. Then, he could tell himself that hockey was more important than love, than friends, than family. Because everything was ahead of him. Winning goals and faraway cities and magazines and television and the Stanley Cup. It seemed like a pretty good trade.
But now he’s old. Aaron strips off his gym clothes, throws them in the laundry hamper, and steps under the water, turned all the way hot. He can barely see the other players sharing his shower through the steam. Resting his forehead against the tiled wall, Aaron lets the water pound his muscles loose.
He knows he’s getting old. The league knows it too. That’s why Aaron is here in Manchester, rather than home in LA and playing Vancouver tonight. It’s easier to get rid of a lame horse by putting him out to pasture first.
Meet Aaron Buckley. 36, defenseman, plays for the Kings, won a Cup with the Devils. The fans don’t know what to do with him. He’s a big guy, but not a bruiser. He scored one of the most famous Playoff goals, but not a whole lot since then.
I love him precisely because he’s old. He’s lived his life, even if it hasn’t always gone the way he wanted. Or the way he thought he wanted, all those years ago. He knows his time in hockey is almost done now. He’s not looking for the next thing, but the next thing will always find you. I love characters who get jerked out of the life they think they’re living.
It’s all about how you react in that moment. Do you close the door, close your eyes, refuse to believe what’s coming at you until it’s passed you by? Aaron could do that. It’s been a long time since he’s had a life he could call a life, a boyfriend he would call a boyfriend. He could put his head down, keep playing until the Kings let him come back, and if he’s traded to another team next season, at least he’s playing hockey. It’s worked for him this long, hasn’t it?
Or Aaron could do the other thing. He could start letting people in. He could settle down in one city and be with one guy and start making friends he wants, instead whoever shows up in the locker room. And if Aaron is going to do this thing, there’s only one man he wants to do it with. That’s Zach, the one he left behind a long time ago.
My favourite hockey players have always been the journeyman. I’m a Vancouver Canucks fan, which, if you know hockey, explains everything. We’re not the team who gets a Wayne Gretzky or a Sidney Crosby. We had Pavel Bure, who scored a lot of goals for us, but he was never going to be the kind of superstar the league likes. The league likes good kids, captains, guys who score, but don’t celebrate too much. The Canucks pick up the free agents, instead, the veterans, the undrafted stars of ball hockey (really), and turn them into a team.
Aaron Buckley is that kind of player. He’s the supporting actor, not the hero. Not every kid who wants it makes it to the NHL. Not every player who wants it wins a Stanley Cup. Not everyone who wants it gets to do their favourite thing for a living. Aaron should be lucky. But at 36, a little broken and a lot lonely, he doesn’t feel lucky. Being sent to play with the kids on the Kings’s farm team doesn’t feel lucky.
I love writing stories about people getting back together. I like first times just fine, first kisses, the first time you touch someone and let them touch you. But I find the stories after happily ever after so much more interesting. I’m curious about how people make life work, especially after you add another person. Aaron’s life has been pretty easy. The team takes care of everything. All he has to do is get to the rink on time. But easy doesn’t mean good.
Easy doesn’t mean that Aaron is happy with what his life has become. And when hockey stops working, he realises there isn’t anything else. That’s what sends Aaron home to New Hampshire, in the third period of his life. The score is down, but there’s still time to tie things up and send the game to overtime.