Tuesday, February 14, 2012

My Night with Paul Holmgren

The wind ripped through my body like knives through Swiss cheese.  It was snowing harder now than it was an hour before.  “Damn it’s cold” I said to the darkness.  It was close to 3:00 am; not a good time to be prowling the streets of West Philadelphia, but I was on a mission.  So I kept trudging forward, my feet were almost numb; I had been walking for little more than 20 minutes without any success.  After striking out at the local Walmart I left in search of sex, even if it meant paying for it.  Usually at this part of town the nightwalkers were everywhere, seemingly coming out from the ground, like that scene in Lord of the Rings, but with miniskirts and meth mouth.  But like everyone else who had half a brain they were all inside.  I took the $20 I had pinned to my collar and put it back in my wallet.  It seemed the only lovin I was gonna get tonight would be from ‘Jill’ and a bottle of Lubriderm. 

It was too cold to stay out any longer.  I needed to get home and the buses would definitely not be running.  And just because the whores weren’t out didn’t mean the muggers were to.  It was only after stumbling around in the dark looking for a cab that I saw it.  At the far end of the corner there was a light on.  Above the blinking neon sign for “B_d Li__t” read Dirty Ralphs Tavern.  Apparently they didn’t get the memo that all bars were supposed to be lights out by 2:30, either that or they just didn’t give a damn.   As I approached I caught the aroma of my old house in college, shame mixed with old beer.  But I didn’t care it was too cold, and a little whiskey might warm me up. 
I opened the door expecting to see some kind of weird “Deer Hunter” scenario, but instead was greeted the same way as when I go see my Grandparents: disinterested and slightly perturbed.  The smoke hung thick over the dimly lit bar.  After getting my bearing I could make out there were two men at the counter, and one man in a back booth shrouded in darkness.  All three were smoking like chimneys while the bartender was doing typical clichéd bartender tasks like cleaning dirty glasses with spit and doing his best “Moe the Bartender” impression.  Actually he was really good because when he addressed me he had a thick Chinese accent, and now that I had gotten used to the poor lighting saw he was actually Asian.  Touché I thought. 
“What you have?” He inquired
“Banana Daiquiri.” I responded proudly.  This got the patrons interest, but only momentarily.  These were the types of men who were to beaten down to care about their own families let alone the drink choice of some sexless weirdo coming in off the streets.
“No Daiquiri only beer.” The bartender shot back, comically stereotypically, handing me a beer as if it was my only choice. 
“Fine, thanks.”
I went down and set at the other booth facing the man in darkness.  I don’t know what it was about him that made me stare, but the hunch in his back, his deranged mutterings and the incessant crying all made it hard to ignore.  He was easily the most broken man I had ever laid eyes on.  Then in a flash he shot his head up and proclaimed to the heavens “I DIDN’T KNOW!!!!!!!”  Only I was surprised by this sudden outburst. 
“Hey what I tell you bout screaming in bar!” The bartender hissed, apparently this wasn’t his first outburst.
But I was far more stunned than anyone else in the room.  In his moment of weakness the dim light from the bar illuminated his face. 
“Paul?” I said timidly
The man startled when he heard his name and rushed to the bathroom locking the door.  I gave chase and pounded on the door.  I could hear him stumbling around in there and flushing the toilets several times.
“Paul come out of there I don’t want to hurt you, I’m a huge Flyer’s fan.” 
“GO AWAY!” he screamed.  He sounded hoarse and completely mad.
“Paul I swear I don’t want to hurt you I just want to talk.  Come on buddy this is silly.   Let me buy you a beer.”
With the promise of free alcohol he unbolted the door and peeked his head out.  “Promise you won’t be mad at me.”
“I promise.”
After ordering the beer I returned to the table and sat across from the Flyers General Manger.  He looked horrible.  The bags under his eyes could hold ten pounds each, his chin was covered in stubble at least a week old and he clearly had stopped eating and was very pale.  He sat twitching staring into my soul, like he was waiting for me to come over and beat him with a shoe.
We sat across from one another until we had both finished our first beer and I had gone and gotten us a second.
“It’s not my fault ya know.” He said in a low whisper.
“What’s not?” I asked.
“What do you mean!” He bellowed “Everyone is talking about it, and they’re all blaming me!”
At the mere mention of name he shuddered violently.  “Ilya.” He said
Yes the talk of our supposed to be superstar goalie and his penchant for self deprecation and soft goals had been the talk of the town. 
“I mean who actually watches Coyotes games, certainly not the people of Phoenix, so why was I supposed to?”
“Well that’s kind of your job.” I said as tactfully as I could.  The man was hanging on by a thread, but still it needed to be said for the conversation to move forward.
“Don’t you think I know that.” He shot back.  “But we had major problems in our locker room, we had very little offensive depth and we needed a goalie.  So when the best one comes on the market you take a chance.”
“But you said you never watched him play.”
“No.” he said so quietly it was almost a whisper. “I just took Barry Melroses’ opinion and went from there.  What a disaster.” He stared off into the distance and took a long swig from his bottle.  “I mean it’s not fair.  We weren’t even supposed to compete this year.  Our team is so young.  And then we started off so strong, I was so proud of all of them.  Then with all the pressure of the Winter Classic and HBO we lost focus.   Ilya isn’t meant for bright lights.  He told me he is much more comfortable in Russia without all of the cameras in his face.  That’s why he’s huffing all that paint.”
“He’s huffing paint?!?!”
“Of course he is.  Do you think a professional goalie could let in as many easy ones as he has without being tripping balls?  Hell you could probably stop as many shots as him…”  He trailed off, eyeing my almost seductively.  “No, no it would never work, you don’t know the first thing about the butterfly position and Petey would never allow it again, not after I made him sign Bob.” He sighed and finished his beer wit one gulps and eyed me for a third.  I got him the drink.
“Thanks.” He said, “It’s nice talking this all out with someone.  It’s just that I mean come on.  This team wasn’t supposed to win the cup.  I traded away our arguably two best players from last year, and signed a guy who hadn’t played in the league in two years.  I knew Claude was good, but I didn’t know he was this good, then we lost Chris for the year and little James has been banged up.  It’s a miracle this team is even in second place.  I thought we would get the sixth seed got bounced in the first and with a year under our belt we would kick ass next year that was the plan! This was never supposed to be our year.  But with such a good start, unexpected pressure was put on us, we never had a chance.  Never had a chance man.”
“Yea but..”
“When I took this job they were coming off their worst season in history.  In three years I brought em back to the Stanley Cup Finals.  Hey wanna play a game called here’s who I brought into the organization: Pronger, Hartnell, Timmonen, Giroux, Jagr, Forsberg, Briere.”
The word stuck him like a dagger.  He knew that with that one name his legacy in Philadelphia would forever be tarnished.  “I created this team.  They were nothing and I brought them back.  You can’t take that away from me.” He wailed through the tears.  I handed him a bar napkin where he blew his nose vigorously.
“There’s still time for him to turn his career around here.  I mean we have him for another eight years.  Then you’ll get the respect you deserve.”
“You think so.”  He tried to force a smile.
“Yea, maybe.” I lied 
“Jeez that would be swell.”  He wiped the tears away from his eyes.  He started to calm down and even forced a smile.
“You feelin better?”
“I guess so.”
“Well then how bout we go out and pick up some prostitutes?”
“I’ll get my coat.”

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