Comeback

By: Catherine Gayle


Jessica fell silent, too. That was one of many things I appreciated about her. It couldn’t be easy, working with addicts as much as she did. Being an addict myself, I understood all too well how fucked up we could be, how easily we could hurt the people in our lives, especially the ones who were trying to help us, whether we intended to or not. But somehow she didn’t seem to let it get to her. She understood the needs we had—for contemplation, for self-awareness, for so many things that the general population often took for granted.

“Did you have a good summer?” she asked after a few minutes.

There wasn’t really any need for her to ask. I’d stayed here, in Portland, instead of going home to Sweden. My support group was here, and the rehab facility that had finally helped me to get clean and stay clean was here, too. I’d stuck around and had been right by her side for a few of the community service events the foundation had hosted. She knew exactly what my summer had been like.

Asking questions she knew the answers to meant one thing: no matter how much time we might have spent around each other, she saw me as one of the addicts she helped every day and nothing more. This was all business.

“Pretty good,” I said evenly, taking her cue. “And yours?”

“Busy. Really busy.” She shifted her feet beneath her. “You’re still clean? No issues heading into the new season?”

“One year, four months, and seventeen days.” And counting. I’d spent all last season playing for the Storm’s minor-league affiliate, the Seattle Storm, because of how badly I’d screwed things up in the playoffs the previous season, for myself and for my teammates. I had been so dependent on sleeping pills and pain pills and alcohol it was a wonder that I’d made it out of bed to go in the net, but I had played like shit and let everyone down. I hadn’t been able to focus on the puck or the play around me. I kept letting in goals that I would have been able to stop when I was twelve.

I had been an absolute wreck. When our season had come to an end, the coach and the general manager had pulled me aside.

I can’t put you in the net next year, Nicky, the head coach, Mattias Bergstrom, had told me. I can’t trust you to be what the team needs you to be. Too many times, you’ve promised you had your shit together, and too many times you’ve failed to keep it together.

Then it had been Jim Sutter’s turn. He was the GM. You’ve got two choices. You can go back to rehab this summer and then play next season in the AHL to prove that you’re willing to make the changes you need to make in your life, or we will have to begin the proceedings to void your contract on the basis that you aren’t fulfilling your obligations. It’s your call.

I’d already been to rehab three times at that point, typically going to a center in Stockholm so I would be close to my family in case my father’s health deteriorated rapidly. Not once in any of those rehab stints had I talked about Dad. Not once had I admitted I was an addict, not to the counselors or to the people involved with the Storm. I’d skirted around all of it, avoiding telling anyone that my father had ALS and never saying anything more than, It’s tough, when one of the guys on the team asked me how things were going. So after we’d fallen out of the playoffs, I’d told Jim that I’d think it over. Then I’d headed back to Sweden and watched my father die in one of the most horrifying ways imaginable.

It had taken losing my spot on the team and then losing my father in the span of less than a month to convince me I had to change, to show me that maybe I was less in control of things than I told myself I was.

After my sister, Emma, and I had buried my father, I had returned to Portland and asked Jim for help. He’d gotten me set up with the Players’ Association and their substance abuse program, and I’d gone into rehab to set about the tedious and seemingly impossible task of putting my life back on the right course.

I hadn’t been back to Sweden since. Hadn’t seen my sister and her kids in all that time. I emailed Emma and talked on the phone with the munchkins as often as we could manage, but they all understood I had to turn things around. They knew I had to make myself into the man I should have been all along. Especially now that we didn’t have Dad to fill that role.

And now was my opportunity to win my job back. It wasn’t going to be easy. I had no delusions about that. Jim told me he believed in me, that he was sure I was ready. The coaches and my teammates were another story, though. And then there were the fans. Not to mention the media and their never-ending questions: What was going on? Why were you demoted to Seattle? Aren’t you washed-up? Maybe you should think about retirement, huh?

After I got through all the questions and expectations, I was still going to have a fight on my hands to try to win my starting spot back from Hunter Fielding. Of course, I shouldn’t even be able to fight. Not now. I was supposed to spend this season in Seattle again because the people who could make these decisions still didn’t believe that I had my shit together.

I’d lost the coaches’ trust. I’d lost my teammates’ trust. I’d lost the fans’ trust.