I’d love to have some big, romantic history behind the origins of Home Ice, my m/m novella coming out TODAY from Ellora’s Cave, but the truth is much more pragmatic.
I like experimenting with new publishers. Everyone does things differently, so I can learn new things from new companies, and, what can I say? The grass on the other side of the fence might not be greener, exactly, but it’s a different shade of green, and I’m intrigued by that. And Ellora’s Cave is obviously a giant in online romance publishing, so I wanted to give them a try. They had a submission call out for their Oh, Canada series. I’m Canadian. Seemed like a good match.
Except I couldn’t really think of what to write that was uniquely Canadian without making it a cliché. A lot of my stories are set in Canada, but they aren’t written in a way that really focuses on the locale. Well, Lost Treasure kind of was, but most of my books just happen to be set in places I know well. And that didn’t seem like enough for a series of this sort.
So I ended up taking one of the biggest Canadian clichés—our love of hockey—and trying to turn it inside out. Now, I love hockey, so I wasn’t going to tear the sport down, but I do think there are problems with the system. The dominant route to the NHL has traditionally been playing junior hockey, and there are significant concerns, for me, with drafting sixteen-year olds to distant teams, billeting them with families that are just as obsessed with hockey as the kids are, and focusing on their development as hockey players instead of all the other things kids should be learning as they become adults. I think there are some great values instilled by this system: dedication, teamwork, etc. But there isn’t much opportunity for the kids to learn to value people who aren’t just like them, those who do not seem to be part of the team. While the NHL has generally avoided the significant crime issues of leagues like the NFL, there is still a troubling amount of sexism and homophobia in the game.
So. My story centers around a small town OHL (Ontario Hockey League, one step below the NHL) team, and the gay coach. He’s been carefully closeted for his whole life, and he has no intention of changing that. He loves hockey too much, and even though he’s a good coach, his position isn’t so secure that he can afford to take risks. When his old teammate comes back from the NHL, the coach feels the same attraction they’d shared years earlier, but he fights it. At least, he tries to…
Damn. Mike looked good. A little older, sure, but Jason had seen the guy on TV enough to expect that. And he wore his age well. Still fit, of course, and the light crinkle of lines around his eyes just made him look like he spent a lot of time smiling. No trace of gray in his light brown hair, no hint of jowls on his square jawline. The wire-rimmed glasses were new, and Jason wondered if they were really needed or if Mike was just trying to set himself apart from his playing days.
He remembered how he and Mike had always been compared to each other, and told how alike they looked, and wondered whether he’d held up to the years as well as his old friend. But there was no time for further speculation, because Mike was walking forward, his hand outstretched, and Jason needed to get himself in gear. “Jason. Or Coach, I guess.” A quick, easy smile. “It’s good to see you.” They shook hands and Mike raised his free hand to grasp Jason’s shoulder. It was a standard manly greeting, but Jason really didn’t want the additional contact. He made himself smile and stepped backward as soon as he could justify it.
“Good to see you too.” He turned to Walt Kowalchuk, the team’s General Manager, who had accompanied Mike into the room. “Walt.” A nod in acknowledgment, and Jason continued. “You’ve still got time to meet after practice?”
“I’ve got all the time you need, Coach. But that’s not what you’re going to ask me for, is it?” Walt was an old pro, having bounced around half the hockey world before settling in Pine River for the last few years of his career, and he was good at his job. But not good enough to always have money for Jason’s projects. He didn’t wait for an answer. “But let’s focus on the positive.” He clapped his hand on Mike’s shoulder and turned toward the anxiously hushed team. “Guys, let me introduce you to Mike Whitby. I think you may have heard of him.”
The tension eased a bit as the boys laughed, and then Walt continued. “He’s got some time to talk to you all today, and if we’re lucky… I notice he brought his skates with him. You guys want to practice with an NHLer?”
Just before the boys erupted into a puppy-like frenzy of enthusiasm, Kelly spoke up. He was an “over age” player, kept around not for his skill, but for his sheer toughness. “Did he bring his pads and a helmet too?” Kelly’s voice was cool, showing that he refused to be impressed by the visitor, and there was just enough of a challenge in it to make Jason have to hide a grin. Kelly was good for the team.
The Wolverines were the up-and-coming players, and they should be respectful to someone who’d already made it, but not subservient. If Mike was really going to practice with them, he should be ready to work and, yeah, ready to take a few hits. If he wasn’t, if he was just there to skate around a little, well, the team should see that for what it was.
But apparently Walt didn’t share Jason’s attitude, and he was frowning at Kelly before Mike spoke up. “I didn’t. I retired for a reason, you know.” He grinned, making it clear that this wasn’t a tragedy. “I’m about done taking hits from guys as tough as Kelly Dunlop.”
Damn, that was impressive. Mike knew the kid’s name, and Kelly was just a grinder, not a star. Jason remembered the shy, introverted kid he’d known and wondered when Mike had gotten so smooth. Wherever the skill had come from, it was certainly being used to good effect here. The team was grinning again and Kelly looked completely won over.
Jason needed to get the team in gear before they turned into a bunch of little girls swooning over a matinee idol. “Okay, guys, enough chat, let’s get on the ice. You can talk to Mr. Whitby after the practice.” But even with visitors in the locker room, they still had their ritual, and the boys were clearly waiting for it.
Jason grinned and nodded. Okay. “Where’s the game, boys?” he asked, his voice loud and ringing.
The answer was even louder. The boys moved as one, tapping their temples twice, then thudding a fist over their chests. “HEAD, HEAD, HEART!” they yelled in unison, and then they sprang into action. They grabbed their gear, headed out the door and Mike stood and watched them go.
When the last player trailed out of the locker room, Mike turned toward Jason. “‘Mr. Whitby’?” he said quietly, his eyebrow raised in amusement. “I like that. About time I got a little respect out of you.”
But Jason couldn’t do it, couldn’t fall back into the old rapport that easily. They’d been teammates and they’d been friends. And then, briefly, they’d been more, before it had all fallen apart. Sure, it had been a long time, but that didn’t mean Jason was over it. No, wait. He was over it, he just wasn’t… whatever. He wasn’t ready to pretend it hadn’t happened. That sounded better.
He sat down and pulled his own skates out of his gear bag. He just needed to focus on hockey. The game made sense and he understood it. The best thing about being on the ice had always been the way it let him leave the confusion on the other side of the glass.
He felt the bench move a little as someone sat next to him, and without looking up from the skate he was lacing, Jason knew it was Mike. Jesus, his voice, and now his smell. The guy must have changed colognes at some point in the last fifteen years. Jason couldn’t remember young Mike having ever worn any, actually, and now there was a faint spiciness that probably cost more than Jason made in a month. But underneath it, somehow, was Mike. Mike, who Jason was completely over, he reminded himself. Fifteen years. He was not that pathetic.
Mike was lacing up his own skates, but he was also clearly waiting for Jason to say something. “Welcome home,” he managed. It was stupid, of course. Mike had been back in town since the summer and it was well past Christmas now. He’d already been welcomed back by everyone who meant anything. Jason was just babbling.
But Mike didn’t seem to think so. He bounced a little on the old wooden bench, looked down at their skate-clad feet and grinned. “Yeah, thanks,” he said. “It’s good to be back.”