To hear me read this story aloud–AND hear two much better stories besides it!–check out Season 3, Episode 9 of The Tiny Bookcase, HERE.
Patrick was not sure that he would ever get used to having trading in pads for khakis and a button-down shirt.
He wasn’t sure standing behind a podium would ever feel as comfortable as standing in front of a net. Could facing down eight mile-per-hour slapshots really compare to a hundred eyes on him, all focused on every word he said? At least back on the ice, he had five men standing with him, protecting him as best they could. Now? It was just Patrick.
It probably wasn’t a good idea to think of the people he’d be talking to so frequently as “the opposition”, he thought as he straightened his blue-and-yellow striped tie, a reminder to the colors he wore in college. These folks weren’t taking shots at him, after all. They were depending on him. That was different. In that regard, they were more like his old teammates, right? Right?
Patrick slowed his breathing and looked towards the curtain. As he stared at it, he felt his breathing start to hurry again, seemingly of its own accord. He looked at the clock; he had only a few minutes to wait. Was he sweating through his shirt already? The thought made him miss the cold of the ice.
Two years ago, he never thought he would be here. Two years ago, he was skating in The Frozen Four, one game away from taking his school to the national championship. Two years ago, he was a senior in college, playing before professional scouts and hoping to make an impression. Two years ago, he was letting over a decade of early morning practices and missed dances take him to his destiny.
And two years ago, it was taken away.
Back then, the semi-final of the NCAA tournament was tied at three in its second overtime. Patrick had stopped 42 shots to that point and was determined to stop everything he faced until his team could solve the opposing Wisconsin goalie. However long that took, he was determined that he would keep them in the game.
As the Badgers circled him on their power play, Patrick never let the puck leave his sight. He saw the pass back to the point perfectly; he shifted his weight as the defenseman wound up his shot…
But then it all went black.
The Badgers’ right wing, a sophomore named Stottlemeyer, had run into Patrick. No, he didn’t just run into him; he powered all the way through him. Patrick still wasn’t sure when exactly he was knocked out. Was it when the back of his head hit the crossbar and popped his mask off? Or was it immediately after when he fell and hit the ice? It didn’t really matter ultimately; he had given up the game winning goal and suffered his fifth concussion since coming to college.
It was goaltender interference. There’s just no way it wasn’t. In the weeks after the game, while Patrick recovered in a dark room, he watched the replay obsessively… and bitterly. Stottlemeyer took a minor jostle from Patrick’s defenseman, and he used it as an excuse to careen into the goalie. The referee had thought Patrick’s teammate initiated the contact and swallowed his whistle, but Patrick knew that was the wrong call. He watched it over and over. Stottlemeyer had intentionally rushed him to cause the goal.
Losing the game stung. Well, no, that’s not right. Losing the game downright blew. But the constant medical advice he had received in the loss’ wake was somehow worse. Doctor after doctor confirmed that Patrick had to hang up his skates. The concussions had simply become too numerous over too short a period of time. Continuing to play at all was far too risky; turning pro was out of the question.
He remembered talking to his pastor in the weeks after his graduation, hoping to find some kind of solace. Well, Pastor William talked. Patrick mostly sat there and found he didn’t want to listen after all. He knew what it was all going to be. “This happened for a reason” and “Trust in the plan”. These were great platitudes for losing a game and still looking forward. But having all of his future games taken away from him? Nice sayings simply weren’t helping. Even from the man Patrick always thought of as another grandfather.
Still, Pastor William never gave up on Patrick. He texted every day with new “opportunities”, as he called them. Come to the church and help out. Talk to the kids at Vacation Bible School. Work in the soup kitchen. Advise some peers on their own crises of faith. William was clearly just trying to get him out of the house as often as he could, and Patrick always saw through it.
But still… what did it hurt?
Somewhere along the way, it stopped feeling like work. It stopped being an obligation to help his church leader feel like he was making a difference in Patrick’s life. At some point, he started showing up without even being asked by William.
“How’s the head?” Pastor William asked him one night when they were cleaning up the soup kitchen. The two of them were cleaning the pots of chicken and rice out, scraping away at the bits of rice that had cooked onto the sides.
“Great, as long as I quit hitting it on things. I can’t remember my driver’s license number, but I’m also pretty sure I never knew it to begin with”.
“So no great loss then?”
“Well, I was kind of hoping that if I shook everything up there around enough, maybe it would find some new info”.
William laughed at that. “I think that’s the opposite of how it works”.
Patrick just shook his head as he rinsed another pot.
“Maybe if they had a saying about it,” William continued, “Like… ‘when God closes a door, he opens a window’. Have you heard that one?”
“I’m pretty sure everyone’s heard that one”.
William nodded. “Probably something to it then”.
A few days later, he retired as pastor of the church.
And that led Patrick to that moment behind the curtain, waiting to step out for his first day as the new pastor. He looked at the clock; it was finally time.
He reached out to the curtain and gently probed until he found its edge. He had stepped out onto the ice hundreds of times in his life, but he was suddenly terrified of getting tangled up in a curtain. He imagined it seemingly tying itself around him as he would flail against it. He’d fall; he’d bring the whole curtain down. He’d probably pull the roof right off the church and doom them all.
He pushed it aside and emerged successfully.
The parishioners gradually stopped talking to each other, straightened themselves up, and put all eyes on him.
Okay, Patrick thought, unsure how to meet all their gazes at once. Much more like opponents than teammates after all. Except these opponents are playing with a dozen pucks.
He cleared his throat as he approached the microphone.
“Thank you all for coming out this morning. I hope many of you recognize me. I’m the new pastor, Pastor Patrick,” he winced as he said that. “Nope, don’t like that. Just call me Patrick”.
A fair few of the attendees laughed. Almost all of them smiled at him. Patrick felt his knees unlock, and the imaginary pucks vanish. His body suddenly did not seem to weigh a thousand pounds.
“I want to start off today talking about obstacles. Obstacles can really interfere with where you think life is going to take you”.
He nodded, then looked down at the podium. This time, he smiled. “And it turns out I know a thing or two about interference”.