Late Vezina Candidate

Every Saturday in October Phil will be sharing a spooky short story in anticipation for Halloween. We thank him for these excellent & ghoulish contributions.

Evgeni Bolkolak, the first player to break through Moscow’s oppressive iron curtain in 1973, made quite the impression with NHL fans all across Canada and The United States, whether he wanted to or not.

The media ran away with this story like juiced up sprinters, weaving the narrative that this disgruntled prospect was tired of the oppressive communist system keeping him from ever reaching his true potential, that he made his decision to leave after being benched in the Summit Series against Canada, and that the Soviets tore holes in the goalie’s track pants, clinging onto him as he stomped right through the Berlin wall.

In reality, the government asked him to leave in the interest of protecting their own citizens.

His lack of diction allowed the US media’s narrative to build brick by brick. It also left him socially, very much on an island, which was not his normal disposition at all. He was not accustomed to being on his own so much. Bolkolak loved feeling like he was part of the pack. Talking through problems, rallying up for a big game, then going out for a night whenever the state would allow him.

In Russian he was proficient enough to read and explain Kapital to anyone who would ask him to, a true vanguard of the party. English though just left him mystified as he would resign himself to only being able to communicate in simple three word sentences, with few of those words going beyond a four letter maximum. Still though, he was able to effectively communicate his gameplan and play-style to every member of the New York City media after he won his first NHL game with a remarkable shutout.

“I stop puck,” he said, setting off a chorus of discomforting guffaws.

He didn’t like these reporters. They reminded him of kids that used to talk to him in school as a joke back when he was a shy introvert, only these reporters lacked the style of the Soviet school kids, looking so unsightly with their mustaches, aviators, and brightly colored suit-jackets. “What a garish place,” he thought to himself. “I might never fit in here.”

Even without the social capital of being an alleged Soviet defect, and starting goaltender for the NHL’s best team, he still would never fit in and become a regular guy. Bolkolak had a distinct physical charisma about him; people looked at him, then looked a little longer. He had a young face that would shine through his mask, and long black hair that draped onto his jersey. Even out of his equipment, in just a regular black t-shirt with blue jeans as he browsed local record stores, he was totally remarkable.

To the Americans he looked otherworldly in a way that they didn’t anticipate the other world looking like. This wasn’t the Russian villain with the thick gravely accent, bristling black mustache, and funny hat that years of McCarthyism taught them to hate. He just looked like a cool guy to them.

With the way he was playing, he was certainly a cool guy. The game may have felt different from the European style, where the offense would be led by those without the puck, rather than whoever had it, but vulcanized rubber hitting his lightly padded chest at 80 miles an hour still felt the same. He exhibited a level of calmness that wasn’t seen out of most twitchy and spastic goalies. Every save felt like one he planned on making in his day’s to-do list. Even the ones that got through him left him unfazed as he lifted his mask, sprayed his face, and got back to it.

Then he learned what the phrase “outdoor game” meant, and started to panic. The Rangers agreed to take on the Boston Bruins in a game at Yankee stadium, the first of its kind, on Halloween night. Bolkolak tried reasoning to the coaches, explaining that the game was meant to be played indoors, and how he never played outside, even growing up as a kid in Russia, he always stayed inside, only playing whenever a rink was open. He stretched his English speaking muscles hard enough to tear them.

They either didn’t understand, or didn’t care. Bolkolak still knew there was a way to get himself out of that one game, and that was, suck for a few games. He played just a half-second behind his normal tempo, letting in enough pucks for the Rangers to start losing. Even better, the backup seemed to have things under control, helping the Rangers get their wins back. Ahead of the outdoor game, Bolkolak’s coach announced that it would be the backup starting, justifying it by saying that his objective was still to win, rather than show this shiny new Soviet toy to the stadium’s fans and the national TV audience.

“Praise be to God,” Bolkolak thought.

When the night of the game approached, he felt all types of release, as if a ghost that haunted him for the last two weeks had been exorcised.

The air felt nice and crisp on his face as he took his warmups in the center of a grand Romanesque stadium, with the lights shining bright upon him. The sunset accented the evening well, spray-painting the sky with an gallery’s worth of whispy pink and orange clouds against the shifting sky. He saw row upon row, terrace upon terrace, of the grouchy and pissed off faces New York had taught him to accept as normal. Scattered about the crowd were a few pranksters wearing Halloween masks to the games, standard fare, pumpkin heads, skeletons, and killer clowns.

Their faces looked fine to him at this point. He understood after a month in the city that they were all good people. A few of them had even bought him meals, eager to show him fine American cuisine that was actually brought over from Europe or China.

His warmups were good enough to plant seeds of doubt in the mind of every fan in the stadium, that perhaps Bolkolak should have in fact gotten the start.

Once that puck dropped though, Bolkolak was content to fixate hie eyes on the boards, not daring to look up at the game, or even the sky. It was a cloudy night anyway; he had nothing to look at. He didn’t even need to really look at the game to understand what was happening. American fans react so passionately to everything they see on the ice. They announce every play as it happens, and shout instructions at each player. A blind person could be brought to an American hockey game and know what was going on simply by listening to the fans around them.

Then though, those fans in that stadium began to emulate the style of soviet hockey fans that he had only recently forgotten about, their eerie concerned quiet, that worried gaze on each of their faces, like art aficionados watching a Greek tragedy unfold. He glanced at the ice, then back down, just long enough to confirm his fears. His backup was hurt, irreparably hurt, and the minor league call up would never suffice.

Sneaking back to the dugout was pointless. All eyes were already on him, and he could never move fast enough with all his equipment on. Looking up he could still see a few clouds in the sky, just enough. If those could last for the rest of the game, he’d be fine. Just as a protection though he swore he wouldn’t look up, and only follow the puck.

The strategy worked as well as it could. Bolkolak was a monster in the net, stopping anything that came in his direction, and even rebounding it to a teammate so as to get the offense going. This left the score tied with seven minutes left in the third period, an eternity.

The Bruins’ blades sliced through the ice with a chilly tailwind entering the stadium, pushing them forward, and giving those pucks even more blunt force as they slugged into Bolkolak’s body. The clouds began to drift apart, like cotton candy being pulled off the stick. With the Bruins entering the zone, their center flipped it up, with the wind carrying it well above above the ice. Bolkolak’s eyes drifted to the puck, but something else intercepted his vision, smacking his eyes like an unsuspecting body check.

The moon, slipping out of the clouds like a nude model sliding her robe off. The saturation in The goalie’s vision turned down. The colors became muted. Those dark faces that used to be hidden in the stands now popped out, like he saw them through a sniper’s scope. This sharpness helped him see the puck too, which everyone else had lost sight of, with it being camouflaged by the night’s sky.

He skated well out of his crease to catch it and trap it, knocking over a Bruins player. He hit the ice as if a wall skated out of the net with the force of a pickup truck.

“Hey what the fuck are you doing, commie?!” growled Boston’s left wing as he slid out to the goalie, ready to do some of that enforcing that his team paid him to provide. The goalie was tired of putting up with this. All this unwarranted physicality that he never saw in Russia, it pissed that goalie right off.

His breath was like steam as he laid a check that didn’t just put the agitator on his ass, but also sent his ass into the boards. They had collided at center-ice.

The goalie unmasked to they type of ovation that’s reserved for the final night of a legendary pitcher. His face had warped in the grotesque way that only a thousand pucks to the head could emulate, but it was hidden by his newly grown beard, the type of beard most players couldn’t dream of growing even if they went a run to the cup, ditching their razor along the way.

He skated his way back into the blue paint of his crease, a line of spit hanging from the hairs on his chin like some slobber from a dog’s mouth. Everyone else, the Rangers, the refs, and even the Big Bad Bruins were too scared to do anything but stand there and look at the hairy, spiky eared, stalagmite-toothed freak in the net. He smashed his stick against the ice, punctuating each of his words, “Let’s, fucking, play!”
The refs debated that while the goalie clearly broke a rule, it was something they could easily forgive. This was hockey, after all.

The Bruins resigned themselves to playing on with 11 forwards, but they did as good a job as ever at minimizing themselves in every facet. The Monster didn’t even need the enhanced motion tracking that his new eyes provided. The Bruins skated, checked, and shot like cowards. That said, the Rangers played to the level of their competition.

With only two digits left on the clock, The Monster slid out of his crease to meet a lonely puck that slid up to his stick. He sent it flying on a low path that went past the Bruins goaltender on what he would later claim was surprise, but replay showed it was the fastest puck he saw that night, or any other night.

Yankee Stadium lit up in a way they hadn’t since the fifties. The Monster was officially the king of New York.

As the Rangers would learn in the locker room, looking at Bolkolak who was somehow asleep and crying like a piece of soul had been stolen from him, that wasn’t the man they signed. Bolkolak’s consciousness experienced that whole sequence passively, like someone else grabbed his body’s control panel, and left him tied and gagged in the corner.

Bolkolak would learn that nobody cared about that pain he went through, all his teammates, his coaches, his fans wanted, was to have The Monster come back out to play. The rows of the MSG faithful would sing “M-o-n-s-t-e-r” in an elongated tone, as if they were Gaelic druids summoning their pagan deity, all while footage of a full moon played on every screen in the Garden. Tearfully, Bolkolak would relinquish control to The Monster, game after the game.

Instead, of just playing the game, The Monster would dominate the opposition. Pucks would come flying at him, and he’d punch them with his blocker, sending them whirring back to the shooters’ cranium, making them feel like the recipient of a rushed lobotomy. They’d crawl back to the bench like a deer on thin ice. His stick added designer scars to the faces of anyone even trying to screen him. The crease gained an even thicker red boarder painted by the blood of his opponents. If any player took objection to The Monster’s unorthodox approach to minding the net, they’d find out how their bare gums feel on the ice.

What horrified Bolkolak most though was the way that everyone, the coach, the fans, the players encouraged The Monster. Players would simply shrug off whatever he did, always saying, “Glad it’s not us.” Coach would explain that they needed more of whatever The Monster was doing, and the Garden faithful continued to drone out, “M-O-N-S-T-E-R! M-O-N-S-T-E-R!”

This new discomforting brand of adoration followed him even when he was simply on the town. Fans that had respected him like a work of art in a museum now approached him and called out to him as if he was the freaks on display at a local carnival. Everyone just had to talk to, get a picture of, and lay a hand on the The Great Monstrosity of The Soviet Motherland.

He wanted lock himself away forever, shut inside the closet, inside the bedroom, inside his apartment. He thought of tapping on the wall to ask his neighbor to get food and leave it at the door, how great of an existence it could be to never have to speak to a soul in this city again.

Still though, he felt a duty to his team. Without them he would have found himself outside the wall with his bag looking for a new roof to sleep under in West Berlin.

All he had to do was show up to the Garden. He played no part in those games once the puck was dropped and the video screens showed that full moon. He simply rode shotgun in his own mind while The Monster went on joyrides with his body.

Those flashing lights came into the rearview one night in Philadelphia.

The puck never touched the ice. The Flyers’ bench cleared before the ref even had a chance to extend his arm over the faceoff dot. They all drew to Bolkolak like hornets out of a freshly kicked nest. Gloves flew like a flock of disturbed ravens as the Flyers grabbed and pulled at Bolkolak’s jersey ripping layers of equipment off. Some players fancied themselves lumberjacks with their sticks and chopped the slender russian down to the ice, all Philly’s faithful pounded at the glass with a new level of ferocity.

The glass was tested.

It failed.

The Rangers might have been able to save their favorite Russian import, but a swath of sick, drunk, animalistic, Philadelphians, had them restrained to the bench, and then retreating to their locker room.

Bolkolak screamed in pleaded, first in English, but then immediately defaulting back to Russian as the Flyers scraped his face using foil that their applied between their knuckles just for tonight. Through the pain he tried to envision the full moon, to simply form it in his mind’s eyes. Perhaps that could be enough to draw out the monster so it could save him.

It didn’t.

Instead Bolkolak would be entirely conscious as those toothless frizzy-haired freaks in the orange jerseys pressed their knees against his skull, grinding his face into the ice.

Their own goalie, who had spent this entire time sitting atop the crossbar of his net, began to skate over. His chalky white mask covered all but his eyes, which had no light left in them. They had to be this way for what he had to resigned himself to do once the warmups ended. The fans all parted like the red sea to let him over, applauding him as if they already could imagine what was happening. He Shedded pads and gear as he made his way across the ice, leaving a trail of equipment in his wake. The trapper, the stick, his blocker, and those bulky leg pads. The one part of equipment that wasn’t behind him, but instead in front of him was his skate, freshly sharpened as he held it in his hand, the blade reflecting his expressionless mask on one side, and Bolkolak’s despairing face on the other.

All he could hope for at this point was that his end would greet him as swiftly as it did to French nobles during the revolution. Instead though, his neck became thoroughly with acquainted with the sensations of a tree as it’s chopped and hacked at, its sap staining the surface below as the blade saws away at all that supports it. The life squirts out of him with each drop of blood.

Once Bolkolak’s head was finally severed strand by strand of skin. It was paraded amongst the Philly faithful as if the mortified face now permanently etched on the head was the same Monster that cost them so many crucial victories.

They encased the head in the ice under the crease, cursed to eternally watch over the area that he used to rule over, but blessed to never rot, just like Lenin in his mausoleum.

A shame though, of all the nights that this had to occur, this was the only time a full moon was out.

If you liked this story go find Phil on twitter or insta and tell him it ruled!

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