Asia vs Canada, World Juniors’ gold medal game. About eleven minutes remain in the first overtime period of the game, but it’s looking grim for Team Asia. The shot count is 42-22 in favor of Canada, and their pressure shows no signs of slowing. Alexander Pepper stands tall as the only reason Asia has a chance to win the medal, and serves as the last line of defence for the hockey hopes of an entire continent.
The final play begins to develop before his eyes. A bad turnover in the neutral zone results in his former teammate Scott Shawinganen charging forward with the puck. With no white jerseys behind him, it’s a bad breakaway. Scott is over the blue line, charging forward as he hungers to secure a gold medal for his country. With a sigh, Pepper steps up, prepares his stance, and goes through the same motions he’s been going through all week-
There’s an attempt at a deke, but Pepper extends the pad to make the stop. There’s an audible cheer from behind him, but it’s short lived- his spectacular save results in a rebound trickling out to his right. No white jerseys followed Shawinganen into the zone, so nobody is there to clear it out- Roctrion King is there to scoop it up and put it home. 2-1 Canada, the gold medal is retained.
Immediately, Pepper swings to the right and slams his stick against the right post, breaking it in half. He sulks down in the butterfly, his forehead touching the ice while his gloves rise to keep the stadium lights from reaching his eyes. It’s over.
The Canadians celebrate in the corner; Alex feels multiple bodies skate past him or jump over him as they dogpile their overtime hero. The sounds of goal sirens wail in his ears- a jubilant tone for many of those in attendance. For the young goaltender, who just lost out on his last chance for a first place finish at the junior level, they sounded more like the “too bad” jingle from “The Price is Right.”
As cliche as it sounds, mere seconds felt like hours for the goalie who finished in second place. Rewinding the play in his head, he did his best to come up with a post-mortem solution for the allowed goal. It was a fast rebound, yes, but he could have jumped out...could have turned immediately and caught it with a piece of his glove. If he were fast enough, he might have even caught it right in the middle of his chest. Yes, if he had just been a little faster...
Of course, the reality was that he had little chance to stop a quality rebound opportunity. Team Canada had simply taken advantage of a bad turnover by putting themselves in the right place at the right time. By being a better hockey team. At the end of the day, that’s all there was to it, but Pepper wasn’t the type to just brush it aside like that.
The time came to present the medals, and as Team Asia lined up to accept their participation awards, no face was more sullen than that of Alex. When the medal had finally been placed around his neck, it felt like nothing- weightless, much like its impact on his mindset. It meant nothing to the man that had tried and failed to finish on top ever since the start of his professional career.
Yes, Alex has had multiple opportunities to finish what he’d started. His first time participating in the World Juniors’, he’d nearly backstopped Team Asia to a win against the same opponents, and had fallen in a similar fashion. That year, he’d given up six goals in the gold medal game. One year later, with all of his accumulated experience, he’d only given up two. But it wasn’t enough.
His first professional season, playing for the Las Vegas Aces, his team lost a non-competitive series in five games against the eventual champion Ottawa Lynx. They’d only taken one game, and while Pepper had played decently enough during their short playoff run, the Aces’ performance could be called nothing short of pathetic.
But these thoughts had little time to sit with Alex, as the commissioner of the event stepped out onto the ice and began a short speech that prefaced the presentation of the Most Valuable Player award. The words went in one ear and out the other as Pepper stared down at the ice below him- little mattered in his world except getting back to the hotel room. That was, until the words “Alexander Pepper” boomed throughout the small stadium. Immediately, his gaze lifted to look at his teammates, all neatly lined up beside him. Every pair of eyes stared back, some smiling, as his immediate neighbors patted his back and gave him a push forward. The commissioner beckoned him over, and motioned to a small trophy- a star atop a wooden pedestal.
The Canadian-biased audience couldn’t help but boo, but the American goaltender couldn’t hear them as he skated up to accept the award. He shook hands with the commissioner, took a quick picture, and skated back to the rest of the team. With all of the awards presented, the teams retired to their locker rooms, and their night in front of the crowd was finished.
The Asian locker room was dead silent. Any joy they’d strung together from stealing the MVP away from the winning team was quickly nullified as Alex put his earbuds in. With the world around him drowned out, he kept beating the words into himself...
“If only you’d been better...if only you’d been better...”
During the ride back to the hotel, during his shower before bed, while he brushed his teeth and stared into the mirror, the thought refused to go away.
“If only you’d been better...if only you’d been better...”
Now, the thought had trickled in to his VHL performances. Lately, it had been a brutal grind for the rookie netminder- every night was spent on a plane so that he could play hockey the following day. From Helsinki, to St. Paul for the Juniors’, to Riga, to St. Paul, to Helsinki...Pepper hardly found a second to rest. Every night, he was taking upwards of 68 shots, while STILL keeping his team in the game. One of those losses had been in a shootout, after he’d made five saves 1-on-1. Another one, a one goal loss to Quebec City after making over 60 stops.
No matter what he did, it felt like it was never enough.
Both the medal and the trophy sat on his room’s coffee table, next to a duffel bag, a pair of sunglasses, and a Helsinki Titans branded hat. Tomorrow was a new day, with a new game against the high powered offence of the Riga Reign. The shot count would absolutely not be friendly toward his aching, depressed body. And with the weight of losing his last chance at a gold medal on his back, the scoreboard certainly wouldn’t be friendly-looking, either.
“What’s it going to take...” he murmured to himself, drifting off to sleep.
Word count: 1195. Will be claiming for the weeks ending 12/3 and 12/10.
Was feeling inspired, so I tried a little something different. Works out, because my next few weeks are going to be rough with exams. Let me know what you thought, I might take up this style for future media spots, as well.