Monday, July 13, 2009

17: My Surprise

Usually, traffic was backed up before the Squirrel Hill tunnels, but upon driving through, the lanes opened up and it was smooth sailing to Pittsburgh. I never understood that. I mean, I know that people were hesitant to pass through the tunnels, but wouldn't they rather speed through them instead of prolonging the tension by driving slowly?

However, traffic didn't clear up once I made it through the tunnel. The going was slow the whole way into Pittsburgh, but at least I didn't have to rely on my directions. I went with the flow of traffic, which took me straight to Mellon Arena. I had to park in the East Lot, since everything else was full. Checking the time, I saw it was 6:30. The game started at 7:30, so everyone must have gotten there ridiculously early.

I stepped out of the car and smoothed out my jersey. Now where did Sid tell me to go? The main gate. Which one's the main gate? I noticed they were numbered, so I walked to the first gate and hoped that I had chosen the right one. Patiently, I waited in line until it was my turn at the box office.

"Um, hi. My name is Noelle Lambert." As I said my name, I realized that Sidney probably didn't know my last name. "I'm supposed to have a ticket waiting for me?" It came out more like a question than a statement. As excited as I was for the game, I wished that I could have found someone to come with me. I have plenty of friends, but their schedules are so dense compared to mine that it's impossible to get together with any of them without planning weeks in advance. Having to go through this new experience alone made me anxious. I hate not knowing what I'm doing or what's expected of me.

The lady in the booth smiled at me, knowing something I didn't. "I have your ticket, Ms. Lambert. I just need to see photo I.D." I dug into my purse for my wallet and handed her my awful license. "I have a pass for you, too, and if you wait for an escort, we'll get you in the lounge."

"A pass?"

My voice squeaked, and the lady in the booth smiled again. She passed a ticket and the hockey equivalent of a backstage pass to me under the glass. "If you wait over there," she instructed, pointing towards an empty hallway, "I'll have someone over to meet you in a moment."

"Thanks," I said. I took what she offered and walked like a zombie to the vacant threshold. Then I remembered that Sidney had told me about a surprise. This must be it.

A burly security specialist walked over to me. "Ms. Lambert?" I nodded. "Follow me, and I'll take you to the lounge." I nodded again, and followed brainlessly. My mind was everywhere at once. I was so excited that I thought I would burst from sheer anticipation. My eyes flitted everywhere, trying to take in everything so I would never forget it. Soon, I was walking through a door opened just for me. This must be the lounge for family and the players. First, I saw Véro. We squealed and rushed together, hugging and trying to catch up in five seconds after being apart for five weeks. Then, I was being pulled into another hug by Max.

"Hey, Noelle," he said. "Number twenty-five looks good on you."

"Hi, Max. How are you doing. How's your shoulder?"

"Good, I should be able to play in a month, as long as rehab keeps progressing as well as it is."

"That's great! You know, tonight's game won't be quite as exciting without you," I commented.

"Is that so?" a familiar voice said behind me.

"Hi Sidney," I said, turning around and hugging him also. He was half-dressed in his hockey gear, wearing his hockey pants, shin guards, and skates. Our hug was awkward, since he was so much taller than me with the addition of skates to his height. "I can't believe you got me back here, this is so nice."

"Well, I'm glad you like the lounge, but would you like to see the dressing room?" he asked.

"The dressing room? Aren't the rest of the players in there getting ready?"

"Yeah. We're getting ready to go warm-up before the game, so we need to get in there now if you want to meet the guys."

"Meet them?" I was so giddy that I frightened even myself. I wanted to jump up and down with excitement. How did I manage to contain myself?

"Well, yeah. Unless, of course, you don't want to."

"No!" I practically screamed. "I mean, I would love that very much. But isn't this going to screw up with the pregame routine? I don't want to be blamed for a loss."

Sidney laughed. "No, I'll just make some quick introductions. Is there anyone in particular you'd like to meet?"

I knew my eyes lit up before I could try to mask my elation. "Um, not really...."

He laughed again. "I know you well enough to know that's a lie. Come on, tell me, or else we may skip over him."

I diverted my gaze to the floor. "Well, as much as I want to meet everyone—and I mean everyone—I would love to meet, um, Craig Adams."

That garnered an odd look from Sidney. "Really? Craig Adams? You have some weird favorite players."

"Yes," I admitted. "I'm a sucker for those college hockey players. And he went to Harvard. That's kind of a big deal," I said, as if Sidney never knew.

"Well, okay then. Let's go." He placed his hand on my lower back and guided me toward the dressing room. The guys were all in various stages of getting ready for the game. They were all dressed—thank goodness, because I don't know how I would have handled seeing shirtless hockey players—but some still were getting their pads and jerseys on.

I nodded and waved to the players I knew, like Marc-André, Jordan, TK, Evgeni, and Kristopher, as the other players just stared at the odd girl in amongst the team.

"Are you ready?" he leaned down and whispered in my ear as I we stopped in front of Craig's stall. I shook my head, but that didn't stop Sid, his hand still on my back. "Hey, Craig, I'd like you to meet my friend Noelle."

When those gorgeous green eyes met mine, I almost melted. I was so overwhelmed that I couldn't stand up straight, and I felt Sidney's strong hand steady me. Again, I was speechless.

"Hi, Noelle, it's nice to meet you."

"It's so nice to meet you," I gushed. "Good luck tonight."

"Doofy, what are you doing?" We turned to the man that interrupted my introduction and looked at Bill Guerin, who was observing our exchange with his signature partially-toothless grin. "Bringing girls into the sacred male dressing room before a game is a no-no."

"Bad Ass Billy G," I said, still in awe. I was floored. Was I dreaming?

"You must be Noelle," he concluded, and he held out his hand. I shook it, and then he pulled his black jersey over his head. If Bill knew who I was, Sidney must have talked about me. Did he mention to the guys he'd be bringing me down before the game? My stomach flip-flopped at the idea that I was locker room talk.

Someone yelled at Sid for not being ready yet, and he left to finish putting on his pads. When he was gone, I took the initiative to find out exactly what was said about me. "So, Sidney must have told you that I was coming down before the game."

"No, he didn't. He just talked about this Noelle girl constantly at training camp. It was quite annoying, actually. Noelle this, Noelle that. And not to mention, he's never brought anyone to the dressing room before a game, so I figured you had to be important. I'm old, but I'm not dumb." That smile was still on his face, and I was glad to know he found this situation humorous.

I laughed, his smile contagious. Bill Guerin had a great personality, and he was just as crucial to the team off the ice as on. Now, I could see why. "Well, I'm sorry if I made your time at training camp unbearable. I assure you, I didn't have anything to do with it."

"No, it was good to see Doofy acting his age. As obnoxious as it was to listen to him talk about you, it was better than his incessant hockey talk. I should be thanking you." I blushed, felt my temperature rise, and suddenly felt exposed, as if everyone's eyes were on me. Why did I feel like I was going to throw up? Bill looked at me with knowing eyes, reading my thoughts. It's like he knew that tidbit of information both thrilled and terrified me. He smiled, and placed his hand on my shoulder. "Don't worry about it, and just enjoy the game."

Head Coach Dan Bylsma walked into the dressing room, telling the guys to get ready for the pregrame warm-ups. That is, until he saw me.

"Sorry, Coach," Sidney said, walking over to me and tugging on my hand. By now he was fully dressed for the game, except for the gloves and helmet. He pulled me out of the dressing room. It was strange to see him, in person, dressed as the man I always saw on my television screen. To me, he said, "I wish we had more time—"

"I'm sorry, I got out of work early, but traffic was bad—"

"—I was going to introduce you to everyone, but we've got to get on the ice."

"It's okay, this was amazing," I gushed. "But I'd better go find my seat."

At that, Sid smiled as wide as the Chesire cat. "Go find Max. He'll take you to your seat."

"But isn't he going to be watching the game from the box, like most players on the injured list do?"

"Not tonight. He'll be watching the game with you."

As if on cue, Max popped his head into the dressing room. "Come on, Noelle, we'd better get out there."

I hugged Sidney, or should I say, I hugged his bulky pads. "I can't possibly thank you enough." He smiled and turned, joining the guys as they prepared to go out on the ice for their brief warm-ups. I knew that they would come back into the dressing room, and then be introduced, one by one, before the start of the game. Max offered me his arm. "So, let's go find our seats." I pulled out my ticket and looked for the seat number. "Do you know where section A21 is?"

"Yes. Just follow me." Max was dressed smartly, in a pair of dark wash jeans and a black sweater. I noticed he pulled a Pens cap over his eyes.

"Why are you hiding under that hat?"

"Usually, the players don't sit with the fans. I don't know how they'll react."

"I'm sure everyone will be watching the game. No one will even notice."

Max handed our tickets to an usher, who scanned them and pointed us in the right direction, but Max already knew where he was going. I followed his lead. We passed section after section, and I kept expecting him to turn off into one of the rows. We kept going until finally, we were on level with the ice and seated right behind the glass.

"Holy shit." I was stunned. The players were warming up, and they were right there. Only the boards separated us from the action.

"It's nice, eh?" asked Max.

"Nice, this is absolutely incredible!" I was so wound up that I could barely stay in my seat.

"The guys are going to shoot twice on this side, so hopefully you'll get to see The Kid score a goal up close." He pointed across the ice. "We also get to see the bench from this side, too."

"I can't believe this. Sidney said he was going to get me good seats, but this is incredible."

"Well, you said you've never seen a game before. And nothing compares to being on the glass. Guys will be checked into the boards right in front of us, and you'll think the puck is going to fly up and hit you. It's like you're right in the game."

"Oh man, I owe Sid big time for this," I thought aloud, fascinated as I watched the guys skate around and stretch on the ice. Wow, I loved watching them stretch.

"I think Sid's betting on that."

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