NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Form of Standard Club Rules.
Players are required to wear jackets, ties and dress pants to all Club games and while traveling to and from such games unless otherwise specified by the Head Coach or General Manager.
Nico couldn't relax. Not even in the incredibly comfortable chair on the chartered jet.
He was dead tired. Two days of gruelling practice had taken everything out of him, and the big game against Pittsburgh was looming on the horizon. Tomorrow, he'd play his first NHL game as the starting goaltender, against one of the best teams in the league. He felt the pressure on his shoulders, and it weighed him down.
He needed to do well. Failure was never an option, but tomorrow even less so. If there was ever a time to shine, tomorrow was it.
It was weird, playing against a team he'd been supporting for ages. He still remembered when the Pegasi had won the cup a few years ago, and how he'd screamed so loud in front of his TV that his neighbours had come to check up on him.
Next to him, Grace was watching a movie on his tablet—or, at least, that's what Nico had thought, right up until he'd glanced over and saw that it wasn't a movie but a Pegasi game.
It frankly amazed Nico just how much Grace put into hockey. He was deadly serious about it. Even when his teammates were joking around on the plane, reading books and watching movies, Grace was preparing for the game tomorrow. The past few days in the locker room, everyone had been shooting the shit while they'd been getting dressed, but not Grace. Grace had been quiet, and whenever he had spoken, he'd only talked about the game, or how practice had gone.
When Nico glanced over again, a knot began to form in his stomach. The Pegasi were good, so good it was almost scary. Their top line was so tuned in to one another, they didn't need to ask each other for the puck—they simply knew when to pass, and how. Goalies didn't stand a chance.
On Grace's screen, the Pegasi's number 27 scored a goal, a beautiful wrist shot, right through the goalie's five-hole. He made it look effortless, almost sexy, and Nico dreaded everything about him.
"You're going to have to watch out for him," Grace said, pulling out one of his earbuds. His eyes didn't leave the screen. "He's dangerous… You can never tell where he's going to shoot. He doesn't telegraph his moves."
Nico nodded, following 27 on the screen as he skated past the bench, smiling cockily. "I know. I've watched a few of their games," he said, voice quiet.
Did professional hockey players have a team they rooted for, other than their own? Could he safely admit he was—had been—a huge Pegasi fan? Was that a smart thing to do, considering he was now a part of the team that was the other half of the biggest rivalry in hockey?
"That's good," Grace said, much to Nico's relief. "That means you're not going in blind."
He supposed Grace had a point there. He'd watched more than enough games to know that the Pegasi's danger came from their unpredictability, their fast play, and their hockey smarts. He knew he shouldn't let his guard down, not even for a second. There was no safety when it came to the Pegasi.
On Grace's screen, number 27 scored again. Hats rained down on the ice as 27 slid down the ice on his knees in celebration.
Nico's stomach churned. Grace was right, he really needed to watch out for that one. He completely understood the gloomy atmosphere that had hung over the locker room like a thick blanket for the past few days every time someone had so much as mentioned the Pegasi. It was hard to muster up any positivity when the Pegasi had a clear advantage over them—their star winger, unpredictable, and as fast as raging water.
Number 27, Percy Jackson.
A bus was waiting for them on the tarmac. All Nico had to do was move from the plane to the bus, and the rest was taken care of. He didn't have to drag his bag over to the bus, or do any of the things he'd usually have to do himself. It was rather strange, but he could definitely get used to not having to lug a heavy, smelly bag everywhere.
After leaving for the hotel, he learned that Grace had volunteered to be his roommate on the road. He didn't quite understand that one, since anyone who wasn't a rookie was entitled to a room of their own, but he wasn't going to complain. He supposed Grace considered showing him the ropes was part of his duties as captain. Besides, there were only a few rookies on the team, and one of them was Markowitz, and he was pretty sure he wouldn't survive if he had to spend nights cooped up with him; the guy never stopped talking.
Nico's eyes nearly fell out of his head when they got to the hotel. It was fancy. It had been a long time since Nico had lived in comfort, so the upgrade was definitely nice. The room wasn't as fancy as he thought it was going to be when they'd walked through the expensively decorated lobby and hallways—just a room with two double beds and a bathroom - but it was still a hell of a lot nicer than his loft full of thrift store furniture back home.
Grace proved to be a seasoned veteran when it came to traveling. After getting to their room, he opened his suitcase and went to the closet to hang up both his suits. He brought his toiletries to the bathroom, put his glasses on the nightstand, like he'd done it a thousand times before. He probably had.
Nico felt a little awkward. He'd packed his nicest jeans, a wrinkled button-up that had passed the sniff test he'd found in the back of his closet, and a pair of sneakers, which he left in his bag, too embarrassed to put them next to Jason's expensive leather shoes. Somewhere in there was his toothbrush, and he was banking on the hotel providing soap and shampoo. Still, he felt vastly underprepared. Grace was going to give him an inferiority complex.
"Where's your suit?" Grace asked, putting his suitcase at the foot of the bed. "You should hang it up before it gets wrinkled and Brunner gives you hell for it."
Nico wrung his hands, smiling sheepishly. "I don't have one."
"Well, then I guess we're going shopping," Grace said, grabbing his coat. "You need a suit."
"I need one?"
Grace nodded. "Didn't read the paperwork, did you? It's in the team regs. We wear a suit to and from the game. No exceptions."
The awkwardness was palpable. Grace must have thought him an idiot, because he didn't look too impressed. Yeah, he'd been given a stack of paperwork, which he'd used as a coaster for his beer after getting home from his first practice. He'd skimmed through it, but apparently he'd missed the part about the suits not being optional.
"Okay," he said quietly, getting up and grabbing his wallet and his coat. He didn't particularly want to go shopping, didn't want to spend money, didn't want Grace to find out that his current bank balance was just shy of two hundred dollars. At least he should be able to get a suit for less than that—he'd just have to watch what he ate for the rest of the month, or until his first paycheck came in.
They took a cab, and all of Nico's hopes of having money left for food faded when it stopped in front of a far too fancy-looking store; one of those places that looked like you had to pay to even set foot inside.
He got nervous. There was no way he was able to afford anything here. Even a shirt would probably bankrupt him. There had been a time when he'd moved through shops like these with ease, laughing and chasing after his sister while his father got a suit measured, but he'd left that life behind. Now, he was quietly hoping that the ground would swallow him up before his card got declined.
They were greeted by a sharply dressed man, who introduced himself as the head stylist, and no less than fifteen minutes later, Nico was on top of a small platform, with the stylist measuring his entire body.
He'd expected Grace to sit down in a nearby chair and pull out his phone or something, but he was hovering around the stylist, making suggestions, and looking through the shirts on the racks, occasionally bringing them out for Nico to look at.
"You represent the team, so you need to look well," he said, smiling. Nico wanted to rip the smile off his face. It was easy for Grace to look great. He could show up to a game wearing a burlap sack and he'd probably still look better than the rest of the team.
After having his measurements taken, they browsed the racks together for a jacket and dress pants. Nico didn't even bother looking at the ones with fancy or weird patterns on them. If he needed to wear a suit, fine, but he wasn't going out there looking like a fashion victim. He'd set his eyes on a simple, black suit, and was pulling it off the rack when Grace stopped him.
"It's a hockey game, not a funeral," he said, holding up a navy blue jacket to Nico's chest. "I like this one."
"Oh, great, navy," Nico grumbled. "It matches yours. We can be twinsies, how fun."
Jason wasn't too impressed with his grumbling, simply putting the navy suit back and holding up a deep charcoal grey one. "This one," he said, and his tone implied he wasn't going to argue.
Nico caught a glimpse of the price tag, his stomach twisting into knots. Even without the alterations, the jacket alone cost twice what he had in the bank.
He sighed deeply. "Just put it back," he said quietly, not wanting the stylist to overhear. "It's not like I can even afford anything in here anyway. Last week, I was still working at Target. I don't have the money for this." He felt small admitting it, even though it was common knowledge. Nobody had given him shit for it, but he knew he wasn't able to keep up with the rest of the team. He didn't have a tablet to watch movies on the plane. He didn't have the latest model smartphone. He didn't have a fancy car—the team had provided a rental for him, but it was just a compact.
"I know that," Grace said, holding up the suit again. "Which is why I'm fronting you the money." When Nico opened his mouth to protest, he simply shook his head. "I don't want to hear it. Paychecks come in next week, so you can pay me back then."
"I don't want to hear it. Coach is going to yell at you if you're not wearing a suit tomorrow," he said. "We're getting you one."
Nico nodded dumbly. There was no arguing with this guy. Grace wasn't going to take no for an answer, and he didn't want to make a scene in the store.
It took some time before they found a simple white shirt to go with his suit. Nico expected them to walk out of the store, but Jason had laughed and told him the suit would need alterations. The stylist promised them that the suit would be ready by morning, and delivered to his hotel before he'd need it.
"Now we just need shoes," Jason said, handing his credit card to the stylist, before pointing down to Nico's sneaker-clad feet. "Can't wear those under such a beautiful suit."
After buying a pair of black leather shoes that cost way too much, and a team dinner at the hotel, they went back to the room.
While Jason settled on the bed with a book, Nico decided he'd catch an early night. He'd need to be well-rested tomorrow, he'd need every ounce of strength for the game.
Stepping into the bathroom, he rolled his eyes. On one side of the sink, Jason had meticulously laid out his toiletries. While Nico had only brought his toothbrush and an empty tube of toothpaste that he was sure he'd be able to get enough out of to brush his teeth just one more time, Grace had come prepared. Toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, razor, shaving cream. There was a bottle of expensive cologne—of course there was—and a case for his contacts. He had a small tube of skin cream, chapstick, and nail clippers. You'd think they'd be staying gone for weeks, instead of just two nights.
After quickly brushing his teeth, he crawled into bed. "What time do we get up tomorrow?" he asked.
Grace looked up from his book. "We have to be at the rink at ten, so I usually wake up at around seven."
"Seven? Really? That seems excessive."
"I like to hit the gym for an hour every morning," Jason said. "Want to come with?"
"Pass. I'm going to catch all the sleep I can."
"That's fine," he said, turning back to his book, though he looked up again a few seconds later. "You know you should probably come work out with us at some point. Team bonding, you know? If you need your sleep, that's fine, but you're going to hit a wall if you don't put in your exercise."
"Yeah…" Nico nodded and rolled over, pulling the sheets up. He was already worried enough he wouldn't be able to sleep—exercise would have to wait for another day.
Nico put his mask up and blew out a breath. The morning skate hadn't been super intense, but he was dead tired. His nerves had kept him up for most of the night, and when he'd finally fallen asleep, Grace's alarm had woken him up after what felt like only five minutes. He'd managed to catch another hour of sleep after that, but when Grace had come back from the gym, Nico had woken up again.
He was thankful Hedge had allowed him to skip answering questions for the media. He was already more than nervous enough, thank you very much.
When they finally piled into the bus to head back to the hotel, he had trouble staying awake, and if his exhaustion hadn't prevented it, he'd have jumped for joy when Grace told him they'd go for a nap as soon as they got to the hotel.
He finally felt rested by the time he woke up. He'd been so tired not even his nerves could have kept him awake, though they came back in full force the moment he sat up and rubbed his eyes.
When Grace woke up a short while later, Nico was still sitting on the edge of the bed, staring blankly ahead of him. Why did he think he could do this? He wasn't a professional and later he'd surely be exposed, in front of thousands of people, and even more watching at home. Hockey at this level wasn't just a game, it was a business, and he was nothing but an impostor. These games weren't for fun. The difference between a win and a loss wasn't getting a free beer at the bar or having to buy his own, it was about millions of dollars and a race for the sport's greatest prize.
"You okay, buddy?" Grace asked, stretching out.
Nico shook his head. "I can't do this," he said quietly. "I'm not like you. I'm just an amateur—"
"Hey," Grace said. "Look at me."
Nico didn't lift his head. He needed everything but an inspirational captainly pep talk right now.
"It's pregame jitters," Grace said. "We all have them."
Nico scoffed, but Grace got off the bed and kneeled in front of him. "Do you really think we all started out with confidence? You think we don't worry about not being good enough every time we step out onto that ice?" He shook his head. "I can't speak for the other guys, but I know I do."
Nico caught Jason's eyes, bright, and blue, and full of sincerity.
"Why do you think the locker room has been doom and gloom for the last couple days? We're all worried. Yeah, even me, but don't tell that to the other guys." Grace smiled. "You're new. Nobody's expecting you to beat the best team in the league on your first game. And we're going to have your back. Before they get to you, they'll have to go through us first."
Nico nodded slowly. It made sense, but he found it difficult to believe that guys who had played hundreds of games would still be nervous. They knew they were good, and had million dollar paychecks to show for it.
"Just try to have fun tonight," Grace said, getting to his feet. "Dr. Solace can help you with some breathing exercises. I've heard yoga helps, too. Yang and Fletch do it."
"Yang does yoga? Sherman I-will-knock-all-your-teeth-out Yang?"
Grace laughed. "That one. You're going to be fine. Now come on, put your suit on, or we're going to be late. You do not want Hedge to yell at you for being late."
Nico nodded slowly and opened the fancy bag that had gotten delivered to the hotel room while they'd been out for the morning skate.
A little while later, he buttoned his shirt up, standing in front of the mirror. He'd had to borrow Grace's spare belt (of course he'd bring a spare), and Grace had made him use some fancy-smelling wax to slick his hair back, but judging by Grace's smile, he looked decent.
He went to put his jacket on, but Grace stopped him. "I got a little something for you," he said, handing Nico a small, fancy bag from the shop they'd gotten the suit at the day before.
Nico opened it and found a deep red tie inside, and he smiled faintly. A tie. Of course he also had to wear a tie. At least it was a nice one. "Thanks," he muttered.
After putting the tie on—and letting Grace fix the knot—he put his jacket on and headed out of the room.
He followed Grace down the hallway to the elevator, and he couldn't help but feel a little more at ease. Million dollar business or not, hockey was a game. He'd managed fine so far just doing what he did, and having fun with it. There was no denying that the skill level was much higher in the NHL, but no matter what he'd do, he couldn't give it more than his all.
He felt better knowing that even hockey's greatest promises were still nervous. Grace seemed so calm and collected, so confident in his team, but he guessed it was part of being captain. Grace was supposed to be the rock, the one who took the team on his shoulders if their confidence wavered. None of that had really mattered in his beer league, but Nico was starting to understand the importance of that job at this level of play.
A few of the guys greeted them as they piled into an elevator, and Nico took a deep breath. In a few hours, he'd be on the ice, opposite the Pegasi, opposite Percy Jackson.
The odds were stacked against them, but he would try his damnedest to show them what he was made of.
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