day their assistant coach died was like any other winter
day in Montreal. The sky was gray. The temperature was more than eight
degrees below zero and
more than twenty below with the wind chill factor. The wind, coming off
the river, bit through all layers of clothing right to the skin, forcing
everyone to stay indoors and underground. It was the ordinary sort of Canadian
February day that makes you wish you were two or three thousand miles south,
at least, even if it means being in the United States of America. The players
recall the day as grayer and cloudier than any day Montreal had ever known.
They remember the cold as colder and the wind crueler. It was not. It was
an ordinary day, an ordinary practice, an ordinary race that resulted in
the extraordinary death of a remarkable man.
The players remember various details and coincidences and events, some better than others; and from their retelling, it is possible to imagine what may have actually occurred in the Forum that day. What is there to say when such a man as Joss dies so young, so unexpectedly, so foolishly? What words can describe the sadness and grieving? The players remember Joss alive. And Sam, who remembers out loud mostly how guilty he feels, can tell of a young Joss, very different from the man the players knew. Sam said at Joss’ retirement, "I’m a better man to have Joss as my closest friend; I’ll be much the worse when he goes away." And it’s true. Sam is less cheerful, less calm, less easy going, less nice, since Joss’ death. It is hardly possible to mention Joss in Sam’s presence without bringing tears to the coach’s eyes and voice. Sam’s wife, Nancy, explains it with a wave of her hand, "It took nineteen years to bind them like that. I expect it to take at least that long for Sam to get over Joss’s death."
Charlie, Joss’s eldest boy, says that he still wakes up sometimes at night and is sure he hears his father’s key in the door, his mother getting up to be with Joss. You may remember the funeral, where nearly five thousand mourners, friends, acquaintances, hockey players, both active and retired, and fans, stood and listened to the eulogies and watched as they buried Joss. Though the day was bitterly cold and the funeral long, the people stood quietly, orderly, and walked away when it was done, singing "O’ Canada" softly, softly, in French.
Sophia remembers only pieces and snatches of the funeral, but years afterward, when she thought she could bear it, Sophia made Nancy tell her about it in vivid detail. "Were there really thousands of people?" Sophia kept asking, as Nancy described everything that happened. Sam had described Joss’ death for Nancy, but Sophia did not want to hear about that. And, indeed, even when they held a memorial night in the Forum for Joss, Sophia didn’t go and has never set foot in the Forum since Joss’ death. "It would be too much," she says. But Nancy suspects that one day Sophia will realize that the Forum was also where Joss’ public triumphs were, where he was beloved, where fans called out "Re-mee, Re-mee, Re-mee!" over and over, when Joss would make the spectacular plays and moves he was well-known for. Nancy suspects that Sophia will one day go there again and watch the team that was Joss’ pride and love, go and watch them play, go and remember the Canadiens as they were when Joss played and coached. Sophia still looks at their second son, Aaron, and sees in him an exact replica of Joss, down to the smile and sound of his voice, and gets a catch in her throat. Sometimes, Sophia says, now that Aaron is a grown man, she thinks it’s Joss walking into the house for a second when she sees Aaron walk in from school.
But it is Jude who is the most difficult to bear, for Jude is a hockey player and a good hockey player and, one day, will be a great hockey player. When Sophia has gone to watch his games and Jude makes a great check or goal or pass and the game is coming to an end, the crowd will yell "Re-mee, Re-mee, Re-mee!" and Sophia can close her eyes and imagine it’s for Joss; that Joss is alive and growing old with her, that he sees their three children grow into men, that he will sleep beside her that night or phone her from wherever he is, that she will hear his voice, that he will say all the things she waits to hear, every night, every day, since his death.
Since they’d been roommates? Since they’d won the championship? Sam couldn’t remember exactly when they’d begun to race down those last twenty-four steps to the concrete floor of the Forum as they arrived for practice. It was always a stupid thing to do. Often, one of them or the other would fall and bruise or sprain some vital part and unwilling to admit they’d been stupid, would practice and that night play hockey anyway. When Joss became Sam’s assistant coach, Joss began to let Sam win the race, but winning wasn’t important. The race was. The players loved to watch them race before practice. It was Sam’s only silliness. Their coach was very stern and very serious. Sam was a terrific coach and the players respected him and were awed by him. Joss made Sam go easy, take a breath before shouting. Joss would whisper something to Sam just as Sam was about to give them hell… and Sam would visibly soften and speak to them rationally and calmly. And under their coaching, the players became champions four times, twice in a row. For Sam, they’d play well, like champions, like demons. For Joss, the players would move mountains, scale buildings, put on an extra burst of speed, score an extra goal, play with an injury and break up a fight. The players, when they were going through a bad period, would imitate Joss to each other when he wasn’t around, so as to make themselves feel better. They’d call to each other in that easy-to-mimic style of speaking particular to Joss, that easy mixture of perfect French and perfect English which they all developed after awhile.
Now, they were in the middle of a poor season. Oh, it was fine by most standards, but they’d won the Stanley Cup the year before and people expected more. The team was in a losing streak. They’d lost four in a row at home and six of their last eight games. Sam and Joss drove to practice. Joss twice tried to get Sam to speak or at least slow down. Sam did neither and Joss turned to look out his window and hold on tight. Sam, with brakes screeching, stopped at the guard window to the Forum garage and winked at Louis. Louis opened the gate and Sam sped to his parking space and stopped short, about an inch from the wall.
"I don’t want to die aujoud ‘hui," Joss said sarcastically to Sam. Sam didn’t answer. "Sammy?"
"What’s with you, huh? You tried to get us killed two or three times on the way here. What’s up?"
"Nothing. Everything. I hate losing."
"Upstairs, they want a change. Either I go or you go. Someone…"
"They hate losing."
"Six games. Four cups aren’t enough? We bring pride back au Canada. On joie au hockey en Montreal again? That’s not assez?"
"What have you won today? That’s what they ask."
"Yeah." The two of them sat staring at Sam’s name printed in red on the garage wall.
"We better go in," Joss said after a while. Sam nodded and they got out of the car. Joss slung ice skates over his left shoulder and picked up a bag off the floor. He caught up with Sam at the entrance and grinned widely at Sam. Sam smiled softly at Joss.
"Let’s try to be cheerful, okay?" Joss said.
"Cheerful? I’m never cheerful." The two of them laughed and were still laughing when they reached the top of the last tier of steps. The players, hearing them coming, got ready to go into the locker room as soon as the race was over. Race time. They stood up and turned slightly for a good view.
"Bonjour, gentilhommes!" Joss shouted at them. Sam nudged Joss in the ribs with his elbow. They laughed, whispered to one another, pushed and nudged some more, and then suddenly both of them nodded sharply once and began racing down the narrow steps to the floor.
When Joss stepped down wrong, he knew it was trouble. He lost all balance and his foot gave way under him. He twisted around, hoping Sam would catch him. "Shadow! Help!" Joss shouted, so loud it echoed in the Forum long after Joss had hit the floor.
"Chuckie!" Sam gasped out, trying to grab Joss, but losing his balance so he needed his hands to right himself. Joss hit his head hard on two of the steps and landed with a thud and a cracking sound on the concrete Forum floor. Sam ran down the steps. Blood flowed steadily from Joss’ head. Sam shook Joss a little and called his name. Guy Laliene, the team captain, ran to get the trainer. Tony came running but, before he has twenty feet from Joss, he stopped short and screamed to Laurie Kelsy to get an ambulance. Laurie ran off like a bullet. Tony turned around and went to call Jeff Gold, the team doctor. Tony told Jeff to meet them at General. Joss was badly hurt. Jeff didn’t wait to hear what else Tony said.
The ambulance arrived in minutes and Sam and Tony got into the ambulance with Joss. The paramedics worked on Joss. He was unconscious and unrevivable. He was in a coma. They wheeled Joss into the emergency room and made Tony and Sam wait outside. The emergency room is glassed in. Sam and Tony stood watching. In minutes, the emergency waiting room filled with Montreal Canadiens. People recognized them and one little boy asked for an autograph. No one else spoke to them. They looked worried. People wondered why they were there. Jeff ran into the emergency room, looked at the players, looked at Sam, squeezed Tony’s shoulder, and went to look at Joss. They pulled a curtain around Joss’ bed.
"Chuck," Sam said loudly, involuntarily. Suddenly, the curtain swung open. A nurse quickly got a syringe and Jeff injected it directly into Joss’ chest. Nothing. "Joss! Joss! Joss, goddamit! Joss! JOSS!" Jeff began to pound Joss on the chest with his fists. A code blue alarm was sounded in the emergency room. Jeff climbed onto the table, straddling Joss and hitting Joss on the chest and screaming at him. Nurses and doctors had tears in their eyes and tried to calm Jeff down. Jeff slumped over Joss, crying.
Sam sunk to the floor, unable
to keep himself standing. Sam felt as if someone was sucking the life from
him. The players grabbed each other to keep from falling. They sobbed openly.
It was obvious to everyone in the emergency room, then the hospital, then
Montreal, then all of Canada and all of the NHL, that a great man had died.
Joss Remy was dead.