“Hat Trick in the Box”
(Please note: Just about everything in this story is highly fictional, with the exception of the remark about Kermit the Frog.)
Giovanni was the best skater in the 11-12 year-old division of the Huskies youth ice hockey league. He was conspicuous by virtue of his white helmet and his white skates, but his talent for smoothness on the ice drew the eyes of all the spectators sitting or standing in the cold bleachers of the rink. Although he was humble and was not the leading scorer on the team, he was arguably its spark plug, and his teammates had no choice but to hit him with the nickname “Geno” after the Penguins’ Malkin.
I had been Geno’s pediatrician since he fittingly came out kicking at birth, along with his older brother, Vincenzo, who was so tall and slim and fast that the district’s cross-country coaches showered him with too much praise for him to refuse running for them. I was also doctor to three other players on the Huskies: “Slick Nick,” who, although he was short and would be a “late bloomer,” could stickhandle to make you dizzy; Jonathan, nicknamed “Toe” (or Toews by his coaches) because he got an ingrown toenail on the first day of practice caused by wearing skates that were too small for his rapidly-growing, pre-adolescent feet; and the young genius Dalton, who had asthma, but was lovingly called “Big D” because he excelled at throwing his brawny body in front of slap shots during power plays — and clinching victories, I might add. They were all the kind of devoted, fun-loving kids you wished were your nephews, or even your own sons.
So when Geno’s mother called the office on the Friday afternoon before the semi-final championship game with the Foxes about a knee laceration sustained from falling onto a garbage can at school, my immediate response was “come right over—much is at stake!” Luckily the wound was superficial and was easily managed by glue and an ace bandage — so simple that the visit allowed for friendly chat.
“Nervous about the game tomorrow, Geno?” I asked. “This injury shouldn’t hold you back.”
Geno shook his head but smiled in a way that I interpreted as “sure.” His eyes were dark, almost black, but seemed to emit beams of light when he smiled (which was most of the time when I talked to him). I continued:
“I bet you guys win — remember, the “Faceoff” newspaper article praised the Huskies as ‘a cohesive unit that wins because every member of the team shares in the victory.’ And since I’m gluing you back together every member of the team should be there to celebrate the victory.”
Geno’s smile intensified — again, he communicated with his eyes. Then, I mistakenly tried to be funny. “But if you lose, you’ll have to switch to cross-country like Vincenzo. I’ll buy you the famous book Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” (Actually, it’s about a British teenage star runner who is so angry at his schoolmaster, and at society in general, that he throws a championship race for spite. He gets himself expelled, I think, but his classmates all love him. It’s more of a social commentary — a point of view.) My attempts at “gallows humor” were successful: we all laughed, and Geno’s eyes emitted stronger beams of light.
“See you tomorrow!” I quipped as they exited.
The game day mood was, at first, full of anticipatory excitement. Geno’s dad, who was assistant coach, took a great photo of my three loyal patients. But there was no sight of “Big D.” After news circulated that Dalton had suffered a severe asthma attack overnight and was home in bed recovering — barely escaping hospitalization — the mood became more guarded. I settled down in the bleachers and greeted the parents. The younger siblings of two of the Huskies were sitting below me. Unexpectedly, they turned around, looked at me, and laughed to each other. “That’s my doctor up there” the older one said. “Doesn’t he look like Kermit the Fwog!” I blew it off as comic relief.
Midway through the first period, “Toe” scored on a crafty centering pass from Geno following a steal by “Slick Nick.” The 1-0 lead lasted until 10:14 of the final period when a series of events occurred like nothing I had ever previously seen or heard of. First, Geno was penalized for tripping — an obvious call. With 10:02 left, “Slick Nick” pulled down an opponent in front of the cage and joined Geno in the penalty box, prompting a parent to protest so adamantly that he was sent packing by the refs. At 9:48, “Toe” was called for slashing — as if under telepathic influence — and headed to the box without argument. Three in the penalty box and no “Big D” on the ice to throw himself in front of the puck. A 5-on-2 advantage — almost unheard of at any level of the sport. Heads hanging in the penalty box with eyes fixed on their skates — no beams of light. Three easy power play goals for the Foxes held up for the victory—and the championship. No trophy, banner, or Stanley Cup replica for the Huskies.
The somber mood following the loss was broken by the dismissal of the Huskies from the locker room. “Tough loss.” “You all played your hearts out.” Other euphemisms. When Geno appeared (he usually was last man out) his black eyes were welled with tears. Our eyes met for a flash, but he immediately evaded any condolences from me. Was Geno the perpetrator of a conspiracy to throw the game? He loved the coach, and so did the other two who pulled off the well-executed fatal “hat trick.” I felt shame and confusion as I left the rink and headed to the local Barnes and Noble, wondering how much it would cost.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I never bought the book. And, very sadly, I never saw Geno again. But I did find out what became of him. His family had to move to Chicago because of a hasty and obligatory job transfer. But by that time the motive of the “Three in the Box” had come to light. When “Big D” followed up in office later that week for his asthma attack, he disclosed it all. “The team could not bear to win the championship without me playing,” the highly intelligent boy explained. “Remember, we only win when every member of the team shares in the victory. Even though I am the slowest skater on the team because of my size, the trophy would have been meaningless if I had not also been there to skate around with it. I’m not 100% sure but I would bet that Geno put the others up to it — he was our leader and one of my best friends.” I then realized that he was indeed correct. “You’re not the slowest player on the team, Dalton, you’re the smartest — smarter than most adults,” I argued.
Certainly smarter than me. I really was as myopic as Kermit the Frog. But what a masterpiece they had pulled off: a hat trick in the penalty box! And for what a motive! A lesson in courage and team spirit and selfishness from a trio of twelve year olds. A social commentary of the highest order.
Like I said, I never saw Geno again—at least in person. But he did send me a short note after he settled down in Chicago:
“Thanks for coming to our games. Sorry we lost. Here is a picture for you. Please don’t forget us. Your friend, Giovanni.”
No way does one forget a “hat trick in the penalty box.” Or the boy with the eyes that beam from the heart of Lord Stanley.