Saturday, December 14, 2019

Brady Tkachuk Doesn’t Care What You Think

According to the experts in various fields, the unending apocalypse was headed to Ottawa this winter.

In the midst of a particularly nasty election in the fall, the well-coiffed hosts on the Weather Channel kept saying it was going to be a long, cold winter with plenty of the white stuff, allowing for a few corny asides like, “Get those toque’s ready folks” with a forced studio laugh that nobody was buying for a second.

Elgin Street was ripped up and resembled something out of an Italian neo-realist war film, while the city's colossally expensive new LRT was just starting to roll into a two-month PR nightmare that will likely become a case study of crisis management for years to come in the world’s best schools.

Yet, the fine folks of Ottawa have handled worse, considering the city actually burned to the ground once, then watched the Parliament Buildings reduced to cinder in another fire 16 years later. They’ve endured ice storms, lumber gangs, the War Measures Act, sinkholes, the Phoenix Pay System, Mike Duffy and continue to live with Pierre Poilievre pissing in the streets and barking at people.

If you believed the pundits, that was all a minor irritant compared to the incoming train wreck of the 2019-2020 Ottawa Senators hockey team.

One hockey podcast, going team-by-team in their predictions for the upcoming season, just began laughing uncontrollably when it came time to talk about Ottawa. Once they calmed down, one host magnanimously said “Okay, all jokes aside, I guess Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk are relevant. Otherwise, this is going to be a disaster to watch.

You might be able to find a publication that didn’t predict Ottawa to finish last, but you would probably have to leave the continent of North America to hunt it down.

Everybody had their laugh and got in their snarky comments on Twitter, because the world loves a good beat down, especially in sports.

It can now be said, Brady Tkachuk didn’t give a shit.

Neither did new coach D.J. Smith, reclamation project Anthony Duclair, the forgotten J.G. Pageau and local superhero Mark Borowiecki. You can probably count on one hand the number of players who didn’t show up to camp with something to prove to the hockey world.

If this column was a movie, now would be the time to insert a highlight packed montage (to the soothing sounds of Slayer) where we would watch Tkachuk scoring 25 seconds into the season’s first game against the hated Maple Leafs and celebrating directly in the face of Toronto fans. That sort of immediate defiance was like a microcosm of the months to come.

Just as Slayer really dig into Raining Blood, we’d see Borowiecki casually strolling down Vancouver’s Downtown East Side with a shopping bag full of baby onesies, spotting a robbery in progress and then clotheslining the suspect to the pavement and holding him until the baffled cops arrived.

If this were a Western, Borocop would have lit a cigarillo and rode off into the sunset to the next border town while an old, unshaved barkeep stands on the saloon porch watching him go in wonder.

We’d continue with replays of Duclair on the penalty-kill, blowing by a lazy Flyers defense, stealing the puck from goalie Carter Hart and wrapping it into the net for another Senators short-handed goal.

We’d see assistant coach Jack Capuano, whose idea it was in the first place to use the once-maligned winger on the penalty-kill, smiling slightly on the bench, while D. J. Smith continues to furiously chew gum through good times and bad.

The song’s not over yet. We’re just getting to Pageau’s goals in November. In they go, on breakaways, from the slot, from beside the net. It seems ridiculous how many there are, but Pageau just doesn’t stop scoring in every conceivable situation, 11 in total for November alone.

As Slayer chugs to the finish, we need to see more of Brady. Opposing players follow him around the ice just trying to get a piece of him, and if they do, they regret it instantly. Tkachuk suddenly seemed to grow a few inches and 20 pounds over the summer and he’s been using every ounce of it in punishing, devious ways – in front of the net, in the corners, or just standing in front of the other team’s bench, chewing his mouthguard and smiling. It’s like looking directly into the eyes of a Philippine Crocodile who just crawled up into your picnic. You leave the food where it is and back away to your Dodge Caravan very slowly.

We finish with way too handsome goalie Anders Nilsson, who arrived in Ottawa on a last-chance trade after being labelled inconsistent during stints with the Islanders, Oilers, Blues and the Canucks. Just like Craig Anderson, who resurrected his career with the Senators in a similar fashion years earlier, Nilsson has actually won a few games on his own for this team, something that hasn’t happened in Ottawa for quite some time. He looms in the net like a giant statue but suddenly flashes an athletic left pad or glove to stymie chance after opposition chance.

It hasn’t all been highlights of course. The editing room is littered with ugly outtakes and a few dried pools of blood.

The point is nobody gave this team any chance to have a highlight reel at all going into October. On top of that, they’re not close to being the worst team in the NHL. The stats and the eye test both tell that same story.

The once mighty Detroit Red Wings, now led by Ottawa native Steve Yzerman, are painful to watch. Their goal differential hovers around the -60 mark heading into the Christmas season and not even contentious draft pick, Filip Zadina can lift spirits around Hockeytown as he is constantly compared to Tkachuk, the player Ottawa opted for over Zadina despite howls of derision on Twitter that it was the wrong choice. Zadina himself even vowed to “fill the nets” of Montreal and Ottawa with pucks for snubbing him. So far, the nets have been relatively safe from his wrath.

New Jersey is reeling despite the same pundits predicting a playoff team on the rise. Like Ottawa in year’s previous, they are struggling to sign their top player in Taylor Hall and saddled with P.K. Subban’s contract that looked better when they thought of themselves as a contender.

Multiple teams have fired coaches under accusations of inappropriate conduct in what has turned into the NHL’s own PR nightmare that may not have an end if retired players keep coming out of hiding with horror stories.

For once, the Senators are not a part of these headlines. In the past few years, it was a given that the Senators would be rocked by scandal every other week. They know what it’s like to be in that perfect organizational storm and are suddenly enjoying the peace that comes when the gloom passes.

Hell, the players are even smiling now. Sure, there’s more contract headaches on the horizon but those are more opportunities than an existential threat of loss. Guys like Dylan DeMelo and Connor Brown suddenly look like keepers and not just deadline rentals for faceless draft picks.

Duclair has earned his role in the top-six and might even get a payday here, something that seemed very distant when he landed in Ottawa straight out of John Tortorella’s doghouse in Columbus. When other coaches are asked about how they prepare for Ottawa, it actually sounds genuine now when it’s said, “they’re a hard team to play against”.

Suddenly, there’s no more angst to be had (unless you rely on the bus to get to the game) and the jokes have stopped.

This is a team. Maybe not a great team right now, but it’s a team that even has a little charm to it most nights.

At some point the fans are going to realize it and stop covering their eyes. After all, you don’t want to miss Brady Tkachuk’s next game or shift. You never know what’s going to happen. You just know that something WILL happen.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Better Late Than Never For Logan Brown

Check out the latest Black Aces column up at Faces Magazine here.

"The road to the NHL was supposed to be faster for Logan Brown. Like a lot of commuters in Ottawa, he arrived a little late to the office.

Everyone has been waiting for this kid, some more patiently than others. Drafted 11th overall by the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the 2016 draft, Brown was immediately pegged as the big, skilled centre to fill the skates of the departed Jason Spezza. It seems almost ridiculous to suggest a 21-year-old is “late” to make his mark, but today’s NHL is an unforgiving results-now league where high draft picks are expected to arrive more or less All-Star ready.

Brown showed up like most teenagers you know – confident, gangly and a little sleepy...."

Read the entire article here.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Pageau Decision Must Weigh Heavy On Pierre Dorion

Check out the latest Black Aces up at Faces Magazine here.

"Pierre Dorion needs this like he needs a hole in the head.

The Ottawa GM has yet another fan favourite to sign or deal before the trade deadline, and no one is going to forgive him whichever way he chooses, a familiar feeling for the Orleans native.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau, the locally born draft steal who has the distinct privilege of having his name sung by fans whenever he scores a big goal, needs a new contract or a new postal code and nobody seems to know what Dorion should do about it...."

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

No One In Ottawa Feeling Sorry For Leafs Woes

The latest Black Aces column is up at Faces Magazine. Read it here.

"Let’s call it an “involuntary compulsion”.

Hockey fans in Ottawa always seem to have one squinty eye on the blue and white team down the 401, a glittering city that’s four and a half hours away by car but just a quick step or two away via memory lane.

The history between the Maple Leafs and the Senators is ugly and traumatic. Ottawa was always on the wrong end of multiple playoff battles, but skirmishes have been won by both sides along the way. Just a cursory glance uncovers a seamy underbelly of drama and irrational behavior that would seem almost barbaric if it were to happen in today’s NHL of concussion spotters and civilized discourse.

Yet some things never really change....."

Read the full column here.

Friday, October 25, 2019

No One Ever Said This Would Be Easy

Check out the latest Black Aces column at Faces Magazine here.

“Tough start” doesn’t begin to describe how painful this has been for D.J. Smith as he begins his NHL head coaching career in Ottawa.

Maybe a better phrase would be “surgery without anesthesia”.

This is not a guy who’s been exposed to losing for very long. There were a couple of lean years when he was learning as an assistant with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires but once he was hired as the head coach in Oshawa, his career took off, capped by a Memorial Cup win in 2015 and a ticket to the NHL to be Mike Babcock’s assistant in Toronto.

Babcock recently called him a “serial winner” when asked to comment on his former friend. There’s not a bigger compliment in professional sports, except maybe “trains with Gary Roberts in the summer”.....

Read the full column here.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Sens Enter Their "Lovable Losers" Era On The Way To Contention

It’s deja-vu all over again.” – Yogi Berra

We’ve been here before, I think.

And I’m not talking about waiting excitedly for a new, probably ill-advised Bill & Ted movie.

I’m talking about watching an Ottawa Senators team drastically trying to switch their identity from out of control train-wreck to lovable losers to, eventually… Stanley Cup contender.

As this season of modest expectations kicks off, the Senators are likely entering their “lovable losers” stage, which is much preferable to the last two seasons where they involuntarily entered the American mainstream pop culture.

The Simpson’s show landed a joke so cutting about the franchise that it made even Leafs and Habs fans feel sorry for the Senators, at least for a day or two. The last time people were laughing so much at this franchise was back in 1993 when ESPN gleefully showed a clip of Sens winger Andrew McBain leaving the Chicago Stadium ice and going ass over teakettle down the stairs to the dressing room.

When McBain lost his footing that night, the Senators record was 9 wins, 56 losses and 4 ties. They wound up losing 14 more times that season, a record that is still hard to understand right now. For their efforts, they were awarded the luxury of drafting Alexandre Daigle, who would go on to fall down many more flights of stairs than McBain ever did, metaphorically speaking.

You’ve heard most of the stories before… holdouts, robberies, bomb threats, bankruptcies, divorce, road rage, trade demands, mascot injuries, fires, line dancing and bad karaoke.

Sens fans have lived through every imaginable horror in their short existence, but only once have they lived through what happened in April 1997.

That’s the month when the jokes stopped. A perennial last-place team full of castaway vets and promising draft picks finally came together and won a meaningful game that clearly altered the course of the franchise.

Let’s go back there for just a moment. Last game of the season. Win and you’re in the playoffs for the first time in team history. The only thing in the way is the Buffalo Sabres, the world’s best goalie in Dominik Hasek and the Senators own history which seemed to preclude anything good happening to nice people.

Unsurprisingly, nobody could score. The Senators are tighter than they’ve looked in weeks, after huge victories against Detroit and Montreal that put them in this position to win in the first place. This was all a new feeling for a lot of us watching at home. Local fans weren’t used to having anything important on the line, other than a $2 Pro-Line ticket.

Sudden alcoholism ran rampant across the city. Bathroom cabinets were raided for available pills. Dogs ran around chasing their tails for hours, feeling the electric stress of their masters.

In the last 5 minutes of the 3rd period, Alexei Yashin deked out Sabres defenseman Gary Galley, and curled back to the blueline to send a saucer pass to a pinching Steve Duchesne. The ensuing shot was weird to watch, like Duchesne was reaching for a lost tennis ball under the couch with a broom handle. He just sort of flung it out of there and it skipped by Hasek for the eventual clincher.

People snapped. Mentally and physically.

Play-by-play man Dave Schreiber shredded his vocal cords screaming “Yashin across to Duchesne… he…. DU DU DU DU DUCHESNE!

Sworn enemies embraced on the sodden floors of bars like The Prescott and The Dominion Tavern. Grown men and women wept openly in front of their frightened children. Yashin, not known to smile often, almost swallowed Duchesne’s head in the ensuing celebration.

I watched it in a bar across the country in Vancouver. Drunk old men stared at me as I let out a primal welp that I tried to conceal as best as possible so as not to look like a complete madman. I ran to a payphone to call my family in Ottawa and when the other end picked up all I heard was screaming.

My little brother jumped so high off the couch that he pulled a piston in his back and it hasn’t been right to this day. You know it’s an important game when you walk away with a permanent life-altering injury, player and fan-alike.

You might ask what’s the point of the trip down memory lane? Maybe there’s a chance the people who weren’t around in ‘97 will get lucky a few years from now to witness a team, derided and written-off, to catch a little taste of glory when they weren’t supposed to.

That Senators team went on to lose a 7-game first round series to those very Sabres a couple of weeks later, but from that point on, the team quickly morphed into a contender that suffered a series of devastating playoff losses when expectations were high.

It’s a different feeling to be a front-runner and lose than it is to be an underdog and prove the critics wrong (and still eventually lose). It’s a necessary step on the way to becoming a contender, and the window is brief, but it proves to be some of the most rewarding moments for both die-hard and casual fans.

When you look at the 2019 Ottawa Senators, you might see a last-place team full of kids and veterans on their last tours of the NHL. I see the seeds of a team that’s heading down the same path those early Senators did on their way to that defining ’97 moment.

When Daniel Alfredsson came to this city in 1995, people were openly wondering if the franchise was on its way out of town after just two years in the league. Rumours swirled of coach Dave “Sparky” Allison holding a séance in the Civic Centre to rid the team of bad mojo. If he ever did, it certainly didn’t work while he was still around.

Brady Tkachuk arrived with the team in similar dire circumstances, with star players being dealt and fans sitting on their wallets on the way to a last place finish. Luckily for Alfredsson, management stocked the team with vital draft picks like Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat and timely trades for Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara.

Tkachuk must look around the room and see the likes of Thomas Chabot, Erik Brannstrom, Drake Batherson and trade acquisitions like Anthony Duclair and Nikita Zaitsev and wonder if the worst is finally over. There’s something eerily similar here to what led to that near decade of Stanley Cup contention starting in the late 90’s.

No one’s saying this year’s edition is going to get a chance to clinch a playoff spot on the last day of the season. They might be trying to clinch the 1st overall draft pick instead where a phenom out of the Quebec League is predicted to be the next consensus franchise player. This time his name is not Alexandre Daigle, but Alexis Lafrenière. And yes, that is a scary coincidence.

All I know is I’m stocking a strong supply of alcohol, pills and at least a pair of Amazon’s most recommended back braces, just in case this thing turns around quicker than we expected.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Someone smart probably.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Ottawa’s Favourite Shi(f)t Disturber Looks To Skip Sophomore Jinx

Read the latest Black Aces column over at Faces Magazine:

"For a few surreal years before Brady Tkachuk arrived in Ottawa, the most entertaining spectacle in town was watching the 2.1-billion-dollar LRT collapse into various sinkholes and the politicians desperately trying to tell everyone that it was all going to be okay … someday.

In fact, that’s the same message the Ottawa Senators were trying to relay to fans as their own team fell into a sinkhole so deep that you couldn’t even see the bottom.

That was the exact moment the mouthguard-chewing, eye-rolling, smirking 18-year-old super-brat Tkachuk arrived in town.

Entertainment quickly followed....."

See the full column at Faces Magazine.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Dorion’s Revenge And Other Notes On Inebriation

Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines”.

Lloyd Bridges says this matter-of-factly in the movie Airplane, as the surreal events spiral so out of control that the only logical recourse is to turn to heavy narcotics. Or lament their absence.

Now I’m not saying Ottawa Senators fans are living through their own version of Airplane, because at least that movie had laughs, but many fans have already turned to a variety of pharmaceuticals to make sense of the surreal situation they find their infamous team in. You can see it as they fidget in their seats at the CTC, staring blankly at the shiny lights and nervously adjusting their ratty toques. You can see it in the machine-gun style tweets lacking syntax or coherence, or even a GIF attachment.

Already traumatized by a summer where the most popular and best-looking player in team history was traded for reasons that are still not ultimately clear, Sens fans now face a second death march into oblivion as the remaining fan favourites are set to be moved by the trade deadline.

Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, all unrestricted free agents come July, are certainly headed out the door by February 25. Why such a dire prognostication? And from this very writer who makes it a point to be blissfully optimistic at almost every opportunity, even annoyingly so?

The reason lies in the inescapable fact that if any of those guys were going to sign with Ottawa, it would have happened by now. With the team dying for a good news story, with season-ticket sales reeling from a toxic fan atmosphere and the sudden decrease in the handsomeness ratio, GM Pierre Dorion has no reason to keep fans in cinematic suspense. Chances are Dorion has already presented his best offer to both Duchene and Stone and both offers have been rejected by their cigar smoking agents.

It’s the old Occam’s Razor theory: the most obvious answer is most likely to be correct. You can theorize as to why Mark Stone didn’t sign a long-term contract this past summer, or January 1st when the next opportunity arose. You can make arguments that it’s difficult to negotiate signing bonuses with a lockout on the horizon and even more difficult for Stone to accept the team captaincy, endless money, the key to the city, free Golden Palace eggrolls and complete and total adulation from men and women alike. Tough sell for a 26 year old.

More likely it’s that Stone has decided to move on. And so has Duchene. Dzingel is just waiting in the background, the third wheel this domestic drama. Dorion may not even have the time to trade him.

Ahhh… this is getting too gloomy. “It ain’t over till it’s over”. Picture a faded poster on a wood-panel wall in a basement that shows a cat hanging off a tree branch that says “Hang in There”. It’s super cute.

Picture Pierre Dorion calling a press-conference and on either side of him is Stone and Duchene (with the C and A on their respective jerseys). The two players are smiling, rich beyond their wildest dreams, but Dorion is smiling deviously, staring down the local press sitting in chairs before him, the naysayers who predicted this press conference would never happen. Even worse, in the back rows sit the dreaded Digital Influencers, the twitter and podcast nerds who have never even known the acrid, decaying smell of hockey skates stink-baked into a fine bouquet. Everyone is wrong and Pierre finally gets the chance to tell them, in both English and French.

Even Dzingel, sitting at the end of the table and cut out of most press pictures, has a new multi-year contract (but they forgot to give him a hat and a glass of water).

This could all happen still.

Thousands of Sens fans could finally kick their opiod and alcohol habits and renew relationships with their spouses after a year and a half of dark civility. The Sens may have to call in the police to squelch the riot of ticket buyers trying to pry open the doors at the CTC at 6 in the morning when it’s -32 with the wind chill.

Eugene Melnyk, John Ruddy and Jim Watson each do a staged shot of Wild Turkey and slap each other on the back before locking arms and doing a traditional Russian dance with lots of choreographed kicks and shouts. The press are so taken with this display that Don Brennan even joins in the line dance and everybody has a good-natured laugh at just how fun this day has turned out to be.

Erik Karlsson refuses to sign in San Jose because he believes Dorion and Melnyk will take him back this summer to join a team that is being labelled by outside pundits as the “Harlem Globetrotters of the NHL”. When Karlsson’s agent calls Dorion on July 1st, he has to leave a message and gets cut off before he can finish leaving his number. EK has to sign with Tampa, who have imploded internally because they lost in the first round. They don’t even have a press conference to announce it, let alone any Russian dancing.

You’ve noticed I haven’t applied Occam’s Razor here, or even Sherlock Holmes theory that “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” I have NOT eliminated the impossible. I refuse to, out of general principle.

The wait we are experiencing for the announcement of the signings is simply bureaucratic. They want to make sure they have the freshest Alaskan Crab for the press conference and Paul Anka is not available to fly in until next week.

You’re an impatient, ungrateful lot aren’t you? Just look at you, scratching your necks feverishly, waiting for you next fix, unable to concentrate without refreshing Twitter every few seconds.

You must think I’m an idiot. Well, guess what?

Friday, November 30, 2018

With Melnyk As Landlord, Sens In A Haunted House With No Escape

Lebreton Flats remains Ottawa’s ultimate “haunted house”, but it's not the only one.

Not that any real haunted houses remain on the Flats anymore. They were first wiped out by a massive fire in 1900, back in the day when it was possible for entire cities to be leveled by one casually tossed cigarette. Rebuilt quickly, an even worse disaster occurred when the Diefenbaker government expropriated the entire neighbourhood in the 60’s, demolished the houses and storefronts and then promptly did nothing with it for 40 years other than using it as a snow dump.

In any other city on any planet, land that valuable in sight of Parliament Hill would be a thriving part of the inner city. In Ottawa, weary OC Transpo riders stare at it every day out dirty windows on their way to the suburbs, wondering why there’s a big empty, depressing space in the middle of the city.

There’s not even a Starbucks there. The mind reels.

Refreshingly, those riders will soon be zipping by the Flats on trains instead of buses, but that “haunted house” will remain for the foreseeable future while Ottawa’s two alpha male businessmen fight to the death for the right to make millions of dollars from the country’s most famous snow dump.

And really, that’s what we’re talking about here when you remove all the language surrounding development, city planning, and condo revenue.

It’s about two businessmen, John Ruddy and Eugene Melnyk, who can’t make a deal with each other, and have decided to go nuclear in the courts, once again razing the Flats right back down to the contaminated soil. Not with fire, not with federal expropriation, but with unbridled ego.

Better journalists than myself have gone into detail surrounding the botched partnership so there’s no need to analyze the particulars here. Maybe Melnyk has a legitimate grievance over Ruddy developing a property in direct competition with the condo developments on the Flats, as he contends in the lawsuit. The two combatants will get their weeks in court and their pound of flesh once the judgments come in long past the time anyone really cares.

For Ottawa Senators fans, the judgment came down swiftly and without mercy almost immediately after the news broke in November. A shiny steel and glass rink for a rebuilding hockey team won’t be available to take the train to anytime soon. And it feeds into the now permanent perception that Melnyk is only capable of careening from one public relations disaster to another, all the while razing this town’s beloved hockey team right down to the pavement of the empty parking lot at the CTC in Kanata.

For a metaphorical match, you could do a lot worse than comparing the history of the Flats to the history of the Senators.

Both were once thriving components of this city, both suffered disasters – the Sens didn’t burn down but former owner Rod Bryden went bankrupt and the team was sold for pennies to Melnyk in the aftermath. The government tore people’s houses down in the Flats without much worry how the occupants felt or where they would go. Melnyk tore down every superstar and fan favourite who dared to step into the limelight – Marian Hossa, Daniel Alfredsson, Kyle Turris and Erik Karlsson.

And now both entities are in an embarrassingly long and drawn out holding pattern, with absolutely no certainty of what the future holds. The Flats could take another ten years until some clever businessman puts the right deal together, with or without an arena for the Senators. The team could drift ten years in a rebuild that has no guarantee of success and in a half-full arena in Kanata nearing the end of its life cycle.

That’s almost the definition of “haunted” - stuck in a realm between life and death, unable to cross over. Can you think of a better definition for either the Sens or the Flats?

Ruddy has the hearts and minds of the city behind him, due to his success with the Redblacks and various other profitable ventures around Ottawa. Melnyk gets billboards asking him to leave on the next available bus to Toronto.

This favorable view of Ruddy means nothing in the legal world, but it means everything in the real world.

Melnyk enjoyed an extended honeymoon when he “saved” the Senators from Bryden’s bankruptcy in 2003. Keep in mind that this bankruptcy occurred in an NHL era when teams had relocated for lesser reasons than bankruptcy. The loss of Ottawa’s franchise was a very real possibility at that time. Melnyk stabilized the franchise for what was a decade of success, culminating in a trip to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals. Life was pretty good around the team for a long time.

That seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?

The new arena in Lebreton Flats was Melnyk’s last chance at winning back the hearts and minds of Senators fans. It was all set up to be the ultimate Hail Mary pass with Melnyk once again pulling this team from the fire and getting that public acclaim that he so clearly desires.

He’s not Ebenezer Scrooge or some comical villain that enjoys the negativity surrounding him. In fact, it’s the opposite. He reacts with indignant fury when given a chance to defend himself or his organization (as the UBER overreaction and the Flats lawsuit will tell you), which indicates he sees a grave injustice in how he’s portrayed by the media and fans. He’s not enjoying the billboards and the columns speculating on whether he’ll sell the team or not. It probably hurts more than he’ll let on.

Melnyk likely envisions a scenario where he’s the good guy again. He might even think it’s just around the corner. He won’t sell the team because his story and his legacy are not yet complete. It’s just a matter of getting the “right message” across and convincing us to see things his way.

Now that he’s booted the Flats opportunity into outer space somewhere, there’s just no hope anymore for his public rehabilitation in Ottawa, but alpha male businessman just don’t go gently into the good night. They fight to bitter end regardless of reason or even self-preservation.

For Senators fans, you just have to hope there’s something left to salvage once the ego battle is over.

As Ryan Adams once sang “I don’t want to live in this haunted house anymore.”

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Cautionary Tale Of Matt Duchene, And The Road To Redemption

Read the latest Black Aces column over at Faces Magazine here.

"Matt Duchene has the kind of face any Mom would love.

The kind of face you’d see in the 50’s selling Wrigley’s Doublemint or Neilson’s Hot Chocolate. The Haliburton, Ontario native has the look of a kid who’d knock on your door on a winter afternoon and say “My Mom made you this apple pie. She say’s Muurrrry Christmas!” and then turn around and trod through the snow with his mittens hanging limply on a string from his sleeves.

He’s only 27 (which is close to being considered “ancient” in today’s NHL) but he doesn’t look much different than most of the 19-20 year olds who invade league rosters year after year. During interviews he likes to wear his ball-cap backwards, and he smiles politely and speaks clearly. On the ice he’s undoubtedly a superstar – or at least has the skills of a superstar – with a ridiculously short stick that allows him to control the puck in tight around the net like almost no one in the game today. I don’t know what Zdeno Chara would do with that stick. He might eat it I suppose."

Read the full column here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A Little Bit Of “Crazy” Would Look Good On Boucher

Check out the latest Black Aces column at Faces magazine here.

"It was a crushing moment for the Ottawa Senators, but head coach Guy Boucher just stared, seemingly frozen in thought. Was this grace under pressure or was it just another colourless moment from an increasingly colourless game?

First, let’s look at the facts. The Senators had just completed a 3-goal comeback in the third period against the Vegas Golden Knights on Nov. 8 but had quickly given up another to go down 4-3 with just under half the period left to go. Regardless of the sudden setback, the hometown Ottawa crowd was getting louder and the Senators best players, most notably young phenom Thomas Chabot, were coming on in waves. It was only a matter of time before the building was set to erupt again..."

Read the rest here...

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sens Odd Couple Headed For Divorce

Read the latest Black Aces at Faces Magazine.

"The planets are quickly aligning for the Ottawa Senators, but they’re not aligning for one of those miracle playoff runs that happen once a decade.

Instead, all the planetary signs are pointing to the most predictable of all Senators-related phenomena – another coach firing. Of course, this is not a certainty, and maybe GM Pierre Dorion and Head Coach Guy Boucher have a very well hidden rapport that will survive this tumultuous season, but the betting money is on the killing floor...."

A Goalie Under Siege, Craig Anderson Fights For His Legacy

Read the latest Black Aces column at Faces Magazine.

"Even a routine Sunday night in Las Vegas can be eventful.

While most Ottawa fans were curled up on a couch after the first snowy day of late October, Senators goalie Craig Anderson was in eternally sunny Vegas facing 53 shots as the Golden Knights stormed his end of the ice with ease. Anderson was incredible, turning aside 49 shots with his glove, his stick, his pads and even his head.

Somehow, it still wasn’t enough...."

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Unloved, Forgotten Game-Day Program - Ottawa Senators Score Edition

Over the years I've accumulated many of these things going to games and at one point I decided to scan the covers of the ones I still had (meaning the ones my wife didn't throw away).

They used to give them away for free, but like most NHL teams, they eventually stopped that practice. To be honest, I'm not even sure if they print game-day programs anymore. Just thought I'd share these as they can bring back a few memories and a few familiar faces.

Most people tossed these in the trash on the way out, left them in their car where snow and slush and dogs destroyed them, or just left them under their arena seats after the game. Even a deep internet search doesn't bring many of these back from the dead.

From what I can remember, the Score program was published every few months but every game-day a new insert was stapled into the center featuring that night's roster and current scoring etc.

One day I'll post scans of the much celebrated Bodycheck magazine the Sens used to print in the early days of the franchise. But for now... the much unloved and forgotten Score game-day programs for your nostalgic Sens needs.

Primal Scream Therapy With Mark Stone (via Faces Magazine)

You can read the latest Black Aces on Faces Magazine's website located here:

"It’s been a long time since we’ve heard the Canadian Tire Centre that frighteningly loud.

When Mark Stone scored the overtime goal against the Montreal Canadiens on a recent Saturday night, with legend Bob Cole calling the game for Hockey Night In Canada, the crowd erupted into a kind of defiant frenzy. Defiant in the sense that every single pundit had predicted disaster for this much maligned hockey team, and here they were clinching their third straight win on home ice against arguably their biggest rival, the vaunted Canadiens...."

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Brady Tkachuk Is Out Of Control... And We Like It

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a smile on Pierre Dorion’s face that didn’t look forced.

Yet the morning before his 2-2-1 Ottawa Senators faced the Dallas Stars, the GM was making the local media rounds on television and radio with a detectable skip in his step. On camera with CTV’s Henry Burris, Dorion was the picture of relief, spinning hope that just a month ago seemed all but impossible.

And who could blame him?

Even the most moderate of pundits predicted total agony for this franchise, and the fact that this young-ish Senators team wasn’t 0-5 seemed like a Hail Mary that actually came through and landed into Dorion’s outstretched hands. Although everyone is happy to remind us all that it’s too early to be gloating about anything, letting Dorion enjoy this small moment in time seems more than reasonable.

I don’t see any “gloating”. I see a sort of collective “Oh”, the kind of muted response that seems appropriate for the occasion. Nobody is saying this team is going to swagger across the finish line into the playoffs, but it doesn’t look like they’re going to drive off a cliff either.

That same night, the Sens went out and smothered the explosive offense of the Stars with a 4-1 victory in front of a small hometown crowd of about 12,500. Two of the kids, Brady Tkachuk and Max Lajoie were instrumental in the win. After the game, goalie Craig Anderson told reporters that Tkachuk and Lajoie were “the heartbeat of this team, not only on the ice, but in the room”.

Now think about that quote for a second. This is Anderson, a fairly quiet but honest veteran player, telling reporters that a 19 and 20 year old pair of rookies are the “heartbeat” of the team. I’ve never heard any player say that, at least not that I can recall.

Dorion didn’t do any post-game pressers of course, but I’m willing to bet a few dollars he tipped back a drink of his choice and had a hell of a peaceful sleep out in lovely Orleans.

After all, Dorion and Eugene Melnyk made the ultimate gamble with their fan base by trading away Erik Karlsson. And unsurprisingly, they’re losing on that front in the short-term, with attendance low and the season ticket base rumoured to be at rock bottom levels.

Yet, despite all of this negative public and media sentiment, there is more than a trickle of positivity coming back to this team. You see it in little ways. Twitter, which is ultimately the barometer for the most extreme fans, has recently been dotted with lines like “I hate that this team is making me want to like them again”.

And that really sums it up, doesn’t it?

Watching Tkachuk barrel around the ice like an out of control fire truck isn’t exactly grace-in-motion, but it’s undeniably entertaining. Last weekend, with the Senators up 5-1 on the Kings late in the 3rd period, Tkachuk was battling in front of the Kings net like his very life depended upon it. You’d laugh if it wasn’t so impressive. It’s rare that a player can skate by him without getting a quick, almost invisible slash on the arms, and when he gets back to the bench he’s always laughing or yelling about something.

Meme’s have quickly spread of Tkachuk in all sorts of strange comedic situations, like his now infamous cringe reaction to Lajoie on television or getting his helmet screwed tight on the bench like he’s in a Three Stooges skit. His baby face just seems to accentuate all this, yet it’s a bit deceiving.

He doesn’t look at all like a 19 year old rookie when he’s rambling around ice like he’s trapped in a cage. He’s scored 3 goals in 4 games which leads all Sens forwards in that category. He’s 2nd on the team in shots behind Lajoie, 3rd in power-play points, and he’s done all this after missing the first two games of the season.

Every time he scrambles over the boards, you can feel the fans pay attention in the rink. Everybody watches this guy because it’s impossible not to. Wherever he is, helmets fly off, people lose their sticks, nets come off their moorings and plexiglass sways dangerously.

In a way, he’s the anti-Karlsson. The former Senator was all sleek skill and silent speed. Tkachuk is all arms and legs and chewed-up mouthguards.

But the fans are starting to eat it up.

Even my own 8 year old son, who, horrifyingly, has shown absolutely zero interest in his father’s favourite pastime, saw a clip of Tkachuk on TV and said “Who’s that guy? He’s kinda funny and crazy.” Before this, the only interest he’s had in hockey was singing word for word Brian5or6’s “Hotsam Batcho” song… again to my horror.

Suddenly this team has a few budding stars to market and it doesn’t seem like a total reach. It helps that Thomas Chabot and Tkachuk are both comfortable in front of a camera. Chabot probably had to learn it on the fly in a second language while Tkachuk just inherited it naturally from his NHL family.

There’s still more than a few long and short-term worries however.

Logan Brown’s apparent unreadiness for the NHL this year surprised me. He’s fallen out of favour a little with prospect watchers but I easily envisioned the big centremen stepping in right away right behind Matt Duchene. Turns out he’s in the AHL, sidelined by an injury while Filip Chlapik, Rudolfs Balcers and Drake Batherson are all making their case to be the next call-up. Brown feels like a century away right now but that can all change pretty quickly.

Cody Ceci continues to struggle, both on the ice and with the fans. Two wins in a row with Ceci sitting out injured isn’t going to put this to rest anytime soon. Thankfully Chris Tierney and Dylan DeMelo, both acquired in the Karlsson deal, have been revelations in their roles, making the disappointments of Brown and Ceci seem less vital.

And yes, you can always rely on worrying about contracts for Duchene, Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel.

But maybe it’s okay for Sens fans to just enjoy the temporary hope while they can. Maybe, if things keep going the right way, it can be more than just temporary.

Remember the defiant quotes before the season started from Duchene and Mark Borowiecki? They were polite about it, but you could tell they wanted to stuff this season down everybody’s throats if they got the chance. There were clues sitting here in front of us that this team was going to fight like hell.

It was there when coach Guy Boucher seemed to snarl his displeasure at seeing veteran Zack Smith waived. Nobody was thrown under the bus but it was easy to detect an “us vs them” mentality forming. It had been too long a summer of the coach (who quietly does not have a contract extension) and the players just hanging out there on the clothesline being pecked at by everybody.

They had no control until they could actually step on the ice and finally do something about it. Now we might just have a team worth watching here, forged by the need to prove us all wrong.

How far they're willing to go to prove that point will be the entertaining part. Just don't take your eyes off that "crazy" Tkachuk kid. You might miss a garage sale.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Some Guys Have All The Luck

It’s a tale of two cities for Thomas Chabot and Cody Ceci.

Last Saturday night in parade-expecting Toronto, in front of a national audience on Hockey Night In Canada, the 21 year old Chabot calmly dangled Leafs defenseman Igor Ozhiganov and top-shelfed a goal so pretty that even the most heartbroken of Sens fans probably felt a ragged pulse for the first time in months.

A short two days later at the Boston Garden, fellow defenseman Cody Ceci had one of those mediocre games that would go largely unnoticed in most NHL cities, but for fans watching at home in Ottawa, it was another opportunity to hit the rage button on a once highly regarded prospect turned fan punching bag.

Not many teams can stop the Bruins first line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pasternak – and Ottawa was no exception on this day – but the sight of Bergeron’s hat-trick goal bouncing in off of Ceci’s skate launched a thousand and one “I told you so” tweets.

Never mind that Ceci was (awkwardly) doing the right thing in trying to cut off a cross-crease pass. Never mind that fluke bounces factor into basically every NHL game in history.

All of that doesn’t matter. At least not to Ottawa fans and Mr. Ceci. For many, Ceci will never measure up, even though nobody really knows what that measure is supposed to be.

Analytics-minded fans say they know the measure, and it’s possession time among other stats. And they may very well be right. Ceci, miscast as a shutdown defender on a thin Senators blueline, has to face Bergeron, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Steve Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and other Eastern Conference stars almost every time he steps on the ice. Which means he’s skating backwards more often than handling the puck, and when he does get it on his tape, it’s probably going high off the glass and through the neutral zone so his team can make a line change. Doesn’t make for a very compelling set of numbers.

For many, he also fails the eyeball test, which is really also just a “values” test.

We watch with our eyes but we also watch with our prejudices. We want to see what we already know, which is why analytics has cut through some of the traditional views and made everybody mad on both sides of the divide. It challenges everything we think we know and therefore it’s a threat. On the other hand analytics dismisses intangibles too easily and the eyeball test probably takes too much of it into account.

But you’re not interested in that old debate are you? I’m not.

We already know a lot about Ceci and we’re not going to part with that knowledge without a good fight. We see a minor miscue and it brings to mind hundreds from the past and suddenly that bad bounce turns into the blooper that should see him traded for a draft pick (a 2nd rounder has no blemishes – they’re friggin’ perfect).

We don’t see the routine plays that a veteran makes to be in position to halt a breakout or that vital routine pass to break out of the zone. Not the home run pass to create a breakaway, but the simple chalkboard play to get out of your zone. Ceci, and most vets, make these unremarkable plays more often than not and that’s why a coach like Guy Boucher values them. Fans only see the outliers and soon those outliers distort into the norm.

But when does reputation overshadow the on-ice play so much that the team has no choice but to move on from the player?

It’s a bit reminiscent of Jason Spezza, who was well-liked by more fans than Ceci, but still took so much heat that he wanted out of town shortly after being named captain. He felt he took more than his fair share of blame. Nothing was more stark than Spezza chasing Sidney Crosby around the net during a playoff series and getting beat so badly that it came to represent all of his shortcomings as a defensive player. Never mind that it was against the best player in the world at the time. For many fans, Spezza was a sum of his mistakes, not the superstar that he actually was and continued to be for some time.

Ceci’s bad bounce in Boston is nowhere near as dramatic or important, but you can see the track this train is running on. And it’s not pulling into Party Station anytime soon.

Ceci even recently admitted that he was expecting a role change this season with Erik Karlsson suddenly in San Jose (that’s a pretty good movie title, “Suddenly In San Jose”), but, once again, luck is not with the young Ottawa native.

That role has been offloaded to even younger players like Chabot, the out-of-nowhere Max Lajoie and pending UFA Chris Wideman. If Ceci can’t get that role right now, he’s never going to get it in Ottawa.

“If it wasn’t for bad luck….”

Meanwhile, Chabot is the fan’s new golden kid. He’s already got an organic fan nickname, which almost never happens in hockey anymore. His teammates probably call him Chabby, but the fans now refer to him as Hotsam Batcho, a Brian5or6 epiphany when a few beers prompted a deep dive into the world of anagrams (and other debaucherous activities).

It’s caught on and even Hotsam himself endorsed the name by being photographed in a custom Brian5or6 shirt with the nickname on the back. Fans swooned. Shirt sales went crazy. It was a love-in.

Unfortunately there’s no such opportunity for Ceci.

It goes a bit deeper than just stats and his perceived play on the ice (which to me is nowhere near as awful as some make it out to be, but it’s not something to celebrate either). There’s long been a sentiment that Ottawa management favoured local prospects for marketing reasons over more skilled options, but in the case of Ceci, he was one of the most highly rated defensemen in his 2012 draft class. That bugaboo may apply in other cases, but it doesn’t seem to apply here.

That he hasn’t blossomed into the offensive right-shot defenseman that many thought he would be probably comes down to playing behind Erik Karlsson on the right side. Not to mention playing behind Karlsson’s personality.

Karlsson is a natural star in every way, completely comfortable in his own skin and magnetic to even casual fans. Ceci’s only crime is having a “standard” hockey personality. He’s good at saying the right things in a rinkside interview but despite being a local star with the 67’s in junior, he’s not exactly the most requested player in media scrums. There’s no winks or moustache twirls.

Like most players, he enjoys his privacy and doesn’t seem to be clamoring to be the voice of the team. He’s well liked in the locker room by all indications and seems especially close to another fan favourite, Mark Stone.

Unlike Stone, he actually had to go through his arbitration hearing this summer and expressed some thinly veiled bitterness at what he had to hear from the team. He makes good coin this season, but it comes at some unknown personal cost.

In a fair world, Ceci would probably be seen as a “fair” player, but that’s fantasy land at this point.

Chabot has won the hearts of Sens fans, as has Stone, and it probably won’t be long before Brady Tkachuk and Alex Formenton are embraced the same way.

For Cody Ceci, the intense scrutiny will continue until something breaks, either for management or the player. He probably deserves better, but on a rebuilding team, Ceci is going to continually be put in the position where his mistakes are magnified and his good plays are unrecognized. I can only imagine how tough it has to be on his psyche. Or his family and his friends. These attacks have real ramifications. Just ask Jared Cowen, or other high draft picks before him who didn’t measure up to expectations.

I don’t know the guy but I imagine his dreams of playing in the NHL were the same as thousands before him. This was supposed to feel better.

As Rod Stewart, with his rooster haircut and red leather pants once sang non-ironically, “some guys have all the luck”.

Ceci could use some of that easy living Rod Stewart luck right now.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Opening Night

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - Hunter S. Thompson

I was thinking of that quote as I walked up to the arena gates with Brian5or6 for opening night of the Senators 26th season. At this hour he was looking rather together with a pressed shirt, blue tie and a shiny gold watch. Under his arm he carried a "Hotsam Batcho" jersey neatly folded, on his way to pick up his first set of media credentials.

Before we even got out of the parking lot, random teenagers converged on us and wanted pictures of themselves with Brian5or6. This happened at least a dozen times while I was with him, and who knows how many times when he was wandering the arena between periods. He handles it like a pro and people walk away happy and with something to post on Twitter. Well known local media personalities slap his back and invite him out for beers. Senators executives shake his hand and want his opinion on how the fans feel about certain issues.

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

In a summer filled with turmoil and disappointment for hardcore fans, Brian5or6 was able to make people laugh and occasionally even put down their pitchforks for a night. If it took falling down a set of stairs, smashing a TV with a shovel or just screaming profanities into an iPhone, Brian5or6 captured the angst and was able to diffuse it somehow. Some people felt better seeing him throw a television off a deck. It meant they could leave their own TV on the wall. Maybe it WAS just a game after all.

That's what Pierre Dorion said to Brian5or6 when he met him for the first time this fall. With a knowing smile on his face, Dorion pointed at him and said "I've seen you. That video. It's just a game, you know?" And they both laughed and shook hands. Sure, it's just a game to Brian5or6. But for Dorion? As he's become well aware, it's much more than that.

The young GM seems to live in a hurricane of negativity and pressure. The fans take turns blasting him or ownership, or both. Without an assistant GM for the entire summer, Dorion was tasked with trading the team's best and most popular player and launch a full rebuild in front of a increasingly agitated fanbase. He accomplished the first and initiated the second, but the results will be unknown for a while. Pundits will be counting attendance numbers more closely than goals on the ice. That's the kind of atmosphere Dorion has to try and thrive in. It's not really a hockey atmosphere anymore. It's a sort of pseudo-political task the Sens are trying to navigate. They're not the first pro team to go through this and they won't be the last, but that doesn't make it any easier for Dorion.

Meanwhile, across the continent, Erik Karlsson made his San Jose Sharks debut a night earlier – a loss – and people strained themselves to find meaning in the result. They’re almost used to seeing #65 in teal now since photos began to surface out of training camp of the smiling defenseman in his new colours. Everything seems so sunny there in contrast. It feels personal to Sens fans, as if every Karlsson grin is an indictment of the struggling franchise he just vacated.

Yet in a widely viewed Sportsnet interview on opening night, Karlsson wasn’t grinning very much. He seemed genuinely troubled by his departure from Ottawa, sometimes using “we” to describe the Senators, as if a big part of him were still back home, a word he often uses to describe this city.

There are countless Karlsson jersey’s on the backs of fans here tonight. No one quite knows what to do this early in the aftermath. Moving on is tough. You still see Hossa jersey’s from time to time, but not too many. Alfredsson sweaters are common, but there’s no anguish there anymore. It’s just old news, and someday this will be viewed the same. But it might be a while.

The actual game started on an emotional note as the mother of the late Jonathan Pitre, Tina Boileau, dropped the puck for a ceremonial faceoff after a video of her son, in various stages of his battle against a skin disease known as RDEB, was shown to the crowd. Somehow, she kept it together. Not many others could. They stood and gave her a tearful standing ovation while Jonathan’s inspirational voice was heard over the arena speakers. You don't have to be a parent to know how hard that must have been for her to remain stoic.

"It's just a game."

Spirits didn’t completely lift until Zack Smith, just a week removed from being on waivers, scored the Sens first goal of the season, and no one was happier than captain-in-waiting Mark Stone, who emphatically pointed at Smith with a crazed look of joy on his face. Stone usually reacts that way when teammates score, but this was something a bit more meaningful. It was momentary redemption for Smith, and it seemed to spur him on his following shifts, coming close to another goal in the first period. Maybe Dorion’s waiver gambit worked, if you take his word that it was meant to send a “message” to both Smith and the team. Like a few decisions the Sens have made recently, it’s a little shrouded in mystery.

Well, a mystery to everyone except Matt Duchene, who now famously said it was a "kick in the balls" to the dressing room. As some have already noted, there wasn't that kind of angry response from players when Karlsson was dealt, but in our search to ascribe meaning to the slightest of reactions or non-reactions, it's easy to get lost in it all. Let's not.

It was Max Lajoie’s first career goal to tie the game 2-2 that really lifted the fog. The kid who came out of nowhere (I kept having to look at the game sheet because his number 58 seemed alien to me) had his parents in the stands and the usual reactions happened after a player’s first goal – tears, more tears, strangers walking over to congratulate the mother and father. Soon we'll see Brady Tkachuk and his parents go through the same ritual, possibly in Toronto on Saturday night in front of a national audience if the hockey gods approve.

Everyone seemed to expect lots of empty seats (and in the dark corners of Sens Twitter, some openly wished it to prove a point), but it looked like most every game last year. Scattered sections with empty rows but nothing glaring. Official attendance was 15,858, with plenty of freebies, but it was a loud rink when Colin White put the Sens ahead on a power-play goal. When the Hawks pressed in the 3rd and began to take the game over, the crowd stayed behind the Sens and you could sense a little relief in the air. This team still has fans, after all the carnage of the summer and the billboards and the "laughingstock" sentiments from non-local media. Maybe they don't have many fans on Twitter, but neither do I. Only Brian5or6 does.

This market has taken vicious beatings in the past (the Rod Bryden bankruptcy, the Leafs) and they're taking one now, but I didn't get any sense of gloom walking around the rink. The kids were eating popcorn, the 50/50 sellers were barking, the drunk guys in Hawks jerseys were laughing with wives in Sens colours. Sure, there were a few awkward moments, particularly when a pair of girls on the huge video screen deftly swung around to reveal they were wearing Karlsson jersey's and the feed quickly cut, but for the most part it seemed like people still came here for the same reasons they came before.

It's just a game.

As I walked back to the parking lot with Brian5or6, I heard quickly approaching footsteps behind us and thought I was going to be in the middle of some kind of swarming/beating of a lifetime situation, but it was merely another young fan wanting a picture with my brother. His mom stood back smiling and thanking us while the picture was taken and the kid couldn't really form proper sentences. He just kept saying "I love your videos".

The mom and I exchanged a shrug and a smile.

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Heavy Metal Kid

For those wondering ... and there have been a few... Yes, I'm still alive. 

I put the blog on indefinite hiatus as I wanted to write about other things for a while, and possibly get together some kind of collection of stories I could sell... or bury. While that's still going on, I thought I might as well get one of those stories out there and Black Aces is as good a spot as any. There are no plans to write here full-time again but I may post some things once in a while, hockey-related or not.

And yes, this is a true story.

The Heavy Metal Kid

By Jeremy Milks
All Rights Reserved.

Bill Cogen was hunkered down at the back of our Grade 6 class, at least a year older than the rest of us because he had failed it the first time around.  
There were wild rumours he had failed other grades as well, including Grade 1, and that he might even be 15 years old. No one really knew, but it was an accepted fact among everyone that he had hair on his balls.
One story going around was that he had walked into the Almonte beer store the last summer and bought himself a six-pack without being carded.  The effect of such a story on kids our age doesn’t need to be explained.
But as far as I was concerned, Bill Cogen was the one guy I needed to stay the hell away from at all costs.
He skulked at the back of our classroom like a brooding, evil presence, scribbling heavy metal band logos onto the blood-red skin of his binder. If he had any friends, they were long gone to Naismith Junior High across town. And he didn’t look too happy about it.
He had dull black hair hanging over heavy lidded eyes, pale green skin that looked translucent under classroom light, the beginnings of an oily moustache and a black AC/DC tour t-shirt, which implied he had actually seen the band and been to a concert, where he probably smoked drugs. I didn’t really know what drugs were, but I knew you had to smoke them.
As we picked our desks that first day, the early kids grabbed anything that wasn’t near Cogen. I took a desk in the front row by the window, the farthest point away in the classroom.
 Fred Denning was less fortunate.  His mom had dropped him off late and there was only one desk remaining, right in front of Cogen.
Fred’s hands were shaking as he slowly walked up the row, his head swinging around in one last desperate attempt to see if he had missed an empty desk somehow, or even a trash can he could turn over and sit on. Anything.
Bill had his feet up under his desk, resting on the only empty seat in the room. He didn’t flinch when Fred walked up.
 Fred stood there for a moment, looking at Cogen’s dirty white running shoes with the wet laces untied and hanging off the side of the only empty chair available. Everyone watched this situation develop in silence.
It was then that something crucial broke in Fred’s little mind.
He turned abruptly and walked back to the front of the classroom, heading for the exit with a look on his face that said “Fuck it, I’m going back to Grade 5.”
That’s when Mrs. Church strode forcefully into the room and everyone, even Bill Cogen, took careful notice.  She took care of the situation in a matter of seconds with brutal efficiency.
“Mr.Denning, where do you think you’re going? You were instructed to take a desk. Now I see there is an empty one in front of Mr. Cogen and you will take it. Mr. Cogen, you will remove your shoes from Mr. Denning’s seat and tie those shoe laces. Now…. Welcome to Grade 6. We’ll take attendance.”
She wasn’t asking that these things be done. She was simply describing the events that were to happen in succession, and she was always accurate. Even Bill didn’t dare defy Mrs. Church. He moved his shoes … slowly … but he goddamned well moved them.
            Fred carefully took his seat (now with mud on it) and leaned as far forward as he could. You could tell by his eyes that his mind was now shattered with fear. The pressure of a first day at school was already enormous, but now he could feel Cogen’s rank breath at his back and he had already crossed the infamous Mrs. Church.  
Fred Denning wouldn’t hit puberty for another five years, likely because of these events.
But now that Mrs. Church was in the classroom, we were dealing with a double threat – one from the front and one from the back. It was a lot like the Alamo, but it was going to last for ten months and you had to do homework.
Her name was Leona Magdalene Church. She had the eyes of an albino wolf and skin like an icy windshield. She was feared by every adolescent who knew her name.
Once, according to the stories, she had whacked a kid named Kevin Coady across the face with a wooden ruler and didn’t even get fired for it.
The ruler actually snapped in half and the school nurse had to pull an inch-long wooden shiv out of Kevin’s fat red cheek. His parents had a meeting with Mrs. Church that afternoon and ten minutes later were seen shoving Kevin into the back of a station wagon saying “shut up you little prick” while a bandaged and bruised Kevin screamed “I hate her, I hate her”.  Or so the legend goes.
A long line of innocent children had fallen under her rule and survived with stories that were hard to believe. She wore no glasses as her eyes were better than 20/20. She could see through desks, walls and bullshit. No one ever forgot to do their homework, and dogs didn’t eat it. Dogs would gladly eat their own shit before eating Mrs. Church’s homework assignments. The fear had spread to the animal kingdom.
And this is how Grade Six started, the year we finally reached the social apex of G.L. Comba Public School. The next year would be hell, starting at the bottom in Grade 7, but for the moment we had the power.
Thankfully, Bill Cogen showed no major signs of outright aggression as the weeks went on and mostly kept to himself, although if someone got too close you could almost hear a warning growl, like when you put your hand too close to a dog’s bowl when he’s eating.
Bill was a big AC/DC fan. I didn’t know much about them, except that maybe they were Satan worshippers because they had an album called Highway to Hell.  I secretly wondered if someone could actually get possessed listening to heavy metal music. These were the kinds of serious questions I was preoccupied with back then.
Cogen also had Alice Cooper t-shirts, Motley Crue, Iron Maiden. The more I saw Cogen’s shirts, the more I became fascinated. I needed to hear these bands. This wasn’t an easy thing in the 80’s for a kid my age. My old man let me buy a couple tapes at the Towers Department Store but all I bought was Kiss. I had three Kiss tapes and the radio and that was my life. I thought that was all I needed. But now I knew there was more to it.
Cogen had the key and I had no idea how I could get it out of him. I figured if I tried to befriend him, one of two things would happen – he’d snap my neck in an eruption of violence so sudden that even Mrs. Church would reel in shock or he’d take me under his wing and show me the evil ways.
I decided it was worth the risk.
One day I name-dropped Kiss loud enough for Bill to hear. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him stop chewing on his mock-chicken sandwich for a second and cock his head a little towards me. Those few seconds were terrifying and I began to regret it right away. Maybe he thought Kiss sucked, but I couldn’t understand how someone could think that way. They breathed fire and spat blood.
But Bill moved on to his Wagon Wheel and didn’t say anything to me about Kiss or AC/DC or anything else. My best friend Robbie had his hair spiked on top and kind of long in the back. He liked Bon Jovi. I had thick glasses and short hair, cut by my old man when he was half in the bag on a Sunday afternoon. If Bill was going to talk to anybody, it might be Robbie, but not me.
I had to do something to get noticed. I was sitting with Robbie at lunch, and somehow I got it into my head to take one of my Grandmother’s butter tarts and rub it into Robbie’s face. It seemed like the best joke in the world at that moment, the height of comedy, an act that would make me a hero amongst the guys.
So I did it. Right into his nose and rubbed it around. For a moment, everyone was too shocked to laugh, but when Robbie stood up clawing at his face, the room erupted and I even caught Cogen grinning, looking back and forth between us, maybe waiting for a punch to be thrown.
Once Robbie regained his senses, he threw his orange juice right into my face and I gasped at the shock of it, my glasses covered, the sound of crazy laughter all around.  Even Bill was laughing out loud, looking like he might just throw his Wagon Wheel (but no, Bill never gave up a Wagon Wheel in his life …ever).
There was a crucial moment that hung unfulfilled where the greatest food fight in G.L. Comba Public School history could have broken out. Kids grabbed whatever remained of their lunch - a bread crust, an apple core, a half-finished milk, just to be ready in case anyone took the plunge. We all would have been dragged in, like a herd of panicked animals. But it didn’t happen.
That fear of Mrs. Church was still too real, so Robbie and I gave each other a look that said, “Fair is fair, I got you, you got me” and it was over. But we were both suddenly very cool. And Bill looked right at me and smiled, his two front teeth as yellow as hot mustard.
By the time Mrs. Church walked back in, Robbie and I were cleaned up and sitting at our desks as if nothing had happened. But the Iron Lady sensed something. She was trying to sniff it out but couldn’t quite hone in on the source. Her narrow eyes surveyed the room. I thought she looked at me a little longer than everyone else but it could have been my imagination. She sneered a moment and then turned around and began to prepare the History lesson on the chalkboard.
We had survived that one. That gave us confidence that we could put one over on old Mrs. Church. Too much confidence.


The next day all hell broke loose.
Mothers across town that morning were shocked to see their sons and daughters grabbing anything from the cupboard they could get their hands on – old peanuts, ketchup packets, pinto beans, whole tomatoes, macaroni shells.
The idea had caught on quickly just after the butter tart incident.  People that afternoon had mouthed the words to each other across the classroom. “Food fight. Tomorrow.” And then, “I’m gonna get you, you big piece of shit.”
The final details were hashed out over that afternoon’s recess. We’d have the food fight outside at the baseball diamond at lunch hour. Even Bill Cogen agreed. He was starting to warm up to us.
So the next day, we waited.
Mrs. Church seemed to notice the vibrations being given off and stalked around the classroom looking for the usual contraband, like peashooters or cock drawings or chocolate bars.
Poor Fred Denning (who had developed a stress tic by this time) was so tense that he suddenly sneezed all over his textbook with no warning and a long line of ropey mucus hung there from his nose to the page. The sneeze was so powerful that it startled Mrs. Church into grabbing her ruler instinctively, ready to snap it over someone’s jawbone. We all went “ewww” and laughed instinctively but Mrs. Church slammed the ruler across the desk for silence. And she got it.
Then it started to rain outside. Hard rain. The thunder and lightning came on like a horror movie. It seemingly came out of nowhere but it was so intense that Mrs. Church didn’t even mind when kids wandered away from their desks for a moment to look outside. From our window you could see up the hill to the baseball diamond where the food fight was going to take place, and it seemed like actual waves were rolling down the grass.
It was a disaster. The whole thing would have to be cancelled.
Nobody even had to say a word once the lunch bell rang. It was over and some kids just wandered off to the hallways to eat their lunch on a bench or just sat at their desks staring out the window.
Some were probably glad the whole thing was off, like Fred Denning, who would have been a heavy target for everyone, especially after that unfortunate sneeze. He probably hadn’t slept more than 5 minutes the night before.
Of the 10 or so left in the classroom, we all ate mostly in silence, except for Phil Goylen who ripped an enormous fart on his desk chair. Everyone had a good laugh about that but it didn’t last long. Cogen was back in his gloom and I wasn’t any closer to being able to talk to him.
So I did something.
I should have known that the tension was too tight in that room to risk breaking it. Robbie had wandered off a few desks away to look at Mike Donlan’s Cracked magazine when I grabbed another one of my butter tarts and beaned him right in the back of the head with it.
The room came alive. A little too alive. As I was waiting for Robbie to react, something entirely unexpected happened. Phil Goylen, with all the provocation he needed, hurled half a bologna sandwich across the classroom and it caught poor Fred Denning square in the face, leaving a huge splotch of mustard across his chin and up around his eyes. What Phil Goylen hadn’t counted on was half the sandwich breaking off of Fred’s face and careening to the left, straight into Bill Cogen’s shoulder and then flopping down onto his lap.
Everybody froze as Bill stood up behind Fred and growled “WHAT IN THE FUCK?”
When Fred heard that, he jumped out of his chair in one astonishing athletic movement, hit the floor in a roll, regained his feet and cold-sprinted right through the door.
Fred had simply vanished like a loose charge of electricity. Bill quickly trained his sights on fartmaster Phil Goylen.
He grabbed his Wagon Wheel, and in a stunning reversal of tradition, decided to part ways with it, sending it straight at Phil’s head with surprising velocity. It hit Phil straight between the eyes, throwing Phil back with his hands grasping for his face. It was a glorious moment, and not just because it was a perfect shot, but because Bill was actually smiling when he did it. He wasn’t angry at all. He was merely signaling to us that the food fight was on, even if there were only ten of us.
It probably only lasted for about 60 seconds but that was long enough. I got hit with a few things right away but I wasn’t sure exactly what they were. I think an apple glanced off my shoulder. Something wet hit my ear. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Robbie grab a peach and throw it at Bill but missed by a mile (maybe on purpose). In my naive mind, this signaled that it was okay to throw something at Bill Cogen.
I looked for something to grab but it was too chaotic. I looked up and Cogen was staring right at me. Then he grinned and I knew I was done for. In one swift motion he ripped the thin plastic seal off a chocolate pudding and threw an unexpected underhand bullet.
But my reflexes were top notch in those days. I dodged it and watched it splash all over a set of Mrs. Church’s encyclopedias.
This sight of this defilement made everyone stop right away. As did the sight of Mrs. Church walking through the doorway. And when I turned around, she was staring right at me.
It was time to face death.


Ten of us were lined up inside Principal MacDonald’s office, some of us with food still in our hair and on our shirts. MacDonald - bald, slightly cross-eyed and sporting a thick dark moustache above a wet, pink mouth that always hung open - was sitting at his desk, staring at us in disgust, but it was Mrs. Church’s show.
She stomped back and forth in front of our line, belittling us, sometimes yelling, sometimes whispering (which was even more chilling), even cursing once, calling us “little bastards”, which made MacDonald actually flinch for a moment, but he didn’t interrupt.
The big threat here was how our parents were going to hear about it, and that made Fred Denning actually break down and openly weep, but she showed no mercy. She got right into his face and said she was disappointed in him most of all and there was going to be a long talk with his mother whom Mrs. Church knew personally.
It scared all of us, except for maybe Bill Cogen, because he was the only one who didn’t physically deflate when the subject of our parents came up. Maybe he didn’t have any. Nobody knew.
Mrs. Church asked me to step forward and I did. My hands began to shake and I felt slightly out of body, not knowing what was going to happen next.
“Mr. Milks, you are going to give me an answer right now, an honest answer and you are going to look me right in the eyes when you do it. Now listen closely, as this might make the difference between whether or not I call your parents. In fact, it may make the difference between whether I call all of your parents or not. I want to know who threw the pudding that hit my encyclopedias. Think about it, Mr. Milks. Think long and hard and then I want you tell me who did it. “
For the first time in my life it felt like the next thing I did would determine the course of my whole future. It was up to me to save the entire group by simply pointing my finger at Bill Cogen. I also noticed that she’d immediately turned to look at Bill as she finished. She knew. She knew damn well it was Bill Cogen.
Fred Denning looked at me with tears in his eyes, silently pleading with me to hang Bill. I looked everyone in the face and they were all telling me the same thing, Robbie, Phil, Mike, the whole condemned gang. Any one of them could have spoken up and blamed Bill but they didn’t.
Cogen just stared at me, but it was the look of someone resigned to their fate and not caring. But still he stared at me. Somewhere in the future would be a vicious beating if I said his name in the next few seconds. We all knew that, but I was expected to take one for the good of the whole.
Principal MacDonald was now leaning forward at his desk, eyes wide, wet mouth hanging open in suspense.
I swallowed once and said “I don’t know.”
I looked down at the floor and waited for something to happen. Mrs. Church was likely just as stunned as everyone else that I didn’t turn rat, but she ordered me to step back in line and said simply “Month’s detention.”
All she had to do was look at a sweating, trembling Phil Goylen and he gave it up right away. “It was Bill, Mrs. Church. Please don’t call my parents.”
We were all dismissed except for Cogen, all with a month’s detention. Phil walked ahead of us with his head down, knowing he’d soon have to face Bill and get the beating of a lifetime. Fred trailed at the back, knowing his tears had marked him for the rest of his school life, and the rest of us walked somewhere in the valley between.

            The next week Cogen walked up to me in the classroom during a break. He had something in his hand.
As he got closer, I realized it was a tape.
He grunted “Hey” as he got close and I nodded my head, playing it as cool as possible.
“So you like Kiss huh?” he said as he wiped the black bangs from his eyes.
“Uh, yah. I love Kiss. I mean, they’re okay I guess”, correcting myself, in case Bill thought otherwise.
“Ya. Kiss is cool. But have you heard this before?”
He held out the tape to me and I took it, my hands slightly shaking.
The cover showed a pool of blood, a sledgehammer lying next to it on the ground and the shadow of a hand looming above.  It said “Metallica … Kill ‘Em All”
I knew right away that this was the real deal, that Bill Cogen had just handed me something truly evil and dark.
“You can borrow that if you want. It will blow Kiss right off the planet. But don’t fuck it up or lose it. My cousin Doug got that in the city and it’s rare as shit. You can tape it if you want though.”
He walked away. He didn’t say thanks for not being a rat but I knew this is what the tape meant.
I stared at that tape all day long. Even when I held it in my hand, it had some kind of power. I memorized all the song titles and liner notes on the bus ride home. I even smelled it and it smelled different from my Kiss tapes… somehow. I didn’t know what a song like “The Four Horsemen” would sound like, but I imagined a mountain collapsing and people screaming.
When I got home I pulled my ghetto-blaster down on the floor beside my bed and carefully rewound the tape to the start of Side 1 and hit play while keeping my finger hovered over the stop button just in case the music started to possess me.


            I gave the tape back to Cogen the next day and told him I’d loved it and listened to it six times.
            Bill smiled and showed his yellow teeth.
            “I’ve got a full drawer of tapes at home. Some bands you wouldn’t even believe. Harder than these guys even.”
            I just nodded my head in amazement.
            Bill put his hands in his jean pockets and looked around the schoolyard, like he was making sure no one could hear what he was about to say. Strangely, he seemed shy all of a sudden, but I still had no idea what he was about to ask me.
            “If you want, if you’re not doing anything, I guess you could come over to my place on Friday night and hear those tapes, you know, as a favour to you. I don’t want to keep bringing them to school. Some of that shit is really evil, I could get in big trouble or get them taken away. So, if you want, you could come stay overnight and hang out and listen to them.”
            I didn’t say anything for a second, more in awe than indecision.
He abruptly turned and walked away muttering “Tell me by tomorrow. Or forget it.”


            I think my parents were happy to get rid of me for a night. I was nervous to ask but my old man said “Sure”. He never said “sure”, for any reason. It was weird. My Mom smiled and then got distracted by the youngest of my 3 sisters trying to pull a hot frying pan off the stove filled with oil.     When you’re the oldest of five kids, your parents tend to stop micromanaging everything you do. It’s a little like that Woody Allen joke, where he gets kidnapped and his father dozes off halfway through reading the ransom letter.
            And so on Friday afternoon, I got on the bus with Bill Cogen and went to his house in Clayton, a little village about 15 minutes outside of Almonte.
             I remember seeing my pal Robbie staring at me as I got on the bus behind Bill, wondering what it all meant. Strangely, we were never as close again. Monumental shifts take place within days when you’re that young, and getting on that bus was the start of one for me.
            Bill lived with his mother in a tiny little bungalow and the smell of cigarettes permeated every fibre and surface in the house.
            His mother sat smoking on the couch in front of the television when we got there and told us there were Pizza Pops in the freezer we could have for supper. My mouth watered at the sight of them. I had seen the commercials on TV before but my parents never bought us anything like that. If we had pizza, it was a frozen pizza from the grocery store that consisted of a loose handful of grey cheese all frozen to one side of the cardboard crust, and occasionally you’d find a mushroom or sometimes a band-aid.
            Bill put four Pizza Pops in the microwave and I sat at the green kitchen table waiting for the two and half minutes to hit three zeroes. The microwave beeped four times and Bill pulled them out, golden and steaming.
            He sat down across from me and began eating.
After about a minute, he looked up for a moment and said there was more in the freezer and I could make a couple for myself if I wanted to. He cracked open an ice cold Coke, guzzled half of it right away, went “aaahhh”, burped,  and kept eating until there was strings of cheese hanging off his chin and down onto his t-shirt.
            So I went into the freezer and made my own dinner, beginning to feel sick from hunger and all the cigarette smoke in the air.
            As I was finishing up, Bill microwaved another two and plowed those into him as well. He let one final belch rip through the house when he was done and his mother scolded him by saying “Bill” tonelessly but didn’t look away from the television where she was watching Taxi. He went to the cupboard and pulled out a box of Wagon Wheels, this time generously offering me one right away. He ate three of them with a big glass of milk.
            Then it was off to his room, and he carefully closed the door and locked us in by sliding down a heavy wooden latch that you’d usually only see on a barn door. A few real negative thoughts went through my head at that moment. If Bill decided to start strangling me for some reason, his Mother wouldn’t be able to get through that door if her life depended on it.
            The next thing I noticed was the dartboard on the back of his door. Pinned to the dartboard was a page out of a magazine that showed Terry Fox running down the highway during his cancer marathon with his steel leg. There were rusted darts in his face and body.
            This was a shocking sight to me because Terry Fox was one of my heroes growing up. One of my earliest memories is sitting in front of the television with my Mom and watching him run through Ottawa and shaking hands with Pierre Trudeau on Parliament Hill. Terry died on June 28, 1981, my fifth birthday, and for that reason I felt a real strong connection to him. Now here was Terry up on a dartboard and I tried not to look at it. I felt like I was betraying Terry by even being in this room, just like I was betraying my best friend Robbie.
            The walls were covered with heavy metal posters, but one that stood out was a poster of Samantha Fox with no top on, bare, huge breasts hanging out, wearing nothing but leotards and one leg up on a bench press.
            “You’re Mom actually lets you put that up on the wall?” I asked, amazed.
            “I can do whatever I want in here. My Mom’s not allowed in. I got a box full of Playboy’s under my bed. I got them from my cousin Doug.”
            He pulled out a milk crate full of Playboy’s and we sat on his bed and started flipping through them. My eyeballs nearly fell out of my head, although I still felt strange knowing his mother was just outside the door sitting on the couch. Now I knew what that heavy wooden latch was for.
            Before I could even get to the first centerfold, Bill pulled out a huge knife from his bedside drawer. That got my attention. It was one of those “Rambo” knives with a compass on the end.
            “Where’d you get that thing? Is that the Rambo knife?”
            “Exactly the same. My cousin Doug got it for me.”
            His cousin Doug was starting to sound like a cool guy.
            Then he started unscrewing the round compass on the end of the handle and inside was a thick needle and black string.
            “You know what this is for don’t you?” he asked.
            I knew. I had seen First Blood ten times already. It was for sewing up knife wounds on your body. No freezing.
            “That’s right. And see how thick this needle is? That’s because you need it to be thick so it can go through your skin without it breaking.”
            Then he slid something else out of the handle. It was a shotgun shell.
            “If you ever get shot and the bullet goes all the way through you, you break open this shell and sprinkle the gunpowder in the bullet hole at both ends and light one end on fire. It will burn all the veins closed so you don’t bleed to death. It would hurt like a bitch though. You’d probably pass out from shock but it could save your life.”
            I just nodded.
            “Also, if you have this but you don’t have a gun, you can take a hammer and hit it right on the head and it’ll explode. I saw it in a horror movie called Phantasm.”
            “Cool. Do you have any horror movies we could watch?” I asked.
            “Yah, sure, I got all the Friday the 13th movies … but my Mom’s probably going to use the TV all night.”
            “Oh” I said, disappointed.
            “But don’t worry about that. Check this out.”
            And he went over to his dresser and opened the top drawer. The entire thing was filled with tapes. The heavy metal tapes. I peered in and quickly ran over the names on the cases. He kept pulling certain ones out and showing me the covers.
            AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood…You’ve Got It” showed a guy with a guitar stabbed through his body and covered in blood. Grim Reaper’s “Fear No Evil” had a skeleton in a cloak carrying a scythe and jumping a motorcycle through a stained glass window.
            That was the tape Bill decided to play for me first.
            “These guys are real Satanists. There’s all sorts of hidden messages in the songs. This is actually my cousin Doug’s tape but he lent it to me because he wanted to get it out of his house for a while. Strange things were happening that he couldn’t explain.”
            When the music started, I began to get paranoid. Weird fears began to gnaw at my brain. I could see out the window that it was already starting to get dark outside.
            Bill made me put my head close to the speaker.
            “Listen closely… it’s behind the music a bit, but he’s saying ‘friends with the devil, friends with the devil’. Can you hear it?”
            I couldn’t. All I could hear was “fear no evil” in a high falsetto voice.
            “But be careful”, he continued, “because if you hear it six times in a row, Doug says you could get possessed.”
            I shot my head away from the speaker and looked at his face, searching for any sign he was playing some kind of sick joke on me. He wasn’t. Bill still had his head close to the speaker but he suddenly slammed down the volume knob, cutting away the music.
            “Whoa! That was close. I heard it five times and half. “
            He turned the volume back up and looked at me strangely.
            “You scared?” he asked.
            “No” I lied. But I made a proposal.
            “How about we listen to something else? What about that Whitesnake?”
            “Don’t worry. The bad part of the song is over. It can’t hurt you now.  Let’s keep this on. You gotta hear the whole side.”
            Bill kept playing me tapes as we flipped through his Playboys. I was indulging in so much “bad stuff” that my nerves felt shredded. Hours seemed to pass.
            At some point a very loud bang from somewhere inside the house made both of us freeze and look at each other in horror.
            It sounded like something heavy had fallen over – a body? Bill sprung off the bed towards the ghetto blaster and stopped the tape, his eyes darting around the room, formulating some kind of plan in his head. His grabbed the Rambo knife and shot past me towards his bedroom door and put his ear to it, listening closely. He turned off the light switch (he later told me he did that in order to eliminate any shadows his feet made under the door), and motioned for me to be still even though I hadn’t moved from the moment I heard the horrible, ominous sound.
            All I could hear was what sounded like a newscast on television and the faint rumblings of his mother snoring on the couch. Bill quietly crept to his closet, grabbed something I couldn’t see and came over to me in a silent crouch.
            “Here”, he whispered, and put something into my hand.
It was a machete.
            “I don’t know what’s out there, but we’re going to have to deal with it. I think somebody or something just came into the house. I want you to take this machete, and when I open the door, you follow me and stand guard beside my Mom on the couch while I check it out. If anything comes near her, don’t be afraid to use it. I’m trusting you with my Mom’s life. Don’t be nervous.”
            Before he started towards the latched door, he brought the Rambo blade up to his mouth and kissed it while closing his eyes for a moment, as if he was saying some kind of silent prayer.
            I followed him in a sort of daze. The machete was heavy in my small hands. Nothing felt real. Bill opened the latch slowly and crept out.
            The front door to the house was wide open and you could hear a heavy wind outside which had blown some leaves into the room. His mother had slept through whatever happened and lay there with one arm hanging off the couch touching the floor. If she wasn’t snoring, I would have assumed she’d already been murdered by the way she lay there.
            Bill pointed to his eyes and then pointed at his mother, meaning he wanted me to go to her now and stand beside her. He then pointed to the open door, indicating he was going out there.
            While he crept closer to the door, I stood there beside his mother with the machete. I was looking down at her, praying to God that she wouldn’t wake up and see me standing there with a machete in my hands.  
            He was at the door now and he got into an attack stance, knees bent, Rambo knife held out in stab position, the other hand in a tightly balled fist for backup.
            Then in one incredible move he launched into a somersault, rolled out the door, sprung to his feet and began thrusting the blade in both directions going “Hey! Hey!”
            It was such a wild maneuver that I instinctively raised the machete, just from adrenaline alone.
The next thing I heard was the sound of his Mother’s voice saying “Jesus Christ!”
            Her hand shot out and grabbed my arm, causing the machete to fall out of my hand and hit the floor with a loud clang.
            Bill ran back inside going “Mom, Mom, its okay, he was just trying to protect you. Someone broke into the house!”
            “Who broke into the house?? What the Christ are you talking about?” She still hadn’t let go of my arm. It hurt.
            “The door, Mom! The front door was open. Someone broke it open!” Bill pleaded.
            “Bill, have you lost your goddamned mind? Put that knife down!”
            She finally let go of my arm and I watched it turn beet red at the wrist.
            “For Christ’s sake Bill! It’s windy out tonight and you probably forgot to shut the door properly on your way in. You have to push it near the top because it’s warped. You know that! You two idiots almost gave me a goddamned heart attack.”
            Bill still looked around, unconvinced.
            “I’m going to bed now. I don’t want to hear any bullshit with the music or the knives or the jumping around. I don’t care if you stay up and watch a movie, but I want these knives put away, those leaves swept up and the door closed properly and locked. You got it?”
            “Yes, Mom.”
            I remember thinking it was strange to hear him say “Yes, Mom” just like I did at home. I wasn’t afraid of Bill any more. I was afraid of his Mother.


            “Want to see something else cool?”
He was talking about bats. Huge bats.
            We stood outside in the howling wind with flittering shapes darting across the moonlight, swooping down through branches and whistling past our ears. All I could see were intimations of skeletal wings and black hair. I was horrified and instinctively got into a low crouch on the ground.
            “I told you. There’s hundreds of ‘em out here every night. 100 percent pure bred Vampire Bats!”
            “Bill! Let’s go back inside! I don’t like these things!”
            “Don’t show your fear. Vampire Bats can smell it.”
            I was on the verge of tears now and was about to make a run for the door when I saw that a huge bat was hanging from the porch, the biggest I had ever seen in my short life. It looked like it was staring at me, waiting for me to try to make that door. I was trapped.
            One of the bats flitted off of Bill’s face and he freaked out a little, slapping the air and doing a panicky dance of fear.
            “Okay you fuckin’ bats. Let’s see how you like me now!”
            Bill crawled over to where a hockey stick was lying in a pile of raked leaves. He grabbed it and got back to his feet, brandishing the Sher-Wood like a pole axe, both hands on the butt end with the blade like a scythe.
            He waited for a moment, his eyes darting into the shifting, swirling darkness. Then he slashed the stick in a tight arc through the air above his head and connected with something.
            There was now a wounded bat flopping around at his feet. Incredibly, he had knocked one right out of the air, right before my eyes. He then brought the stick up again over his head and brought it down squarely onto the poor little creature. There was a horrible squeal and that’s all I could take.
            I ran blindly to the door, punching and clawing at the air. I opened my eyes long enough to see that the bat hanging on the porch was no longer there but the black shapes were still streaming by the porch light and at any moment I expected one to latch onto my face.
            I pushed the door open and ran inside to the kitchen area, shaking my whole body in spastic jerks just in case one of them was attached to me somehow. Events were spiraling out of control.
            As I turned around, I witnessed two horrible images that I can still see to this day. One was Bill, still slashing at the sky with that stick in the moonlight with a crazed, angry look on his face, and two, a bat flying into the house through the open door and flapping its way around the ceiling.
            The bat seemed to panic and crashed loudly into a bunch of pots and pans hanging from an iron frame above the counter. It looked huge to me but I had shrunk to about two inches at this point.
            The door to Bill’s mother’s room burst open and she came out in a nightgown. She looked around in confusion and a look of rage began to take over her face but then the bat buzzed her. She let out a frenzied scream and leaped back into her room, slamming the door.
            “Bill! There’s one in the house!” I screamed.
            In an instant he appeared through the doorway and I saw his eyes narrow, searching the ceiling like an assassin. The bat had settled for a moment on top of a curtain rod.
            Then his mother started barking from the other side of the bedroom door.
            “Goddamn it Bill!! Get that fucking bat out of my house!” Then she let out this low moan, and I could hear her feet tapping on the floor and I knew she was still reliving the horror of that bat buzzing her hair.
            “I’ll get the machete” was Bill’s response.
            The thought of Bill killing another one of these things was too much.
            “No Bill! We don’t need to kill it. We just need to get it out of the house. Go get a bed sheet.”
            The solution had come to me without thinking. I had seen it in a movie once. You get a bed sheet, you spread it out with one guy at either end, and you force the bat out the door. I was scared but I felt like I could do it. I had faced a swarm of bats just minutes before. One bat didn’t seem so bad.
            Bill nodded his head in agreement and went and pulled the dirty sheet off his bed and brought it out. I took control of the situation, giving him instructions on how to hold his end and what to do when we got it cornered. He seemed dubious but when I explained I had seen it in a movie, he bought in completely.
            “Wait” I said, “I need to open the door first so we can guide him out.”
            I dropped my end of the sheet and raced over to the front door while the bat still flapped around the kitchen area.
            As soon as I opened it another bat flew in above my head.
            I was so startled by this that I basically panicked and forgot all about our bed sheet plan.
            The two bats went absolutely crazy and began to swoop even lower, one of them fluttering for a moment at his mother’s door. I ran right for Bill’s room and he was right behind me. He slammed the door behind him and threw down the heavy wooden latch.
            His Mom screamed, “Bill! What’s going on? Did you get it out?”
            “No Mom. Now there’s two bats in here. We don’t know what to do.”
            “Two bats?? Jesus Christ, Bill, I’m going to kill you goddammit! I’m calling Murray!”
            Breathlessly, Bill explained that Murray was his Cousin Doug’s father and they both lived down the road.
After a few minutes, Bill called back out to his Mother.
            “Mom? Is Murray bringing over Doug too?”
            “I guess so, since you two are so fucking useless.”
Suddenly Bill seemed braver and began to formulate another plan. I don’t think he wanted his cousin Doug to see him cowering in his room. He said he was going to use the machete this time and that I could take the Rambo knife. I told him I wasn’t doing any such thing and that I was staying in the room until this Murray guy came and took care of the situation.
When we heard a truck pull up into the driveway about five minutes later, Bill went out into the living room holding the machete like Mr. Cool. I quickly shut the door and dropped the latch behind him.
I heard two sets of heavy work boots walk into the house and Bill’s mother shouting “Is that you Murray?”
“Yap.  Are you hidin’ out in your room there Sheila?”
I could hear the sound of three people laughing, one of them Bill. What a phony. But for the first time I considered going out there to save some face. Until I heard Murray say “Holy Jesus, would you look at the size of that one”.
“Bill, put down that goddamned machete will ya? You’ll never cut a bat down with one of those anyways.”
“I took one down with a hockey stick outside, Uncle Murray. I’ll show you later when we get these ones”.
I heard Cousin Doug say “Sweet” in a raspy teenaged voice.
For the next 25 minutes there was a series of crashes and bangs and swearing, but soon I heard the front door slam shut and some celebratory high fives.
“You can come on out now Sheila. We got ‘em both through the door”, said Uncle Murray.
I figured this was a good time to come out of hiding too but my appearance seemed to shock everybody. I tried on a brave smile and said “They’re gone?”
“Christ, who’s that young fella?” asked Uncle Murray.
Murray wore a faded Almonte Fair t-shirt and a beat up St. Louis Cardinals hat with one of the most enormous beer guts I’d ever seen spilling over the belt on his green work pants.
Cousin Doug was rail thin with dirty blond hair hanging out of an AC/DC ball cap and had a cigarette in his mouth, leaning up against the counter. He looked like some kind of cartoon bird.
“Oh, that’s Bill’s friend, the other genius” said his Mother derisively.
“Jeez, we coulda used your help there young man” snickered Murray. “I guess the bats kinda spooked ya eh?”         
This was the occasion for another huge laugh which finished up with Murray saying “I don’t ‘spose I earned a late night beer now did I there Sheila?”
Sheila went to the fridge and got two cold beers, one for Murray and one for Cousin Doug, even though he couldn’t have been more than 16.
Bill asked “Where’s my beer?” and almost got slapped by his mother.
Murray took a deep slug that drained half the bottle. Cousin Doug tried to do the same and we all stood around the kitchen for a while, someone occasionally saying “Yep… Bats.”


I remember sleeping on Bill’s floor that night, shaken, bleary, half-crazy and all I could think about was getting back home once the sun came up.
His Mother drove me there chain-smoking the entire way with the windows closed, Ronnie Milsap tapes playing on the stereo. Bill sat in the front next to his Mom with his feet on the dash.
When we got to my house, I got out of the car and a cloud of smoke blew out with me. My skin looked yellow and my mouth tasted like the Pizza Pops I had for breakfast.
Without as much as a “Bye” or even a wave from Bill, they turned around in the driveway and tore the gravel up as they blasted back onto the road, leaving a dust cloud billowing into the air.
I leaned over and puked on the front lawn.
My old man walked out wondering who the hell tore up his driveway when he saw me standing there like some kind of mangy dog that wandered in from the road.
“Jesus Christ. What happened to you?”
I threw up again in front of him.
“Kim, get out here. Your son is puking on our front lawn.”
My mother rushed out, took one look at me and gasped. She threw her arms around me and said “Oh, my baby boy!” and took me inside where my brother and sisters stared at me like I was a homeless person.
My dad caught one whiff of my clothes and told me to take them off so he could burn them. But my mother wouldn’t let him. I was wearing my good jeans.
I got into the bath while my father hosed down the puke on the grass.
I tried to tell Mom all that had happened but I gave up half way through.  I just wanted to sleep.
For I had been to hell and back and heard the voice of the Devil and battled his winged creatures.
But I was still alive.
And now I was the real Heavy Metal Kid.