Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Excellent Day for an Exorcism*

In the dressing room of the Detroit Red Wings...

Mike Babcock, an air of intense concern underlying his death stare, peers out the door at the gathered crowd. He speaks, his voice low and urgent. "I need a young priest and an old priest."

The crowd parts and two figures, clad soberly in dark suits, step forward. Their red and white collars clash mildly with the purple stoles around their necks, but no one seems to notice, let alone mind. Babcock nods to them and steps aside to wave them in. "Stevie. Ted. Thanks for coming."

The Captain nods solemnly. "How could we not?"

Mr. Lindsay holds a battered black valise clasped in his age-weathered hands. "In your hour of need, we could never turn away."

Babcock nods. "Come in."

The dressing room door closes and all three men turn to survey the scene before them. Support and front office staff stand at the ready, looking weary ad worried. The entire Red Wings roster fills the dressing room. They sit before their numbers in front of the cubbies and appear to be bound to the benches. In the center of the room, so packed in that there isn't space to slip a sheet of paper between them, stands a row of 9 medical gurneys. Lilja, Cleary, Williams, Zetterberg, Filppula, Ericsson, Kronwall, Franzen, and Rafalski lie on the crisp white sheets, hospital restraints binding them in place.

As Babs, Stevie, and Ted approach, Hank raises his head and grins, his teeth bright among the wild tangle of his beard. His face appears scratched and infected and his skin has a gastly green tint. His upper body lifts off the table, but his left shoulder dangles sickly behind him. His voice cackles, rough and menacing. "What an excellent day for an exorcism."

The sound of maniacal laughter wells up from the other players, and Babcock shoves his hands nervously into his pockets. You'd never know by looking at his face. "Do you guys, you know, want some background first?"

Ted Lindsay shakes his head. "Why?"

The Captain places a commiserating hand on the coach's shoulder. "We already know, Mike."

"Number 9!" Franzen shrieks, laughing and struggling against his restraints, kneeing the air like a Rockette. "Number 9!"

"And he don't mean good ol' Gordie," Rafalski hisses. Blood dripsruns from the stitches on his upper lip as green mucus drips from his nose. "Number 9. We're 9th in the conference, boys. Out of the playoffs. Now kindly undo these straps."

Yzerman reaches into Lindsay's valise and takes out a tray of Holy Ice. He chucks a cube at the American defenseman. "Only for the moment. There are still plenty of points out there."

"Remember," Lindsay says, grasping the Captain by the arm and watching him intently, "avoid conversation with it. We can ask who it is, why it's here, but anything beyond that would be dangerous."

Yzerman removes a tatter Red Wings playbook from the large bag and hands it to Terrible Ted with a nod. "They've been quoting the media, saying they're through. That all that talk about dynasties was premature. They're saying they won't make the playoffs."

"41 points!" Cleary cackles.

"41!" the other players echo, and the chilling sound of evil raises gooseflesh on all those who listen.

"The demon is a liar." Lindsay opens the playbook, marking his place with a ribbon. "He'll try to confuse us with lies and will mix in the truth as an attack against us. It's a powerful psychological attack. Do not listen to him."

He makes a gesture and both retired Red Wings turn to face the players. The team struggles hard against their bindings and begins to growl, low and ominous.

"Let's begin." Lindsay holds up a hand. In it rests the game puck from 4 June 2008. "Save us, o' Hockey Gods, by your inscrutable power. By your might defend our reputation. Inferior teams have risen up against us. Teams of poor sportsmen and dirty bastards seek our playoff spot, but you can help us. Lord Stanley sustains our record and has delivered his cup to us 11 times. Glory be to the Red Wings."

Yzerman murmurs, "As it was in the beginning, was far from in the 70s, but shall be ever more."

A collective moan rises from the players. Several begin to scream Swedish, Russian, Finnish, or French-Canadian obscenities.

"Hear our cry for help," Lindsay continues, "and snatch from ruination and from the clutches of the injury bug this team of greatness. Take from them the game night borderline hits and the pernicious flu. Drive from them the snakebite of self-doubt and low confidence and cleanse them of malaise and lackluster performance. Let them once again strike terror into the heart of the beast, their rivals, and let the season of despair release this team from captivity.

Yzerman chucks ice cubes at the players, who recoil and writhe in pain. "Hockey Gods, you who gave to us the sacred Cup, entrusting it to your apostle, Lord Stanley, and through him to this team 11 times, grant this team pardon for their missed shots and lazy starts, for their performances in Sweden, and for the games they appeared to not take seriously. Give them the power to reach for number 12."

In the center of the room, Kronwall throws his body around the gurney with such force that all 9 of the wheeled tables shift more than a foot to the left. Babcock, Kenny Holland, Brad McCrimmon, and Jim Bedard rush forward and brace themselves on either end of the row, trying to hold the injured players in place.

"Keep going, Ted!" Mike Ilitch shouts from the corner of the room. "Stevie, keep going! I think it's working!"

"I command you to leave this team!" Lindsay yells, grabbing a handful of ice from Yzerman's tray and flinging it at the players on the gurneys even as Yzerman continues to pelt those on the benches. "Depart from these players now and never return!"

In front of his cubby, Ville Leino opens his mouth and spews a thick and vile green liquid onto Piet Van Zant and Paul Boyer. Pavel Datsyuk's head spins a slow 360-degrees, and shallow slices begin to appear on the face of a glowing-eyed Darren Helm.

"The power of the Cup compels you!" Lindsay shouts.

"The power of the Cup compels you!" Yzerman echoes.

One by one, the members of the front office and support staff join in the chant. "The power of the Cup compels you! The power of the Cup compels you!"

"Hockeytown compels you!"

"Hockeytown compels you!"

"The power of the Cup commands you!"

An enormous crash thunders through the room and the ground shakes as if an earthquake just struck downtown Detroit. There is a flash of blinding light and several hoarse shouts can be heard through the din.

When the room settles back into silence, people can be seem picking themselves up from the floor. The players on the benches sit or sprawl in boneless exhaustion and those on the gurneys lie quietly.

Rising slowly to his feet, Mike Babcock straightens his lucky tie and looks impassively at Lindsay and Yzerman. "Is that it? Is it over?"

Lindsay sighs and shakes his head. "For the moment."

"We've done all we can," Yzerman agrees. "That is, without resorting to human sacrifice. I mean, don't get me wrong, but I've done my part for the team. I won my Cups. I started the 18 year playoff run. I'm not ready to throw myself out a window, or down a stairway or anything."

"So we just wait for the next game and see what happens?"

Lindsay places the last of the ritual tools in the valise and snaps it shut. "That's up to you, Mike. But I can't deny that if it were me, I probably wouldn't be satisfied until I'd tried six ways from Sunday to fix things."

Babcock escorts them to the dressing room door and sighs as he reaches for the doorknob. His expression doesn't shift. "That's what I thought. Thanks for coming by, guys. We appreciate it."

Yzerman and Lindsay nod and leave. Babcock looks out over the crowd gathered outside. After a few seconds, he points to a dark figure dressed in a colorful tribal costume, complete with beads, feathers, and bones.

"You," he barks. "You're up next. Get in here."

The witchdoctor steps into the dressing room, where he and Babs disappear from sight. Outside, the crowd subsides with a murmur. The rabbi and the Orthodox priest return to their discussion, and the witch and the Native American shaman resume their game of chess. It had been an excellent day for an exorcism, but the night is still young. And there's still half the season to go...

*All due credit and thanks to William Peter Blatty and The Exorcist