TITLE: Own Goal
COVER ARTIST: Lori Witt
Eight seasons ago, Jarek Badura made the biggest mistake of his career, earning him the nickname “Joke.” He’s been fighting ever since to prove that season was a fluke, and he’s only just started to leave it behind, finally regaining some respect and securing his place as second line center.
But his team just made a new acquisition, and suddenly he’s linemates with the man who was the unknowing catalyst for his fall from grace all those years ago.
After seven long seasons, Hunter Michaud is done carrying his disastrously managed team. An unrestricted free agent, he startles the hockey world by accepting an offer elsewhere, signing with a team that works together and builds on each other’s strengths. And it doesn’t hurt that one of Hunter’s longtime idols is on the roster.
He just doesn’t realize how much his career is already intertwined with Jarek’s.
Or how much resentment is waiting for him in Pittsburgh.
Or how much chemistry is hiding under the ice between them.
Own Goal is a 125,000-word contemporary hockey romance that isn't currently part of a series, but the author doesn't dare declare it a standalone because that's just asking for it. For fans of slow burns, grumpy sunshine, enemies to lovers, and teammates to lovers!
CW: Verbal abuse (remembered and on-page), some physical violence (on and off ice).
“You know what would make this game more interesting?” I gestured down the green as Dima and I stepped out of our golf cart to join Ferns and Dolls at the sixth hole.
Dolls cocked a brow, glancing up from selecting a club from his bag. “If Ferns could actually stay under par once in a while?”
“Hey!” Ferns snarled something in Swedish, which only made Dolls chuckle.
“I mean, yes,” I said. “That would help. But that’s not what I was thinking.”
My three teammates eyed me.
I smirked and gestured down the green again. “Goalies.”
Ferns and Dima both laughed. Dolls looked like he might be considering it.
Dima must’ve caught the interested spark in our teammate’s eye. “I dare you.” He nodded back toward the parking lot. “You have your mask in car, don’t you?”
Dolls pursed his lips and nodded. No surprise—we’d all been doing some light practicing at the training center lately, including this morning. “Pads, too. Should I get them?”
“Ugh, no.” Ferns tapped Dolls’ shoe with his club. “Just take your swing. I don’t want to get kicked out because you tore up the grass with your skates.”
“Fuck off.” Dolls rolled his eyes and went to tee up. “I wouldn’t wear my skates on the grass.”
And with that, we were all off and running, working out what the rules would be for golf with a goalie, whether each golfer would have his own goalie, or if the goalie would be his own entity trying to fuck up all our scores. The conversation continued for the next three holes, with the usual pauses each time one of us teed up and took a swing, not to mention the chirping at Ferns for consistently being three or four over par.
“We should have goalies,” Dima said sagely after the ninth hole. “The three of us”—he gestured at me, Dolls, and himself—“so Ferns has a chance.”
The laughter almost drowned out the string of Swedish profanity.
The conversation drifted, the golf continued, and I savored this relaxed pace. We still had weeks to go before training camp started, and though we all religiously kept up our workouts on and off the ice, we took advantage of every opportunity we had to enjoy the downtime.
Ferns and Dolls—Rune Fernholm and Mikael Dalström, respectively—had come back two weeks ago from Sweden, and I’d been here for about a week after spending a month and a half with my family in Kladno. I was always exhausted after the long trip to Pittsburgh from Czechia, and I traveled either alone or with my sister; I had no idea how the two of them managed the journeys from Sweden with their wives and the five children they had between them. Maybe that was why the families always traveled together.
Dima—Dmitry Meknikov—usually went home to Yekaterinburg, but his son was born early in the offseason, and Dima had surgery on his elbow three weeks after that. I didn’t blame them for holding off on travel this time. Fortunately, his wife’s family lived in Montreal, so they’d come down to help with the baby while everyone recovered.
Dima had been a little worried he wouldn’t heal from his surgery in time for next season, but judging by his golf swing, he wasn’t in any pain. Or, well, not enough to stop him from playing, anyway. With hockey players, that didn’t mean much.
“Does your surgeon know you’re golfing?” I asked as we rode in the cart toward the twelfth hole. “And does Coach?”
“I feel fine.” He bent and straightened his arm as if to emphasize how fine he felt. “See? Healed!”
“Uh-huh. Like when Bauer’s knee was ‘just fine’ when he came back for the playoffs?”
“Pfft.” Dima rolled his eyes. “I’m fine.”
Yeah, we’d see about that.
I just chuckled, and we continued after Dolls and Ferns. It had taken me a long time to find this chill vibe with some teammates. Wearing sweaters for four teams in three seasons didn’t really do much for bonding with the other guys, especially when I’d been trying to claw my way back up from a spectacular fall from grace. Luckily, Pittsburgh had seen something in me. They’d claimed me off waivers halfway through that one season, and in the years since then, I’d found my groove.
Being reunited with Dima, my best friend from major juniors, had helped a lot. Through him, I’d become close to Dolls and Ferns as well. We were a tightknit group now, golfing together, working out together, eating together. I’d found my professional groove, too; working my way up from the fourth line to the second. I’d never see the top line as long as our captain and star center, Chase Mayweather, was still playing, and I could absolutely live with that.
Another season or two like this, and maybe people would forget about my third year. The one that still hung like an albatross around my neck, along with the nickname I’d earned that season: Joke Badura.
I shuddered at the thought, rolling my shoulders under my sun-warmed shirt. I wasn’t going to think about all that. Not right now. It was a lovely day. I was playing some damn good golf. I was out with my closest friends. Everything was fine in ways it hadn’t been for a long time, and the clouds of the past weren’t going to close in and rain on it. No fucking way.
It was my turn to swing. I hit the ball and watched it sail through the air in a satisfying arc. It landed a lot closer to the hole than I’d thought it would, bounced twice, and then rolled even closer.
“Oh, that’s bullshit,” Ferns grumbled, following it with some Swedish curses.
“Eh, he could still blow it,” Dolls said cheerfully as he teed up his own ball. “You could beat him if he goes…” He furrowed his brow. “Hey, Dima. How far over par would Yars have to go for Ferns to beat him?”
Dima picked up the scorecard. “Uh…” He furrowed his brow, lips moving as if he were mumbling to himself. Then he looked at us and announced, “Seventeen.”
“Right.” Dolls gave a sharp nod. “So if Yars completely blows this hole and the next—”
“Yeah, you’d love it if I blew a hole,” I muttered, and threw a tee at his head. It bounced off his baseball cap, and he flipped me the bird.
Ferns huffed with annoyance. “You all suck.”
“Um, actually?” Dima held up the scorecard. “According to the numbers—”
I snickered. To be fair, Ferns was a spectacular eight ball player, and no one on the team could beat him at soccer. He was just utterly snakebitten when it came to golf.
Dolls had apparently done enough chirping to warrant some karma from the gods, because his ball ended up in the weeds. Now it was Ferns snarking and joking while Dolls swore and grumbled. Dima and I just chuckled and shook our heads as we headed for the carts.
I was just teeing up to sink the ball when someone’s phone went off. I turned a look on my friends. “What the fuck? I thought phones were off unless someone’s wife might go into labor?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Dolls pulled out his phone. “But it’s Delphi.”
That shut us all up. Ferns, Dima, and I exchanged wide-eyed looks while Dolls took the call. Delphi—Greg Torkelson to everyone else—was one of the team’s scouts. He’d earned the nickname Oracle of Delphi because he was scary good at predicting which prospects would do well and who would tank. On three separate occasions, he’d urged our GM to pass on some top-rated draft prospects, insisting he use our first round picks to select some no-name kids from teams with tepid records.
Sports analysts had lost their minds over it, saying Pittsburgh’s GM needed to be fired for pissing away the opportunity to grab potential generational talents.
As it turned out, all three of the coveted top picks had flamed out after a season or two. The three nobodies? One was Ferns, who’d been paired with a useless D partner on an awful major junior team, but had blossomed under our coaches and had already set two League records for defenseman. Another was a goalie who’d been almost unstoppable for seven seasons, and he was now a nightmare to play against after he’d signed with Dallas as a free agent two years ago. The third sleeper had spent most of last season tearing it up in the minors, and would almost certainly be brought up this year or next.
This year’s draft was over, but free agency had kicked off this week. Delphi had been tight-lipped about that, though. We knew there were a number of blockbuster players shopping around for offers, and after two of our forwards and Dolls’ backup goalie retired after last season, Pittsburgh had cap space to burn. There was no telling what kind of talent our GM was going to sign, and I was admittedly on pins and needles now that Delphi was calling.
“Think they grabbed O’Brien?” Dima whispered.
“God, I hope so,” I replied, watching Dolls for tells. O’Brien was a defenseman playing for Denver, and everyone wanted him on their team. I suspected Denver would re-sign him, though. He probably just wanted to see what he could get on the free agent market before he committed. Couldn’t blame him.
Suddenly, Dolls straightened. His jaw went slack. “No. You’re lying.” His eyes lost focus, but they kept getting bigger. “Are you—you’re fucking serious? You can’t be—are you sure? And it’s a done deal?” Dolls murmured something I didn’t catch, and he paced back and forth on the green. Goalies were high-energy and twitchy anyway, and Dolls could never stay still for long, but this seemed… different.
My chest tightened, and I again exchanged looks with Ferns and Dima. They had the same expressions on their faces—nervous excitement. The front office had landed someone big, hadn’t they? Someone exceptional?
Maybe that centerman out of Los Angeles? Or that incredible right winger in Boston who could stick handle in a phonebooth? Hell, maybe they had snagged O’Brien.
Finally, Dolls ended the call and lowered his phone, turning a stunned look on us.
“Well?” Ferns prompted. “What did he say?”
Dolls glanced at the phone in his hand as if it might clarify something. Then he shook his head and faced us again. When he spoke, he sounded dazed: “We just signed Hunter Michaud.”
Dima and Ferns were immediately calling bullshit and telling him that couldn’t be true. A second later, they were whooping and hollering, celebrating our team’s acquisition of one of the biggest generational talents the League had ever seen.
My heart hit the grass at my feet.
The clouds I’d tried so hard to keep at bay were dark and thick, swirling around my head as my teammate’s words echoed in my ears.
My team had acquired…
Hunter Michaud was going to be on my goddamned team?
Any team that wanted to win wanted Michaud. It was a no-brainer to snatch him up if the opportunity arose, even if it meant jettisoning half the roster to free up cap space. Our GM should get a medal for wooing him into signing with Pittsburgh.
But that didn’t mean I could stomach being on the same team as Michaud.
“Hey. Jarek.” Dima nudged my shoulder. “You still here?”
I shook myself and forced a laugh. “Yeah. I’m… Yeah, I’m still here.”
None of the guys looked convinced in the slightest. In fact, they were all studying me uncertainly.
My face heated, and I cleared my throat. “We should…” I nodded down the green. “We’re going to start holding up other players.”
“Yars.” Dolls inclined his head. “We just signed Hunter—”
“I know we did,” I snapped, and regretted my sharp tone even before my three teammates jumped. I exhaled hard. “Yeah, it’s great. But we should…” I again gestured toward the hole. “Before we start holding up everyone else.”
They weren’t convinced and weren’t trying to hide it, but they let it go. In awkward silence, we continued golfing.
Or, well… they continued golfing. I was extremely competitive at everything I did, but I couldn’t play for shit now. My concentration was gone, and my enthusiasm wasn’t far behind.
In the end, Ferns almost beat me after all. Came within a stroke or two, I thought. I didn’t really pay attention.I couldn’t say I fucking cared.