WHEN I was seven years old, the coolest thing that can happen to a seven-year-old happened to me.
I met my hero. Only he wasn’t my hero yet.
I don’t remember as much as I’d like about that day. A lot of the experience has blurred in my mind since then. I know it was snowing, as it often is in northern Vermont in March. Not hard—the kind of snow that falls quietly around you, so quietly that sometimes you forget it’s there. My mother must have dropped me off at practice on her way to an early shift at the creamery, and she probably told me my father would pick me up later. Casey didn’t have practice that morning, and he’d been watching TV so intently when I left the house that he didn’t even wave good-bye to me.
The lights in the rink seemed unusually bright that day. Maybe that was because we had the rink all to ourselves, which was strange—normally we shared ice time with at least one other peewee team. But our team had just made the play-offs. We were skating alone that day, because there weren’t any other teams left in the area to share the ice with.
Our coach that year was Coach McAlden. He was older, with white hair. I thought he yelled too much, and I remember hoping Casey didn’t have him as a coach in a few years.
Our team was sitting on benches outside of the rink waiting for practice to start when Coach told us he had a surprise for us. And then an enormous man stepped out from behind him.
He was at least three inches taller than my dad, and he probably had twice as much muscle on his limbs. His hair and eyes were dark. He was younger than our coach, but not as young as my teacher, Mr. Sanfried.
“Kids,” Coach McAlden told us, “this is John LeClair. He’s an old friend of mine. He’s from St. Albans, right down the street from here. He played in the NHL and the Olympics. Won a Stanley Cup.”
My entire world shifted in that moment.
I was only seven, but people were already asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Asking me what I liked to do. The problem was that I liked to do everything. Math was okay, and Mr. Sanfried said I was a good writer, and I knew I could read better than most of the kids in the class. There was only one thing I liked to do more than anything else: play hockey.
I had watched plenty of NHL games at that point, and I knew there were people who played hockey for a job. People whose entire worlds were ice rinks and pads. But up until then, it had never occurred to me that playing hockey was something people like me did for a living. Something people from Colby, Vermont, could do for a living. People in Colby became store owners and teachers and nurses and construction workers, or they had jobs in offices in Burlington where they did things with computers all day. They didn’t become hockey players.
Only maybe they did. Because St. Albans was less than twenty miles away from Colby. If someone from St. Albans could become a professional hockey player, maybe someone from Colby could too.
“Mr. LeClair was very impressed when I told him about your season,” Coach McAlden told us. “He agreed to come talk to you about what it’s like to be a professional hockey player. Does anyone have any questions for him?”
My hand shot into the air. And it never really came down.
At some point he signed pictures for all of us. When it was my turn, he asked me my name.
“Emmitt,” I told him. “Emmitt LaPoint. Kind of like your name!”
He laughed. “Close. You asked a lot of great questions, Emmitt.”
“I have lots more,” I told him. “I didn’t even get to ask you about other positions you played and what it was like being on the Olympic team and—”
He laughed again. “Why don’t I give you my e-mail address? You can have your parents help you send me all your other questions.”
I’m sure I told him I didn’t need help, even though I probably did. And then I walked away, reverently staring at a signed picture of John LeClair that said To Emmitt—keep playing hockey, and keep having fun!
And a scrap of paper with his e-mail address.
The first thing I did when I got home was take out a notebook and start writing. I wrote pages and pages to John LeClair that day. I asked him about his family and his friends and hockey plays and teams and everything I could think of. I wrote more words that day than I’d probably written in my entire life. It was sloppy and full of misspellings and other errors, and it’s still one of the best things I’ve ever written.
Only I never sent it.
I’m still not sure why. All I know is that when I looked back at the pages I’d written, I already knew they weren’t for anyone but me. Even though the first page had John LeClair’s name at the top.
After that, though, I started writing letters to John LeClair all the time. I began filling notebooks with letters, and the collection of notebooks grew over the years. It’s been over nine years since I started writing to John LeClair, and I’ve never sent him a single letter. All of them still live under my bed, in a bin with video games for systems that aren’t sold anymore and artwork I made in elementary school. For years, every horrible and wonderful thing that happened to me lived in the pages of one of those notebooks, stuck somewhere between my life and John LeClair’s.
I still write in those notebooks, but not as much as I used to. Lately I’ve been thinking about when that changed. I think it happened last fall, at the beginning of my junior year of high school. That’s when my world shifted under me again.
That’s when I met Dustin Jackson Porter.
In hockey, when you score a goal and lights start flashing and sirens go off, they say you “lit the lamp.” When I first saw Dusty, it was like a million goal lights went off in my brain.
And they’ve been going off ever since.