“Did I hear you say that you don’t have plans for Christmas?”
I looked up – way up – to see Jordan Staal standing over me. We were on the bus, on the way from a game in Anaheim back to our hotel.
“Yeah, I can’t decide what to do.” I patted the empty seat next to me, and he stepped over and plopped down. My neck was cramping from looking that high.
“So we play the 22rd in Minnesota and the 27th in Toronto. That’s 4 full days in between. Why not go home?” he asked.
Home was a small town below the Redwood Forest in Northern California. The nearest airport was 2+ hours away, and it was just a small municipal airport. Getting in and out was never easy especially having to fly-cross country in winter with layovers and snowstorms.
“I tried, it just doesn’t work. I couldn’t leave Montreal till the morning of the 24th, and I wouldn’t get home till late Christmas Eve. I’d have to leave early on the 26th, connect, and get back late that night. I’d be a wreck,” I explained. It was exhausting even to describe. “It’s okay, I’ll got home in January.
Jordan nodded. “So would you stay in Montreal? Go back to Pittsburgh?”
“I don’t know. I hate to do all that flying, plus it’s only a week away and it’s so expensive. But I don’t want to spend Christmas alone in Canada.” I shrugged.
“Well then, you should come home with me,” he said. “My parents are coming to the Minnesota game then we’re flying to Thunder Bay. I’ll fly to Toronto on the morning of the 27th.” He smiled. “Everyone’s coming home.”
“Jordan, it’s Christmas! Your family doesn’t want orphans running around.”
“Abby,” he said, seriously. “There will be so many people, they might never notice you were there.” Then he punched me lightly on the leg. “I’m kidding! What’s one more person? And a girl, no less. My mom would die.” He was getting more excited. “You have to come.”
Jordan’s plan sounded really nice. I knew he had a huge family and I was willing to bet they were all as fun and friendly as Jordan. I’d never met his brothers who played in the NHL, but I knew they were close and he always looked forward to crossing paths with their teams. And I really didn’t want to spend Christmas alone in a hotel in a strange city. But it’s Christmas! Family time and all that. Well not my family, but we’re a little different. My parents had always been really relaxed about holidays, which was great because getting to my hometown was a production. So I went when it was easy, not when it was required.
“Say you’ll think about it,” he interrupted me, holding up his hand.
I relented. He went back to his seat and I opened my book… and three pages later, he was back. “I called my mom. She loves it. I told her you’re coming for sure.”
“Jordan!” I smacked his shoulder. “I can’t believe you…”
He put his hands up. “It’s done now! Staal Family Christmas plus you.” He leaned down. “Uhh… and, well, I told her you were not in any way but you know how moms are.” He turned to go.
“What?! Wait.” I started to stand, and he came back.
“I think there’s a chance that she might, maybe, think you are my girlfriend.” He grimaced.
I pressed my head back into the seat. “Oh my God.” I had to laugh. This was so typical of parents. Every time I walked past a guy at home – in a store, a restaurant, riding a bike – my mom asked ‘What about him?’
I opened my eyes. Jordan was blushing. “Have you ever brought a girl home for Christmas before?”
“No,” he shook his head. “I had a girlfriend in high school, but she was local. Since then… no.” He laughed. “Jeez, no wonder she hopes you’re my girlfriend.”
It was done, I had to give in. Besides, the idea was really sounding great despite the misunderstanding. If there even was one. “Okay, I will go with you.” His face lit up. “But you have to remind your mom before then that I’m not your girlfriend.”
“Definitely.” He nodded, and walked away. He waited till he was half the bus away to turn and say, at full volume so no one would miss it, “But I’m still sneaking into your room at night.”
I put my head down on my book as a hail of catcalls and whistles followed.
“What do I pack?” I asked.
My roommate Rebecca was standing in my closet. I was at the bed, folding socks into my suitcase. Clothes were piled everywhere – clean and dirty laundry, work clothes, travel clothes, winter clothes.
“Well you have three games and three work travel days, so six work outfits.” She counted out 6 suits. “Aim for pants, since it is winter in Canada.” She held up a black pinstripe suit with a flared pant. “Wear this one for the Minnesota game, to meet his family. It looks great on you.”
My job in media relations for the Pittsburgh Penguins required me to travel with the team. Or really, it required my boss to travel with the team but his wife was going through a tough pregnancy and he didn’t want to be away from the ‘Burgh. It was a pretty high profile task for me, but he knew I got along well with the players. Most of the team was near my own age of 23. And I had previously worked in New York at a publicity firm, so I had handled big name actors and directors before coming to Pittsburgh. Two months into the assignment, it was going well.
On game days and team travel days, I wore a suit. At any point on those days, an interview might be scheduled. On the off days in between, I could dress a little more casually. I still usually ended up at the morning skate handling press requests.
“Three more nice-ish outfits…” Rebecca tossed over some sweaters and trousers. “That’s good for work.” She started digging in some drawers.
“What about at the Staal’s?”
Something came flying at me and I grabbed it before it hit my face. It was a revealing red slip. “That’s for Christmas, in case Santa really does sneak into your room.” Rebecca laughed.
“Ha ha ha,” I said drily. “You are a perv. Nothing is going on with Jordan.” I tossed the slip onto one of the piles on the floor.
“I’m just saying,” she put her hands on her hips, “maybe you’ll be under some mistletoe and you know his mom already approves, so it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”
“Negative, ghostrider. He’ll probably snoop through my bag and when he sees that, he’ll die.”
Rebecca turned back to the closet, singing Led Zepplin: “Been a long time, been a long time, been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.”
At that moment, my phone rang. The screen said GRONK. “Hello?”
“Have you been a good girl this year?” he asked playfully.
“Sorry Santa, I already have plans for Christmas,” I said. Rebecca rolled her eyes at me.
“Well in that case, pack your mittens! Are you excited?”
“I am. I really am,” I said. “Hey Jordan, what do I pack besides mittens?”
Jordan picked me up the next day for our flight to Minneapolis. He promised to give me reconnaissance info on his family on the way to the airport. He took one look at my hot pink wheeled suitcase in the hallway and said, “No.”
“Jordan!” I pushed my other bag, a black duffle, into his arms. “I am bringing this suitcase. It never gets lost in the airport.”
“Who would steal something that color?” He asked.
“Not to fret,” I said, shutting the door behind me. “I will wheel it myself, macho man.”
The guys played well, anxious as they all were to get to their holiday plans and the Pens won 4-1. Post-game interviews were brief – it seemed a lot of the press were also off to their Christmases. I got a lot of good-natured flack as I stood around the locker room finishing up all the interviews.
Matt Cooke asked loudly, “Did you pack a lock for your door?” Then he looked at Jordan. “Ah hell, he’d just break it down anyway.”
“Watch out for this one, cherie,” said Max. “He’s not as innocent as he looks.”
Sidney held out a hockey stick. “Maybe sleep with this next to your bed.”
Geno offered, “If he not behave, we kill him later.”
Jordan egged them on, holding out his cell phone toward me. “Baby, can you hold this? I’ll get it back when we get home tonight.”
Jordan’s parents came to the locker room. Henry and Linda were very nice and seemed really happy that I’d be joining them for the holiday. They were staying at the team hotel that night, and everyone was heading out in the morning.
“Jordan knew he didn’t even have to ask,” she told me.
“Couldn’t have you spending Christmas alone somewhere, when we’re right here.” His father said. “Plus, even I think we need more women around that house.”
“We’re taking Jordan for dinner when he’s done here. I hope you’ll join us.” When everyone was wrapped, we headed to a nearby diner. Linda slid into the booth next to Henry, and I sat on the inside next to Jordan.
Sitting next to Jordan made me feel like Alice after she’d drunk the shrinking potion. He was so oversized. 6’ 4” tall, long arms, huge hands, and muscles on top of everything. Even his smile was big. Between him and the wall, I felt like a child. He constantly reached over me to grab things and eat off my plate. More than once I thought I caught his mom smiling at the way he moved around me.
Show off, I thought.
Dinner was full of conversation – the Staals told me stories about Jordan as a kid, growing up on their 500-acre sod farm. Though never the point of their stories, there was always a lot of hard work involved in whatever they were doing. I silently counted Linda lucky for having had four boys to help around the farm. For his part, Jordan seemed to have loved it there. Back at the hotel, we bid goodnight in the elevator lobby. Jordan’s parents were up one set of elevators, the team and I were on the other.
“She’s bummed out now,” Jordan said as the doors closed us in.
“What do you mean?” I asked nervously. Had they not liked me? I thought it was going well.
He looked at me and smiled. “My mom was dying to see if I kissed you goodnight!” He leaned over theatrically, like he was going to do it now. I playfully punched him in the stomach, so he swung his arm over into a headlock. He had me helplessly pinned to his side when the doors opened on our floor… and Max, Sidney and Geno were standing outside.
“WOAH.” Max stepped back. “Don’t let us get in your way!” I pulled myself free and tugged my jacket back into place. I slugged Jordan in the arm.
“You guys going to make it to the room before you get it on?” Sidney asked.
“Shut up. Shut up!” I poked Jordan in the chest. “You never reminded you mom that we’re not dating, did you?” The guys snickered, Jordan simply shook his head. I rounded on them.
“You ALL knew about this?” I threw up my hands. “You’re killing me!”
“Not me,” said Geno. “I say kiss you now, be girlfriend for real.”
I thought I might die.
“It’s all good fun, cherie,” Max said, stepping between me and Jordan. “And just think you could get him back in the end.”
I arched and eyebrow at him. Hmmmmm. A challenge? I could do with a more level playing field, especially if this is going to go on all week.
“Okay Staal, you’re on.” He gaped at me.
“You want your parents to think we’re dating, you got it. By the end of these four days, they will love me. They’ll want to adopt me. They’ll be begging you to marry me.”
He looked a little nervous now. The guys had huge smiles on their faces, and Max rolled his hand over as if to say, "And….”
“And… ,” I said, Max nodding encouragement, “and… by the end, I’ll have you begging for me too.” I spun on my heel and strutted down the hallway, leaving the guys clapping and hooting at Jordan.
In the morning, we said goodbye to all the guys and left in a hail of inappropriate comments about midnight snacks and Santa never coming if you never fell asleep. The boys zipped it as Jordan’s parents came off the elevator. Without hesitation, Henry took my hot pink suitcase and wheeled it across the parking lot. I stuck my tongue out at Jordan and he rolled his eyes. As payback he took up way more than his half of the backseat in the car.
First class was nice. Jordan and his father sat on the aisles, endless legs stretched far in front. I curled up in my window seat, facing Jordan, trying to make him uncomfortable as possible. His mom kept leaning forward to talk to us. When the flight attendant brought my drink, Jordan took it from her hand.
“Here you go, babe. Your favorite.”
I snorted back a laugh.
It had snowed in Thunder Bay the night before and we landed over a perfect holiday landscape. We flew out over the water and turned, riding the tailwind down into Canada. As I waited in the customs line with my American passport, I saw Jordan talking to his parents with an almost shy grin on his face. I quickly turned away as his mom looked over. When I was through Henry suggested that Jordan take my suitcase. I smiled and walked away, leaving the hot pink bag standing there alongside him.
4 years ago