Ice Road 

NHL dreams mean life in flux

At this moment, Garett Bembridge is just another 20-something sitting in Starbucks, a cell phone propped against his ear. He blends so effortlessly into the caffeinated crowd, it seems almost impossible that his life is being rerouted.

Sitting here, Bembridge certainly doesn't look like the starting right wing for the Idaho Steelheads. Technically, as of the phone call, he's not—he's been called up to the next league.

But when he stands in his black coat and blue baseball cap turned backwards, you see that you've been fooled. He has somehow hidden roughly 30 percent of his mass with his coffee-house slouch. The man has the bulk of a 100-year oak.

The morning's practice was cancelled, so he's here for an hour or so—a vanilla, sugar-free skinny latte steaming in front of him—and then it's off to Eagle for a haircut because Bembridge has been out of town for two weeks playing minor league hockey in Des Moines, Iowa, the same place where he'll return in two days.

"It's fun to pack," he said, and it's hard to tell he's sarcastic. That's because Bembridge is exceedingly, almost chemically, polite, a curious mix of full-toothed smiles and you betchas.

On the ice, he is a falcon, speed absent motion until he strikes. But here, in the corporate living room that is every Starbucks, he's got as much menace about him as that vanilla latte. This is Bembridge's second stint with the Steelheads, Boise's ECHL team, hockey's equivalent of AA baseball. This tour ended 20 minutes ago, when the phone call sent Bembridge back to the Iowa Chops, a step up the minor-league ladder and a step away from the NHL.

He's played in Utah and Portland, Ore., and even Augusta, Fla. He's played two seasons in Germany, where the game is more finesse and Bembridge spent a lot of time in the penalty box.

"Every time you hit a guy, you get a penalty," he said. "Somebody falls over, you get a penalty."

Bembridge is an amalgamation of wide-eyed youth and hard-grit age. He is 27 after all, and 27 is nothing if not a cusp age, not so much a number but a way station between young man and veteran.

It must be the travel. Bembridge and his peers see so much, or more accurately, see so many locker rooms and hotels, different teammates every three months. They get on the bus. They get called up and sent down. Life is practices and new jerseys and handshakes, and then a phone call sends them spinning away like a rebound.

The younger guys come and go. The older ones who've pushed the NHL to the backs of their minds settle down, start a family. The Steelheads' Marty Flichel will turn 33 in March. He lives in Boise and runs his landscaping business on the side, employing younger Steelheads players during the offseason.

All of Bembridge's miles logged and goals scored beg a question: How long before your body quits? "I want to go until my body falls apart," he said.

His back and knees feel good. There's no telling how long he can hold out. And when the time comes, if the NHL never calls, then it's back to Germany, where the schedule is light and the games soft, a place where a player in his 30s can still carve out a nice living.

Bembridge has attended NHL preseason camps, but he's never skated a game. The ECHL is filled with players who never have and never will. The older Bembridge gets, the closer he comes to the landscaping life.

Earlier this January when he was called up to Iowa, Bembridge holed up in a Des Moines hotel and played five games ("No points, but I had a lot of ice time"). Returning to Boise, he stuffed his bags in the apartment he shares with Steelheads goalie Rejean Beauchemin.

"It's been a whirlwind, living out of a hotel," he said between sips. "Bags packed and waiting."

If there is any world-weariness in Bembridge's 27-year-old countenance, any mild huffing at being sent back to the place from which he just departed, it's not evident. It is, after all, a step toward the dream.

He'll sign a professional tryout agreement in Iowa, a basic short-term contract. From there, it's on Bembridge to stick enough put-packs and slapshots past goalies to grab the attention of the Anaheim Ducks, the team that operates the Chops.

"It's a work-my-ass-off type of thing," he said. "It's not in my control. I can control what I do on the ice. What happens up top with Anaheim, with injuries, it's got nothing to do with me."

On one game night last December, Bembridge suited up for the Steelheads against Bakersfield. In the second period, Bembridge jumped on the ice during a line change and was immediately laid out by a Bakersfield defenseman. Not 10 seconds later, he was up, blasting toward the goal as soon as he received the puck.

The goalie blocked his shot. The puck bounced off the pads and Bembridge collected it in one motion, in the next wrapped himself around the backside of the goal and deposited the puck between the goalie's left skate and the right post like dropping a quarter into a soda machine. The goal pushed the Steelheads' lead to 4-2, and they walked away that night with a casual win. Bembridge, no doubt, celebrated with the boys at his local go-to spot, Mack and Charlie's.

Back in the coffee shop, the playoff beard Bembridge grew in Iowa has been shaved down to a neat, blondish goatee. His Steelheads buddies give him shit about it.

"I come back here, and the guys are calling me Jack Sparrow," he said, "asking me where I parked the Black Pearl."

His laugh peters out into a sigh. He's down to the end of his drink, and there's that haircut to get to—in Eagle. ("This girl I've known for a couple of years, she's a hairdresser out there. I give her free tickets and she gives me free haircuts.")

And he's still got to pack.

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