But you're still wondering what happened to Rita, and with just cause. After all, what was left for Mike to give when he came home? He would return from a road trip or another long day, wrap the stereo headphones around his ears and check out of the universe. On a Saturday off-night, he would stand in front of the TV for two hours—after all, he was scheduled to play in Vancouver in just two weeks, and he couldn't scout the Canucks sitting down. Summers, you ask? He spent two of them coaching in the Canada Cup, two more felling trees from dawn to dusk and then building a cottage on the shores of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay, the body of water he would stare at for hours to heal his disillusion, to dream anew. It was just a few miles from where he had summered as a child, from where his mother had grown up. "There was nothing constant in my life," says Mike. "I needed that cottage. It was my roots, my solace and sanity."
When he slowed down for a few hours, the softness that he had walled off poured out upon his daughter. He would gaze at Gayla with adoring eyes, stroke her hair, lavish her with praise. Rita maneuvered around the wide space he needed, moved with him from city to city, losing friends almost as soon as she made them, unable, as a foreigner in the U.S., to work. "She came with me to the NHL out of loyalty, but she never came psychologically," Mike says. "It was never the life she bargained for. God, I was selfish. You look back and wonder what you were doing."
Rita was his liaison with his past, the one who called family members and old friends whom he almost never saw. "Mike," his father would plead, "give Marie and Cathy a call once in a while. They're your sisters." Relatives who drove for hours to see him would turn around and drive for hours back home if his team lost, never exchanging a word with Mike rather than risk his wrath. Tim Pelyk, his close friend from St. Lawrence, wrote him a letter after one futile trip to visit him in Chicago. "You'd think two old friends could have more than five minutes together in four days," he wrote.
Mike grabbed a telephone. "You don't understand, Tim," he protested. "I have a blowtorch on my neck."
"Mike," said Tim, "we all have blowtorches on our necks."
It fell apart in Philadelphia, after four years, when the players mutinied. What earlier had stimulated them, in the end only wore them down. It disintegrated in Chicago after another four years, when the owner decided that Mike lusted for too much power. "You give 120 percent of your soul, you give up your family life, and then they kick you in the balls," Mike says. "In all three places I've been in the league, someone was either jealous of me or felt their position was threatened and began undermining. There are snakes everywhere in this jungle."
One day not long after he lost his job in Chicago, he jogged a few miles across the sand in Myrtle Beach, S.C., then slowed and looked at his old college pal, Webb. There it was again: "That same look of utter rejection that he had when he flunked out of St. Lawrence," says Webb. "He asked me, 'Do you think I'll ever get a job again?' I said, 'Mike, with your record?' But it's like a theme running through his life, this feeling that maybe he doesn't belong here. Like he's still the foreigner, the teenager from the small-town, blue-collar Canadian family, and he's conned his way into this great party, and nobody's found him out yet. So he has this drive to justify that he does belong."
There would always be another NHL job, of course. Another general manager who, like Neil Smith of the Rangers, would say, "I can deal with the devil as long as he wins." Another owner in another city eager to buy Mike's hunger, or at least rent it for a few years, willing to pay the price. But Rita? She looked at her teenage daughter. In a few years Gayla would graduate from high school and be gone, and Rita would be alone again in a new city. Rita looked at Mike. She couldn't say the words. So he did. "You're not going to move with me, are you?" he said.