And they didn't. Back at St. Lawrence he awoke before dawn to study. He made the honor roll. He ran five miles a day. He captained the hockey team. He even took a job laying railroad tracks back in Canada during the summer, sleeping in a boxcar with his money under his ear while grizzled French Canadian coworkers sometimes rolled with the local squaws a sleeping bag away—anything rather than return to GM and the brick box, the anonymous life to which he was born.
He remembers the terrific energy and vigilance he needed each day, the observation of every American nuance, the caution required not to make a mistake. "It was a lifestyle I wanted," he says. "I knew simplicity would be lost. But I didn't care what adaptations it would take. I was going to do it."
He coughed up the puck—and an easy goal—in his own zone during a game in his junior year. His coach, George Menard, summoned Mike to his office. "I'm not going to tolerate it," Menard fumed. "You did that on purpose. You threw the game. You won't suit up for any more games."
Mike walked out, thunderstruck. This new country, this fickle Double A blonde—was she about to pull the rug out from under him again? "He was in a total fog," recalls Webb. "Looking in the mirror, thinking, I couldn't have thrown a game, but...but maybe I have to be stronger so I don't ever even give off the appearance of weakness again. The mind games Mike plays on his players today...some of that had to come from Menard."
The result? Mike sat for two games but played harder than ever in practice, crushing everything that moved. His teammates unified behind him, one even threatening to quit, and then Menard relented. Hmmmmm....
Mike and a half-dozen teammates moved into an old warehouse—black lights, purple posters, garbage-dump furniture, motorcycles in the living room. At Mike's suggestion they formed their own band, Nik and the Nice Guys. "Mike didn't play any instrument," recalls Webb, a member of the band, "and he sang in this incredibly flat voice, but he wanted so badly to be center stage. He would sing that Sly and the Family Stone song I Want to Take You Higher. He'd get everybody in the room down on their knees, then wiggling their rear ends, then flopping like fish on the floor of some beer-soaked frat-house basement. It was hilarious! He'd compensate for his lack of ability by bullying the crowd into doing what he wanted."
All the prevailing breezes in his life now were southerly, American, except one. For love he turned and tacked north, hitchhiking home on weekends to see the girl he had met just months before entering St. Lawrence. Rita Haas was a farmer's daughter—cautious, understanding, smart, rooted, the granddaughter of a Hungarian Jew killed at Auschwitz. In her home Mike felt warmth and closeness, the absolute absence of tension. It was pure, another antithesis to the life he had known. Not seeing the trap, he wanted that too.
But his heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night.
If Rita assumed that they would both be teachers and raise a large, close-knit family somewhere in the Canadian countryside, couldn't she be forgiven? Her bridegroom couldn't put his dream into words exactly, any more than he could explain why such sentences in The Great Gatsby hit him like the back of a shovel to the gut. It had to do with excellence and passion, with refusing the safer, wider road when life, with her unreadable smile, beckoned a man toward a narrow, mysterious path. After a year of minor league hockey in Roanoke, Va., Mike knew that his boyhood dream would have to be replaced by an adult one, but he couldn't quite see it yet. In 1975 he took a job as a coach and phys-ed teacher at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute in Toronto—a wolf about to learn that his appetite was larger than his forest.