I tend to talk on the ice. I’m speaking here not of the regular chorus of swearing and middle-aged male complaint that is the usual soundtrack of your typical Friday morning pick-up hockey game—this has more to do with narrative. As the guys I play with will testify, if I’m not the one who’s going to score a goal, I will probably have something to say about whether the puck rollicked into the top corner or jinked there—or did the goaltender just foozle it? It somehow seems of vital importance, out there on the ice, lagging behind the play, to find the right words for the hockey we’re playing here.
Hockey always did have trouble expressing itself. Part of that has to do, I think, with just how ridiculous an enterprise it remains. Don’t agree? Try to explain its fundamentals aloud, as if to someone who’s never heard of it—the skates and the sticks, the elusive puck, the fact that you’re not supposed to punch an opponent in the head but go ahead so long as you’re willing to sit by yourself to think about it for five minutes afterwards.
That’s not to say it is not a beautiful game, with a power all its own that comes from its speed and surprise and its chaos. It’s this that makes hockey so challenging to translate from ice to page. It may also turn out (as I’ve written before) that the form by which hockey best expresses itself is…hockey. But that doesn’t mean the sport’s literature isn’t abundant and rewarding, and that its fiction can’t articulate the game as it’s played, distilling its meanings, defining its passions, and unpacking why some of those might be problematic.
You still hear the old echo of a lament that hockey has never really generated a literature the way that other sports have—baseball, for instance. It’s just not so. It may be that the game has yet to inspire a single towering all-encompassing piece of national prose—an icy Quixote, a Shahnameh containing all the hockey multitudes—but that’s probably a whole other discussion.
Many of the best novels are widely enough celebrated, some of them less so. If I were listing essential hockey novels, I’d volunteer Roy MacGregor’s Last Season (1983) and the sweetly funny Understanding Ken (1998) by Pete McCormack, some Paul Quarrington, and Mark Anthony Jarman, Bill Gaston, Lynn Coady, and Richard Wagamese. That would be a beginning, and a rich one in style and story and character; from there I’d carry on.
As for what’s new, here’s what I’ve learned from surveying the spectrum of the season’s new hockey fiction. Judging by the latest in both end-of-times annals and promising literary fiction, Nova Scotia seems to be at the centre of things. Out in the wider world, the most prolific and (I’m guessing) bestselling hockey novelists would seem to be Swedish. Also: while I can’t really speak for what’s going on in the real world, fiction’s hockey players seem to be having a ton of sex.
Maybe should we start there?
I don’t know just when the words “brooding” and “hockey” and “hunk” were first put together in novels populated by characters named Bex or maybe Kaija (whose bodies may or may not be “made for sin”), but many of these women seem to be catching the eye of and subsequently ending up with hockey players called Duke or maybe Dante, colliding with them for several pages at a time in athletic ways that are (if they do say so themselves) so very hot.
How did this happen? I can’t tell you that, either. I know that five years ago when I made a project of reading as many hockey novels as I could, there were already Harlequins with titles like Her Man Advantage on the shelf, but nothing like the proliferation of hockey romances that now fevers the genre fiction section of your local e-reader.
This fall, I really didn’t know where to start scouting. I’ll tell you where I stopped short. Books I didn’t read include Kristen Echo’s Playoff King (Puck Battle Book 7) and Kari Sawyer’s Nightfall—“a story of vampire-themed fantasy romance and ice hockey.” I was browsing Jillian Quinn’s Pucking Parker (Face-Off Legacy Book 1) when I decided to go all-in on Kelly Jamieson’s latest. Jamieson, who hails from Winnipeg, Manitoba, has published a roster of novels featuring players from a fictional NHL team called the
I read her latest fiery instalment,
Big Stick, in which we’re introduced to Nick, a hard-working fourth-line winger, gorgeous yet fragile. The book’s title—I don’t think I’m giving anything away here—refers to his penis.
I can’t remember who first makes the comparison—is it Nick or Jodie? She’s a single mum who’s a partner in a sex toy company. She and Nick don’t really hit it off at first, but then they do. How do we know? Something turns over in Nick’s chest; Jodie’s, meanwhile, fills with a soft warmth. Between them, they soon generate a whole lot of heat, which we learn because Jamieson tells us. It—the heat—races through veins, and flares in bellies, where it also pools. This is just before everything gets a whole lot more thermally explicit.
The hockey, by comparison, is relatively inert. It’s what Nick does when he’s not with Jodie. The Chicago Aces have a pretty good year, and Nick does solidify his place on the team, but our characters are in restaurants as much as in rinks. That’s not to say that there isn’t dimension to the story. Can I express my surprise here without it clinking with condescension? Amid all the lustful lurching, it’s actually a fairly layered story that Jamieson has rendered. There’s a sad subplot about Nick’s late brother and his concussions and a bit of backstory to fill in his tough youth in the wilds of Scarborough, Ontario.
That explains some of the strife that Nick and Jodie get into, which they do, though don’t worry, it’s nothing too stressful. During my time among the hockey romances, I kept seeing the phrase repeated in blurbs and synopses, “HEA guaranteed.” That was new to me. What I was being promised was a “happily ever after” ending. And Big Stick doesn’t go so far as to flag it, but that’s the way it goes all the same, cruising along to its pre-ordained ending.
“Why does anyone care about hockey?” If you read Beartown, Fredrik Backman’s popular 2017 novel, that’s the question you might have faced up to—guiltily?—as you flipped over to Chapter Five. Backman, who’s Swedish, made his debut with a non-hockey success of a novel called A Man Called Ove (2012) that has sold upwards of 2.8 million -copies worldwide.
“Because it tells stories,” was the answer to the question in Beartown, a novel with hockey, and worse, at its core. Us Against You picks up where the previous story ended, offering this recap of the terrible heart of the first book: “A boy, the star of the hockey team, raped a girl.”
As it was in the first novel, the game is more than just a game here: hockey is a lurking, primal force that sustains the people even as it seems to punish them. In this new novel, there is an existential crisis that threatens not just the future of hockey in the town, but the future of the town itself. It’s all very menacing—if only minimally affecting.
The idea that hockey persists against all challenges is one that The Last Hockey Player pursues, too. Self-published by Halifax, Nova Scotia, writer Bretton Loney, this is a novel I came across while I was out exploring the tropics of hockey romance. Loney’s brief tale has a touch of that, though mostly it motors along on a bit of a Walking Dead vibe. The epidemics that devastated North American civilization eighteen years earlier led to what’s known as the Crumbling. It’s an almost medieval life the people are living now, in the little Nova Scotian village of the Barns, all bows-and-arrows and moose-skin cloaks. “The New Times are a nightmare,” says our sort-of-hero, the titular Hockey Player. That’s the good news, I guess, in all the grimness. Mankind may be breathing its last ragged breaths, but hockey—the cockroach of sports—has survived.
Loney has fun with allusions to the all-but-lost hockey past and also teasing out just how the hockey gets played on the ice of Sweet Water Pond, the gliding on shinbone skates, the batting of wooden pucks with hand-carved sticks. Before the big game with the neighbouring village, the home team bleeds out a rabbit to paint the lines on the ice. There’s a little fable about the corruption of this game that brings the people such joy, though this falters and like the novel as a whole, it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its premise.
The season’s other Nova Scotia hockey novel is Searching for Terry Punchout, the first by Calgary, Alberta-based writer Tyler Hellard. It’s an assured debut, wryly funny, and if it doesn’t exactly carve any new ice, I’m still ready to count it as a quiet triumph.
The Nova Scotia that Hellard depicts isn’t quite as dire as Bretton Loney’s plague-ridden version. There is some sex, none of it Nick-and-Jodie vigorous; mostly here, it’s played for humorous effect.
It’s 2005 and Adam Macallister has come home to Pennington, Nova Scotia. He left in a hurry years ago to pursue a career in journalism. He was escaping, too, and while the pursuit didn’t really work out, he has one last chance. Sports Illustrated has (more or less) commissioned him to write a profile of his father, who just happens to have been the NHL’s all-time fightingest fighter, known to all as Terry Punchout.
So Adam is home to make amends, patch up the past. Fearsome as Terry once was as a fistic Toronto Maple Leaf—think Tiger Williams or Tie Domi, but punchier—he is much reduced, an ancient fifty-eight now, “weak and worn and wizened,” angry at the world, which means at Adam, too. His son arrives bearing some anger of his own and, in quite a different way than it was in Big Stick, the heat is on.
“Beating people up on the ice would become Terry’s calling in life,” Adam writes. Running into an old high school buddy, Adam explains the slant he’s hoping to lend his article. It’s going to be, he says, “about how hockey’s violent culture fits into today’s society.” Oh, and it’s also “about redemption.” His father, he posits, is “swimming in regret, and it could be that hockey—our national sport, so entwined with our sense of Canadian identity—is to blame.”
The fact the novel doesn’t really take on these subjects in a serious way doesn’t really seem to matter, in the end. It’s a satisfying story all the same, with plenty of incident and some insight into small-town sociology.
I would have liked to have read the feature Adam files to Sports Illustrated. Does he redeem his career? Chart a course for his future? Tyler Hellard makes the decision to wrap up his story without answering all the questions he raises. Hockey does that, too, so this feels like familiar territory. We’ve been there before, as fans and readers, stranded out in mid-ice, somewhere between the apocalypse and HEA.