I am not a hockey fan. But sometimes, when you live in Canada, it cannot be avoided. Luckily, hockey in literature is much more fun for me than hockey on ice.
I almost didn’t read this. I thought, what am I doing with this book about hockey with a young male protagonist? But I saw a write-up for it by Sarah Sawler in Atlantic Books Today that convinced me to give it a try.
Our man, Adam, is coming home to Pennington, Nova Scotia (a fictional “stand-in” for all small NS towns) after being away for ten years.
Pennington is a small town the way all towns in Nova Scotia are small. In the summer, it smells like salt, and in the winter it snows that wet, heavy Maritime snow — heart-attack snow, they call it. Everybody knows of everybody else and their business. The same guy has been mayor for thirty years and will be until he doesn’t want it or, more likely, he drops dead, at which time his son will probably take over. It’s a town that thrives on routine and expectation and neighbourly kindness. There are hundreds of towns just like this – Pennington, Pugwash, Tatamagouche, Antigonish, Pictou. The specifics don’t matter.
When Adam left, his mother had just died – he was running away more than he was making a deliberate choice to leave. He did okay while he was away – not great – but now he’s fallen on hard times and is hoping to come home to interview his ex-hockey star father (“Terry Punchout”) for an article in a sports magazine.
Adam’s dad played in the NHL, but was known more for his fighting than anything else. And he was wanted more for his fighting than anything else. After an unfortunate incident, he retired from the game and came home to Pennington. At first, he was a hero, but soon enough he just became the reclusive ex-hockey player who lives at the arena and drives the Zamboni.
Terry, reluctantly at first, shares his story with his son. And, although, there’s lots of hockey-talk, this book is really about fathers and sons, and reconciling with your past in order to move forward. As Sarah Sawler puts it, “… he finally realizes moving away isn’t quite the same as moving on.”
Along with hockey, this book has good characters, funny lines, a little romance, and a touching story.
A few good lines:
In small towns, there are two kinds of people: those who can’t wait to leave and those who can’t imagine being anywhere else.
I’m self-aware enough to know I’ve got a half-baked scheme that doesn’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny, so I try not to scrutinize it.
It turns out the reason we, as a society, haven’t cured cancer or economic disparity or, really, anything, is because our smartest and most talented people have spent the last several years devoted to video game advancement.
East coast hockey (not that I would know)…
Hockey parents are invested. They spend an unreasonable amount of time dragging their kids to and from rinks. The kids develop lifelong rivalries with other kids from other towns – they play and win and lose and fight with each other for years. And after each game, their parents reward them with pizza and pop. It conditions them to think that beating those kids from those towns is good. Then they grow up and have their own children and the cycle repeats itself. Winning, losing, fighting. Pizza and pop. And parents in the stands yelling at players, referees, each other, and so on, shitheads begetting shitheads for all of time.
I’ve watched a lot of hockey across the country, but there’s something different about East Coast hockey. It seems more violent. Watching boys slam into each other, swing sticks, and throw punches is barbaric. Everyone here should be ashamed to be spending fifteen dollars for a ticket. I hate that I’m enjoying myself.
This is a short story from Best Canadian Stories, edited by Russell Smith (and published by Biblioasis). It seemed like too much of a coincidence that I would read two stories about hockey fighters in a row.
There are few things as lovely as the sight of blood pooling on white ice.
Six Six Two Fifty (which refers to a player’s height and weight), starts off with the coach sending his fighter out onto the ice and nodding in the direction of his target.
Scab says something about the snatch of the sister I don’t have and the ref drops the puck and we’re dropping mitts and cocking elbows and squaring up in the bright white open.
The sweet cool balm of the ice under me while the crowd howls above. Scab’s body curls into mine and the heave of our lungs gradually merges. We hold each other, breathing in synch. A drool of my blood leaks down onto the white of his sweater. The lovely warm clarity of it. “Good fight,” Scab pants, and I tell him same.
From what I can tell from both Hellard’s book and Huebert’s story, these guys get picked specifically to be fighters. At first they might be happy just to be playing in the NHL, but soon they start to miss playing real hockey. And they worry about being traded or replaced if they don’t do what’s asked of them.
And how to explain that you are not actually a particularly violent person when what circulates on YouTube is a shot of you skating across the rink at full speed, holding two halves of a stick you’ve just broken over your knee, the ends like mouths full of jagged splintery fangs.
One of the worst things is the waiting. Waiting through the plane ride and the bus from the airport and warmup and the pregame speech and the national anthem, knowing the whole time that you are going to have to get violent. Sitting on the bench listening to the crowd turning frenzied and knowing you’ve got to face a professional fighter who will open your face in an instant if you have a lonely second thought about pounding him first.
Like Terry in Hellard’s book, the hockey fighter in this story is not happy. He’s lonely and regretful and he drinks too much.
(Some of you might remember that I loved David Huebert’s story collection Peninsula Sinking. All of the stories in that book include animals in some way. I didn’t want you to go away thinking he had written a story completely void of an animal. This one has a pug named Gorgonzola with an eyeball that pops out.)
And yet another book about hockey. This one, however, is the “Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom”. And from what we’ve learned from the stories above, I can see why she might be reluctant. However, her son is only nine years old in this book. There is more fighting between Angie and her husband than there is between the hockey players.
Home Ice is insightful and entertaining. Abdou digs into hockey culture, how hard it is to change it for the better, how it affects the children playing it (or not playing it), and how it affects the families with children who play.
I am not a hockey mom. But I’m a football mom, a volleyball mom, and a dance mom. I loved this book and found so much of it relevant and insightful. Abdou delves deep into sport for kids (not just hockey), and how to parent them. When do you push? When do you hang back? What messages are you bringing from your own experiences? How far do you go to help change the way sports are run, especially considering they are often run by volunteers? Do you let them play even though you don’t like it, or you don’t agree with the way it’s run? Do you let them play despite the terrifying physical risks?
Using research studies as well as her own experience, Abdou explores what it means to be a hockey mom, a hockey family, and a child playing hockey in Canada right now. She discusses cost, time, travel, competition, discrimination, abuse of power, sexism, elitism, risk of concussion, and general hockey culture.
Sounds kind of scary, right? But Abdou also explores the benefits of sport for children, and the reasons behind her desire to support her son’s passion for hockey (even though she and her husband have misgivings about it). She draws on her own experience as a competitive swimmer, and uses what she knows to guide her own children.
Those who play for a true love of sport measure success in a different currency.
So far, most of the ratings for Home Ice are positive, but there are a few one-star reviews on Goodreads. I read them to understand why they didn’t like a book that I found completely captivating. Their main complaint is that they think the book is more about the personal shortcomings of the author than about hockey. But this is one of the things I love about the book. Abdou reflects on all aspects of her life as a hockey mom – not just hockey. And she is ruthlessly honest about her shortcomings, which I appreciate. I don’t think there is a mother alive who doesn’t doubt herself, or a marriage on earth that doesn’t need work. I like her all the more for writing about these things.
I recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone.
… I’ll be his enthusiastic audience, even when it means sitting in an ice rink for a week in August. I’ll have confidence in him even when he does not have it in himself. I will wear that confidence in my eyes so he sees it every time he looks at me, sees it so often he can’t help but believe in it.
Another good hockey novel: King Leary by Paul Quarrington
Other good books by Angie Abdou: Between, The Bone Cage, and The Canterbury Trail
More good stories by David Huebert: Peninsula Sinking
How about you? Do you like reading sports literature? Are there any books about sport that stand out for you?