There’s been lots of hockey talk in our house this week, despite the fact that it’s June. Hubby has been watching the final round of the Stanley Cup, and I’ve been reading Fredrik Backman’s novel Beartown. I know, I know, I frequently bemoan the abundance of sport talk in my house. I rarely watch a hockey game all the way through anymore, unless it’s an Olympic game. And I don’t understand half of what Hubby says when he tells me all that stuff about building a hockey program, and making draft picks, and the difference between offside and, well, whatever. But I don’t hate hockey. I am Canadian after all. And Hubby, of course he loves it. In fact he’s pretty much lived his life on ice.
Fredrik Backman’s Beartown is the story of boys and men who also live their lives on ice, in one isolated town in Sweden. A town that will die if hockey can’t save it. The fate of the town, the inhabitants believe, rests on the Beartown junior hockey team winning the finals. The first time in twenty years they’ve even come close. A win could mean new sponsors, a new rink, maybe even the situating of a new hockey school in Beartown, instead of somewhere else. And that of course could mean new businesses, more jobs, and a growing economy, instead of a dying one. So what does this one game of hockey mean to the town? “It means everything. That’s all.”
Yep, hockey is everything to Beartown. To the young players Kevin, and Benji, and Bobo, and little Amat. And to the coaches and general manager of the town’s teams, former hockey players themselves. Peter the GM was the player who lead the last winning team to the finals all those years ago. He then went off to Canada to play in the big league, the NHL, until injury sent him home way too early in his career. But those are the perils of a life on ice. You spill your guts, spend almost every waking moment while you’re growing up practicing, training, getting to be the best you can be, and sometimes the glory lasts a paltry few games.
“Hockey is just a silly little game. We devote year after year after year to it without ever really hoping to get anything in return. We burn and bleed and cry, fully aware that the most the sport can give us, in the very best scenario, is incomprehensibly meager and worthless: just a few isolated moments of transcendence. That’s all.
But what the hell else is life made of?”Frederik Backman
So there’s a lot of hockey talk in Beartown. But the book isn’t only about hockey. Hockey and what it means to the boys, their families, the coaches and managers, and the townspeople is only the backdrop for the main story. The main story is about loyalty and betrayal, greed and selflessness. About knowing the difference between right and wrong, and sometimes still choosing wrong over right. It’s a story about what playing a team sport can give to you: friendship, a sense of purpose, and a sense of belonging. And what it can take away, if you’re not careful.
Backman’s novel is also a story about responsibility, the idea that adults are responsible for children. That a community (parents, teachers, coaches, and, indeed, every adult) is responsible for imbuing children with solid morals so that when the time comes to make life choices, they make the right ones. Kids, even those who can bring prosperity back to a dying community, are not commodities. And hockey is, after all, only a game, not real life. And what struck me most about all this is the idea that parents and other adults who have never learned this lesson themselves are utterly incapable of teaching it to their children.
I loved all the ideas that Backman presents in this novel. I loved the characters, especially little Amat. Of course, I would find myself drawn to the smallest, most fearless hockey player of all. Who says that art does not imitate life, eh? I found myself drawn to other characters as well: brave Benji, Ramona, inarticulate Bobo, and his dad. The scene where Bobo and his dad finally talk about sex is priceless in its awkwardness.
So yeah, I found Backman’s characters compelling and the plot interesting. I couldn’t put the book down, in fact. I don’t think I’ve ever before read a book that makes me want to watch hockey again. Backman really knows how to write about sports. Even for those readers who are not avid sports fans, or even fans at all.
But, despite how it sounds, I didn’t love this book all the way through. I found myself exasperated at times with Backman’s writing style. With his sometimes over-the-top portentous statements. The life lessons that he might as well have written in italics. I wanted to say to him… okay, okay, I get it. But still, I kept reading.
I was surprised at the fervour that arose over hockey in the little Swedish town depicted in Backman’s novel. We tend to think of that passion for hockey, the deeply ingrained feeling for the local junior teams, the chaos and violence that arises on the ice as being a “made in Canada” thing. Oh, I know that Sweden produces skilled and talented hockey players, many of them much better than our own Canadian players. But still, we tend to think of Swedish players as being mild-mannered, following the rules, using their skill instead of brute strength. The bench-clearing brawls, the screaming hockey moms, the bloody noses and missing teeth we see as belonging to what many commentators call “old time Canadian hockey.”
In fact, Hubby lost his own front teeth in a hockey game long before I knew him. When he played junior hockey in the sixties, travelling up and down the Ottawa Valley to games in small lumber towns very much like Beartown. One winter in the nineties, when we were “up the valley” for a cross-country ski holiday, we drove to a nearby town for dinner. Fred’s was a well-known, old-fashioned pub and restaurant, and Hubby told me that he’d been there years before when he was in the area playing hockey. We had drinks in the almost-empty pub, sitting at one of the small, round, wooden tables on which layer upon layer of varnish over the years had created a luxuriant patina. Hubby regaled me with tales of how tough the crowd used to be at Fred’s back in the day. How visiting team players had had to watch each other’s backs.
We ate a wonderful dinner in Fred’s dining room, steaks the size of our whole dinner plate, and delicious mashed potatoes. Eventually we ended up back in the bar paying for our meal and drinks. The bar was now heaving, and as we waited to pay, a man came up behind Hubby and tapped him on the shoulder. He said gruffly, “Hey, buddy.” Hubby says that his first reaction was to groan inwardly. Remembering back in the day when tempers could flare with little to no provocation, he thought, “I’m too old for this sh*t.” But when he turned around the man continued, “Aren’t you Stu Eccles?” It transpired that the man was a hockey fan, the cousin of someone Hubby had played with thirty years before. He’d travelled with the team as a supporter and fan, and had recognized Hubby. They had a good old chat about the old days, and I paid the bill. Ha.
So yeah, hockey can sometimes be a unifying force. And sometimes, like in Beartown, it can split communities apart. And for all its warts it seems to be in our DNA. Even when some of us haven’t watched a hockey game all the way through in years. You don’t have to be Canadian, or even Swedish, to love Fredrik Backman’s Beartown. You don’t even have to love hockey. Beartown is the first book in a trilogy that Backman is writing about this town in the middle of nowhere. The second book Us Against You came out in 2017. I haven’t read it yet, but I will. I’ll admit it, I’m hooked.
Before I finish talking about books about hockey, I want to mention another book that I read a couple of years ago. Indian Horse, by Canadian-Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese is a wonderfully moving book about racism and indigenous residential schools, and about surviving both through community, friendship, and hockey. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, I think. I won’t say more because I’ve written about Indian Horse before. You can read that post here, if you’re interested.
Now, for the edification of those non-Canadians who are unfamiliar with one of our national icons, I am including in this post the video below. Foot-stomping, twangie guitar playing, poet of the people Stompin’ Tom Connors wrote a song about hockey that plays at least once during most every hockey game played in Canada. We love Stompin’ Tom. I can’t say why, really. We just do. The hockey footage in the video looks like it could have walked right off the pages of Beartown, albeit a few decades ago. And the fact that the guy who posted this on Youtube spelled Connors’ name wrong says… something. Not sure what, though. Ha
Okay. That is quite enough from me tonight on the subject of books about hockey, and about people who love hockey. I’ve been writing so long that the person who loves hockey in my house has packed up and gone to bed.
You know, I’ve asked Hubby’s opinion while I’ve been writing today, whether certain aspects of the book are realistic or not. I mean he has spent most of his life on ice, as a player and a coach. And we’ve had some interesting conversations as a result. About team, and team loyalty, on and off the ice. And about the necessity of leaving certain aspects of team loyalty on the ice. I love these conversations about his life before we met. It never ceases to amaze me that after thirty plus years together there’s still stuff we don’t know about each other.
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How about you my friends? What are you reading these days? Not books about life on ice, I presume.