Book Talk: From the ice and onto the page

Stories about our national game can sometimes be just as compelling and entertaining as the actual play.

The advent of fall marks the beginning of a new season, one that promises to delight millions of Canadians from coast to coast.

The 96th National Hockey League season opens at the beginning of October and the wealth of fiction and nonfiction material about our national game can sometimes be just as compelling and entertaining as the actual play.

Indian Horse (2012) is a powerful, gripping tale by Richard Wagamese, which The National Post lauded as an “unforgettable work of art.”

Saul Indian Horse, the protagonist of the story, lies dying in a hospice high above the clamour and strife of a big city. As he lies on his death bed, he embarks on an extraordinary flight of imagination back through the life he led as a northern Ojibway.

Saul, taken forcibly from the land and his family, is sent to a residential school where he finds salvation on the ice as an incredibly gifted hockey player. But Saul also battles the harsh realities of 1960s Canada, the callous and cruel racism and the soul destroying effects of cultural alienation and displacement. And it all unfolds against the stark beauty of Northern Ontario, all rock, marsh, bog and cedar.

This October also marks a different kind of hockey and literary milestone. It is the 30th anniversary of the release of The Game (1983), a timeless classic work of nonfiction by the former great Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden.

The book, widely acknowledged as perhaps the best nonfiction hockey book ever written and lauded by Sports Illustrated as one of the top 10 sports books of all time, transports you to the heart and soul of the game.

It includes vivid and affectionate portraits of the team’s characters—Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, Serge Savard and coach Scotty Bowman among them—that made the Canadiens of the 1970s one of the greatest hockey teams to ever face off in history. But what sets the book apart is that Dryden also reflects on life on the road, in the spotlight and on the ice to produce a work that offers you a singular, inside look at the game of hockey. The latest edition, published in 2005, includes black-and-white photographs and a new chapter by the author.

Coincidentally, during the same month in 1983 another accomplished Canadian writer, Roy MacGregor, published The Last Season, hailed at the time as the best novel ever written about our national game.

Felix Batteriinski, the protagonist of the novel, grew up in Northern Ontario, where hockey provided one of the few avenues of escape from a live of grinding poverty. But Felix escaped and eventually cracked the Philadelphia Flyer line-up as an enforcer.

The seasons passed and Felix, now in his 30s and at the end of his playing career, decides to accept a position as player-coach of a Finnish hockey team. When a controversial play destroys his comeback, Felix comes face to face with his obsolescence and tragically descends into disillusion and despair.

Cold-cocked: On Hockey (2007) by talented West Coast author, professor and born-again hockey aficionado Lorna Jackson is a sardonic, passionate nonfiction work about hockey written with a sportswriter’s energy and discipline and the wit and cynical eye of a cultural critic.

It explores the game of hockey —once called by poet Al Purdy. “a combination of ballet and murder”— through the eyes and heart of a woman.

The author, unlike most other authors of hockey books, pays her own money to watch hockey. And the book, deadly serious and urgent at times, is a timely reminder that it is the fans that own the game and ultimately will determine its fate.

The Antagonist (2011) is a sharply written, fiercely funny novel by acclaimed Canadian author Lynn Coady. The book, shortlisted for the Giller Prize two years ago, tells the tale of Gordon Rankin, “Rank” to his friends, a hulking player cast as a goon by his classmates, hockey coaches and especially his own tiny, bitter father.

Rank, who actually fears his own strength, gamely lives up to this role until tragedy strikes. Rank disappears —the only way he knows how to escape— and almost 20 years later he discovers Adam, an old trusted friend, has published a novel mirroring his own life. He is cut to the quick by the betrayal, but through a series of unanswered emails to Adam that covers his early years in small town Canada and his aborted college career, the ex-goon finally confronts the tragic true story he’s spent his entire life running away from. In short, he needs to tear himself apart before he can put the pieces back together.

— Peter Critchley is a librarian with the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library. The books previewed in this column are all available at your Okanagan Regional Library, www.orl.bc.ca.