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Hockey Bums and Hockey Novels: Guest Post by Jamie Fitzpatrick

The best hockey stories opt for story and character over fable, and they aren’t shy about facing up to the absurdity and even banality of sport.

Book Cover You Could Believe in Nothing

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, around the time W.P. Kinsella was causing a sensation with baseball sagas like Shoeless Joe, folks were asking why Canadians didn’t write about hockey the way Americans write about baseball. (I still recall an essay published in The Globe and Mail under the headline, “A Cry for Puck Lit.”)

Baseball was assumed to be the great literary game, mined by generations of writers to tell the story of America. Why weren’t we making use of hockey in the same way, exploring its possibilities as myth and metaphor?

The answer arrived in hockey novels by people like Bill Gaston (The Good Body), Mark Anthony Jarman (Salvage King, Ya!), and Richard Wright (The Age of Longing), as well as non-fiction by Dave Bidini (Tropic of Hockey, The Best Game You Can Name), and poetry by Randall Maggs (Night Work).

In this year’s Massey Lectures, Adam Gopnik includes a lecture explaining “why hockey is the smartest game in the world.” So it seems the game has finally achieved respectability in literary circles.

But anyone looking for hockey’s response to a sweeping, dreamy, romantic epic like Shoeless Joe is still waiting.

Book Cover The Good Body

“Hockey is twice enclosed, by time limits and by rigid playing borders,” Kinsella told The Globe and Mail in 1997. “It doesn’t matter how wonderful Wayne Gretzky is, he is trapped on the tiny playing surface. With baseball there is no time limit and the foul lines diverge forever, taking in a good part of the universe. They make for myth and larger-than-life characters.”

There’s a degree of nonsensical mysticism in this (if the field goes on forever, how does he explain the home run?), but you can’t discount Kinsella’s influence as one of Canada’s most literate sports guys.

Another popular notion is that hockey’s tempo and mayhem don’t allow deep thinking and contemplation. Baseball’s measured pace invites you to stretch out, savour the blue sky and the crack of the bat, cock an ear for the muse. Clever argument. But is the writing brain so sluggish that it functions only when the world moves at a glacial pace?

Then there’s the matter of appearances. Anyone can appreciate a green ball field on a brilliant sunny day. Most hockey is played in chilly, damp rinks, smelling vaguely of freezer burn and lorded over by a fat man in stained overalls. The beauty is not so apparent to the non-believer.

Hockey writers have been known to consider the big picture—in one oft-quoted essay, Morley Callaghan calls it “the game that makes a nation.” But the best hockey stories opt for story and character over fable, and they aren’t shy about facing up to the absurdity and even banality of sport.

Book Cover Age of Longing

My favourite is The Age of Longing, Richard Wright’s underappreciated novel. It’s main character is Buddy Wheeler, a hockey bum stranded between rink and real world.

Buddy isn’t a vehicle for ideology or nostalgia. He holds no lessons on the moral life or the transformative power of sport. He doesn’t dwell on the meaning of the game, or on much else.

The novel is narrated by Buddy’s son, who lays out the parameters of his father’s life early on:

Yes, Buddy Wheeler could skate. He could drink Old Stock Ale and Old Dominion rye too and play softball and cribbage and sell a 1935 Plymouth coupe now and then.

Buddy was a small-town jock, confining himself to “a male world of cold arenas and beer parlours, of men with old-fashioned names like Chester and Ernie and Wilf,” dimly aware that he will never “abide by the rules that govern the lives of most men.”

If Buddy himself told this tale, it would climax with his ascension to the NHL. But the moment of glory is meagre, nothing more than a couple of forgettable games with the Montreal Maroons in 1936. Back home in Huron Falls, Buddy’s brush with the big-time leaves him diminished—his story is over, and everyone can sense it. He sells cars for a few years, then drifts out of family and out of sight.

Novels by Gaston, Jarman, Paul Quarrington and others tell of hockey players who are similarly half-formed, nursing entitlements and charging blindly into the brick wall of middle age. The cameo in the big leagues is a common experience, and the near-miss leaves the characters somewhat emasculated. In street clothes they are aliens, loners, and usually losers.

Jamie Fitzpatrick and daughter in hockey colours

The best of them, like Buddy Wheeler, never explain themselves. Talking counts for little among athletes; it’s not what they train for and it’s often insignificant to how they communicate.

That can make life difficult for a storyteller. A baseball romantic like W.P. Kinsella deals with it by shunning real ball players, opting for “myth and larger-than-life characters.”

The hockey novel, by comparison, remains grounded. It finds its story in a player’s strange seclusion and his inevitable confrontation with what Richard Wright aptly labels “the quotidian blues.” And all the while, the game fills his imagination, haunts his every move like a vibrant dream: unreal, but more real than anything else.

Hear Jamie Fitzpatrick read from his own hockey novel You Could Believe in Nothing:


Jamie Fitzpatrick is the author of You Could Believe in Nothing (Vagrant Press), a novel about hockey, music, estranged siblings, departed lovers, family secrets, aging boomers, and the like. He’s also host and producer of The Performance Hour on CBC Radio and an online hockey columnist for the network.

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