under review: reading your way through a hockey hiatus

Write-In: The back-jacket author photo that adorns the novel Don DeLillo published in 1980 under the nom-de-glace Cleo Birdwell.

Is it really 50 days since the pandemic stopped hockey, and everything else, except for in Belarus? Yes, that’s right, it was, this Thursday past — two score and ten scoreless days since the rinks closed up on March 12. Does it feel like a hundred days? Two hundred? As David Remnick was saying on The New Yorker’s podcast a couple of weeks into this strange spring, the loss of big-league sports is not — by far — the worst we’ve sustained, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bitter.

In the absence of hockey, and everything else (except in Belarus), it’s the questions that multiply to fill the ever-expanding void. They’re bulky and awkward, mostly unanswerable, and all but impossible to shepherd out of mind: How did this happen? Will everything be okay? When does it end?

Some of them are smaller, too, with a mosquito’s whine, no less nagging for being non-essential. Does hockey matter? What, really, are we missing? Were this year’s Leafs any good, does anyone recall? How do I know if my sourdough starter is still alive? Did you see those 1980s Oilers on Sportsnet the other night — how great were they? Not to mention Don Wittman on the play-by-play. Also: should I wash my hands again now? Also: anybody been able to zoom in on Ron MacLean’s good-looking bookshelves to see just what he’s got back there?

Hockey did focus itself on books in the first late-March weeks of isolation, back when we were still getting used to distracting ourselves. Remember? Back when we were focussed on tricks with rolls of toilet paper, before advent of multi-paned Zoom conclaves of housebound NHLers really got going? I suppose that people are still reading books, quietly, thoughtfully, off-screen, but in those days, the hockey world seemed to be as intent on talking books, hockey and otherwise, as much as zone starts or PDO.

San Jose Sharks captain Logan Couture started a book club.

Washington’s goaltender-on-hiatus Braden Holtby made a steeple of the books he’d been reading, or his wife Brandi did — she was the one, anyway, who tweeted out the photo:

In Seattle, the NHL’s newest franchise revealed … no, not the team’s much-anticipated name, that’s still to come — when “the mood is right,” as Greg Wyshinski of ESPN reports. The should-be Metropolitans did proffer some literary advice, even if it wasn’t exactly adventurous.

Hockey Canada weighed in:

Others turned their cameras to their shelves to advocate for hockey-minded favourites, historian and L.A. Kings writer Mike Commito had some counsel:

To which some of us answered back:

I added a novel to this massif of mine; I could have elevated more. I’ve written elsewhere about hockey fiction, superior and not-so-much. Ranking the novels I’ve enjoyed most of all, and learned from, the ones that rise above the regular, I tend to back up Roy MacGregor’s The Last Season (1985) with books like Paul Quarrington’s King Leary (1987), The Divine Ryans (1990) by Wayne Johnston, Fred Stenson’s Teeth (1994), and Mark Jarman’s Salvage King, Ya! (1997). Pete McCormack’s sweet and underappreciated novel Understanding Ken(1998) would be on it, and so would The Good Body by Bill Gaston (2000). And, from 2011, Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist.

So much for the best. What about the rest? A couple of years ago, when I was working hard to read allthe hockey books, every one of them — well, I didn’t do that, is what happened: I failed. It turns out that there are just too many, and not enough time, plus while a whole lot of them are vivid and insightful and even beautifully rendered, many others are … not.

I did read a lot, though. And for all the hockey narrative I made it through, I acquired a whole lot more, much of which I have shelved here behind me, with the fiction closest to hand, in case of emergency. It’s not all novels; this is a library rich with juvenile and genre editions, mass-market, pulp, serialized, and self-published sagas, too. Colonizing three shelves and part of a fourth behind the desk I’m sitting at, they’re all here, the great and the good and the just-entertaining mixed in with the middling, the muddled, the dumbly offensive, the merely harmless. It’s some of the latter that I’m thinking of paying some attention to here, in this space, over this next little stretch of our Great Hiatus, with a particular focus on the made-it-halfway-through and the couldn’t-get-myself-past-the-second-page. If now’s not the time to take a walk on the pulpier, predictable, prosaic side of hockey’s library, when is?

That’s not to say that some the fiction that comes under consideration in this upcoming series isn’t deftly done, incisive, insightful. We’ll look for that, without necessarily counting on finding it. The cover-art we’ll see along the way will be, I’ll mention, as fantastic as this. How far will we wander, through just how much turgid prose, down how many clichéd plotlines? We’ll see. No judgment … unless, no, I guess it’s too late for that. No harm, then — that’s what I’ll say: no harm intended. I’m not here to blame or berate or bicker. If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the books discussed here, I forgive you. Same thing if you happen to have written any of them.

So: stay tuned. We’ll get going in earnest, maybe … tomorrow? Before that I’ll just say, finally that … um … well, that I’m not sure whatto say about the novel whose several covers I’ve planted all around the property here. Keith Gessen, whose opinions I hold high in my esteem, has written that Amazons (1980) is, after Dryden’s The Game, “the other monument of hockey literature thus far.”

That should perk up your attention, even though, by and large, Cleo Birdwell’s account of her time as the first woman to play in the NHL mostly hasn’t drawn up much in the way of hockey-world notice to date. It’s no secret that the actual author has never openly acknowledged that he actually wrote the thing, nor that his name is Don DeLillo.

That alone should, to my mind, keep hockey readers flocking to its pages. That they remain relatively unflocked is — well, strange to me. It may not be Libra or White Noise or Underworld, but it’s DeLillo, after all. There’s plenty of hockey in Amazons (and lots of sex, too), but as Gessen has noted, its particular subject isn’t so much the game as it is America, “the dark schizy heart of it.” It’s a book, Gessen writes, that’s “not about hockey in just the right way.”

It’s pretty great, actually; I’m just recalling that now. Time, maybe, to revisit its pleasures? At some point? That sounds like a plan. In the meantime, will we end on one preferred passage, from the novel’s early pages?

I think so.

So Cleo, who at 23 has just made the Rangers, is talking to the blusterous Kinross, president of Madison Square Garden, who hates hockey, doesn’t understand why he should bother with it in his building.

“It’s a fuggin shit-ass game,” he tells her, “for my money. You don’t have a black or Hispanic element. It doesn’t reflect the urban reality. Who wants to see two white guys hit each other? The violence has no bite to it. It’s not relevant. It doesn’t reflect the streets and I come from the streets.”

Cleo isn’t fazed. “It reflects the Canadian streets,” she says. “It’s a Canadian game. It reflects ice and snow, that’s what it reflects.”

“Well and good,” he says. “I understand that. But this is New York, New York. Where’s the fuggin criminal element? Who do we root for? Escapist violence is all right in the movies. But this is live. Real people swinging sticks. Without any relevance, it’s kind of disgusting. If it doesn’t reflect the streets, you wonder what these guys are doing it for. What’s the point?”