MONTEREY PARK, CA — With about nine weeks until the start of National Hockey League training camps, we’re into that dead period where hockey fans, already desperate for their hockey fix, are forced to choose between playing NHL2014 on their video game console, or watching replays of 2014 Stanley Cup Playoff games on their DVR or on the NHL Network multiple times each, even though they already know the outcome.
Of course, neither of those options are ever enough for hockey fans during this period that should be known as The Dreaded Lull.
Fortunately, there is another option.
Indeed, there are a number of good hockey books available, many about former NHL stars. But a recent book bucks that trend, Instead, it’s a novel about the game and time when the game was much simpler compared to what we see today on NHL ice.
Pond Hockey: Rediscovering The Game, published in September 2013, was written by author and scholar Brian Kennedy, Ph.D, a native of Montreal, an Associate Professor of English at Pasadena City College, and a freelance hockey writer who covers the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks for Inside Hockey. Kennedy has also written three other hockey books, Growing Up Hockey: The Life and Times of Everyone Who Ever Loved The Game, Living The Hockey Dream: Interviews and Personal Stories From NHL Superstars and Other Lovers of The Game, and My Country Is Hockey, in which he gave readers a good look into his own hockey stories, those of former NHL players, and how hockey is so deeply rooted in Canadian culture and in the psyche of Canadians.
At this point, it should be noted that yours truly, who has sat next to Kennedy in the Staples Center press box during Kings home games for nine seasons, along with a few more of Kennedy’s colleagues in the Kings press corps, are mentioned in Pond Hockey as fictional characters. Despite that, this article is an unfettered, objective (as much as humanly possible) review.
Kennedy’s first hockey novel, Pond Hockey is the story of Todd Graham, who, after losing a corporate job in Toronto, returns to his small town home to care for his ailing mother. After returning, he is inspired by the sight of the pond he played hockey on as a child, not to mention the flood of memories of that treasured time in his life, some good, others not. That inspiration leads him to coach and play for a team that was trying to qualify for the World Pond Hockey Championships at Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, often relying on hockey and life lessons taught to him by his mentor during his youth hockey days. In the end, Pond Hockey is a riveting, inspirational story that is as much about life as it is about hockey in its simpler, purer, less structured form.
You’re In The Story Too
Using incredible storytelling and imagery, Kennedy paints a vivid picture, not just of Todd’s experiences, but those of the people who lived in the fictional town of Queenston, the pond where he played hockey, and of the people and lives Todd would interact with and impact after his return home. So vivid was the imagery and painstaking detail Kennedy provided that when Todd and his friends, or the local high school kids, were playing on the pond, you could actually “see” the game in your mind, right down to the color of their jerseys, the smoke billowing from the wood stove in the warming hut (called the “shed” in the book), or what the inside of the local diner looked like when Todd and his friend, Trevor, had coffee there.
In other words, Kennedy did a masterful job of placing the reader right smack dab in the middle of the story, making you feel like you were right there, sitting in the diner, or on the banks of the pond, seeing everything first-hand, which is exactly what he had in mind, even though early drafts did not reflect that.
“One of my editor’s first comments was that the feeling of playing outdoors wasn’t tangible enough, so then I had to go back to those passages where they were outside and make [readers] feel like they were on the pond themselves,” said Kennedy. “I had to think about dimensions, space, where you are, where you’re standing, what you’re seeing, where the bank was, the car.”
“That’s the result of a lot of revisions,” added Kennedy. “People don’t realize how much work goes into these books. Some people might say, ‘it’s just a hockey book.’ I wrote the book in about four or five months. But that’s just the first 70,000 or 80,000 words. It ended up being 80,000 or 90,000, but you cut a lot.”
Paying close attention to detail, such as ensuring that locations in the story made logical sense, also gives readers that sense that they are part of the story.
“The place itself has to be tangible, so you can’t talk about a place and not talk about what’s there,” Kennedy noted. “The shack is really important, but so is the diner, and city hall. These are places that are real.”
“All that stuff—where the roads go, how does the town look, what the area surrounding the road into town looks like—that was one hell of a lot of work to get that stuff right,” Kennedy added. “What does it look like? What does it feel like? It’s the air, even the kids kicking a can down the sidewalk, and later in the story, when somebody drives somewhere, that somewhere still has to make sense, in terms of the map you’ve drawn for readers at the beginning of the book.”
A Easy Read, But A Huge Challenge To Write
That Kennedy was able to do such an incredible job of making the reader feel like they were part of the story, seeing the same things that the characters in the book were seeing in such vivid detail, is a rather amazing feat given that he had so little to go on when he was asked to write this book.
In fact, Pond Hockey started as his publisher’s skeletal idea, one that was shared with him over dinner while Kennedy was teaching for one semester in 2012 at Oxford University in England.
“She said, ‘I kind of had in my mind that it would be nice to have a book about pond hockey. It would be a story, but also factual. Sort of a novel, but not really,’” Kennedy recounted.
“I thought, ‘OK, I can do it,’” Kennedy added. “But I didn’t really know if I could do it because of the complications of writing narrative.”
“They had a few ideas. She sent me a few notes—kind of a wish list. They wanted a story about a guy who coaches a bunch of kids on the pond, sort of like his mentor did, and they have this warming shack, which is the shed in the book. That’s it. Essentially, they gave me a few sketchy ideas, the timeframe, and length of the book. I don’t think the World Pond Hockey Championship was part of it.”
Without much guidance from his publisher, Kennedy had a lot of blank spaces to fill in.
“It’s like writing a novel about football, and we want this guy coaching Pop Warner, and then the story ends up that this is an NFL coach,” Kennedy noted. “So some of the elements are the same as what the publisher had in mind, but the first major shift is that this isn’t a hybrid of fact and fiction, which is what they had mind.”
Also helping paint such a vivid, compelling picture for the reader is that Kennedy, at least in part, relied on his own hockey experiences growing up in the Montreal area.
“You get your stories from somewhere, right,” he asked. “Of course, [in the book], it’s all morphed and adapted from anything that’s real. For example, the Peterborough tournament is a big tournament that happens every year, but it’s younger kids than the ones in the book. Queenston isn’t a place that exists, but Peterborough is. But even that, I could’ve called it anything, or moved the tournament to Trenton, Ontario, or Niagara Falls, Ontario.”
“The only character based on a real person is the mother,” he added. “That’s my Mom. She didn’t break a hip. She had a stroke, but I had to spend a lot of time dealing with that, going back home, so there’s a little of me in Todd.”
“I also dedicated the book to my Mom. She died in 2003. To some degree, this is also a story about her.”
Although his publisher had a story written in the first person in mind, Kennedy took the much more difficult route of writing Pond Hockey in the third person with a narrator. That decision proved to be critical. It worked wonders for the book, providing enough detail without overdoing it.
“I teach literature,” said Kennedy. “I’m trained to analyze it, so I thought I could write it. But it was a lot harder than I thought. I didn’t understand how to create a narrator. The publisher was thinking that it would be a first person story, but it’s a third person story, which is a lot more complicated than what they had in mind, and the introspective quality of the main character’s experience is—it’s a hockey story, but it’s supposed to be more than a hockey story.”
Kennedy elaborated on the challenges he faced.
“You have to get your character from place to place, but you can’t say, ‘then he got in the car and drove to the rink,’” Kennedy observed. “But then there’s this other balance where you can’t just give time markers. People can’t just know, right? The temptation is just to be in the next scene because you know the next thing that’s going to happen is they’re going to be down at the rink, or having coffee somewhere, so there’s this delicate balance between over-narrating, how you move them around, and under-narrating it, because you’re not going to tell everything.”
“There’s lots of stuff these characters do that doesn’t matter, right? That’s the point about the narrating,” Kennedy added. “This kind of story, which I hope is well-written—it’s not like watching a reality show. You’re not reading the character’s diary. That’s the difference between what I think it a better-written novel and a worse one. What you have to do is tell the reader certain things and make them not even think, ‘well, what did he do on Wednesday,’ if what he did on Wednesday has nothing to do with the story.”
That Kennedy chose to write the book in the third person as a narrator is a key reason why the book pulls the reader in so deep that they feel like they live in the town of Queenston, or that they are watching the high school hockey team face-off against Todd’s team, right there on the banks of the pond.
“The story should be carrying them along so much that they don’t care that you aren’t going to give them every little detail,” said Kennedy. “They don’t care about what they’re not being told, but they care a lot about what you are telling them. That’s the trick.”
Don’t Let The Predictability Dissuade You
As captivating as Pond Hockey is, there is one negative aspect of it, and it is quite glaring. The problem is that the story is rather predictable.
Indeed, after reading the first few chapters, yours truly thought, “OK…guy loses his corporate job, ends up back home in a small town that’s also struggling—this is going on now. He’s going to go back to the pond, be inspired by it, rehabilitate it and wind up coaching a kids team that will go on to play on the pond.”
That was not quite how the story went, but I was awfully close—there were few surprises in the book. You can pretty much anticipate what’s going to happen as you read.
“I keep waiting for someone to tell me what’s wrong with this book,” said Kennedy. “Maybe that’s what it is. The depth that I was going for wasn’t a surprise in the plot as much as it’s trying to develop this character. This is a character-driven story. You’re supposed to feel for this guy and be absorbed in his story. When he gets that sort of healing—he’s not a bad person. Circumstances just caught up with him.”
To be sure, Kennedy emphasized character and story development, but allowed the story to become rather predictable. However, do not let that discourage you, because despite that, the story is wonderful, so good that, as reported earlier, you keep wanting to read more. You get emotionally attached to the lives of these characters. In fact, the depth given to the characters, to the town of Queenston, the vivid way Kennedy painted the picture of the pond—you feel like you are a resident of Queenston or that you are right there at the pond, shivering in the icy, snowy cold. If it wasn’t the pond, it was the diner, city hall, or Todd’s mother’s home. Kennedy did an incredible job of bringing everything to life, putting you right smack dab into every scene, every location. He gave us so much that the book tackles you and hauls you in.
Much More Than Entertainment
Like his other hockey books, Pond Hockey has a bit of editorializing from Kennedy, who believes that today’s youth are being deprived of a lot of the fun that hockey, in its simpler form, provides.
“It’s portraying the game in the ideal sense that I think a kid needs,” said Kennedy. “For example, my nephew is twelve. He plays hockey and his Dad has a backyard rink. This past winter, they had a long run of it and there’s no structure out there. They just play. But then, when he goes to practice, he has to buckle down. There’s principles that have to be learned, so I think, in the best sense, it’s both.”
“I do have a sort of an editorial stake in that, especially with Canadian parents now,” added Kennedy. “They’ve got this pressure on little kids that’s just absurd to expect them to excel at this game at that age. If you talk to NHL scouts and former NHL players, they’ll tell you that you have no idea if a kid’s going to be any good at hockey when he’s twelve, and most of time, you don’t even know when he’s 15. But these kids are locked into the bantam draft, the midget draft, the junior draft. Their whole lives are constructed around this sort of thing and they don’t really learn to love the game.”
“Think about how much the game has changed in thirty years, even with professionals. They didn’t play all summer. They didn’t even workout all summer.”
In the book, that message is embodied in Bob, Todd’s youth hockey coach and mentor.
“That’s why Bob was a coach who gave them the best of both worlds,” Kennedy noted. “Bob wanted to create a ‘New Canadian Way’ of teaching hockey, which was somewhere between learning the skills by wrote and by just throwing the puck out and saying, ‘first guy to get it wins,’ or something like that.”
In the end, and like he does with his other hockey books, in Pond Hockey, Kennedy is trying to do more than entertain.
“To some degree, I’m trying to tell a story that’s the story about a lot of people in this time of corporate shutdowns, hard times, and the loss of jobs—those are things a lot of people have had to live with,” he said. “My first thoughts were ‘why would [Todd] be [back home]? Who is this guy?’ He’s not going to be a guy who never left town. After all, this was written in this era. People are losing corporate jobs and they have to rebuild their lives.”
“I thought that he had to be there for a reason,” he added. “He can’t just be there because I didn’t want to write about a character who had never left town. So he’s gone somewhere, tried to make something of his life and he’s come back. Why did he return? Partly because things were ending for him where he was, but also, he’s got this family situation.”
The fact that Pond Hockey does much more than entertain makes it that much more compelling.
“Someone can read this book as entertainment and that’s fine,” Kennedy observed. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But I guess I’m trying to convey the importance of the game and how much it means to Canadians. Most families have a kid who plays and they get pretty wrapped up in it. I’m also trying to show how a town can pull together and what the values of community are.”
“It’s as much a lesson about how any town that values anything can create a sense of community around that, as it is about how a Canadian town feels relative to hockey.”
Kennedy, Brian. Pond Hockey: Rediscovering The Game. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Argenta Press, 2013. ISBN-10: 0-986-65465-5. ISBN-13: 978-0-9866546-5-7.
You can find Pond Hockey at Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com, along with other booksellers.
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