“Blue Ice, And Other Stories from the Rink” a short-story collection by Frank Ewert is probably the best thing to come out of hockey since the elimination of the rule against the two-line pass. Ewert, a young Canadian writer of great ability, and a hockey player since the age of five, has an understanding of and a love for the game that comes through in every one of the six jewel-like and eminently readable stories.
In his introduction to “Blue Ice,” Ewert notes a Canadian tradition of “Hockey Literature.” I would argue that point, citing that while there’s lots of hockey writing in Canada, there seems to be damned little literature. In fact, I believe Ewert’s “Blue Ice” is the first literary fiction with hockey at its core since Peter LaSalle’s 1989 short-story collection, “Hockey Sur Glace,” and LaSalle is an American. That’s twenty years in between of a hockey literature populated almost entirely by fan books, team sagas and accounts of great games.
The dialog throughout “Blue Ice” has the the feel of effortless authenticity, always the fruit of talent and painstaking work. The atmosphere of the game, playing it, thinking about it, talking it, are delivered glitch-free. Ewert creates likeable, believably flawed, multi-dimensional characters with voices that reflect their self-awareness, like Wade, the narrator of the opening story, “The Protector.” A matter-of-fact junior hockey role player of limited talents, Wade explains his job of using physical intimidation to shield his team’s star player, a former friend Wade now can’t stand, and by doing so keeps his own place on the team.
The title story “Blue Ice” goes in unexpected directions. In what might have been just another sweet boy/girl unrequited puppy love story, Danny is the struggling goalie for his school’s contending hockey team. The tale turns when his once harmless, vicarious romantic dreams begin to threaten his team’s chances.
On their surface, the stories in Blue Ice might seem light, easy and commonplace, but under the ease of the story-telling, there is an implicit stable of serious themes. The half-American kid, Trevor, in the “Canadian,” his U.S.-born Mom “says the word ‘roof‘ funny,” over-compensates in his defense of “Canada’s Game.” And the three hungover Calgary Flames fans of “The Cup” in lamenting their team’s loss in the Cup finals to a Florida-based team, further address the issues of Canadian insecurity about the migration of hockey away from its roots. The usurpation of Canada’s game by a dominant American market, the rising ascendancy of European and American players and the failure of Canadian teams to bring home the Cup, seems to have undermined Canada’s sense of itself. Don Cherry nows makes news by demeaning any non-Canadian success in hockey, think Alex Ovechkin. Even a revered figure like Wayne Gretzky has been coming off sourly chauvinistic in his defensive “our game” public comments. Ewert very effectively captures this collective Canadian unease over the future of their national game.
In “Taking the Man,” Ewert tells a story of a player’s creative on-ice solution in dealing with a petty, arbitrary and egotistical official, and does so without ever explaining the hockey rule being exploited. Ewert assumes slyly and correctly that the reader already knows that a referee calling a penalty can’t blow play dead until a player on the offending team takes control of the puck. it may be “inside baseball,” but it’s fun when you realize exactly what is happening out on the ice.
And if as a non-hockey playing reader, you wish to get some idea of what it feels like to rush up the ice one-on-one against a defending goalie, Ewert includes a two-page gem titled “A Breakway.” You are inside the head of an uncertain skater named David who finds himself with a puck on his stick and nothing but open ice between himself and the goaltender.
I’d recommend that “Blue Ice” be declared a Canadian National Treasure.” Okay, it’s not the Stanley Cup, but it is first-rate literature that just happen to be about hockey. Here’s hoping Frank Ewert has lots more books in him.