A Life on Ice: Fredrik Backman’s Beartown

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There’s been lots of hockey talk in our house this week, despite the fact that it’s June. Hubby has been watching the final round of the Stanley Cup, and I’ve been reading Fredrik Backman’s novel Beartown. I know, I know, I frequently bemoan the abundance of sport talk in my house. I rarely watch a hockey game all the way through anymore, unless it’s an Olympic game. And I don’t understand half of what Hubby says when he tells me all that stuff about building a hockey program, and making draft picks, and the difference between offside and, well, whatever. But I don’t hate hockey. I am Canadian after all. And Hubby, of course he loves it. In fact he’s pretty much lived his life on ice.

Canadian kids start early learning how to play hockey. Hubby in his hockey gear, age seven.
Hubby and his little brother. The beginning of a life on ice, so to speak.

Fredrik Backman’s Beartown is the story of boys and men who also live their lives on ice, in one isolated town in Sweden. A town that will die if hockey can’t save it. The fate of the town, the inhabitants believe, rests on the Beartown junior hockey team winning the finals. The first time in twenty years they’ve even come close. A win could mean new sponsors, a new rink, maybe even the situating of a new hockey school in Beartown, instead of somewhere else. And that of course could mean new businesses, more jobs, and a growing economy, instead of a dying one. So what does this one game of hockey mean to the town? “It means everything. That’s all.”

Yep, hockey is everything to Beartown. To the young players Kevin, and Benji, and Bobo, and little Amat. And to the coaches and general manager of the town’s teams, former hockey players themselves. Peter the GM was the player who lead the last winning team to the finals all those years ago. He then went off to Canada to play in the big league, the NHL, until injury sent him home way too early in his career. But those are the perils of a life on ice. You spill your guts, spend almost every waking moment while you’re growing up practicing, training, getting to be the best you can be, and sometimes the glory lasts a paltry few games.

“Hockey is just a silly little game. We devote year after year after year to it without ever really hoping to get anything in return. We burn and bleed and cry, fully aware that the most the sport can give us, in the very best scenario, is incomprehensibly meager and worthless: just a few isolated moments of transcendence. That’s all.

But what the hell else is life made of?”

Frederik Backman

So there’s a lot of hockey talk in Beartown. But the book isn’t only about hockey. Hockey and what it means to the boys, their families, the coaches and managers, and the townspeople is only the backdrop for the main story. The main story is about loyalty and betrayal, greed and selflessness. About knowing the difference between right and wrong, and sometimes still choosing wrong over right. It’s a story about what playing a team sport can give to you: friendship, a sense of purpose, and a sense of belonging. And what it can take away, if you’re not careful.

Backman’s novel is also a story about responsibility, the idea that adults are responsible for children. That a community (parents, teachers, coaches, and, indeed, every adult) is responsible for imbuing children with solid morals so that when the time comes to make life choices, they make the right ones. Kids, even those who can bring prosperity back to a dying community, are not commodities. And hockey is, after all, only a game, not real life. And what struck me most about all this is the idea that parents and other adults who have never learned this lesson themselves are utterly incapable of teaching it to their children.

Captain of his hockey team at age sixteen.
That’s Hubby in the middle, captain of his team, aged sixteen.

I loved all the ideas that Backman presents in this novel. I loved the characters, especially little Amat. Of course, I would find myself drawn to the smallest, most fearless hockey player of all. Who says that art does not imitate life, eh? I found myself drawn to other characters as well: brave Benji, Ramona, inarticulate Bobo, and his dad. The scene where Bobo and his dad finally talk about sex is priceless in its awkwardness.

So yeah, I found Backman’s characters compelling and the plot interesting. I couldn’t put the book down, in fact. I don’t think I’ve ever before read a book that makes me want to watch hockey again. Backman really knows how to write about sports. Even for those readers who are not avid sports fans, or even fans at all.

But, despite how it sounds, I didn’t love this book all the way through. I found myself exasperated at times with Backman’s writing style. With his sometimes over-the-top portentous statements. The life lessons that he might as well have written in italics. I wanted to say to him… okay, okay, I get it. But still, I kept reading.

Excerpt from the Carleton University newspaper in 1965. Ravens hockey team lost to Sir George.
Playing for Carleton University in the sixties. He was not big, but he was mighty. Still is, in fact.

I was surprised at the fervour that arose over hockey in the little Swedish town depicted in Backman’s novel. We tend to think of that passion for hockey, the deeply ingrained feeling for the local junior teams, the chaos and violence that arises on the ice as being a “made in Canada” thing. Oh, I know that Sweden produces skilled and talented hockey players, many of them much better than our own Canadian players. But still, we tend to think of Swedish players as being mild-mannered, following the rules, using their skill instead of brute strength. The bench-clearing brawls, the screaming hockey moms, the bloody noses and missing teeth we see as belonging to what many commentators call “old time Canadian hockey.”

In fact, Hubby lost his own front teeth in a hockey game long before I knew him. When he played junior hockey in the sixties, travelling up and down the Ottawa Valley to games in small lumber towns very much like Beartown. One winter in the nineties, when we were “up the valley” for a cross-country ski holiday, we drove to a nearby town for dinner. Fred’s was a well-known, old-fashioned pub and restaurant, and Hubby told me that he’d been there years before when he was in the area playing hockey. We had drinks in the almost-empty pub, sitting at one of the small, round, wooden tables on which layer upon layer of varnish over the years had created a luxuriant patina. Hubby regaled me with tales of how tough the crowd used to be at Fred’s back in the day. How visiting team players had had to watch each other’s backs.

We ate a wonderful dinner in Fred’s dining room, steaks the size of our whole dinner plate, and delicious mashed potatoes. Eventually we ended up back in the bar paying for our meal and drinks. The bar was now heaving, and as we waited to pay, a man came up behind Hubby and tapped him on the shoulder. He said gruffly, “Hey, buddy.” Hubby says that his first reaction was to groan inwardly. Remembering back in the day when tempers could flare with little to no provocation, he thought, “I’m too old for this sh*t.” But when he turned around the man continued, “Aren’t you Stu Eccles?” It transpired that the man was a hockey fan, the cousin of someone Hubby had played with thirty years before. He’d travelled with the team as a supporter and fan, and had recognized Hubby. They had a good old chat about the old days, and I paid the bill. Ha.

So yeah, hockey can sometimes be a unifying force. And sometimes, like in Beartown, it can split communities apart. And for all its warts it seems to be in our DNA. Even when some of us haven’t watched a hockey game all the way through in years. You don’t have to be Canadian, or even Swedish, to love Fredrik Backman’s Beartown. You don’t even have to love hockey. Beartown is the first book in a trilogy that Backman is writing about this town in the middle of nowhere. The second book Us Against You came out in 2017. I haven’t read it yet, but I will. I’ll admit it, I’m hooked.

Before I finish talking about books about hockey, I want to mention another book that I read a couple of years ago. Indian Horse, by Canadian-Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese is a wonderfully moving book about racism and indigenous residential schools, and about surviving both through community, friendship, and hockey. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, I think. I won’t say more because I’ve written about Indian Horse before. You can read that post here, if you’re interested.

Now, for the edification of those non-Canadians who are unfamiliar with one of our national icons, I am including in this post the video below. Foot-stomping, twangie guitar playing, poet of the people Stompin’ Tom Connors wrote a song about hockey that plays at least once during most every hockey game played in Canada. We love Stompin’ Tom. I can’t say why, really. We just do. The hockey footage in the video looks like it could have walked right off the pages of Beartown, albeit a few decades ago. And the fact that the guy who posted this on Youtube spelled Connors’ name wrong says… something. Not sure what, though. Ha

Okay. That is quite enough from me tonight on the subject of books about hockey, and about people who love hockey. I’ve been writing so long that the person who loves hockey in my house has packed up and gone to bed.

You know, I’ve asked Hubby’s opinion while I’ve been writing today, whether certain aspects of the book are realistic or not. I mean he has spent most of his life on ice, as a player and a coach. And we’ve had some interesting conversations as a result. About team, and team loyalty, on and off the ice. And about the necessity of leaving certain aspects of team loyalty on the ice. I love these conversations about his life before we met. It never ceases to amaze me that after thirty plus years together there’s still stuff we don’t know about each other.

You can find all the books I’ve written about on Amazon. Fredrik Backman’s Beartown here, the second book in the trilogy, Us Against You here. And Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse here.

I have an affiliate relationship with Amazon now. If you click on a link and buy the book, I will receive a commission at no extra cost to you.

How about you my friends? What are you reading these days? Not books about life on ice, I presume.

Linking up with #ShareAllLinkUp at Not Dressed as Lamb, and Thursday Favourite Things at Marilyn’s Treats.

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33 thoughts on “A Life on Ice: Fredrik Backman’s Beartown”

  1. I am not sure a book on hockey would be able to muscle its way to the top of my to-read pile, but I agree that good writing can make anything interesting. The New Yorker is a perfect example, where I will read whatever they put in front of me, even topics I tend to shun (like sports or animals) and savor every word. The Wall Street Journal’s big front-page stories were the same–I wasn’t interested in business, but a grad school prof told us to read the WSJ and I got hooked. The writing did it.
    You are a good reviewer–you give just enough of the story and details to make it sound intriguing, without giving too much.

  2. I love the way you are weaving your story,interlacing the book and life and lovely photos…..
    Frederik Backman’ s books (and I’ve read A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked to Tell You She’s Sorry) are excellent indeed.
    Britt-Marie Was Here is waiting to be read,and now Beartown as well
    Dottoressa

  3. I love the way you entwined your stories here.. . Also second your recommendation of Indian Horse.
    I wonder if you or Stu would enjoy Randall Maggs’ book NightWork — poetry, yes hockey poetry! — based on the life of Terry Sawchuk (and now made into a movie). I had the privilege of hosting Randall a few years ago when I brought him to our university for a reading — I’d found his book while looking for a way to make poetry more interesting to the athletes in my (mandatory) first-year English classes. I found Sawchuk’s story so compelling, a goalie who began wearing a mask when that wasn’t done, in a time when players toughed out so much pain for so little reward, compared to today. And Randall tells that story so well, in such a surprising genre. Although maybe I liked it so much because way back when, I had a crush on a (high school) hockey player who wrote poetry in his spare time. . . .

  4. Wendy in York

    Well you know I’m allergic to sport , & hockey is to me what picking beans is to you – nightmare stuff but I loved the old pics of Stu & you definitely know how to tell a story . I recently read Victorians Undone by Kathryn Hughes where she comes at history from odd angles & really enjoyed it . I’m very keen on social history but even if you aren’t this is not dull text book history .

  5. Leslie in Oregon

    Tell your husband that at least one of your (longtime) readers is also a hockey fan. I became passionate about the sport when, after being without an ice rink since 1949 (when the city’s one ice rink burned down), my hometown of Portland, Oregon gained, in 1960, a beautiful new hockey arena and a new Western Hockey League team, the Portland Buckaroos. The team, thrown together at the last minute, was deemed “a ragtag bunch” by the press. The new arena was not ready at the start of the 1960-61 season, so the Buckaroos played all of their games away from home for the first 2-3 months of that season. They did not do very well during that period, and I remember one hockey journalist labelling them the worst team in professional hockey. Around the time the Buckaroos started playing home games, however, they underwent a complete metamorphosis, and they ended up finishing that season in first place in the WHL. They then went on to win the league playoffs and its Lester Patrick cup, and Portland went wild. That was the most rivetting season I have ever seen. At some point during their first few seasons, the Buckaroos pulled off another feat that still astounds me: in the last minutes of a game in which they were behind 3-0, they scored four goals in 45 seconds against their chief rival in the league. Although the Buckaroos were a Boston Bruins farm team, Boston did not call up any of “our” players for the first few seasons. Buckaroo fans had the luxury of developing strong ties with players, and players developed strong ties to the city and their fans. (Many of the original Buckaroos, all of whom were Canadian,ended up settling permanently in Portland,) At the same time, kid and amateur adult hockey leagues sprung up all over town, and my (Canadian-born and raised) father and my brother soon were playing league hockey. Unfortunately, there were no opportunities for girls or women to play hockey (or most other team sports) at the time, but I learned how to skate and ski as fast as I could and love doing both to this day. There’s just something about moving on ice….it is beautiful to watch and wonderful to do. I do not like the deliberate violence that can be part of hockey, and that sometimes has made it difficult for me to enjoy watching the sport. But I’ve never stopped loving hockey. And I’m on my way to put “Beartown” on hold at the library.

  6. Morning Sue,
    My father and 3 younger brothers played hockey. In my childhood house, winter and hockey just went together. In my Hubby’s home it was skiing. Gasp! I loved my hockey conversations with my dad. He was the most knowledgeable man in all sports.. in my mind. ? When he passed in ‘84 I lost all my interest in hockey. I do enjoy Olympic hockey. My children were raised on skis instead of skates. My poor sons.. ?
    Robin

  7. Great post Sue! I’m not a hockey junkie, but totally understand it as I was raised in Northern Ontario and the home of the Sudbury Wolves. I loved Fredrick Bachmann’s books, in fact my bookclub read Beartown and no one even watches hockey.. I’m now living in Halifax and it’s all about the Mooseheads! Ha! I’m going to check out your recommendations.

  8. Hockey is interwoven throughout my life even though I am not now the truest hockey fan…my dad and I shared a passion for hockey when we lived in Beloeil, a small town about 30 km east of Montreal…we were neighbours of Gump Worsley and I played with his sons Lorne and Dean. I remember meeting Gump in the kitchen of my best friend’s house but at the age of 6 I wasn’t too impressed…but my dad was! Gump played for the New York Rangers, the Montreal Canadiens and the Minnesota North Stars and was known for his quips and for not wearing a face mask as a goalie. Having been born in Montreal and living in Beloeil I became a huge Montreal Canadiens fan. After the loss of my dad my interest in hockey has waned although now living in Winnipeg it is very hard to ignore the excitement of ‘Winnipeg White Outs’ when the Jets are vying for a position in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Perhaps I will need to read Beartown, the book you have recommended, to get back into a hockey frame of mind!

  9. Wonderful piece, Sue. Hockey runs deep in Canadian veins. My husband and I both grew up to the opening bars of music that signaled the Saturday night broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada. We left for grad school in the US and one of my husband’s best memories of our grad school years was meeting his childhood idol, Frank Mahovolich, in the library at Yale. His son was being recruited to play there. Though we have lived in the States for almost 40 years, we made sure that our son learned to skate and he played hockey from age five right through high school. Now in grad school, one of his best friends is a young woman from Montreal who also grew up playing hockey–they go skating together regularly. Like you, I only watch the Stanley Cup finals with mild interest, but hockey is still is a big part of my identity as a Canadian. I’ll definitely look up Beartown.

    1. The big M… he was supposed to be a wonderful guy. Funny how much hockey history we know when we don’t play or even aren’t that interested anymore. I think you would enjoy the book. But be warned, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of all aspects of the game.

  10. I thought I commented last night but it’s disappeared – I hope this doesn’t appear twice 😉 I’m not really a team sports spectator and prefer tennis, swimming and gymnastics but I enjoyed your insights into Canadians’ love of and devotion to ice hockey and I thought the song was a hoot. And there seems to be much to enjoy in Beartown. My favourite recent book is Back, After the Break by Osher Gunsberg, an Australian media identity. He writes with searing honesty about his mental illnesses and addictions and the ins and outs of the music, radio and television industries (in Australia and the USA), all of which was fascinating, scary, funny and uplifting. I was glad to know that Osher is still with us because there were many points along the way when his continued survival seemed improbable at best.

  11. Wonderful post! It brought back so many memories. Rocket Richard, Bobby Orr, on and on and on. The intensity of the sport. I haven’t been to a game in decades I suppose, but I was the background of my youth. And thanks for that video. Yes! Now you’ll have to be recognized in the pub as that great blogger so hubby can pay the bill!

  12. I would struggle to make it through a book with sports as the backdrop, but I can fully appreciate the life lessons that you are describing – most certainly the need to teach responsibility by modeling it, and being responsible as adults for our children. Indeed, what we don’t grow up with may be a challenge to learn and pass along as we become adults. A challenge, but not impossible.

    I sometimes think about the fact that for our generation, as girls, this was only the beginning of encouraging sports in school. At least, in the US. The boys were encouraged to participate – or more forcefully, coerced into it – but as girls, we were not. I have often wondered about those lessons we might have taken from being part of teams working toward common goals. And even more so, leadership skills in the service of a solid goal. As you so I adeptly said: “It’s a story about what playing a team sport can give to you: friendship, a sense of purpose, and a sense of belonging.”

    1. One of the interesting things about sports in this book is how hockey is the heart of a small town that doesn’t have much else going for it. That part was really interesting. Plus the inclusion of women hockey players. That was great.

  13. I read Beartown for my book group and it was one of my favorites. What struck me was how difficult it can be to do the right thing. It is a thought-provoking book on many levels.
    I too am not a hockey fan. I live in Southern California and have been to one hockey game, that was enough. But I don’t understand the rules of football so I don’t watch the games. I did play basketball in junior high so I somewhat understand the game, my two boys
    played in middle school and high school so I enjoy watching basketball. All this long-windedness to say it helps to understand the rules of the game.

    1. Funny you should mention that. I played basketball too (for a short time and not well) but I still love to watch basketball over any other sport. I know what it feels like to be grabbing the ball, and running down the court. Sometimes not bothering to dribble. Ha.

  14. I know that I’m boring-but the name Mahovlich rang a bell to me and I’ve checked-his parents were immigrants from Croatia.
    Some of our best hockey players came (back) from Canada,also sons or grandsons of Croatian immigrants (don’t ask me for names)
    D.

    1. That’s so interesting, Dottoressa. Frank Mahovlich’s brother Peter also played professional hockey, here. And one of Stu’s buddies was Peter’s phys ed teacher in high school.

  15. Ann in Missouri

    LOL! That is some song! “The good old hockey game is the best game you can name. And the best game you can name is the good old hockey game!”

    Never heard it before. But I’ll never forget it. 🙂 And now I could sing it in a hockey stadium with people who’ve known it all their lives. 🙂

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