Friday, July 10, 2009

Hockey Story, and a Beauty

Ken Baker is a former college hockey goalie who began as a prospect in the U.S. Olympic development program. His career reached a plateau at Colgate University, and he never fulfilled his potential. Having left the game at 21 somewhat bitterly, without understanding a hidden, physical source of his malaise, he was diagnosed a few years later with a brain tumor than had, during his college years, affected his pituitary function, altered his body chemistry, and robbed him of strength and energy. He is treated and recovers. Later, he experiences a sudden, sharp desire at 29 -- literally, a dream -- to play competitive hockey again. Rediscovering the passion and talent of his youth, he sets a goal of playing pro hockey at the minor league level as a late-career rookie in the 2001-02 season.

Ken Baker is also a writer whose post-collegiate career includes a journalism degree and stints at People and US Weekly. His first-person book about his hockey comeback attempt, They Don't Play Hockey in Heaven, documents the mundane details of his physical and attitudinal progress over two years as he rediscovers his love for the game and what it takes to compete at the professional level. He ultimately gains a benchwarmer's slot on the Bakersfield Condors, a minor league team. Will he finally get playing time in a pro game and validate his dream?

I wanted to like this book. I did like it, to a point. I'm a hockey fan and former rec league player; I can relate to Baker's depictions of the sights, sounds, and smells -- "Pee-yew!" says his fiancee, of his old goalie equipment -- of the rink-rat life. His tales of the camaraderie, competition, brutality, violence, and stomach-turning injuries in minor league hockey result in a worthy, textual companion to the classic hockey farce on film, Slapshot. There's a full airing of Baker's thoughts along the way as he pursues his dream.

It's just that there's nothing new here. The against-all-odds, aging-rookie scenario has been explored in sports movies from The Rookie to The Natural. Roger Kahn's Good Enough to Dream and the movie Bull Durham present the hardscrabble, bus-riding life in the minor leagues. Jim Bouton's Ball Four is still the standard-setter for a candid look at rude, crude clubhouse life. Canadian-American hockey culture is depicted seriously in Ken Dryden's Home Game, and comedically in the aforementioned Slapshot. George Plimpton's Open Net presents in even starker relief the enormous talent gap between pro hockey players and the average wannabe in the stands.

What's unique to the book, then? The dramatic element of Baker's athletic training starting from ground zero, in light of his recent medical recovery; the encouragement and temporary separation from his spouse in pursuit of his hockey dream; the combination of goaltender's cockiness and writer's vanity that allows him to begin an action sequence with the words "I expertly"; the colorful descriptions of the suitably archetypal characters and internal rivalries on his Bakersfield team; and 200 pages of "Will Kells put me in the game tonight?" When he finally gets in a game -- oh gosh, I spoiled it for you! -- there really aren't any surprises left.

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