Monday, February 20, 2012

Male Monday: Cracking the Ice

Cracking the Ice by Dave Hendrickson 2012
Westside Books

Rating: 3.5/5

IQ "No one had said a word in his defense. No one had lifted a finger. No one. Jessie thought of a phrase Pop often used: No snowflake in an avalanche feels responsible. He hated all of them, every snowflake on the hockey team. Yet he couldn't very well give up, could he? Doing that would rob him of his dreams and give them what they wanted." pg.153

Jessie wants to play hockey, eventually making it to the NHL. It's not a problem per se, but it will be a battle because Jessie is growing up in the 1960s and there was only one Black professional hockey player at this time, Willie O'Ree for him to look up to. Jessie is offered the opportunity to attend a prestigious New Hampshire boarding school on a full scholarship and the chance to play on the school's hockey team. Best case scenario Jessie hopes he will get spotted by scouts and be on his way to the NHL after a grand college career, worst case scenario, Jessie plays for one of the best high school hockey teams in the country and attends a top college. He sees this situation as a win-win and although his parents have some serious misgivings, they ultimately agree. Unfortunately, Jessie expected some racism but he is shocked by the racism he faces from 99% of his teammates, he expected his teammates to come around when he showed his skills. Jessie does not want to throw in the towel, but he's not sure he wants to spend four years of his life being miserable, and not given playing time by his hockey coach.

I don't have many problems with this book, I didn't love but it was not a waste of my time. In fact, I think it's one of the most interesting books I've read this year. And it touches a subject close to my heart. But first a few quibbles. Jessie has a girlfriend, they are in love. Jessie is fifteen. I thought this would be one of those 'first-love but move on' type stories but it's not which I felt was unrealistic. But then again, it was the 1960s, maybe people fell in love and stayed together at an earlier age. *shrugs* I also did not like the ending because I felt like it made the whole story pointless. I can't explain it without going into spoilers but while it wasn't completely depressing, I did feel like the ending made the whole premise unnecessary. Furthermore, I really really liked the focus on hockey but I was curious as to how Jessie was doing academically. Were his classmates just as racist? His teachers? There are a few dorm incidents but it was never clear to me if Jessie's teachers and classmates were all narrow-minded.

My father loves hockey. My father is Panamanian American so this is not exactly "normal". I am not going to pretend I watch hockey avidly because I don't have time to watch sports everyday but some of my earliest memories of father-daughter time is me lying on my father's stomach as we watch a hockey game, usually the Blackhawks versus whoever. I watched all the Stanley Cup playoff games last year and I would venture a guess that I know a little more about the Blackhawks than most bandwagon fans after our 2010 win. But whenever I hear someone talk about hockey, I think about my father. Especially because we often discuss the few Black players in the NHL and usually, if the BHawks aren't playing, we support whichever team has a Black player (if they both have Black players on their teams, great. Then it's just based on talent). My father has told me that he gets some ribbing from his friends for liking hockey and the few times I mention I like hockey, I get some weird looks (and Black people usually tell me that it's a "white sport" to watch and play). I found it interesting that the author chose to give the book a 1960s setting when this book could have been even more interesting set in the present-day. Cracking the Ice did not, I felt, do a good job of explaining why many Black Americans do not play hockey. It's mostly an economics issue and I would venture a guess that this held true in the 1960s as well as today plus I am sure there are still racial incidents today. I was also curious as to how Jessie became a fan of hockey, that was never explained. If it was because he grew up in the Northeast where hockey is hugely popular, than the book should have explained why other Black teenagers were not interested in hockey. The descriptions of hockey however are delightful. The author clearly has deep-rooted affection for this sport and it shows in the detailed dialogue and descriptions of hockey greats, hockey plays and the euphoric highs one gets playing this often-brutal, skilled, sport.

Cracking the Ice is noteworthy because it is a one-of-a-kind book, it takes the civil rights movement to the hockey arena and it handles the subject nicely. The racism is disgusting and difficult to read about, it's always scary to play with racist teammates but especially in hockey because it is a team sport and violence is involved and so as Jessie points out, you need to know your teammates have your back. If they are too bigoted to protect their own teammate solely because of his skin color, that's a serious problem. I think the author does a great job conveying the determination not just of Jessie but of Black people in general in the 1960s to follow their passions even though many white Americans tried to dissuade them. This story skates by and at times I grew genuinely nervous for Jessie. I also appreciated that the story showed how hockey evolved by explaining the safety measures, helmets were a recent thing which is scary to think about. Jessie and his roommate Stick, the only other Black student at the school, present two examples of how Black youth dealt with the racism they experienced on a daily basis, it was even more fascinating because it was from the perspective of Black athletes. Stick is willing to just coast by academically or even cheat because he knows that he's a great football and basketball player and the benefactors won't let him fail. But that doesn't mean he is accepted by all the students and even Stick realizes that he needs to be more than "the dumb Black athlete" stereotype. I am glad to see an author attempting to break the sheen of ice that covered hockey and its often-racist past for young readers.

Disclosure: Received from publisher, thank you!!

PS Here's a list of current Black NHL players. I'm a big fan of Dustin Byfuglien (the only African American currently playing to have won the Stanley Cup. With the BLACKHAWKS =D), Jamal Mayers and Jarome Iginla (Black Canadian, first Black captain in NHL)