Writing part memoir, part chronicle of a high-school hockey season, journalist and novelist Atkinson (Caveman Politics, 1997) takes readers along on his emotional ride as assistant coach of the 1999–2000 Methuen Rangers.
Atkinson grew up in Methuen, a one-time working-class town in Massachusetts now undergoing gentrification. Here, he returns to his high-school alma mater, 25 years after he played goalie for the school team, to record the current season. Like the newsman he is, Atkinson keeps his writing of the moment, which works beautifully for this nonstop sport. Hockey is elemental to Methuen, a part of the town’s collective identity, corralling entire families to sustain the expenses and long hours demanded from Methuen’s still essentially working class team. But a parent could ask for no better coach than Joe Robillard—“We’re here to help the kids, plain and simple”—the kind of sportsman who understands that passions are born, not made out of a parent’s inflated expectations, that you must work hard for your dreams, but they have to be your dreams to begin with. As Robillard puts his team through their paces, Atkinson laces the narrative with his personal experiences with hockey—from the pure, near-ancestral, qualities of pond hockey, through his high-school days, to his current old-man’s league—and proud, big-hearted stories of his five-year-old son’s early hockey experiences. Atkinson has evocative power, whether it be in describing the olfactory insult of a hockey locker room, the ebullience that attends a sharply played game, the sound of skates, cutting over ice, echoing off a far hillside, remembering the dedication of his father and hoping he can measure himself by that standard, or detailing the tribulations of high-school life: parents with cancer, loser friends, making mistakes and making amends, and hormones, hormones, hormones.
An artful class portrait of a town seen through the lens of a game, a tight-throated personal journey back into youth, and a keen description of the life force that hockey can be.