A look at the dark side of the sport

HOCKEY TOWN Tale set in Swe­den ex­plores how fan­dom di­vides a com­mu­nity

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - NICK PATCH Spe­cial to the Star

Any reader breez­ing into Swedish au­thor Fredrik Back­man’s new novel “Beartown” an­tic­i­pat­ing the gen­tle whimsy and quirky comic com­fort food of his run­away smash “A Man Called Ove” would be ad­vised to check those ex­pec­ta­tions.

With his lat­est, the fu­ri­ously pro­lific blog­ger-turned-au­thor casts his eye on a tiny, de­clin­ing Swedish com­mu­nity where the hockey-ob­sessed lo­cals hoist their col­lec­tive dreams and frus­tra­tions on the teenage shoul­ders of the lo­cal ju­nior hockey team. When one of the team’s hot­shot prospects sex­u­ally as­saults a class­mate dur­ing Beartown’s un­likely run to the na­tional fi­nal, the town and team alike be­come bit­terly di­vided.

Back­man sees that the thrilling, tightly coiled tale is a departure from the quirky Ove and the rest of his oeu­vre. Still, he was sur­prised at the ex­tent to which the new novel caught some off-guard.

“The re­cep­tion in Swe­den was that the crit­ics felt it was more dif­fer­ent than I thought they would,” Back­man said. “I think the ba­sic way that I told a story about hu­man be­ings is not all that dif­fer­ent from my ear­lier works. The story is just a lit­tle bit darker and a lit­tle bit more se­ri­ous.

“I wanted to write some­thing that was both my way of ex­plain­ing how much I love sports and what that’s meant to me, but I also wanted to write some­thing about the dark­ness of it.”

Back­man was drawn to that dark­ness out of love.

Like many in Swe­den, where Back­man es­ti­mates the fer­vour for hockey is sim­i­lar to Canada’s own, he’s a life­long fan. Grow­ing up, it was the only sport he didn’t play — “I was a very frag­ile kid. ... I tried to play hockey but I just got hurt all the time” — but oth­er­wise he was im­mersed, fol­low­ing closely both the Swedish Hockey League and the NHL (coun­try­men such as Nick­las Lid­strom made him a Detroit Red Wings fan).

“I have a hockey in­ter­est that I would call an in­ter­est,” Back­man said, “and my wife would call it a se­ri­ous men­tal-health is­sue.”

And yet, Back­man was trou­bled by as­pects of the cul­ture. In “Beartown,” over­bear­ing par­ents seethe and blus­ter on the side­lines while the teens on ice try not to in­cin­er­ate un­der the pres­sure. Back­man’s re­search was extensive. He talked to for­mer NHL play­ers and their wives, to cur­rent Swedish Elite play­ers, to par­ents and to kids.

He ob­serves now that while some spe­cial ath­letes do flour­ish un­der im­mense pres­sure, “a lot of other kids, they crack.

“A lot of young peo­ple get de­stroyed by the pres­sure,” Back­man said. “The book is also a lot about how we build cer­tain peo­ple up to be demigods if they’re good enough at some­thing. That’s a very danger­ous no­tion to give a teenager.”

Beartown’s anointed teen de­ity is Kevin, whose prac­tice wrist shots echo through the town like gun­shots and whose fa­ther wields his money and in­flu­ence with about as much force. Other key char­ac­ters among what is Back­man’s largest cast in­clude Amat, a scrawny kid whose light­ningquick skat­ing is the only thing pro­pel­ling him from so­cial iso­la­tion, and Maya, an artis­tic and strong-willed out­sider to Beartown who even­tu­ally be­comes its vic­tim.

It’s an un­for­tu­nate re­al­ity that Back­man had no short­age of real­life ex­am­ples of vic­tims who were vil­i­fied by fiercely pro­tec­tive sports fans to ob­serve for re­search. He also spoke to sur­vivors of hor­rific trauma to bet­ter un­der­stand how deep and mul­ti­fac­eted the ef­fects are.

“I wanted to por­tray the sham­ing process of the vic­tim, which al­ways hap­pens,” he ex­plained. “No mat­ter what the le­gal out­come, you have this mob who im­me­di­ately defends some­one just be­cause it’s a fa­mous ath­lete. Since this per­son is re­ally good at a sport, then of course there can be no guilt, of course this must be a lie, and of course we must de­stroy the ac­cuser in any way that is avail­able.

“I looked a lot at the log­i­cal rea­son­ing for go­ing af­ter a vic­tim like that, just to de­stroy her, just to shut her up, be­cause that’s ba­si­cally what it’s about: ‘Just shut up and let us get on with sports.’”

Prior to pub­lish­ing Ove, Back­man had doc­u­mented his mi­nor daily ag­i­ta­tions and spun sto­ries with dogged reg­u­lar­ity on his blog and in col­umns (the 36-year-old still blogs). It was ini­tially a chal­lenge per­suad­ing pub­lish­ers of the com­mer­cial po­ten­tial of Ove — given that it’s about a 59-year-old cur­mud­geon who tries un­suc­cess­fully to kill him­self — but once it be­came a world­wide phe­nom­e­non pub­lished in more than three dozen lan­guages, Back­man’s writ­ing was in hot de­mand.

For­tu­nately, he al­ready had sev­eral other nov­els in the works. In 2015, he pub­lished “My Grand­mother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry,” a charm­ing tale about a lit­tle girl de­ter­mined to de­liver a se­ries of apol­ogy let­ters from her late grand­mother to all the peo­ple she wronged, and last year fol­lowed with “Britt-Marie Was Here,” about a woman who ditches her un­faith­ful hus­band and finds un­likely up­lift in a back­wa­ter small­town.

Back­man’s as­cent con­tin­ued with the 2015 film adap­ta­tion of “A Man Called Ove,” which earned two Os­car nods. The fa­ther of two ini­tially saw sim­i­lar po­ten­tial for “Beartown” to thrive on­screen too, and orig­i­nally wrote the story as a TV se­ries un­til be­com­ing frus­trated with the “ex­tremely slow” process.

“Ev­ery­one who knows me, in­clud­ing my agent and my wife, they all said: ‘Maybe you should just go sit alone in a room and write this as a novel and we’ll get back to the TV peo­ple even­tu­ally,’” he said. The TV ver­sion was in­deed sub­se­quently picked up.

SI­MON AND SCHUS­TER/LINNEA JONASSON BERNHOLM

Fredrik Back­man chan­neled his love of hockey into prob­ing the sport’s cul­ture in “Beartown.”

Fredrik Back­man’s “A Man Called Ove” was a darkly comic novel that was adapted into an Os­car-nom­i­nated 2015 film.

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