A look at the dark side of the sport
HOCKEY TOWN Tale set in Sweden explores how fandom divides a community
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.
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.