Against the Boards

by Lorna Schultz Nicholson

Published by Lorimer

108 pages, 2005

Gretzky's Game

by Mike Leonetti

illustrations by Greg Banning

Published by Raincoast Books

32 pages, 2005




He Shoots... He Scores!

Reviewed by Lincoln Cho


There's something special about hockey. The frozen white surface, the cool crack of a puck off a stick, the studied simplicity of half a dozen guys a side facing off to do battle. It's a special game, that's never been more popular than it is right now. A fact that makes children's books targeted at young hockey fans all the more welcome.

Lorna Schultz Nicholson's third book featuring a young player from the Northwest Territories is a winner. The first two books in the series, Interference and Roughing, introduced us to Peter Kuiksak, a young boy from Tuk, a community that we learn in the third book, Against the Boards, is close to the North Pole and would just about fit into the West Edmonton Mall.

This time out, Peter tries out -- successfully -- for a triple A Bantam team in Edmonton and ends up billeting with a family there. This family -- the Pattersons -- whose eldest son is on a Major Junior team in Red Deer (and presumably is billeted there with some other hockey family) are well drawn and extremely real, especially their daughter, Christine. Though Christine is just a single year older than Peter and is in ninth grade to Peter's eight, she manages to get herself -- and him -- into enough trouble for someone twice her age.

This is a gentle story, properly told. Even Christine's acting out is more teenage high-jinx and self concern than anything more sinister. And it's crystal clear that Schultz Nicholson understands the world of hockey and has probably logged a few hours in arenas herself. More importantly, it's obvious that she understands the nature and temperament of the superior player, the things that set him apart. We see this in Peter's drive and determination and, while the story doesn't spin on these things, they are an unselfconscious part of the whole. Though Against the Boards is third in a series, it stands up very nicely on its own. Against the Boards is warm without being sappy and absolutely satisfying. Readers aged eight to 13 will enjoy meeting Peter and facing his special challenges.

Younger readers might just eat up Gretzky's Game, an enjoyable picture book romp that finds hockey legend Wayne Gretzky a star once again: this time at the center of an adventure aimed at young readers and pre-readers.

Gretzky's Game is really the story of Ryan, the young boy who narrates the book. Ryan's major obstacle is his size -- he doesn't feel he has enough of it. But he takes comfort from the fact that his hero, Wayne Gretzky, is not a huge man. If Gretzky can do it, Ryan thinks, perhaps he -- Ryan -- can do it as well.

Interestingly, this is a period piece. Ryan gets to go to Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton to watch the Oilers -- led by Gretzky and with Andy Moog in net -- beat the Islanders for the Stanley Cup. And so we get a little hockey history lesson along with our gentle tale of learning to believe in yourself. Stuff like this:

Suddenly it was the last minute of play and the Islanders pulled their goalie for an extra attacker. The crowd was standing and cheering when the puck came out to Dave Lumley in the Edmonton end. He spun and took a long shot that ended up right in the middle of the empty New York net. 5-2 for the Oilers and only 12 seconds to go!

While I enjoyed this belated play-by-play -- Hey! I remember that game. I saw it on TV -- I'm not so sure the average five or six year old will be all that excited. Picture books, after all, are a format where ducks quite often talk and hedgehogs can solve any number of complicated problems. That is, this format is most often for fun and not education. Or maybe it's meant to get the attention of dads who were kids themselves when that final goal was scored, cementing the Oilers as Stanley Cup champions. Dads, after all, can buy their kids books, too.

The illustrations in Gretzky's Game, by Toronto artist Greg Banning, are nothing short of spectacular. The media PR that arrived with the book said this: "Live models were used in the illustration process with the overall style being more realistic." The truth is much more simple: Banning is a wonderful illustrator. And the choices he's made -- in terms of the scenes illustrated, the way that light is used and the way nuances of expression and body language are captured -- Banning's paintings are more like Norman Rockwell's than those of any illustrator I've seen.

Against the Boards and Gretzky's Game are just two more reasons for hockey fans to be extra happy this season. | October 2005


Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Blue Coupe magazine.