Thursday, 18 October 2012

Ice Hockey Magic by Catherine Czerkawska


My love affair with ice hockey goes back a great many years: to the late 1970s in fact, when I spent a couple of years teaching English Conversation to adults in Tampere, Finland. My students mostly worked in the large paper mills of Tampere, which is a long, thin and rather beautiful town, sandwiched between two lakes. I taught engineers, management, secretarial staff. Sometimes I went out to the factories by bus and sometimes students travelled to the language school which was above a department store in the middle of town. There were a few other people - all ages and stages - doing evening classes for various reasons. When we weren't teaching, we clustered in the cafe downstairs, chatting, drinking coffee and eating rice porridge with milk, a fabulous creamy, sticky version of yoghurt called viili or piirakka munavoi, the cheap and cheerful Finnish equivalent to scrambled eggs on toast.

Finns are friendly but - on the whole - quite shy and private people. Teaching conversation to people who are naturally quiet was challenging. Eventually, I realised that the most effective technique was to dramatise things a bit and risk making a complete fool of myself in the process. Then they would relax and speak out. The majority of my students were young men. And the only thing they really wanted to talk about, even in English, wasn't business but ice hockey. I learned a lot about hockey over those two years from Lasse and Jorma and Matti and Heikki with their blue eyes and old gold hair. (Especially Jorma!) I was young, footloose and fancy free as were many of my students, and I and my fellow teachers were often invited out to hockey games. Tappara and Ilves were the town's two teams and there was a good deal of rivalry between them. My landlady's cute ten year old son, Esa, played hockey too, and I got used to seeing him clumping about in hockey kit. I loved it all. I was smitten by the magic of this fast, enchanting and oh so physical game.

Cue forward. I'm married with a young son myself - and we're living in Ayrshire. For a few blissful years, we get to watch superleague ice hockey - The Ayr Scottish Eagles - in a brand new arena with one of the biggest and best ice pads in the UK: the Centrum. Ice hockey appeals to young and old, male and female. Spectators include grannies and babies and all kinds of people in between.Visiting supporters sit among the home spectators and cheer their team, unmolested. Any violence tends to happen on the ice rather than off it.

The charismatic captain of the Eagles offers hockey classes to the kids. Our son learns to skate and then learns to play hockey. For a few short years, I'm a hockey mom, helping him to haul kit about - hockey involves a vast quantity of unbelievably heavy, smelly and expensive kit although fortunately much of it can be bought second hand - tugging on long laces, ferrying him to and from hockey summer schools, learning about cross checking and high sticking and why a wrist shot is more accurate than a slapshot.

Time passes. Our son hits sixteen, major exams loom and he's forced to make some tough choices. Hockey has become just too time consuming and he's been practising karate for years as well. Besides, he's already well over six feet tall and destined to be an 'enforcer' and enforcers tend to lose their teeth. He decides that karate fits in better with his academic work, so he stops playing.

All too soon, the Centrum is gone, demolished to make way for a supermarket, taking many thousands of pounds worth of public money with it. But even now, when the Winter Olympics come along, or when I stay up late and catch the occasional game from Canada or the USA on satellite television, I wish I was there, watching those big bright warriors out on the ice. In 2010, when our son visited Chicago, he saw the Blackhawks win one of their playoff games on their way to winning the Stanley Cup. I envied him.

All of which goes some way towards explaining the unusual background to my new novel, Ice Dancing. Of everything I've written, I think this probably comes closest to being a straightforward romance. But then, I'm never that straightforward, and just as there's a darker side to the good old hockey game, there's a darker side to this novel as well. If this is a romance, it's one with a wry and painful twist because visiting Canadian hockey player Joe, who skates like an angel, has his own demons to cope with and Helen, a farmer's wife, living discontentedly in a rural Scottish backwater, finds her life disrupted in unexpected ways by this young incomer. And so, with their two quite different worlds in unlikely collision, Joe and Helen find themselves balancing precariously on ice, dancing between past disappointments and future possibilities, between hope and despair, together and apart.

My agent, on first reading Ice Dancing, thought it had echoes of The Bridges of Madison County and I can see what she meant. There were times, though, when I thought I might be channelling Barbara Pym. Because this is also a novel about the quiet joys and equally quiet frustrations of village life.
I'm aware that the whole thing is a bit odd and off the wall (or off the boards, if we're talking about ice hockey!) But maybe that's what ebooks are also for: for when you want to balance precariously between genres while you launch yourself and your novel on an exciting but undoubtedly slippery new medium.






7 comments:

CallyPhillips said...

All I can say is that I'm half way through and it's so compelling that I'm seriously considering trying to read it in the car on my journey today (I'm not driving!) so if it makes me sick it won't be the quality of the work but it WILL be the quality of the work. The village life stuff is EXCELLENT (I recognise is as totally true to life) and the hockey... well, it's hockey and as such excellent. In many ways a different but NOT such a different take from my ebook play POWERPLAY also available - we hockey nuts have got to stick together. Well done Catherine, it's a great story and makes me once more so happy that epublishing allows us to sneak one past in overtime. She shoots... she scores!And not an icing call in the whole thing.

Pauline Fisk said...

Tampere, Finland? You've lived in Tampere, Finland! My son married his Finnish wife just outside Laiti, and we visited Tampere in the thick winter snow. Have you mastered Finnish? If you have I'm deeply impressed.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks, Cally. I'm trying hard to get it online - but STILL keep finding typos that I and everyone else has missed. Think it's just about there, though. Tampere - yes, I lived in Tampere for two years, Pauline. Loved it. How nice that your son is married to a Finn. But didn't master Finnish! It's soooo difficult. Makes even catching a bus difficult, the way the names change. By the time I left, I could have a very very basic conversation and could do the shopping, stuff like that. They all speak such good English, though, that whenever I tried to practise they would reply in English. I had a Finnish boyfriend for a while, but since he was learning English, that didn't help either. I LOVED the country though. Could have stayed there. Just wasn't earning enough money!

Chris Longmuir said...

I loved the 'old gold hair' it had such a visual impact.

Susan Price said...

I'm going to have to look into ice-hockey. I seem to be missing something.

CallyPhillips said...

Sue - totally - it's the thinking woman's wrestling (LOL!)
And hot news folks, here's a hitherto unknown benefit of ereaders... despite having eaten far too much and being a lifelong car sick person, I managed to read 3 chapters of Ice Dancing without feeling any ill effects - it was a straight dual carriageway (and I wasn't driving!) I only gave up because it felt a bit rude not to be chatting. But it was a sacrifice to STOP. So - others might try this a diversion on a long car journey even for those with propensity to car sickness.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Sue, you can read my novel first! (And Cally's play which I'm about to review!) That way, you can get a flavour of the whole thing before you actually watch a game. My 50th birthday treat was a trip to a big hockey game with a group of about 20 friends. I didn't know they were coming - when I got there, there was a whole block of them, cheering! Chris - the Finns DO have the most beautiful old gold hair. I'd never seen anything quite like it. I used to sit on the bus admiring it from behind.