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Library Book Review: Before the Lights Go Out

Sean Fitz-Gerald explores the slow death of a game and a team.

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The Winnipeg Public Library has a wide variety of hockey books. Periodically, we will be reviewing books from there in case you are interested in reading them. These posts are not done for any pay and are instead about promoting public libraries as a way to access reading materials.

Canadian sportswriter Sean Fitz-Gerald wrote a book about hockey in Canada, but unlike other books about this topic he does not wax romantic poems about the grace and beauty of the game. Instead, Fitz-Gerald takes a deep dive into parallel stories: the Peterborough Petes during the 2017-2018 season and the state of hockey in Canada. It is a solid way to look at how the changing demographic of Canada has affected the game.

Fitz-Gerald has an easy way of writing and he manages to flit between the two stories comfortably. You start to wonder when he will get to what is plaguing “Canada’s game” when he starts to subtly weave it into his over-arching story about the Peterborough Petes and their difficult season. His story about Nick Robertson guides the book into it’s main thrust: it takes a lot of time and money to have children play minor hockey. He builds off of that story and weaves in and out of the Petes season while highlighting the issues with Canada’s national pastime.

The story is fast moving with my only hangup being the amount of time we spend on needless parts of the Petes season like the time spent on team meals at the beginning of the book. However, the beginning of the book is a bit slower than the middle and end. It is after the aforementioned Robertson chapter that the books truly hits it’s stride and goes into it’s thesis.

The thesis is the key: instead of being “hockey is dying because of new immigrants and high costs”, Fitz-Gerald goes deeper. He looks at who is making the decisions that affect everyone involved in the game and why they are struggling to attract new participants. He also looks into what organizations are doing to attract new fans and if it is working. He also touches on issues like full-year hockey and how that affects kids. Is it healthy to let kids fall in love with only one sport? Is hockey going on for much of the year healthy for a family?

Fitz-Gerald is asking all the questions, but just like everyone else is stuck for answers. You cannot stop people from opening for-profit summer hockey camps for example nor can you force parents to sign their children up for other sports or take the summer off for family time. The book does offer that there are some creative ideas being bandied about including allowing families to sign up for “semesters” of hockey so they can play for shorter periods of time which makes the time commitment more bearable for families while giving them the choice to play the entire winter.

In a book about a subject that has been written about in different forms for a while now, Fitz-Gerald manages to bring a new perspective by following an OHL team while at the same time highlighting the difficulties of the future of hockey in Canada. He uses the stories of players on the team and surrounding the team to explore what is wrong with hockey in Canada and why fewer people are playing. He also manages to find some people who have come up with creative solutions to recruit and retain players. All in all, the book is an easy read and should be read by fans of the game.

If you want to hear from Sean Fitz-Gerald about the book, listen to The Scrum Podcast where he talks about the book with Julian McKenzie and Tristan D’Amours.