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Book Review: They Don’t Play Hockey In Heaven

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So, NHL players and owners appear to have a new collective bargaining agreement that will end the lock out that cost them last season. YAWN.

Instead of worrying about a league few really seemed to miss as it committed hari-kari, maybe it’s worth taking a look at people who aren’t playing hockey for the money. There’s a slice of that life in Ken Baker’s They Don’t Play Hockey in Heaven, a look at his “comeback” season as a third-string backup goalie for a minor league hockey team in Bakersfield, Calif.

As a teenager, Baker was considered an Olympic-caliber goalie. In fact, he was the goalie on the US under-17 national team that won a world championship in 1987. Yet while at Colgate, an NCAA Division I hockey program, he seemed to lose his touch. By the time he played his last collegiate game, Baker had lost the interest and desire to play hockey. He stored away his gear and went on to pursue a career in journalism.

A few years after his last collegiate game, Baker learned he had a brain tumor a few inches behind his eyes. Most of it was successfully removed but Baker had to remain on medication. Now in his 30s and not knowing whether the tumor was responsible for the end of his hockey career, Baker and his wife decide he should pursue his childhood dream of being a professional hockey player. Setting aside his job – and the warnings on his medication that he should not perform “tasks requiring alertness” – Baker hooks up with the Bakersfield Condors. At the time, the Condors played in the now-defunct West Coast Hockey League, roughly the equivalent of AA level in baseball. The book, basically bookended with dreams that lead him to this quest and how to conclude it, is the story of his year with that club, his life in hockey and life in minor league hockey.

Despite Baker’s efforts to make this a story of determination and inspiration, it is basically a tale of hockey life in a league where the arenas hold no more than 5,000 or 6,000 fans. It is not of the same caliber as Open Net, George Plimpton’s tale of being a goalie in a Boston Bruins training camp. Of course, comparing almost any author of a sports book to Plimpton is probably unfair. Besides, what we’re talking about here are guys with long shot dreams of maybe some day making it to the NHL or who on their way down from a brief period at or just below that level. With minimum salaries of about $325 a week and even “stars” needing off-season jobs to support their families, these are guys who play hockey because that’s what they do.

Although not necessarily the best of its breed, Baker’s book should interest true hockey fans, particularly those who want a glimpse of hockey between the amateur ranks and the NHL.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.