Major junior leagues are playing, the pre-season NCAA Division I college poll is out and the National Hockey League (and my local favorite, the USHL) begin regular season play this week. That means hockey fans need to complete their tune-up for another year of hockey. How about a quick trip across the breadth of North America for a view of the state of hockey?
That's what Bill Boyd provides in All Roads Lead to Hockey. Boyd, a Canadian reporter who has covered the Olympic Games and world hockey championships, takes the reader from northern Canada to the Texas-Mexico border to show how the game has spread across the continent.
Boyd does not look at NHL teams except to the extent some of those interviewed played or coached in the NHL or aspire to do so. Instead, the odyssey he embarks upon is one devoted to amateur, junior, college and minor league hockey. He takes us to seven North American locations in this adventure, devoting a chapter to each. Two chapters in particular stand out — Boyd's examination of hockey on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation reservation in Manitoba and in Laredo, Texas.
The former looks at the OCN Blizzard, a junior hockey team owned by the Indian nation. While six of the 20 team members at the time of Boyd's visits are First Nations (the Canadian term for indigenous peoples) members, that is not a prerequisite. Rather, the Blizzard recruit from across Canada and even into the U.S. But Boyd doesn't just look at hockey for hockey's sake. His interviews explore how the team has helped improve race relations. He also touches on some of the problems often endemic to reservations. Here, it is the suicides of two native players. One in 2001 one occurred when the player failed to make the Blizzard roster. The other was Terence Tootoo, the first Inuit to play professional hockey, who committed suicide following a drunk driving arrest just two months after signing with a team in the minor league East Coast Hockey League.
The latter chapter takes us to the U.S.-Mexico border in mid-February to look at the Laredo Bucks of the Central Hockey League. Adding to the incongruity of a Texas hockey team is the fact that, with two exceptions, every member of the team is Canadian. The two exceptions? A Swede and an Israeli. But that doesn't mean hockey is a rarity in Texas. In fact, Texas has more professional hockey teams (12) than any other U.S. state or Canadian province.
Laredo is a city of nearly 200,000 and is across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, which has a population of half a million. Games are occasionally broadcast on a Spanish language radio network and the Spanish play-by-play announcer estimates that at least 20 percent of those attending the home games cross the border from Mexico to do so. Likewise, the roadtrip Boyd goes on with the team is to Hisdalgo, Texas, another border town that is home to the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees.
Those are some of the standouts of Boyd's work, as well as his chapters looking at college hockey both in the U.S. (Michigan State University) and Canada. But there are also disappointments. One comes with the first chapter, which looks at a team from Barrie, Ontario, that won Canada's Memorial Cup in 1951. There seems to be little focus to the chapter and one of its hooks – a hockey player whose nickname, Chevy, is part of the chapter's title – isn't really developed until more than halfway through the story.
That first chapter is also emblematic of two other problems with the work. One is that Boyd tends to drop and use the names of individuals, teams and towns with which readers, at least non-Canadians, are probably totally unfamiliar. A person could as much time digging through an atlas and a massive hockey reference book to know the significance, if any, of the names as they could reading the book.
The other is that too often the chapters tend to read like a simple conglomeration of the interviews Boyd did at each location. Rather than keeping the story focused on a particular point or theme, the interviews seem to diverge into unrelated areas with plenty of "war stories." It is as if Boyd did not felt some obligation to print as as much of each interview as possible as recompense for the time the interviewee spent with him.
Still, the breadth of the book's exploration of hockey in North America may interest fans of non-NHL hockey, allowing them to explore its popularity and growth throughout the continent.