A little while back, after doing a few book reviews here, a call went out for more. And so arrived Orphans of Winter - quietly, with little fanfare, the modest cover not promising a whole lot - which if it came from a more seasoned fabulist would be plenty good enough to go into the corners against Canadian HockeyLit stars like Paul Quarrington, Bill Gaston and Dave Bidini. But Orphans (Seraphim Editions), by folk musician turned writer Rob Ritchie, is a debut novel, and as such I'd call it pretty astonishing.
Perhaps it's that folk musician's background but Ritchie is a deft storyteller, delivering a barnburner tale that combines hockey, mysticism, religion and Canadian Aboriginal spiritualism. His hero, Stephen Gillis, is a complicated mess, a western Canadian hockey scout for the Toronto Centennials (read, Leafs) whose life-path accelerates when he's tipped on to an unheralded, ignored fourth-line forward by a mysterious stranger one night at the Prince George Arena. Vancouver Island and B.C., Toronto's talk-radio fuelled hockey frenzy, and out to Newfoundland it goes, Gillis and the forward's twinned stories converging.
Whenever the whole thing appears in danger of sliding off the table - and it comes close - Ritchie is able to pull it back:
"He had this theory that what made a specific sport popular was how well it mirrored some part of society that people thought was important. He had lots of examples . . . football was like war, baseball had to do with the industrial revolution, golf was all about manners and etiquette. The thing was, he could never really nail down hockey. The best he ever came up with was that the game represented winter."
"That's right. Like it was this continuous battle for survival. From start to finish. Game to game. Year to year. Novice to Old-Timers. For best results play angry, like there's this storm inside you. I remember thinking at the time that it didn't really apply. Not with kids today growing up skating on multi-alloyed blades with custom-fit moulded boots, wearing top-of-the-line pads and equipment, shooting with their brand new high-flex graphite sticks and playing their games in state of the art arenas. But then I got watching that young winger Vancouver has on the right side this year. His name's Yvegeny Kaltzov and he's a 19-year-old Russian out of what remains of their national program. Did you know he spent the last two seasons in Moscow living in an unheated apartment with three other players? Two rooms between them, windowpanes cracked or missing, so the snow would pile up on the sill and on the floor below. I used to think guys like that played hard and angry because they were scared shitless of going back to conditions like that."
"Now ...? Now I think they play the way they do because they still know winter."
Don't go into this looking for a homespun, Hockey Sweater kind of read. It's dense going at times. But this season, among a few titles of note, it deserves to be grouped with the best. Nice work here, and well worth it if you're looking for a last-minute present for the literate fan of the world's most "beautiful and cold" game in your life.