Of the many hockey books I've read over the years, I had yet to read one that was a work of fiction. The true stories of professional hockey are the most prevalent and finding a work of fiction is rare. So I was intrigued when I was asked to review "Enforcer" by Valerie J. Wood.
"Enforcer" tells the story of Cole Bowman, a forward on the fictional NHL Rockets, who's one of the top fighters and penalty minute leaders in the game. His brawling style has made him feared and hated by his rivals and a favourite of his hometown fans.
Yet Bowman is being torn apart by personal demons and the punishing demands of his occuption. His coach, a demanding, old-school mandarin, values Bowman's roles as team "policeman" but belittles and berates him in the dressing room at every opportunity. Many of his teammates treat him with barely disguised disdain, even though he carries the heavy burden of "watching their backs" during games.
In order to stay on top of his game physically, Cole uses steroids to build muscle mass and painkillers to numb the physical price he pays for toiling at his craft. Despite his size and fighting ability, Cole suffers from low self-esteem and lives in almost daily fear that his coach will replace him. He is also filled with self-loathing over what he's become and looks toward each game with dread.
His personal life provides little relief. His father, who had high hopes for Cole to become a hockey star, despises the type of player he's become and constantly harangues him with phone calls. A woman he loved cruelly and coldly breaks his heart and he has almost no friends in which to confide in.
Feeling hurt and alone, Cole uses booze to take the edge off his emotional pain. He desperately wants to impress his coach, but is constantly afraid of losing his approval. He wants to heal his estranged relationship with his father but cannot bring himself to respond to his phone messages. He wants to get closer to his teammates but retreats into silence from their taunts and ribbing. He wants to be loved but cannot get over the pain of his failed previous relationship.
Fortunately two of Cole's teammates, Bobby and Dmitri, see more in him than a silent, no-talent goon and slowly build a friendship with him. Bobby tries to get Cole to open up and share his problems, while the good-natured Dmitri believes he has the skills to be a much better hockey player.
As the story progresses, Cole also attracts the attention and affections of Barbara, the team owner's daughter, and Mitzi, a waitress at his favourite bar. Both vie to win his love and help him come to grips with his emotional turmoil.
Just as life seems to be improving, the demands of the game, the emotional abuse from his father and coach, a personal family tragedy and the stress of his love triangle with Barbara and Mitzi pushes Cole further into the solace of booze and cocaine. It also threatens to send him over the edge.
At times the story drifts into soap opera, particularly involving Cole's interaction with Barbara and Mitzi. Some of the characters come across as stiff and one-dimensional; in particular coach Al Farrell, who is portrayed as a ruthless jerk lacking compassion.
In Farrell ,Wood seems to be channelling the spirit of infamous Detroit Red Wings coach and GM Jack Adams, but while coaches like him once were commonplace in professional hockey, they rarely exist to that degree anymore.
Fortunately these few flaws barely detract from the gripping story of Cole's personal and professional battles, and this is where Wood's ability as a storyteller shines through. Despite Cole's self-destructive behaviour, self-loathing and lack of self-confidence, I genuinely cared for the character and found myself rooting for him to overcome his woes. It's easy to sympathise with Cole Bowman because he's seeking the same things we all want: love, respect and approval.
Wood also does a very good job of describing the game, particularly the preparations and the "stories within the story" that occur in a hockey game. Anyone having played hockey, be it professional or in a local house league, will recognise many of the scenes described by Wood.
Some critics may point to Bowman's drug use and alcohol and how it's hushed up by the team doctor and head coach as far-fetched and unlikely to occur in big-league hockey, given the physical demands and conditioning of today's players. But the story of the fictional enforcer Cole Bowman is so real because it reminded me of two real-life enforcers, Brian "Spinner" Spencer and John Kordic.
Both played a hard, mean style as marginal NHL players renowned for their fists than for their playing abilities and both lived self-destructive lifestyles away from the game. They both suffered from low self-esteem and sought the approval of father figures. Spencer nursed his pain with booze and fast women, while Kordic used drugs and alcohol to ease his whilst using steroids to build up his body.
In Spencer and Kordic's cases, their stories proved that the real life of a big-league hockey player is not always peaches and cream. There can be casualties, emotionally and physically, whether from the toll of the physical game or the abuse to their psyches.
Cole Bowman exists as a fictional character because Spinner Spencer and John Kordic were real-life pro hockey players whose self-destructive ways were treated as dirty little secrets. That's what makes this fictional story a compelling read. "Enforcer" is an entertaining read that even non-hockey fans should find enjoyable.
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