Two Minutes for Reading so Good

Novel The Mighty Oak grounded in minor-league tough guy reality

Two Minutes for Reading so Good

Greg Oliver


Novel The Mighty Oak grounded in minor-league tough guy reality

Posted February 11, 2021

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The Might Oak book cover

If professional football’s most eye-opening novel was Peter Gent’s 1973 classic North Dallas Forty, then it’s taken almost 50 years for hockey’s equivalent to arrive.

Meet Tim “Oak” O’Connor, the star of The Mighty Oak, written by Jeff W. Bens, and released by Blackstone Publishing. As you read about his aches and pains from years on the ice, season after season in the minors as one of the predominant tough guys, you feel it in your own bones. When his knuckles bleed, it’s inevitable to glance over at yours and consider the consequences.

Unlike Gent, who had been a pro football receiver, and had lived the life of the pill-popping, hard-partying stereotype, Bens is a fan of hockey, especially his hometown Bruins, but never played for more than fun.

Instead he did his research, and then more research. It shows. The hockey action—and this is a story with hockey as a background, not as the main theme—feels legitimate. You can smell the team bus, hear the roar of the crowd.

“This book took me 10 years to write, and a lot of it was research. What’s most important to me is always place and job, and so I wanted to make sure that place and job felt accurate to those who know it better than I,” Bens said. “I did a lot of research and talked to players. And you know, because of having an interest in it, too, I think that I was able to intuit a little bit what would be the right details to get at, you know what I mean? Like if I had to pick up something I wasn’t interested in, it would be hard for me to like intuit what needed to be looked at, to get the authentic feel. But here, hopefully over time, I was able to do that.”

Bens said that he collected three big tubs of hockey tough guy books, DVDs, and clippings, to get the details just right.

The Mighty Oak is grounded in reality too, from the nooks and crannies of South Boston and Quincy, to jarring references to the tragic deaths of NHL goons such as Derek Boogaard and Wade Belak.

That sad year of 2011 got Bens thinking about hockey tough guys. “That’s about when we really started knowing about the challenges of what we now know about collision sports. I wanted to get that in,” he said, accepting that it can be surprising to the reader to bring in the outside world. “I know what you’re saying is, well, now it’s kind of breaks the so-called fictional wall. But, you know, BC [Boston College] does have a decent hockey team, those are actual AHL cities, the West Coast Hockey League is made up but there is a lot of Texas hockey. I wanted Oak to be aware of those guys, because he’s a smart guy, and he doesn’t see himself on that trajectory.”

The point, to Bens, is that Oak became a fighter, and it wasn’t as if he started that way. “I don’t think that these guys are goons—there’s a few that are—but these guys aren’t goons. They’re really exceptional hockey players, aren’t they? The worst guy off the bench in the AHL is one of the greatest hockey players ever to skate when you think about.”

The real fight for Oak is trying to cope with his return home to Boston after his mother’s death, seeing his teenage daughter after far too long away, and the need to make a buck while suspended from playing. After all, those pills to deal with the pain don’t come cheap.

Jeff W. Bens
Jeff W. Bens

The concept of Oak came first, and the story developed around him. “I thought, what is it about hockey? Well, if this thing is heart and spirit, I think that’s why we watch it right? These guys have got a lot of heart and spirit. And this is game played on ice in a constricted space with boards,” he said. “I’m also interested in how people get defined. I mean, I feel like, Oak is a big guy in a neighbourhood that encouraged him to be a big guy, encourages his hockey playing, he’s good at it, he likes it. And it comes to define his choices.”

Again, it’s not a hockey book all the way through. Bens explained it as “a thin slice of a minor league hockey career, it’s a thin slice of Boston.” It’s a compelling tale, where you’re drawn into the main character’s life and want to follow it through to its conclusion, and it’s not anywhere near the vicinity of the “goal to win the championship” trope.

Bens also found himself mulling head trauma. “I’m interested in this notion of why, as a viewer, as we continue to learn about hits to the head, and not really even fighting so much, although that’s part of it, but this notion of these collisions, as we learn more and more about collisions, how that is going to affect our understanding of hockey and football going forward.”

Bens also found himself mulling head trauma. “I’m interested in this notion of why, as a viewer, as we continue to learn about hits to the head, and not really even fighting so much, although that’s part of it, but this notion of these collisions, as we learn more and more about collisions, how that is going to affect our understanding of hockey and football going forward.”

The Mighty Oak will find an audience. Publishers Weekly has already celebrated it, saying that it is “Filled with memorable characters, pungent dialogue, and a lean, hard-bitten writing style, Bens’s superb novel brilliantly faces down traditional notions of manhood.”

Bens is trying to think positive. “If you like hockey, that brings something to the book, but I hope that even if folks aren’t big hockey fans, that the book is compelling for them as well,” he said.

It should be evident that Bens talks about writing on a different level, appropriate given his day job as a professor, teaching fiction writing and screenwriting at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. The Mighty Oak is his second novel, after 2001’s Albert, Himself (Delphinium Books).

The process of writing the book has come up in the classroom (which is, at the moment, virtual). Bens noted that the grad students are particularly open to hearing about his process, his struggles.

“If this book doesn’t find an audience, I’m going to have a complete crisis of confidence, because everything that I’m trying to teach from comes in the approach of this book,” Bens concluded, using an example of his teaching. “Getting the dressing rooms correct, and not just saying he’s in the dressing room, he throws the stuff on a bench ... the book isn’t exactly selling millions of copies, but just the fact that someone like you, who knows the game, had a good experience with it means a lot to me.”

 

MORE ICE CHIPS

Happiness is ... an author showing off their new book. Here’s Kerry MacGregor with The Ice Chips and the Grizzly Escape, which came out in January 2021, from HarperCollins. It’s the fifth in the series, again with a cover by Kim Smith. “This morning was a bit of a struggle...  but then NEW BOOKS ARRIVED IN THE AFTERNOON!” MacGregor tweeted on Jan. 28. “Thanks for brightening a rainy winter day, @HarperCollinsCa! (Love this cover, @Kimdraws! As always, we’re very lucky to work with you!)”

Kerry MacGregor photo with her brief
Kerry MacGregor photo with her books

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As always, I welcome your suggestions, notes, and feedback on other books and authors to feature here. You can email me at goliver845@gmail.com and you can follow me on Twitter @gregmep. For info on my own books, see OliverBooks.ca