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For a story that he began writing 25 years ago, Joe Cvetich's Our Game is surprisingly topical, and that, in turn was a surprise to him.
Our Game is a massive, self-published three-part novel, more than 1,000 pages. It's the story of an on-ice death during an NHL game in Toronto, and is split into a trio of sections: The Players, The Game, and The Trial.
All kinds of serious topics arise, from the racist attitudes that minority players have to endure, to clergy members preying on young boys, to hazing and initiational rituals.
“It's interesting that so many of these stories are coming up today,” Cvetich said in a video call. “As I've said to people I've talked to about this, if you were involved in the game 30 years ago, you knew all this. Nobody talked about it. It's interesting that all these things are coming up right now. The racism story, the hazing stories, I wrote those 15, 20 years ago. It was common knowledge if you were in the game, so it's not like I just rushed a 1,000 page book together in the last year, right?”
“Rush” is certainly not a word one would associate with Our Game.
An English teacher for more than 30 years in the Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School system, most recently stationed in Baden, Ontario, Cvetich pecked away at the project for a very long time.
“I started writing during my summers off 25 years ago as a way to kill time and I guess in the back of my mind as an English teacher, you always think, 'Isn't this what English teachers are supposed to do?' You're supposed to write. Well, I found out actually most English teachers don't. But I just continued with it and kept going. And I didn't tell anybody until about two years ago that I even had it.”
He would go months or longer without working on Our Game. “It was never my intention to publish it,” Cvetich confessed.
Fortunately, one of his daughters is a real bibliophile, and not only did she ask to read it, she got on his case. “She started pushing me and saying, 'Dad, you should try to publish this.'”
Cvetich got to work, learned how the self-publishing world operates (he used Amazon's Kindle), and is in the process of spreading the word. The second edition corrected some of the typos of the first, and a planned omnibus, with all three books in one, is in process.
But what is Our Game really about? It's set in 2005, and here's the description from the website (http://www.joecvetich.com/):
Over the length of three books and at over 440,000 words in total, the epic story attempts to capture the essence of a certain time in Canadian society through an examination of one its most revered institutions: the game of hockey As the stories of these characters unfold, many issues emerge that extend far beyond the ice: What role do traditional institutions play in shaping the views and attitudes of today’s boys and men? How are girls and women viewed and treated by the men who run and play the game? How are ‘new’ Canadians, people of colour and different sexual orientation treated by old and traditional institutions? How are issues of mental health perceived by the public and people in power? The ultimate question this book asks is the following: is the game of hockey a positive force for unity and equality in this country, or is it one that divides us and is ultimately destructive?
It's the bigger picture in mind.
“I wanted to talk about a Canada at a certain point, the Canada I grew up with. It's a different world today,” he said.
He's heard from people who have read it. Some “have found it, as they say, incredibly topical and timely. And that's what I'm trying to sell it as even though these stories were written a long time ago. There seems to be a new sort of awakening to these kinds of issues. And the response has been [that] this is an interesting approach.”
The time in the classroom came back to him as he toiled away at the project.
“It's funny that as a creative writing teacher in high school, I would always tell my students writing is made up of four things. The first is your lived experience. Second, it's whatever you've read. Third, it's what's going on, your observations of the world around you. And then last is your imagination. So it's all of those things, there are stories I heard over the years, there's things I've read, and then you just kind of put your imagination to it and try to make it as readable as possible.”
(How readable? I brought my copy of Our Game Part 1: The Players camping with my 13-year-old son, and he stole it and read it in a day, all 366 pages.)
Readers will read into the characters what they will. Cvetich said that none were based on actual NHL players, but more about people he played against while growing up. So, while the French-Canadian goalie is a doppelgänger for Patrick Roy, it isn't him. “A lot of that is based off my own experience. It's combined with what I've read about other French Canadian goalies,” he said.
And on the subject of reading, it is natural to ask an English teacher where is hockey's version of The Natural, Bernard Malamud's 1952 baseball classic, or Field of Dreams from W.P. Kinsella? To many, Roch Carrier's The Sweater is the greatest fictional hockey book ever.
“Trust me, I tried to find them all. I found maybe five published fictional hockey books. I think it's a very difficult story to write,” Cvetich said. “Baseball, it moves slow. It's kind of cool when they write things about baseball. Hockey is a hard thing to capture in that way. It took a long time to write a lot of a hockey scenes to try to get it right. I think it's hard, the speed, the sound, that sort of thing. And then to find compelling stories, rather than just kind of cliched stories, I think it's hard too.”
With Our Game out there, in all its length, and with an active blog to discuss hockey (http://joecvetichblog.com/), Cvetich has turned his attention to the next book, set in more recent times, but essentially in the creative universe he made for his trilogy.
The central character is a woman. “My central thesis in this upcoming book is can a woman play in the NHL? And I'm basing stories in and around that idea,” he said.
Here's hoping it doesn't take another 25 years to get it finished.
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