Prof. Bill Gastonís latest book isnít aimed to please the literary cognoscenti. Itís a raucous memoir about old-timers hockey that scores laughs.
Anyone entering Bill Gaston’s office in UVic’s Fine Arts Building would need a novelist’s eye for detail to discern how much the man loves hockey. Granted, the 54-year-old Writing professor displays the hockey cards of two Junior A teammates with the 1970s Vancouver Centennials. There’s also a small cardboard cut-out jersey with “Bonaduce” on the back. It was a gift from a women’s reading group who studied The Good Body, Gaston’s 2000 novel about a retired minor pro player named Bobby Bonaduce. But otherwise, that’s it.
So when Gaston’s students spot him biking to campus from his home near Mount Douglas, they likely don’t realize he’s “in training” for “the season.” Fellow academics see him as the former director of the University of New Brunswick’s creative writing program and ex-editor of The Fiddlehead. CanLit aficionados think of Gaston as the critically acclaimed author of the 2006 Governor General’s Award-nominated short story collection Gargoyles. Few would envision the 2003 Timothy Findley Award winner swigging beer and guffawing at sophomoric pranks in a stinky dressing room full of middle-aged men.
However, that’s precisely where Gaston locates himself in Midnight Hockey: All About Beer, the Boys, and the Real Canadian Game, and he makes no apologies about his fondness for oldtimers hockey and everything that goes with it. “It’s about having a good time, and I think this is primarily a funny book,” says Gaston, who dashed off his first draft in two months. “It came almost effortlessly, like writing a letter to a friend.”
Midnight Hockey centres on Gaston’s debate over whether to play one last season before it’s time to “hangummup.” He puckishly bemoans the wonky knees and beer bellies that accompany male aging, and the toll they take on hockey skills. But he refuses to characterize his memoir as a meditation on mortality: “I hope it doesn’t come off as me whining about being old. I’d call it all gallows humour. Without the mortality, the lunacy isn’t as funny.”
In addition to tall tales about fellow old-timers who beat up Zamboni drivers or get spanked by Nanaimo waitresses, the married, mild-mannered father of four intersperses colourful episodes from his early hockey career. For instance, Denis Potvin knocked him out and Steve Shutt—both now in the Hockey Hall of Fame—broke Gaston’s nose in Ontario midget hockey. His favourite anecdote is about playing in France, “waking up on the floor, severely hung over, after being in jail, and then going and winning the tournament for Marseilles, which had never won a game in its history.”
Department of Writing colleagues Lorna Crozier and Joan MacLeod read the manuscript and gave it the proverbial Don Cherry thumbs-up. But Gaston didn’t skate into the hearts of publishers and retailers with Bobby Orr-like ease.
Doubleday Canada’s marketing gurus spurned his original title of Old Men on Thin Ice, claiming the word “old” would psychologically dissuade wives of old-timers from buying the book as a Christmas present (since they themselves would then feel old). Gaston vetoed their alternative suggestion of He Shoots, He Pours as a “cheap pun” before settling on Midnight Hockey. Meanwhile, an Ontario beer retailer canned plans to carry the book since apparently “somebody complained that it was too profane.”
But well-received readings at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre and the Ottawa International Writers Festival, plus solid sales, gave Gaston the motivation to give 110 percent again. He’s now working on his next book, unrelated to hockey. The Order of Good Cheer is slated for publication in 2008.
“It’s half-set in Nova Scotia in 1607 with Samuel de Champlain and half-set in present-day Prince Rupert,” Gaston says. “It’s historical fiction about an odd supper club that Champlain invented.”
He hasn’t ruled out a sequel to Midnight Hockey. That’s because he decided not to “hangummup” this season. He played twice a week before a hip injury sidelined him in February. And there’s little doubt Bill Gaston will make a comeback, because for him, the taste of beer in an old-timers dressing room is as tempting as Stanley Cup champagne.