Twenty Miles

One only needs to look at the role played by women’s hockey in the 2010 Olympics and the reaction to it in Canada to see how hockey has undergone a significant transformation in Canada. Women have always played hockey in Canada, with Isobel Stanley, the daughter of Governor General Lord Stanley, playing hockey with other women in the late 1880s. The first recorded women’s match occurred at the rink of Rideau Hall, the official residence of the Governor General, on February 10, 1891.  By 1894, women’s teams began to appear at Canadian universities including Kingston (1894) and McGill (1896). Although the popularity of women’s hockey waned during the mid-twentieth century, a resurgence began in the mid 1960s. After world championships began to be held starting in 1990, the International Olympic Committee finally allowed it to become an Olympic sport. The 1998 Winter Games in Nagano marked the debut of women’s hockey. That year, the US beat Canada 3-1 to win the first Olympic gold medal in the sport’s history.

Over the past 15 years, the sport has grown tremendously in Canada and the United States. In Canada, girl’s and women’s hockey is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. The number of girls playing hockey in Canada in Canada tripled in Canada between 1998 and 2005, although boys still outnumber girls by a ratio of 6-1 (Ellsworth).  More important than the participation rates is the perception among Canadians of the game. Although there are women’s leagues (the National Women’s Hockey League and the Western Women’s Hockey League), Canadians focus particularly on Team Canada’s play in the World Championships and the Olympics. During the Olympics, millions of Canadians tuned in to every game by the Canadian women. 2.5 million watched them beat Slovakia in 18-0 in their first game of the preliminary round; even the  opening game between Sweden and Switzerland received more viewers than Hockey Night in Canada on the same day. Canadians have embraced the women’s game as part of hockey culture and as a crucial component to the continuing growth and development of the sport.

In this Vancouver 2010 television ad, CTV connects the idea of hockey being “the heart and soul of our nation, a game of heroes and legends,” to women’s hockey. Placing Gillian Apps role as a hockey player on Team Canada as part of a “story that never ends” and as the granddaughter of Hall-of-Famer Bill Apps, the ad clearly positions women’s hockey as an undeniable component of our national tradition. Today, young girls like my daughter have watched women playing hockey for their whole lives. She does not think it remarkable to have a t-shirt with the names on her back of all the players on Canada’s gold-medal women’s team.  For her, this will forever be as much a part of the Canadian tradition as the men’s game. For her, cheering for Team Canada now means seeing women on the ice as much as it does men. This is a remarkable shift in the culture of hockey in Canada over quite a short period.

Until Cara Hedley’s Twenty Miles emerged in 2007, however, writing about hockey had yet to make any strides comparable to those of the women’s game. Not only does Hedley’s novel contain some fine writing about hockey, she also leaves the reader thoroughly convinced that the Scarlets would be far more interesting to follow than the men’s team. Hedley’s evocation of the camaraderie and struggles of the players on the women’s team seems fresh and insightful in ways that a similar treatment of the men’s team might seem cliché due to how much we think we know about what happens off the ice. Under Hedley’s insightful gaze, the characters in this book seem wholly true to life.

Twenty Miles is not just about hockey. It is also a coming-of-age story as the protagonist, Isabel Norris (Iz), struggles to find her own direction in her first months away from home as a student at Winnipeg University, a fictionalized version of the University of Manitoba where Hedley played defense for the Bisons for three years. Iz is the daughter of a junior hockey star who dies before she’s born and a mother who abandons her, seemingly at birth (though we are never party to the details). From Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations to Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners (another great Manitoba novel I highly recommend), the orphaned child the orphaned child is a common trope in novels of development such as this one. In most of these novels, the question of inheritance is significant. As they grow up, the characters grapple with the question of whether they are who they are because of who their parents were (nature) or because of what they have learned as they grow up (nurture).  With no parents with whom to compare themselves, this becomes a significant problem for characters in these stories.

Although Iz inherits seems to inherit the gift of her father’s skilled hands and athleticism, the question for her is whether or not she truly wants to play hockey or if she plays hockey because that is what everyone expects of her. As she grows up, it is almost as if she is slotted into the empty spot her father no longer occupies in the lives of his parents. It becomes hard for her to tell if this is truly her destiny or if she only thinks it is because of the insistence of Sig and others that she shares her father’s gift. The theme of inheritance looms large in hockey literature, and in hockey itself. What Hedley is able to do in this novel is to explore this idea through the perspective of a female character rather than the more typical male character we read about who struggles to meet the expectations set for him by others.

Although Iz reflects at a number of key points in the book that hockey is “the same story told over and over” (140, 179, 183), Twenty Miles proves to us that this both is and is not the case. The dressing room banter, off-ice humor and drama, and the struggles on the ice, may seem very familiar, but through Hedley’s gift for dialogue and insightful observation we see the game in a new way; the story is both the same and different enough to reassure us that the “good ol’ hockey game” continues to change and grow.

“Yard sale!”: putting action into words

A common theme in hockey literature is the difficulty of writing about such a fast and complex game, where all the action happens on the ice and is accomplished by those who, having experienced it, have little desire to describe it to outsiders. The professional game in particular, though, is one that revolves around these actions being turned into words in the form of play-by-play commentary, score sheets, media coverage, and, today, hockey blogs and Twitter feeds. For those who have been there, on the ice, these attempts to describe the indescribable inevitably seem false. As Iz herself notes,

“Highlight reels are a lie. A hockey game writes its own Coles Notes, this much is true. It’s like it’s manufactured in an ephemeral package, ready to be butchered and filleted into three clean chunks, then chopped further, this massacre, then strung together in highlight reels – for those who missed it, for the illegitimate fans who believe that a hockey game is a list of the goals and fights, nothing else” (146).

In Bill Gaston’s novel A Good Body we see this tension between actions and words through the eyes of a player at the end of his career. Bobby Bonaduce, a career minor-leaguer, retires from pro hockey at the age of forty and seeks to reconcile with a son from a former marriage by winning a place beside him on the University of New Brunswick men’s hockey team. To play on the team, however, Bonaduce must be a student. Given that hockey is a game so connected to narrative, it should not be surprising that Bonaduce decides that the natural route he should take is to pursue an MA in Creative Writing. Though he considers himself a natural storyteller, he has never written anything in his life. After submitting a portfolio of poetry he has plagiarized from a series of obscure literary journals he gains admission into the program and begins work on a novel about hockey. Language becomes a primary concern for him, as he mocks the pretentious vocabulary used by his fellow students and instructors. He hopes to reveal to his fellow students that their preconceived notions of hockey players are not mirrored by reality and that there are many hockey players with a wit as quick as any graduate student. “Language, simply, was not a route many [players] took,” he admits to himself, but this is not because they were inarticulate. “On the ice,” he reflects, “is where it really happened. The brilliance of some. All senses sparking, working at the widest periphery, aflame with danger and hope both, seeing the whole picture, the lightning-fast flux of friends and enemies, the blending of opportunity and threat. Words didn’t stand a chance here. Words were candy wrappers, dead leaves” (Gaston 42).

For the poet Richard Harrison, the challenges presented in any attempt to describe the action on the ice, make the marvels of the game that much more enticing. Writing about Jaromir Jagr in “Language,” Harrison says “They ask him how he did it, / but he couldn’t explain; lacking the language / to describe his own body, he is only more beautiful” (Harrison 63). Harrison, of course, is referring in part to Jagr’s limited English skills in the early years of his career, but this is also clearly a metaphor for hockey and a celebration of its resistance to description. The moment we try to put anything – and particularly something as fluid and complex as the game of hockey – into words, we contain its meaning, irreparably limiting its complexity. This, however, is one of the challenges embraced by any writer who chooses to write about the game that goes beyond “a list of  the goals and fights” (Hedley 146).

Having written an MA thesis on literature and hockey, Cara Hedley began writing her novel with a strong sense of the limited tradition in Canada of literary writing about the sport. As she mentions in her interview with Nathaniel G. Moore, she hoped her book would address “a lack of fiction reflecting women’s experiences in the sport” and also give voice to “a group of women I’d never seen reflected in Canadian literature” (“Interview”). If hockey, its traditions and discourse are so strong because, as Iz asserts at a number of points, hockey is ultimately “the same story told over and over again,” Twenty Miles examines, through both its form and content, how that story shifts, if at all, when women are the central characters:

“I witnessed what happened when women began to flood the existing hockey landscape so firmly engrained in a national consciousness, and the kind of hybrid hockey discourse that developed as a result–on the ice, in dressing rooms, in the media.  How concepts of femininity intersected with the “traditional” discourse of hockey, for example. [. . .] I wanted to examine family stories and mythology, too, how a person inherits hockey (as so many Canadian kids do) and what the ramifications might be on her sense of self, how this might alter or embue the way she navigates her world. (“Interview”)

In her novel, then, Hedley works to explore the game on the ice and off, the coming together of a group of women to form a strongly bonded team, and the ways in which being a female hockey player transforms rather than threatens the stability of the Canadian “story that never ends,” to quote the CTV commercial featuring Gillian Apps. Hedley, on the one hand, achieves this goal by setting her narrative squarely within the traditions of writing about sport. There are on-ice battles, off-ice camaraderie and conflict, the fear of allowing romance to interfere with one’s goals, the uncertainty as to whether or not the hero can summon enough determination and courage to succeed, and the athlete’s eventual overcoming of these odds to find her rightful place in the game. On the other hand, and this is part of what makes Twenty Miles such an engaging read, she allows the reader to enter a world where this story is different enough and told from a new enough perspective that it potentially changes how we see the game.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this book compared to the earlier canon of hockey fiction is how evocatively Hedley captures the team’s play on and off the ice. From the moment Iz walks into the arena for the first time and suits up for practice, the reader sees the game through the at-times even poetic gaze of the narrator/author:

I pulled off my shirt and jeans and got into my old under- equipment clothes – the lull that always comes at the beginning of the equipment dance, my limbs falling into the familiar rhythms, the pattern looped and repeated a million times. Shirt. Left leg of the tights. Right leg. Right shin pad: hold and tape. The creaking trumpet of tape as I yanked it off the roll, drawing quick circles around my calves. (11)

Hedley’s prose shines as she puts into words for the feelings Iz has once she’s on the ice:

The hockey itself was the easy part: hands remembering the story, legs revising, improvising, that self-renewing drama unfolding in the white space between thought, the hard-breath moments when your brain forgets itself and the hands take over. Those seconds around the net during scrimmage when we looped a tenta- tive sinew across the ice, the pulsing geometry of the puck as we attached ourselves briefly to our linemates, willing ourselves to connect into different bodies, into moving, breathing shapes. These moments were muscle. (42)

Some of Hedley’s most vivid descriptions are of the ice at the rink. It, too, follows the pattern of the same story being told over and over again. It is either being prepared for another performance of “this theatre of winter contained by the boards” (15) or being resurfaced after a game or practice “to erase the mistakes of our blades” (67). Harnessed by Ed, the Zamboni is, in the eyes of the narrator, a nearly mythological creature released from its cage on regular intervals to lick the ice with its “slow tongue” as it “amble[s]” (15) down the ice, its “shining tail dragging us all toward practice” (111):

I watched him pull the Zamboni out of its bay, his palm drawing the steering wheel in a slow circle, popping the gears, the Zamboni’s black bulk jumping slightly and then falling into a sluggish pace, trailing a tail of gleaming ice behind it. Ed looked over and steered toward me. He shouted down from the high black chair, over the boards, ‘Talk to you again soon, Norse.’ Then he winked and drove off. The Zamboni ambled slow across the empty rink. In its wake, strips of licked-raw ice, perfectly aligned. (16)

Hedley’s descriptions of the events on the ice are not as much centered on the outcome of the individual games as they are on experiences that shape the growing sense of connection between the teammates. While this might be a way to deke the limits of language to describe the game in all its complexity of movement, emotion, strategy, and interpretation, and “muscles flooding with memory” (15), this is not the goal she is eyeing as she breaks over the blue line. Rather, Hedley clearly uses the events on the ice to help us to understand Iz and her conflicted feelings about the game. Although she does feel somewhat at home on the ice playing for the Scarlets, she has spent her whole life playing as the only girl on boys’ teams. The distance and separation she felt from her former teammates is gone and she now finds herself side by side with other women players, who all seem to love the game more than she does. Note the shift in the narrator’s use of pronouns that occurs in the middle of the following passage and how it reflects Iz’s own confusion about who she is and where she belongs:

On the ice, we saw numbers. We called each other’s names and shifted and joined into shapes that broke and reformed and broke again. Coming together, going away, trying again. Away from the ice, though, away from the familiar rooms of Sam Hall, they didn’t have to be together. But they chose each other. At Hooters, in that room sprayed with testosterone and totsis, I watched them grow together into one giant girl, getting to her feet, spreading her arms, filling the room with her huge voice. (103)

“I did know the story”: Iz as narrator

As I mentioned earlier, it is important to note the many ways in which Iz is a narrator who positions herself as an outsider to the group.  This is a common device in literature; the narrator who doesn’t fit in, resists fitting in, or is not allowed by the group to fit in, becomes an ideal window through which to view the environment in which she finds herself. A detached observer, Iz uses that distance to keep herself out of the game, so to speak. As she grapples with trying to understand her own connection to her past, to her family, and, ultimately, to the direction she intends to take in the future, Iz allows us to see the interactions in the dressing room more clearly because she is only a limited participant. As she tries to understand and learn the written and unwritten rules of being part of the team, Iz helps the reader do the same thing. Like in a detective narrative where we follow the investigator trying to make sense of all the clues instead of the mastermind criminal who knows everything, so too do we often follow characters who are naive and are trying to understand the circumstances in which they find themselves. It is this distance that Iz feels from those around her that also becomes the main driving force of the novel’s plot.

At points almost too numerous to mention, Iz ruminates on how she sees the game differently from all of her teammates. While she seems excited to make the team and works to fit in with the group outside of practice, she gradually comes to feel as if she does not share the same passion for the game that her teammates do.  When asked in a team bonding exercise to describe why she plays hockey, Iz is unable to answer beyond explaining how her father had played and how she seemed to have inherited his gift. It is at this moment that these feelings of self-doubt become most apparent to Iz and she is finally able to articulate for herself the source of her feelings of disconnection:

I looked around the room. They were all in on it, all my teammates. Their huge love for the game eclipsed any need for reason. It was simple. I felt far away then, floating away from Boz, from the team. As though I’d been watching them from the stands.
My decision wasn’t made right then. But I began to turn, to open toward its possibility. And as possibilities tend to do, it began to grow.
That night, I started to quit hockey. (92-3)

As her doubt grows and she contemplates leaving the team, she comes to realize how the game forces you to take sides, to commit oneself. There never is a position which can accommodate being part of something and not part of it at the same time: “I’d always known about hockey being the religion of Canadians. But what about the other side: the hockey atheists, the disbelievers, the half-believers? I played, so I’d never thought in that direction. The ones sitting on the fence. Jacob made it sound like I was headed to Hell” (160). In the end, after skating on the lake near her family home, feeling a connection perhaps to the outdoor roots of the game, Iz decides to return. She realizes that she does not need to be a character in a story that never changes, a story of inheritance and destiny that “[she] never wanted” (190):

I did know the story. The one about the wolf. About how we’re lucky. That one set of hands can set the point on which a game turns. To be able to play through the static of winter. To have a safe place to put your hope. To try again and again. To know how it will end. I made it up myself.
I skated back. (198)


Ellsworth, James. Canada is Losing Hockey as its National Game.

If you’re looking for more information on Cara Hedley and Twenty Miles, this Danforth Review interview with Nathaniel G. Moore is well worth reading.