All too often, works of sports fiction amount to hyperbolic accounts of rambunctious Texas football teams or overwrought odes to batted balls and tee shots. But Hockey sur Glace, a collection of seven short stories and four poems, is a sensitive portrayal of outdoor hockey players, whose rugged aura is derived in part from playing in bitter temperatures on rough and unpredictable ice.
Set primarily in hardscrabble Canadian and New England towns, the stories are less about the particulars of the game and more about the moods that envelope the characters. In "Van Arsdale's Pond," a group of boys sets out through the snow, skates and sticks in tow, in search of a place to play. As they trudge through the woods, they are hoping that the days after the first freeze will bring "nothing more in the sky than the welcome gray dimness, no sun and only cold."
Though game action rarely appears in the stories, the scenes that do unfold sur glace (French for "on ice") are often at the crux of the narratives. In "Wellesley College for Women, 1969," a story about a Harvard student's infidelity and subsequent guilt, one shift of a pickup game is all the hockey described. As the protagonist, Willy, steps onto the ice shortly after his unfaithful act, he is suddenly at home, his guilt momentarily forgotten as the other players watch him skate, in awe. Says Willy, "It's all in the simple stride, smooth and from the hip, and how you look just so goddamn relaxed wearing the big battered leather gloves."
Unfortunately, LaSalle's writing is as uneven as the frozen ponds and rivers upon which his subjects skate, and the codas of some stories fall flat. But LaSalle, who wrote the 1984 novel Strange Sunlight and a previous collection of short stories, does a good job conveying the culture that defines a pond hockey player's world. The essence of the collection comes through in "Hockey," the best of LaSalle's efforts: "The outside, where the white birches grew in clusters, was almost dark. The inside, with the light off, was even darker. John liked the winter. He liked hockey. Hockey.