“I know what you’re thinking,” my friend told me when he loaned me this book, “the title is depressing. But the book isn’t.” Well, that’s mostly true.
“They Don’t Play Hockey in Heaven: A Dream, a Team, and My Comeback Season” is the story of Ken Baker, a former NCAA goalie and NHL prospect whose pro hockey aspirations were cut short by an undiagnosed brain tumor. Baker quits hockey and settles into a career as a journalist, interviewing celebrities for publications like People and US Weekly. But the effects of his tumor worsen, making Baker suicidal. Soon after, his brain tumor is discovered; most of it is removed, the rest is rendered benign by medication. He gets married and is about to settle into the “happily ever after.” That is, until Baker has what he refers to as “The Dream.”
In this dream, Baker is back between the pipes for his college team, dazzling the crowd with a glove save in the closing moments of a game. Baker’s dream inspires him to make an unlikely comeback almost a decade after he quit, with the goal of playing in just one professional hockey game.
So Baker leaves his stable job as a writer and moves to Bakersfield, California to be the third-string goalie for a losing team in a third-tier professional hockey league. “They Don’t Play Hockey in Heaven” follows Baker as he spends the 2001-02 season with the Bakersfield Condors, who were then a part of the (now-defunct) West Coast Hockey League.
Suffice to say, it is not as glamorous of an experience as writing about movie stars. The coach of the Condors doesn’t talk to Baker, the other two goalies won’t even acknowledge him, and a few of his teammates are headcases. Yet Baker soldiers on, working hard before and after practice — he must step aside for the top two netminders during practices and scrimmages — and enduring long bus rides for road games that he won’t even play in. He dutifully takes his place up in the stands game after game as a “third-stringer,” hoping for his shot, but knowing that his chances dwindle with each game.
And that is perhaps the most depressing aspect of this book; Baker’s dream is within his grasp, but realizing it is out of his control.
This book isn’t a sob story, though; do you think it would have been published if Baker’s goal wasn’t met?
Excerpt that epitomizes “They Don’t Play Hockey in Heaven”: You wake up in the morning and your mind is as foggy as the air was when the plane landed last night. It’s dumping rain outside of your chintzy motel room, and you’re pretty sure you are in Tacoma today, but you’re not even sure what day it is, or where the hell Tacoma is. You’re thirty-one years old and married, but you are playing a kid’s game and you haven’t seen your wife in five weeks. The whole idea of this misadventure was to enjoy your newly healthy body, but ever since you arrived, your body has been bruised, battered and run down into a pale, skinny heap that can barely get out of bed and shuffle into the van that’s waiting to carry you to morning practice. You want to believe that getting up will matter, that by stopping pucks the other two goalies don’t feel like facing, that by playing your given role on the team, you will improve a little more and someday soon be rewarded; but your aching, phlegm-riddled body, seven pounds lighter than it was two months ago, is telling you it won’t make any difference, to stay in bed because playing will all come down to luck anyway.
What I like about “They Don’t Play Hockey in Heaven”: Baker gives us an inside look at life in the bus league, playing with and against guys who made it to The Show and others that never came close. There are also a lot of life lessons in the book, but it never comes off as preachy or as fortune-cookie advice.
What I do not like about “They Don’t Play Hockey in Heaven”: After the book’s climax, it concludes with a “Where Are They Now?” chapter about the Condors (as of 2004, when the book was written). That’s a nice way to honor his former teammates, but what I really wanted to know if Baker attempted a second season — and if he didn’t, why not? — and how, if at all, accomplishing his dream changed his life. But maybe Baker is so good at telling a story that I wanted him to tell me just a little more.
“They Don’t Play Hockey in Heaven” is an entertaining story. I couldn’t put this book down until I was finished. ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.