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There’s a first time for everything. For veteran sports journalist Sean Fitz-Gerald, not only is Before The Lights Go Out: A Season Inside a Game Worth Saving his first book, but his interview with “Two Minutes for Reading so Good” is his first time to talk with media about the project. “This is all very brand new to me,” chuckled Fitz-Gerald. “It’s all very daunting.”
Fitz-Gerald has no need to be worried, though. Before The Lights Go Out is quality through and through, compelling even though so many of the personalities in it are hardly household names.
But what is Before The Lights Go Out? Its title does not do it justice, but I’m not sure what words strung together could. To put it simply, Fitz-Gerald uses a season hanging out with the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes to explore hockey in Canada. He takes on the game’s high costs and exclusivity, dropping youth registration numbers, its questionable appeal to new Canadians, and a whole lot more, including insight from author Roch Carrier, whose book, The Hockey Sweater, hearkens back to a simpler time.
Fitz-Gerald’s resume is impressive, with time at the National Post, Canadian Press, the Toronto Star, and, currently, at The Athletic Canada, as Senior National Writer. What he hadn’t done was ever write anything quite so lengthy. “It was terrifying. I’d never anything longer than probably 1,800 words in my entire life,” he confessed.
The project came about during a dark time. On a Saturday in early August 2016, he was playing shinny with friends at the Mattamy Athletic Centre (located where Maple Leaf Gardens once was), and wasn’t wearing elbow pads, and fell and shattered his elbow. He had surgery Sunday, returned home on Monday, and on Tuesday the Toronto Star laid him off. Once he was able to function again in September, he started making the rounds, looking for work. An editor from McClelland & Stewart reached out and said, “Can I take you out for a beer? I’d love to chat.'”
That editor at Penguin Random House Canada, Jordan Ginsberg, floated the concept of what would become Before The Lights Go Out. (And days later, The Athletic hired him to boot.)
“It’s a hockey book but it’s not a hockey book,” said Fitz-Gerald. “It’s a book about hockey, and the idea to sort of make a kaleidoscope, to use the Petes as a narrative spine, but also to be able to jump across and look at hockey across all the different spectrums."
It’s natural to ask about 2013’s Selling the Dream: How Hockey Parents And Their Kids Are Paying The Price For our National Obsession, from Ken Campbell and Jim Parcels, a book which explored similar themes.
“Selling the Dream was such an eye-opening thing for me. We didn’t have kids at that point”—he has two elementary school-aged kids now—“so there was a whole aspect of hockey in this country that was a mystery.” Now 42, Fitz-Gerald noted that growing up, he sure didn’t know about any skill-development camps or pro coaches who will tutor players, no matter the age.
He and Ginsberg kept Selling the Dream in mind, as a tool for context. “In no way, shape or form did we want to try to replicate that work just because it was so thorough and so good,” praised Fitz-Gerald. “We could use it as a foundation for the understanding of the minor hockey complex in this country without really having to go through and re-do that work, because it was so well done.”
Choosing the Peterborough Petes worked on a few levels. One, since he was still working for The Athletic, and had two kids at home in Toronto’s east end, it wasn’t a long commute, and he had family in nearby Norwood. But there was something to the town that he’d experienced before, covering the team when he was at the National Post.
“I remember going up there and feeling like this is a hockey town. Everybody knows the Petes, whether or not they go to the games,” he said. Other Canadian towns, like Saskatoon, where the Blades are a part of the fabric too, were considered. “It just seemed that Peterborough was such a natural fit because the Petes were part of the landscape. They were like the river that flows through town. Even if you didn’t go swimming or fishing or boating on that river, you knew the river and had a connection to that river, if not in your immediate family then in the last couple generations of your family. It was just part of your life, whether or not you realized it was an active part.”
Before the Lights Go Out is not trying to be Friday Night Lights, H. G. Bissinger’s genre-defining look at one high school football team in Texas.
“The Petes would be part of it but not all of it. Even back then, we knew we wanted to spend time nationally,” he said. The year before Fitz-Gerald trailed the team, the Petes were surprisingly competitive, falling just short of a Memorial Cup berth. The next season, with Fitz-Gerald around, the wheels fell off the proverbial bus.
Fitz-Gerald hung out at team meetings, went on some road trips, sat in with the coaches and the general manager. It was meant to be “a journalist’s reflection of what that season was going to be,” he said. “At that point, the Petes were coming off a really deep run in the playoffs and they had all of their key veterans returning. As we were conceiving this, it was like, ?This will be a really neat story about covering a junior hockey team that is pushing its way back into prominence.’ The Petes, by any objective measure, looked like they were going to be challenging for an OHL title that year.”
For Fitz-Gerald, the personal challenge was balancing it all, real job, family—including helping to coach one son’s hockey team—and the book. He’d do interviews in his car in the parking lot, where it was quiet. The food court in the Lansdowne Place Mall in Peterborough, about 10 minutes away from the rink, was a second home, where he could transcribe, write, send out interview requests, and so much more.
Fitz-Gerald couldn’t have done it without the help of his wife, Caroline Alphonso, who is the education reporter at the Globe & Mail. “She’s the real journalist in the family,” he quipped. “For the better part of two years, she really did shoulder the whole burden, everything from bath time to school pickups.”
The worries that Fitz-Gerald has about Before The Lights Go Out: A Season Inside a Game Worth Saving—“I’ve never attempted anything like this in my life”—are completely unfounded. He has delivered a solid piece of hockey literature. It is, indeed, like the promotional material promises, “a letter to a troubled friend” where the plea is simple and direct: to save the game of hockey.
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