Two Minutes for Reading so Good

Saving hockey the noble goal of Before The Lights Go Out

Two Minutes for Reading so Good

Greg Oliver


Saving hockey the noble goal of Before The Lights Go Out

Posted September 30, 2019

Viewed 513 times

Before the Lights Go Out Book Cover

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.

Sean FitzGerald.  Photo by Tim Fraser

Viewed 513 times

Go to top
Archives

OFFSIDE fills in the ?gap’ in women’s hockey history
Posted October 09, 2019

Saving hockey the noble goal of Before The Lights Go Out
Posted September 30, 2019

The modest empire of DeMarco’s "Small Saves" goaltender
Posted September 25, 2019

Farris' It Takes 23 to Win really '5 books in 1'
Posted September 20, 2019

CBC Radio's Jeremy Allingham explores 'Human Cost of Fighting'
Posted September 03, 2019

Victoria hockey book a long time coming
Posted August 19, 2019

Beers and books with Goldie and Liam
Posted June 14, 2019

Book on Kansas City Scouts a real Treasure
Posted May 28, 2019

Exploring Seattle's rich hockey history
Posted May 13, 2019

The unappreciated Lionel Hitchman and George Orton
Posted April 29, 2019

Addicted to Hockey, in Any Format
Posted April 13, 2019

The Stanley Cup and Kate's hockey greatness
Posted April 01, 2019

Writing and illustrating about hockey for developing readers
Posted March 17, 2019

Johnston and Walter re-team with more Plays and Strategies
Posted March 03, 2019

More Orr and Rangers via self-published books
Posted February 18, 2019

The overachieving 1978-79 Rangers get their due
Posted February 06, 2019

Commito delivers a year's worth of hockey stories
Posted January 16, 2019

Ending the year with the bestselling Kirstie McLellan Day
Posted December 30, 2018

Feel Good Book of the Year
Posted December 16, 2018

New Oilers book will have fans gushing
Posted December 05, 2018

Legend of Johnny Bower lives on
Posted November 20, 2018

Baruchel puts his love of hockey onto the page
Posted November 06, 2018

Going Back to 1993 Again
Posted October 24, 2018

Down Goes Brown found time for a book
Posted October 09, 2018

Getting to know Bob Chrystal
Posted September 25, 2018

Five S's: Steven Sandor's Sports Stories showcased
Posted September 12, 2018

Let's hear from the moms
Posted August 29, 2018

Good as Goldham
Posted July 19, 2018

Keeping the WHA memory alive
Posted July 03, 2018

The Price is right
Posted June 19, 2018

Take off with the Flying Fathers
Posted June 06, 2018

Considering those general managers
Posted May 24, 2018

The Russian Five come alive in print and film
Posted May 11, 2018

The 'number' of Rangers books grows
Posted April 25, 2018

MacGregors deliver hockey magic
Posted April 13, 2018

When it's not just a hockey book
Posted March 20, 2018

Textbook Goaltending
Posted March 08, 2018

Denis Gibbons, international man of hockey
Posted February 21, 2018

The ever-compelling tale of the 1948 RCAF Flyers
Posted February 07, 2018

From Manitoba to Latvia
Posted January 23, 2018

Listen up, it's a Hull of a story
Posted January 10, 2018

What a century/year it's been
Posted December 27, 2017

Won't Somebody Think of the Children
Posted December 12, 2017

A Hat Trick of Self-Published Gems
Posted November 30, 2017

Resurrecting the California Golden Seals
Posted November 13, 2017

Dryden Returns to Action
Posted November 01, 2017

Maruk's Highs and Lows
Posted October 19, 2017

Father Knows Best(seller?)
Posted October 03, 2017

Deep in the Heart of Texas
Posted September 21, 2017

The Cat and his Rangers
Posted September 04, 2017

Bien sûr, c'est bien plus que les Canadiens
Posted August 22, 2017

The Sound and the Fury in Hockey Audiobooks
Posted August 09, 2017

Zweig Busy, Marshall almost Ready and Denault on the Mend
Posted July 20, 2017

Stocking the Shelf
Posted July 09, 2017



Feedback

As always, I welcome your suggestions, notes, and feedback on other books and authors to feature here. You can email me at goliver845@gmail.com and you can follow me on Twitter @gregmep. For info on my own books, see OliverBooks.ca