The Last Hockey Player
Environmental disaster, political corruption, media spectacle and medical tragedy are the central events that lead to what the people of The Barns call “The Crumbling.” After waves of disease wipe out much of the global population, those who remain are forced to rely on the land, each other and their respective strengths and skills for survival.
While it may not be surprising based on the title that physical capability and sportsmanship are applauded in The Barns, the novel also celebrates intelligence, kindness and vulnerability as equally integral to the community’s existence. Life is hard and the future is bleak. As a central character notes: “It took awhile after the world fell apart before everyone understood that life was never going to be the same. That wore them down. It buried some of them.” Yet, the people of The Barns hold out hope that transformation can happen.
Though Bretton Loney’s The Last Hockey Player is set 18 years in the future, the fragility of our world is familiar to the contemporary reader, and Loney’s dystopian vision hits close to home on multiple levels. Rooted in the Atlantic region, The Last Hockey Player follows the struggles and successes of the remnants of rural communities in Nova Scotia. Beginning with the arrival of a stranger who comes to be known simply as Hockey Player, the novel unfolds through a series of shifting narrators: an 11-year-old boy called the Apprentice, the area’s educator and historian Brittany, and Hockey Player himself.
Members of the tight-knit group vary in age, background and experience. As their dynamic shifts throughout the novel the reader is asked to rethink the function of community in times of change and loss.
While these shifts in narrative tone and perspective are at times brusque and cause some repetition in content, each voice provides a unique and differing perspective on the downfall of civilization, and offers insight into the daily lives of a community struggling to survive. As a well-educated and insightful child, the Apprentice is a particular bright spot. His astute observations, desire to learn the history of his home and focus on the future turn the reader’s gaze toward a far-off potential that is figured as uncertain, yet possible.
The language of the novel and the normalcy with which characters reference The Protocol, the Second Sickness and the Bogota Virus pull he reader into Loney’s world from the very beginning. The result is jarring and effective.
Though the final pages of the novel move swiftly and without the in-depth exploration and reflection I’m accustomed to, Loney effectively balances and intertwines global problems with local history and scenery. Similarly, Loney’s brief but notable references to the region’s distinct past and diverse population both highlight the research put into the novel and craft a convincing picture for the reader. The sense of an impending danger that lurks both far away and extremely close makes for an anxious reading experience for Atlantic Canadians, while remaining fully recognizable and transferable to a wider audience.
While hockey as a central metaphor for endurance and connection may not resonate with all readers, the logistics of the sport fall secondary to the novel’s portrayal of the importance of close relationships. Garnered through day-to-day survival, long-time absence or collective activity like hunting, sport or study, The Last Hockey Player offers a reflection on the value of coming together in challenging times, and reminds readers of the importance of connectedness and respect between people as an antidote to adversity.