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Hockey Karma: A Book Review and Analysis

Two years ago we at Five For Howling were given a review copy of Howard Shapiro’s graphic novel, The Hockey Saint (feel free to check out my review here).

If you don’t have time to read the review, just know that I really enjoyed the story of a young, hockey player struggling with alcohol while having difficulties connecting to other people because of his status as a hockey star.

That being said, a lot of things have changed since 2014. Many peoples’, myself included, opinion of the party boy has evolved into something else, especially given the serious allegations that have emerged over the years against players that had a reputation for off-ice behavioral issues. Thankfully Hockey Karma avoids dealing directly with the issues that have befallen many of the players that may have served as inspiration for main character Jeremy Jacobson.

Hockey Karma centers around Jacobson in the final stages of his career, and has two major storylines. A rookie player has emerged that seems poised to take his spot, and injuries have started to catch up to the once star forward. Back issues lead to Jacobson taking pills which leads to problems with his family and his team. At the same time, Tom is running into issues attempting to launch a revitalization effort for his team with Jacobson as the face, while attempting to start a relationship with a girl from his past who comes with her own set of complications.

Focusing on an athlete at the end of his career is an interesting move that you don’t see very often. Most sports stories focus on the start of a career, and if there is a player going for their last shot they are typically a side story as opposed to the main focus. Through Jacobson you get to see through the mind of a player who sees a teammate who is destined to take his spot, who knows in his heart that his career is on its last legs, and who struggles with the idea of wanting to stay in the game while at the same time doing what’s best for his team. He strongly believes that he can still contribute, and that he needs to do what it takes to stay on the ice, even if it means putting off back surgery and taking pills.

Jacobson’s pill habit seems very realistic for someone in the early stages of an addiction. He has multiple doctors, so the people closest to him don’t know how bad things are, and he ends up alienating people in subtle ways, like missing a meeting or forgetting to take his daughter to the rink for a skate after practice. The frustration that the other characters feel is very apparent, unfortunately they unlike the reader don’t know the full extent of the story, however there were a few moments that are over the top.

I don’t want to spoil the ending too much, but unlike many real life stories there is a happy one. At the end of the story you are left with a better understanding of a prescription drug issue, but also a better understanding of what it means to see your time in the spotlight begin to fade away.

Random Thoughts:

  • My review of Hockey Saint mentions a subplot involving a corrupt businessman which I had forgotten about while reading Hockey Karma. While that character doesn't return, Hockey Karma also has a few subplots that I don’t think add much to the story. The subplots aren't necessarily bad, and they do all pay off in one way or another, but there were a few times where they seemed to drag a bit.
  • This story is definitely more adult compared to Hockey Saint, both in subject and art style. Hockey Karma’s colors seem more muted, and the characters are drawn more angularly and with straighter lines compared to the more rounded faces of Hockey Saint. Originally I wasn't a big fan of the changed style, but upon finishing I can say the new art style definitely fits and the style of Hockey Saint would feel a bit out of place.
  • There are silent moments thrown in that I mostly enjoyed. A chapter starting with 6 panels of a person sitting down and taking a pill really sticks out when there is nothing but the images on the page.
  • Jacobson’s team has a female head coach, which leads to an interesting discussion on women in professional sports between two characters. Coach Schell addresses many of the subtler challenges you have to imagine female coaches potentially facing in a male professional sport, but as we don’t get to see these subtle digs it makes for more of a logical scene than an emotional one. I’m torn over this approach, you’ll have to read it yourself and let me know how effective you thought it was.
  • Like Hockey Saint the chapters in the book include some music selections, which I still appreciate. Full disclosure I wrote this review listening to Less Than Jake if you want your own music accompaniment.

Overall I really enjoyed the story of Jake Jacobson and the interesting look at the end of an athlete’s career. There are definitely parts that I felt worked better than others, but its definitely worth checking out, especially if you had previously read Hockey Saint.

Five For Howling was provided a reviewer copy of the print edition for review.