If you have even one romantic bone in your body, and I’m guessing there must be than one unless your heart is concrete and your soul solid granite, put aside any notions that you have looking at the cover of Check, Please! (Book #1: #Hockey) by the supremely-talented Ngozi Ukazu.
Herself an admitted non-hockey fan at the start of her research for a story that first took life as a web series, divided episodically – she is now, she happily admits in the book’s delightfully upbeat foreword, “obsessed with hockey” – Ukazu has, after much deep-diving into the “fast-paced, explosive, wild, and beautiful game”, created a singularly affecting piece of storytelling that is about the many and varied people who play this game which is now her passion.
Principally, it is about figure skating, vlogging, cake-baking Eric Bittle, who arrives at prestigious Samwell University (Massachusetts) from southern Georgia as an excitable eighteen-year-old gay man, excited at the opportunities that lie ahead.
He is irrepressibly enthusiastic, beginning his first vlog from college with a giddily-sunny “Hey y’all!”, the kind of greeting that makes you feel as if you’re going absolutely, completely and irreversibly fall in love with a freshman everyone affectionately calls “Bitte”.
It is a little like the name you’d give a beloved aunt but it works totally for him, capturing his innate cuteness, willingness to give anything a go, and the kind of friendliness that soon sees him close friends with the rest of the hockey team.
If you think Bitte sounds a little Pollyanna-ish and good to be true, fear not because Ukazu has sculpted him deeply and well, rounding out his effervescent optimism and can-do attitude with the kinds of extended moments of self-doubt, grinding unrequited love and imposter syndrome that all of us have at that age (and let’s be honest, only partially lose as we get older.)
Bitte is, in other words, the complete, authentic deal, a young man grappling with all kinds of changes who, by and large, manages to meet them all, albeit not always as smoothly as he’d like.
Not being an ice hockey aficionado – the southern hemisphere will do that to a boy – I can’t speak to how accurately the comic captures the vibe and substance of the sport, but from a purely outside-looking-in perspective, it rings with the kinds of authentic representation you simply can’t fake.
One thing that emerges quite smartly is that hockey in a college setting is a big deal; granted, US college sport generally comes across as all things epic, but in the world of Samwell University, hockey rules supreme, which is why Jack Zimmermann, son of legendary played Big Bob Zimmermann, is there, hoping to make enough of an impression to make it to the big leagues of the National Hockey League (NHL).
In true romantic comedy fashion, you know, you just know, in your heart, that Bitte and Jack are going to be more than just friends, but Ukazu draws out the URST masterfully, letting their incipient relationship grow little by little bit, moment by shared special moment.
It speaks to the sophistication of the writing, and the care taken with the plotting, that this simmering romance doesn’t take over the narrative but burbles along happily beneath him, occasionally breaking the surface to make its present felt but never in a way that takes away from the wider story of parental expectations (Jack has a ton of them; or are they, you know, just his?), brothers in hockey arms, friendship and the messy business of growing up.
Though the romance is delightful and sigh-inducing and joyously happy when it finally gets its climactic moment to soar, it is but one key part of an overall story that celebrates the human spirit in all kinds of grounded ways as much as it celebrates hockey.
Taking us through the first three years of Bitte’s time at college, where he progresses from dorm room to the hockey Haus, baking and vlogging all the way (and developing a close relationship with Betsy, the Haus’s beloved oven), Check, Please! (Book #1: #Hockey) is an unmitigated joy on every level.
The characters are so well-wrought from the start that you come to feel as invested in the friendships and the success of Samwell’s hockey team as the people inhabiting the coloured boxes before you.
Ukazu too manages to make the game of hockey relatable to non-adherents such as yours truly, not simply by letting the game do its own thing, but by conveying why it matters so much to people like Jack and Bitte and Shitty and Random and Holster and the rest.
It’s quite a feat making something that alien to great slabs of the planet feel worthwhile and important but Ukazu manages it with aplomb, thanks largely to focusing on the inherent of the people who give the sport so much time and effort.
After all, sports are, if nothing else, the product of the hopes and dreams of the players, the administrators and the fans, and by distilling that down in a way that speaks to the heart, Ukazu has given the central driver of this story a relatability it might otherwise have lacked.
But let’s face it, engaging though the guys on the team and their female manager Lardo are, and they are a delight on every page, it’s Bitte who drives us ever forward, impelling us with his happy, bouncy approach to life, one that endears him to you, then makes you care for him, then makes you love him.
You want him to do well – there are some issues at the start with his transition from figure skating to ice hockey – and you want him and Jack, who’s a year older and bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, to do even better, and that happens in super quick time, speaking to the beauty, emotional-resonance and rich humanity of Ukazu’s writing and her beautiful, eye-capturing, heart-stirring heart which matches the writing so perfectly you feel as if you are in a world so real it’s about to leap off the page.
Were that it would; then we could join Bitte, Jack and the others in their hope and anguish-filled journey from the start to almost the finish – for Jack and Shitty it is the end of their college time by story’s end – and be with them as life teaches lessons about hockey, life, relating to others, and most happily for those of us with a romantic bone on our body, love.