At what should be the height of the NHL season, two Canadian publishers have released young adult books aimed at girls who love “Canada’s game.” Although both novels are sure to capture the imagination of tweens and teens who live, eat, and breathe hockey, each tackles the world of youth athletics from a different angle.
Breakaway, the third novel in Maureen Ulrich’s Jessie Mac series, follows high school senior Jessie, captain of the hockey team, who’s having trouble leading by example both on and off the ice. It’s her team’s first year at the AAA level, and the pressure is greater than ever before. Plus, she’s trying to balance hockey with her challenging schoolwork, bratty younger sister, and crushes on three different boys – her ex, her current boyfriend, and a new potential love interest.
Jessie’s hockey struggles are thoroughly intertwined with her average teen-girl problems. All of Jessie’s close friends are on the team, which means issues between them come up at parties as well as during games. Though Ulrich quickly brings readers up to speed with Jessie’s life, fans who have been following the series from the start will feel a greater emotional attachment to these characters than newcomers will.
While Jessie herself is suitably complex, her relationships with some of her teammates are given the short end of the stick. Her best friend Kathy is described as the hot-headed “Queen of the Penalty Box.” When the two argue about Jessie’s ex-boyfriend mid-story, their conflict is left unresolved, yet by the end of the book their friendship appears to be magically back to normal.
Breakaway moves along at a good clip with very few slow sections, and Jessie’s personal problems are as fast-paced and intense as her big games. Where the book falters is in its heavy-handed dramatic scenes. The logical “nice girl” voice in Jessie’s head causes her to doubt herself repeatedly. Ulrich isn’t giving her young readers much credit in constantly pointing out Jessie’s bad decisions, such as leading on her boyfriend, who clearly has much stronger feelings for her than she does for him.
Despite these criticisms, Breakaway would best Natalie Hyde’s Hockey Girl if the two stories were to meet on the ice. Where Breakaway reads like a glimpse into a year in the life of a regular hockey-playing teenage girl, Hockey Girl seems much less grounded in reality, despite the fact that its plot is inspired by the true-life story of the Preston Rivulettes, a 1930s women’s hockey team that was created on a dare and went on to win several championships over the course of a decade.
Though it’s set in the present, the novel borrows from the Rivulettes’ story when a boys’ hockey team challenges a girls’ softball team to take to the ice. Whichever team finishes lower in the standings will be forced to act as cheerleaders for the winners the following season, complete with spandex and pompoms.
The trouble begins when the girls’ ice time is cut because, in their town, boys’ teams always take first priority. In reaction to their diminished practice time and cancelled games, the girls begin an equal-rights campaign, not only to give them comparable time at the arena, but to ensure that all women in their town are placed on the same footing with men.
While the girls’ cause sends an excellent message to readers, it is undermined by their constant motivation to beat the boys – there’s not much of a sense that they want to win for the sake of being the best team they can be.
Hockey Girl would have benefitted from a more fully realized setting and better developed characters. The protagonist, Tara, has issues that stem from being the only girl in a family of hockey-loving men, but her concerns are overshadowed by the main plot. As a result, her personality lacks focus and is defined mostly by what she is not.
Although Hockey Girl’s attempt to highlight gender inequality in athletics is commendable, Breakaway stands out as a sports story that focuses on a girls’ team that’s as respected as its male counterpart. Both books are set in hockey towns, but while the boys’ teams are put on a pedestal in Hockey Girl (and the girls’ championship softball team is constantly mocked), Breakaway imagines a more accepting world. Not only are the girls and boys’ teams treated as equals, but football players, figure skaters, and rodeo-competing cowboys are also featured.
While Hockey Girl suffers by forcing a comparison between the genders, Breakaway succeeds by focusing on the success and trials of girls and their team.