This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.2.
In 1994, the title of Canada’s National Sport was divided into Canada’s National Summer Sport (still lacrosse) and Canada’s National Winter Sport (now hockey). It is surprising that it took so long: for decades before that, hockey dominated the sport scene from early autumn until late spring in most communities in Canada. An easy-read, high-interest novel about the dynamics between hockey teams and players is thus fitting for its Canadian audience. The message in Trevor Kew’s Bench Brawl is admirably one of tolerance and the benefits of teamwork, but the delivery fails to hit the goal.
Luke plays for the Upper Great River “Helmets,” firm rivals of the Lower Great River “Gloves,” and Luke is our spokesman for the aggression he and his teammates feel towards the only opponents in their small-town junior league. When the town is given the opportunity to participate in the Vancouver Invitational Hockey Tournament, the coaches determine that their only chance is to amalgamate the Helmets and Gloves into one larger team with the manpower to perhaps succeed. The players are irate, and Luke is one of the most vocal against the decision.
While team rivalry and even antagonism is perhaps common in team sports, the attitudes presented by almost all of the characters in this book leave a bitter taste. Some of the players refuse to play; some of the parents refuse to let their sons play. Few characters (the coaches, and Luke’s best friend, Cubby) articulate a balanced understanding of the situation, and their voices are not sufficiently loud. Luke’s responses, even to Cubby, are excessive: “I don’t care if Cubby is my best friend. Right now, I feel like grabbing him and shaking him and shouting, Not a big deal? What’s wrong with you? Right in to his stupid, fat face” (26). The language the boys use is often highly derogatory, and while high school students would use such language, there is little to balance against Luke’s aggressive narrative voice. Kew attempts to create this balance through Jean-Baptiste (JB), who has recently moved to Great River fro Quebec. JB lives on the Lower side of the river, but is introduced when he comes over to shoot in Luke’s drive with Luke and Cubby. He is exceptional at hockey, and incites Luke’s adversarial nature as much as he creates any bond between the rival factions.
In the end, at the tournament, the players are still at odds (Luke noting that “This team is a disaster, just like I knew it would be” ) until Cubby’s rich father provides a new set of hockey jerseys. All of a sudden, “something has changed [, Luke] can’t tell what it is” (108): they become a team—the Great River Vikings—working together to win a crucial game. The turnabout is too abrupt, though, too unfounded in the characterizations of Luke and his teammates. The lesson provided is valuable and one that all of us need to learn—and team sports is one of the best places to learn it—but we do not feel, at the end of Bench Brawl, that the lesson has sunk very deep.