“Kadohata’s slapshot is the heart-swelling narrative of a father and son…Truly powerful.” —Jason Reynolds “A deeply poignant story about a boy sorting out his priorities.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “A vivid, memorable portrayal of a boy within his family, his sport, and his gradually broadening world.” —Booklist (starred review)
From Newbery Medalist Cynthia Kadohata comes a brilliantly-realized novel about a hockey player who must discover who he is without the sport that defines him.
Hockey is Conor’s life. His whole life. He’ll say it himself, he’s a hockey beast. It’s his dad’s whole life too—and Conor is sure that’s why his stepmom, Jenny, left. There are very few things Conor and his dad love more than the game, and one of those things is their Doberman, Sinbad. When Sinbad is diagnosed with cancer, Conor chooses to put his hockey lessons and practices on hold so they can pay for Sinbad’s chemotherapy.
But without hockey to distract him, Conor begins to notice more. Like his dad’s crying bouts, and his friend’s difficult family life. And then Conor notices one more thing: Without hockey, the one thing that makes him feel special, is he really special at all?
I GAZE AT the tall stairs and pause, gathering my strength, leaning my head back to stretch my neck. The sky’s a little gray ’cause there’s a fire near our house—we live in Canyon Country, near the Angeles National Forest, and the forest is on fire. But this morning the smoke still looked far away, so Dad and I decided to drive to the park and do our usual sixty-minute Saturday workout, just ’cause we’re workout animals. If you make an excuse not to work out one time, that means you can make an excuse the next time too. We’ve brought my Doberman, Sinbad, like we always do. There’re 280 concrete stairs leading from one level of the park to another. Now Sinbad looks at me eagerly, wagging his stub of a tail, but he never climbs up and down the stairs with us. He just doesn’t see the point.
Dad starts running up the stairs, and I follow. “Come on, Sinbad!” I cry out, but even without looking, I know he won’t join in. Dad’s thirty-five and in amazing shape for an older guy. He’s already way ahead of me, so I pick it up. It’s eighty degrees, though it’s only seven in the morning, and I’m immediately sweating. June in Canyon Country can get pretty hot.
My mind is on how my next week is looking hockey-wise. Tomorrow, three and a half hours of stick time with Shu Zhang. Then dryland muscle work with Shu. Monday, power skating and coaches’ time with Aleksei Petrov. Tuesday, pre-tryout clinic with Dusan Nagy. Wednesday, off day. Thursday, lesson with Ivan Bogdanov. He’s a figure skater who competed for Bulgaria in the Olympics. I skate with him to help my agility. Friday, pre-tryout clinic with another club in case I don’t make my first-choice team in almost two weeks. Saturday, three and a half hours of stick time with Shu. Then dryland with Shu. Plus any scrimmage that I can latch onto during the week. Plus working out a few times with my dad. Oh, and sometimes I do stick time by myself, just to get on the ice.
Hockey is in my soul. I inherited my soul from Dad. He made it to the American Hockey League, which is the main development league for the National Hockey League, which is the premier hockey league in the world. He says that when he was twenty-three years old and briefly the best player on his team, the NHL was so close he could taste it. Then he made it up there—to the NHL!—but got sent back down in three weeks. All together he stayed in the AHL for four years, all in Des Moines, Iowa. That’s where I was born, a million miles from here.
We sprint up and down the steps for fifteen minutes, then trudge up and down for another fifteen. Afterward—soaking wet—I lie on the grass to rest by the steps. Sinbad sniffs at me.
“Enough relaxing!” Dad says, but I’ve only been lying there for maybe one minute!
“Seriously? I just laid down!” He looks at me with zero sympathy. That’s the way it is with hockey. Nobody has any sympathy for you, not one person.
We do push-ups—I can do thirty-three perfect ones and a few more half-baked ones. But I’m somehow getting my energy back. Then we rest for thirty seconds and do clap push-ups—I do ten. Usually I only do eight, so I’m suddenly thinking I’m pretty beast.
Squats, several exercises with a ten-pound medicine ball. Frog jumps, one-legged slaloms, scissors, double Dutch. Five hundred crunches. I’m an animal!
We finish with stretching. I’m a flexible kid, but for some reason I hate stretching. I just go through the motions.
Then Dad takes a break with his phone while I walk off with Sinbad. There’s hardly anyone in the park. Dad lets me go off by myself with Sinbad ’cause my dog’s really muscular and really protective. Dobermans stick to you like superglue. Otherwise I’m not allowed to be out alone. Dad’s a cop, so he’s seen a lot of bad stuff—he knows what can happen to a kid on his own, even in Canyon Country. Sinbad and Dad are my only family. I mean, I have an aunt and my grandparents, but I don’t have a mom or sisters and brothers and cousins. My mom died when I was two. I can’t remember her at all, but Dad says I was so close to her that for my first year nobody else could even hold me. Then my dad was married for eight years to another woman, but it didn’t work out for a bunch of reasons that I’ll get into at some point. One reason was hockey—when a kid plays travel hockey, it takes up a lot of space in your life. Some people don’t like that.
When I started playing, it was like Dad was living through me, but not in a bad way. It was more like him and me got so bonded he was out there with me on the ice during games. Even though I play defense, I got the winning goal in one playoff game, and later in the car he was tearing up about it. Getting that goal was pretty much the best moment of my life. Everybody was jumping all over me and pounding my helmet so that my brain was ringing and I was in a total other, like, awareness plane. When I told Dad about that later, his eyes got a faraway look, and he said, “Yeahhhhhhhh . . .”
Cynthia Kadohata is the author of the Newbery Medal–winning book Kira-Kira, the National Book Award winner The Thing About Luck, the Jane Addams Peace Award and PEN America Award winner Weedflower, Cracker!, Outside Beauty, A Million Shades of Gray, Half a World Away, Checked, APlace to Belong, and several critically acclaimed adult novels, including The Floating World. She lives with her dog and hockey-playing son in California. Visit her online at CynthiaKadohata.com.