For reasons too complicated and gnarly to cover in-depth in this column, the culture that surrounds hockey – the stories, novels, songs and poems – often concerns disillusion and despair, and death is a recurring theme.
Once aware of this, it’s not shocking to find the opening scene of the superb hockey drama Beartown (starts Monday, 9 p.m., HBO/Crave) features one figure chasing another with a gun in the cold, snowy landscape. A shot is fired. At the end of the first episode, we see who is firing the gun, a woman, and the figure she fires at is a hockey player.
The Swedish series (with English subtitles) comes from HBO Europe and will resonate profoundly in Canada. Based on the 2017 novel by Fredrik Backman, every element of it feels familiar and at the same time it has a searing honesty and robust integrity about its core issues that take your breath away. It’s about hockey, its meaning, and about sexual assault and how that affects the survivor, their family, friends and their community. It feels like a hometown drama with warmth and yet it becomes harrowing.
The gist is this: After retiring from the NHL, Peter Andersson (Ulf Stenberg) returns with his family to his hometown, a small mill-town in northern Sweden. He’s there to take over running the local hockey team which, like the town, has fallen on hard times. The team is mediocre, but has one young star, Kevin (Oliver Dufaker), who is headed for the NHL if everything goes right for him. Peter sets out to build a team around Kevin, even as Kevin’s father loathes Peter, who happens to be his old nemesis on the ice.
The five-part series dwells lightly on what is at stake, as though the viewer knows it already. And it’s all recognizable – the team must start winning to revive the town. Success means sponsorship, money for a new arena and player development. It means everything. All eyes are on Peter, who is brusque, demanding and clever as a coach. At home, he’s too preoccupied to pay attention to his wife, who has her own troubles, and his teenage daughter Maya (Miriam Ingrid), who has brought a buoyancy from Canada to this gloomy northern town and is just trying to fit in.
Kevin is at first the conventional star athlete, bullied by his dad and adored by teammates and local young women. Someone says of him, “He will either go to the NHL or the psych ward.” He’s trying to please his dad and please Peter and when he does start scoring and the team starts winning, a sullen kind of cockiness envelops him. Then, at a postgame party, he rapes Maya.
That is really where the strength and sinew of Beartown becomes clear. The series is anchored in hockey. The on-ice scenes are thrillingly authentic and it looks and feels drenched in the true environment of the game. But it is, from the second episode on, about sexual assault. It turns dark, and it becomes about blame, consent and retribution, the price of self-indulging male athletes and what young men are taught about their place in the world. In the story of Maya – who is at first a cheerful teen, smiling ruefully at the world through the braces on her teeth – it balances both character and plotting and remains rooted in the reality of this small, remote hockey-obsessed town, which is like a thousand towns in Canada.
At five episodes, Beartown doesn’t become byzantine or unfocused. It goes right to the heart of a story about how small towns attempt to cope with right and wrong, and struggle to know when wrong is evil. In the beginning you sense optimism in it. Peter, as someone who played and lived at the top in Canada, is openminded. He’s the one who notices the local boy from the immigrant family, the ones who clean up the rink. He’s undogmatic, while the town is just that. The town struggles to keep up with him, and then what happens to Maya changes everything.
For all its elements of disillusion and despair, it is thrilling, wrenching drama, at times unforgettable, like the best of hockey can be, even while human nature drags it down to the worst of us.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.