Author explores hockey’s dark side

[attach]5766[/attach]At age 11, Gare Joyce started writing a biography on heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson, marking the beginning of his career as a writer and sports journalist.

“I was just the strangest little kid,” he says from a booth at TKO’s, the Sport Pub on the Danforth. “I loved sports but I loved sports writing more. I remember I was a fan of writers, sports writers, not just newspapers but Sports Illustrated especially.”

Along with collecting and rereading articles to the point of practically memorizing them, he says he learned a lot from a summer he spent going through dozens of books while watching over a pool that wasn’t frequented by kids.

“Literally I could be sitting there reading 300 pages a day,” he says. “I remember the first book I read that summer was In Cold Blood. I think that’s really more than any college or university course or anything. I think that I learned more about books and writing sitting by a wading pool, working on my tan.”

Although the veteran journalist and current features editor and writer at Sportsnet magazine spent most of his 30-year career to date covering sports and writing non-fiction titles like The Devil and Bobby Hull and The Ovechkin Project, he recently ventured into fiction with his debut mystery novel The Code. It features a former professional hockey player turned scout with a background in criminology.

“Hockey is such a strange subculture crowded with people whose values are distorted by envy and ambition and lust for money and in any sort of subculture like that bad things will happen and in this book a very damaged individual commits an awful crime and my guy solves it,” he summarizes.

Even though the story also plays out in Peterborough and Frankfurt, Germany, both Joyce and protagonist Brad Shade have strong local ties.

“Someone from East York or Leaside could pick the book up and then they might find a real name of someone because with some of my friends I didn’t even bother changing their names at all,” says Joyce, who like Shade grew up in East York and attended East York Collegiate.

He says Shade played hockey at the Ted Reeve Community Arena and the Leaside Arena, where his father coached the Metro Toronto Police hockey team.

The character of Shade’s father, Joyce says, is based on the father of one of his best friends, Ivan McAnsh, who was a police officer for 32 years and a longtime coach of the police hockey team they used to play pick-up hockey with on Saturday nights.

The book’s local watering hole, the Merry Widow, is also loosely based on TKO’s.

“It just seemed like the right fit,” says Joyce. “I think you set a book in a place that you know. I think the thing is we just think of it as so everyday but people from not around here, they think it’s exotic.”

Although he previously attempted fiction writing, including a young adult novel, and did publish a short story in ESPN The Magazine’s fiction issue, it was his editor at Penguin Canada, Nick Garrison, who motivated him to delve into the mystery genre.

“He believed when I only suspected,” he says. “So that’s great. You need to have that sort of support.”

While working full-time and on two other non-fiction books, he says he wrote the first 15,000 words within three weeks and was then given the go-ahead to finish The Code. Although he admits it was a lot of work, he says it was so much fun it didn’t feel like work.

“I’d get up at four in the morning and try and write four, five hours before breakfast,” he says. “Those are my best hours, that’s when you’re least distracted. I love this city in the early morning hours. I’d go out to the Tim Hortons or something and sit there for hours at a time sulking up time and space in a 24-hour establishment just so I wouldn’t go back to sleep.”

Before the book was released in January, Joyce says he was already writing the next installment in the series, which is called The Black Ace and will be available in 2013. He divulges it will be set in a small town in Western Canada.

“A former teammate of Brad Shade meets his maker and only after his death does Brad realize he didn’t know this guy as well as he did and he wasn’t who he thought he was and that holds the key to his demise,” he says.

Although writing mysteries is very plot driven, Joyce says it felt more like he was doing a grand experiment rather than writing fiction the first time around.

“The sequel that I’m writing right now, I’m doing it right,” he says. “This one, it was by the seat of my pants. It was a great leap of faith.”

Joyce says he’s always enjoyed old-fashioned detective series and is a devout reader of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Mcdonald, whom he calls the three pillars of detective novels. He recollects having excellent English teachers in high school including Mr. Kofsky, Mr. Demuth and Mr. Rempel.

“They were all really supportive and sort of encouraged me to write and encouraged me not to write other people’s essays,” he says. “I did sometimes.”

Although he first saw a copy of his book in Book City on Danforth Avenue, which he’s been frequenting for 20 years, he says seeing it in the Chapters Indigo at Bloor and Bay was a memorable experience.

“Seeing it in the best seller section beside Michael Ondaatje or something, that was a trip,” he says. “And to have friends come up and tell me that they liked the book, that was a charge.

“Reading the reviews, that was the scary part.”