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Before the Lights Go Out: A Season Inside a Game on the Brink

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A love letter to a sport that's losing itself, from one of Canada's best sports writers.

Canadian hockey is approaching a state of crisis. It's become more expensive, more exclusive, and effectively off-limits to huge swaths of the potential sports-loving population. Youth registration numbers are stagnant; efforts to appeal to new Canadians are often grim at best; the game, increasingly, does not resemble the country of which it's for so long been an integral part.
    These signs worried Sean Fitz-Gerald. As a lifelong hockey fan and father of a young mixed-race son falling headlong in love with the game, he wanted to get to the roots of these issues. His entry a season with the Peterborough Petes, a storied OHL team far from its former glory in a once-emblematic Canadian city that is finding itself on the wrong side of the country's changing demographics. Fitz-Gerald profiles the players, coaches and front office staff, a mix of world-class talents with NHL aspirations and Peterborough natives happy with more modest dreams. Through their experiences, their widely varied motivations and expectations, we get a rich, colourful understanding of who ends up playing hockey in Canada and why.
     Fitz-Gerald interweaves the action of the season with portraits of public figures who've shaped and been shaped by the authors who captured its spirit, politicians who exploited it, and broadcasters who try to embody and sell it. He finds his way into community meetings full of angry season ticket holders, as well as into sterile boardrooms full of the sport's institutional brain trust, unable to break away from the inertia of tradition and hopelessly at war with itself.
     Before the Lights Go Out is a moving, funny, yet unsettling picture of a sport at a crossroads. Fitz-Gerald's warm but rigorous journalistic approach reads, in the end, like a letter to a troubled it's not too late to save hockey in this country, but who has the will to do it?

304 pages, Hardcover

Published October 1, 2019

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Sean Fitz-Gerald

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5 stars
36 (19%)
4 stars
95 (51%)
3 stars
44 (23%)
2 stars
8 (4%)
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2 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 31 reviews
Profile Image for Danny Allen.
26 reviews
April 19, 2020
An interesting duality between the state of minor hockey in Canada and the ebb and flow of being part of a team in the major junior hockey League in Canada. Fitz-Gerald does a great job providing objective views, interviewing all sides, and covering many different perspectives. Fitz-Gerald also helps to show that despite all the fame and pressures we put on hockey players of all ages and abilities, they are all just kids and people playing a game they love.

Something all fans of the game should read. It serves as a wake up call as Canadians for the game we call our own and highlights the privilege found in this sport, especially compared to others rising in popularity in this country
February 27, 2020
Despite my friendship with Sean Fitz-Gerald -- Fitzy, as we call him in our industry -- I was reluctant to read this book. I thought "here we go, another schmaltzy ode to Canada's game.

But Sean takes an unflinching look at the world of amateur men's hockey, examining why the sport is dying in Canada at the grassroots level. Definitely a must read if you have any interest in hockey.
Profile Image for Patrick Damp.
8 reviews
April 9, 2020
A scary but informative read about the state of youth hockey in Canada. A lot of parallels to how it’s going here in the US.
Profile Image for Clare Hutchinson.
300 reviews8 followers
January 8, 2021
A wide-ranging look at minor and junior hockey - not just the romance of the heyday, but the modern challenges and stagnations. I liked following the Peterborough Petes (not just because Mike Oke is a former mentor) on the ice and off. The whiteness of hockey culture, particularly the scouts grumbling about the citizenship ceremony, rung true and troubling.
Profile Image for Jessica.
304 reviews
March 2, 2020
Fitz-Gerald writes two books in one. The first is the story of the 2018 Peterborough Petes, the city's OHL franchise. It's a storied team fallen on hard times, in part because of a hard time modernizing (facilities, especially), although it's fun to read about Nick Robertson. The team goes through a rough season after a promising start, and Fitz-Gerald is particularly impactful in describing the GM and the tough decision to fire the long time head coach. Intertwined with this story is the story of hockey's looming decline in Canada. Fitz-Gerald talks about some of the causes (environmental - with global warming, fewer outdoor rinks) but it's mostly about cost and buy in. Fitz-Gerald rightly points out that the increasing cost of youth hockey has priced out many middle and lower class Canadians, especially new immigrants, for whom soccer, basketball, and cricket are much more accessible. Fitz-Gerald also correctly notes that part of the cost is driven by the crazy "all-in" culture of youth sports: specialized skills coaches, travel at very young ages, etc. Fitz-Gerald does a good job writing this in not just yearning, nostalgically, for the days when kids stuffed Montgomery Ward catalogs down their jeans to stay warm, but for a path forward. For Fitz-Gerald, who loves the game, hockey is not only a sport but part of a national identity; one in danger of being lost to a new generation of Canadians.
Profile Image for Lori.
649 reviews12 followers
October 28, 2019
Becoming a somebody in Canada's game is getting priced out for the average kid and being a hockey fan is being priced out for the average person. That's sad, really.

Fitz-Gerald has written a surprisingly warm and funny book about the game, its roots and its future.
The anecdotes are heart-warming - the guy who had his first date at a Pete's game, he held her hand - that's a story every Canadian kid can relate to, or could when arenas were more like community centers.

Hockey may just be moving away from being Canada's game - our hockey players are, as Fitz-Gerald points out, not the everyday working heroes they used to be, they are millionaires with fancy cars now. This too is sad. It makes for less investment in hockey and I don't mean money. New Canadians, lower economic Canadians, female players - all the diversity that has been ignored will end up being the downfall of the system.

In the end I'm reminded of the saying "adapt or die".
Profile Image for Benjamin Kahn.
1,420 reviews13 followers
December 27, 2020
I thought this book was a bit of a mess. Fitz-Gerald follows the Peterborough Petes for one season, talks about how hockey was in the old days - the real old days, because I grew up in the '70s and stories of people using catalogues as shin pads sounded quaint even back then - and the whole culture of the hockey parent. But the whole thing fails to hang together. I didn't feel that he really did the deep dive that he implies he did.

I have a son who played house league up until this season - he's 17 when he decided to stop - and never played select or rep. He played once a week, with a couple of seasons where he had one practice and one game a week. He played in two different leagues, but the second one, in Scarborough, had a good number of South Asian and Asian kids, admittedly, fewer as the kids got older. He played baseball in the summer, he did swimming lessons, Scouting and classes in various other sports at the local community centre. So I know that there are kids as Fitz-Gerald describes who are hockey, hockey and no hockey, but there are also kids who still play hockey in the winter, baseball, soccer or softball in the summer, and do other things as well. You won't find any notice of these kids in his book.

The whole chapter of dividing the ice up into smaller sheets and having the younger kids play cross-ice was really boring. Fitz-Gerald reports the whole thing but doesn't give you any sense of how he feels about it, so instead you get a boring account of a debate about it in what feels like real-time. My daughter played hockey for one read and she played cross-ice, so it didn't seem as radical to me as he makes it sound. I also remember my own experience with hockey in the '70s when I went to skating school for a couple of sessions before I got bored of it and gave up, and we were all divided into the groups that did our drills in three sections of the ice. This is not a hockey-specific approach - I remember seeing commercials a few years ago promoting smaller tennis courts as a way to get youngsters into the game.

The whole elite hockey-only thing is not specific to hockey - I know kids who play soccer year-round. The recent influx of elite Canadian basketball players into the NBA are usually kids who have attended high-performance athletic high schools, usually in the States. So this isn't a hockey-plague, it's an elite sport thing that happens with all parents who want their kids to perform at a high level. Soccer and basketball, despite the lower equipment cost, have the same set of parents and high-performance clinics targeted at their children.

I think trying to try parallels between two kids growing up in tiny towns in the '40s and '50s and kids growing up in urban centres today is ridiculous. Roch Carriere's childhood isn't one generation removed from today's hockey culture - It's a totally different world. Fitz-Gerald makes it sound like this is how it was, and this is how it is, and isn't it a shame? Fitz-Gerald doesn't got to any tiny towns to find out how it's changed, he just compares the experiences of Carriere and Nelson Riis to today's elite hockey parents and leaves it as if it's all one and the same. It's not.

The Peterborough Petes season was uninteresting to me. He wasn't able to make me feel invested in either the team or the players. And although he tries to draw attention to the fact that the Petes' fan base is aging and they are not as relevant as they once were in Peterborough as a sign of hockey's decline, the success of junior hockey in other cities with new arenas makes it seem less about the interest in hockey and more because of the poor condition of the Petes' home arena. It doesn't really prove his point.

At the end of the book, I really felt that Fitz-Gerald failed to make any relevant points about hockey's decline. It's just a bunch of unconnected stories that he hopes by putting them all close together, people will figure he's made his point. He hasn't. His thesis in unproven. This book is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Profile Image for Anna Taylor.
115 reviews23 followers
January 26, 2021
Hockey has a LOT of problems. I don't think that's a secret, but when the focus in the media is on the NHL and its frequent f*ck ups, minor hockey is often overlooked. What's the landscape of the game in the places where children first learn to love it? It's not like it used to be. Kids aren't having fun on a pond anymore when the ice freezes over; instead, they're in power skating lessons in July just to get an edge over their teammates because only so many of them will ever make it as a pro.

Four stars for Before the Lights Go Out because Fitz-Gerald nicely interweaves the story of the Peterborough Petes' 2017-2018 season with interviews with prominent hockey people. I watched the Petes closely that season and remember the promise and the heartbreak, it just going from bad to worse with every game.

The book lost a star because he barely mentioned lacrosse, which is important because it's relevant when talking about competition for the Petes' dollar and attendance, which was a theme throughout the book (although props for the interview with Cathy Weiss who straight up said she liked lacrosse more), especially focusing on kids who play soccer and basketball. And, if you're going to write a book about sports in Peterborough, don't take 180 pages to mention the name of the city's only defending champion team when the Petes haven't won since 1979. Slightly kidding, but also I felt the book presented all the problems with minor hockey, but didn't offer any solutions. Instead, it kind of pointed out that there's nothing that can be done. Businesses run the show now and parents are generally helpless to stop it unless they all band together and refuse to participate, which is never going to happen.

Overall, being from Peterborough, I absolutely loved the book. I could picture every location Fitz-Gerald mentioned. I want more books about Peterborough. I want the good old days of the OHL back, too.

Also, this - "Following the news out of Peterborough can make it feel like something is wrong with the settings on your internet browser: Some news items seem like they come from the future, others from the past, and a handful more remind you of something you have already seen before." - SCARILY ACCURATE.
Profile Image for Charles.
69 reviews19 followers
February 24, 2022
Before the Lights Go out is an examination of the changing important of hockey in Canadian culture. The sport examines the love of the game of hockey and its diminishing importance in Canadian culture. This book ties in nicely with Ken Campbell's Selling the Dream. I noticed a lot of similarities but I think Fitz-Gerald has taken a broader perspective.

The author does a good job of explaining the game of hockey in the big picture. Money, a changing population, changing technology and changing perspectives are all factors in the decline of hockey. Hockey is still important but it's in competition with many things now.

I recall hearing info about the book and I thought there would be more discussion about the author's concern about raising a hockey child and how he felt about it but the story is more about working into hockey in an examination of the Peterborough Petes and Peterborough.

From my view, I like hockey but don't love hockey. I grew up in Canada and was exposed to hockey but never played. Sometimes I feel I missed out. However I have other friends that played and I don't think it has truly enhanced their lives. I took the initiative to play baseball and it was fun but it also didn't truly enhance my life. It seems like one child of mine is into hockey and I guess we'll see about registration next year. To me I'm lucky enough to not have to concern myself with the monetary aspect of hockey for the kids but I also don't want it to consume my life.

This book had a lot of interesting analysis about hockey and the bigger picture which was insightful to someone who does know a bit about of hockey. I learned some interesting facts about Peterborough and about grassroots hockey. I was also surprised to hear the Petes haven't been that good in the past few years and that Windsor has been a recent powerhouse.

4 out 5 stars. A good hockey book that isn't just hockey.
268 reviews1 follower
May 3, 2021
This was a very interesting book. There were two parallel story lines taking place. The first was the story of a season with the Peterborough Petes and the second, the status of hockey in Canada. The first thing that came to mind with the fall of popularity of hockey in Canada, besides all of the other well reasoned arguments in the book, is the dismal failure the professional teams have been in Canada, specifically the disgusting Toronto Maple Leafs. Kids are motivated by excitement and the Raptors and Blue Jays have had that over the last number of years. The Leafs finally have a reasonable team and who cares? They have taken the fan base from anger to apathy - something much worse. The other thing I found very interesting was the resistance to change by hockey leadership to adapt the game to the players' needs. I am much older now but when I started playing hockey in the early 60's, we had one game per week which our parents drove close to an hour to get to and you played 3 three minute shifts - 9 minutes of ice time for a whole morning commitment. Granted, the better players, usually the coaching teams sons got to play the last 5 minutes of free time while the rest of us watched. Now, kids can get a pair of spikes and for less than 100 bucks with included uniform can go and play soccer ten minutes from their house. They can also play anytime like the real game in any field. Hockey is dead - they just haven't had the funeral yet. This book gives great arguments for why hockey is dying - well worth a read.
223 reviews5 followers
July 9, 2019
I grew up just outside Peterborough (albeit, a number of years ago ;) ) & still have family in the area so I can appreciate the accuracy of Mr. Fitz-Gerald's observations. My dad had season tickets for years & is part of the senior's cohort that is now often the majority at games. I had noticed the declining fortunes of the team but now, thanks to the author's investigations & explanations, I better understand why.

My son played his first year of hockey on a GTA house league team in 2017-18. He was 7/8 years old & I think would've enjoyed the small ice surface. It was his first year & he was often left behind by kids who had been playing for a year or two longer - many of whom also had private skating/shooting/passing lessons on the side - & were a little faster & more experienced. It's too bad the coaches & management of the league were so reluctant to change. He might have stayed. But he did not enjoy getting up early on Saturdays & Sundays for 6 straight months to have his own teammates - the clique that played together on the Select team - play around him. This past season he decided to try curling instead. And he liked it. We'll still watch lots of hockey because we both love it, but he'll be curling again this year.

I also appreciate the chapter near the end that discusses the need to increase the involvement of newcomers to Canada in skating, & hockey. It's true.
58 reviews2 followers
May 2, 2020
A must-read for anyone who cares about hockey and/or Canada. This book paints the picture of life on a junior hockey team, while weaving in the problems hockey is facing (or refusing to face) about the game's dwindling supremacy in Canada. The Peterborough Petes are a once-great Canadian institution now crumbling after decades of inertia, and serve as a metaphor for the game itself and its place in Canadian culture. The vignettes of life on the bus, candid moments with parents and billet families, coaches on the edge of being fired and more are told with heart and authentic to anyone who has spent time around a junior hockey team. The other chapters are filled with great, balanced reporting looking at hockey parents, new Canadians, the structures responsible for keeping the game alive, and the big business pricing many people out of participating in it. Told artfully from the lens of a hockey parent navigating this world with a young hockey player, trying to figure out what they've gotten their family into, and what the sport will look like in a few years' time if nothing changes.
81 reviews17 followers
June 22, 2022
This is a non-fiction book about hockey, specifically two things - the increasingly inaccessible nature of the game in Canada at the grassroots level, and the 2017-8 season of the Peterborough Petes, a major junior team that happens to be from my hometown. It's a good read if you're interested in hockey, and Fitz-Gerald really gets into the issues hockey has in Canada, like the cost, difficulty of attracting new immigrants, and the Byzantine structure of youth hockey. It's all framed by a disasterous season by one of the country's most historic junior hockey teams, who have now fallen on hard times. I don't know if I really learned much new from the book, a lot of the issues he talks about are pretty readily apparent, but he does do a good job of diving into what causes them and what might be done to fix them.
July 17, 2020
An interesting look into what is causing the stunting interest in hockey in Canada. At times, the author does a very good job tying in one part of the story (following the Petes OHL team) into the other part (the declining interest / issues with minor hockey). Overall, I think it would have been a better read had the author focused less on the personalities and results of the OHL team, and spent more time focused on why hockey is failing relative to other sports (which is the more interesting part of the book, IMO) with more concrete examples. For example, the time and cost commitments, while monumental, are not compared to other sports explicitly, and the inclusiveness initiatives (or lack thereof) within hockey is not contrasted to other sports with growing participation.
15 reviews
November 27, 2019
A true and honest account of the state of hockey in Canada today. Told from the perspective of not only a sports journalist, but also as a hockey parent. The introspective of the Petes and their current struggles, outlines the reality of hockey today in Canada. Once a powerhouse franchise, now an organization looking for ways to win on and off the ice. The same can be said for the national teams as well. Sean has done a wonderful job telling the story that needs to be told, there is no quick and easy fix for the Petes or for the diminishing appeal of hockey. Great and fascinating read.
Profile Image for Danielle.
68 reviews1 follower
January 22, 2020
A detailed and well-researched look at the systemic problems facing the hockey pipeline in Canada today, which has the ability to jeopardize the game’s future as this country’s biggest sport. It’s all juxtaposed next to an in-depth view of the disappointing 2017 Peterborough Petes season, which represents a microcosm of some of the biggest problems. How does an increasingly expensive and exclusive past-time stop the decline in enrollment? The answer is complicated but entirely worth contemplating while reading this book.
Profile Image for Beata Fogarasi.
74 reviews1 follower
July 10, 2021
I really liked the inside look at team's efforts throughout a hard season, and most interesting to me was probably the narration of Hockey Canada's flawed attempt to impose a new kids' rules system that honestly sounded pretty smart to me. As with anything though, smart policy means nothing if you can't implement - would love an update on how/if anything has improved, a few years later. Overall though I think the book needs to be tighter and snappier - which was probably the plan before the Petes' dud of a season messed it up.
Profile Image for Tyler .
17 reviews1 follower
November 8, 2019
Fitz-Gerald beautifully captures Peterborough’s culture in this book. He also makes some valid observations about the state of minor hockey within Canada. Hockey Canada, hockey parents and the country need to reflect on why hockey has become so intertwined with our identity as a nation. The pursuit of fun doesn’t seem to be top priority anymore. This book is a must-read for hockey fans, especially those who have ever cheered for the mighty maroon and white.
Profile Image for Mylie.
155 reviews
June 10, 2020
3.5 stars. I really enjoyed the telling of the Peterborough Petes' 2017-18 season, but felt that the book failed at its promise... To explain why hockey is no longer the de facto sport in Canada. There were a couple of points where I thought it would evolve into that, but most of it felt like musings that needed more data and writing to flesh out.
Profile Image for Michelle.
168 reviews1 follower
November 15, 2020
This is the story of the Peterborough Pete's and minor hockey in general. Told through stories about current and past players with a focus on the Petes 2017 season. Fitzgerald at his best when telling the individual players stories, especially Nick Robertson. Great look at how the system has been failing to keep players and fans and what needs to happen to keep growing hockey.
Profile Image for Dave Cottenie.
205 reviews3 followers
June 13, 2020
An excellent commentary on the current hockey environment in Canada with a curious backdrop of the City of Peterborough. Very interesting how a story that was to follow the resurgence of a legendary OHL team had the season go sideways. Lots of fun and a smooth, fast read.
Profile Image for William.
413 reviews10 followers
October 19, 2020
Couldn’t put this book down to the detriment of my sleep. Regardless this is a superb book on all levels. True hockey fans in Canada should read this book. Hockey parents should especially read this book.
4 reviews
May 12, 2020
Great look into the state of hockey in Canada, and how changing demographics within the county are not being mirrored in the sport.
9 reviews1 follower
February 17, 2022
A must read for every hockey fan. Superb storytelling, first rate journalism and a handbook for anyone involved in minor hockey.
Profile Image for Grant.
204 reviews
February 20, 2020
I liked all the individual pieces of this book, but put together it had a somewhat disorganized feeling. It felt like two or three smaller books smashed into one. This book has a lot of important things to say about the state of hockey as a Canadian cultural touchstone, I just wish it said them in a more orderly fashion.
Profile Image for Jordan Voth.
6 reviews
March 3, 2020
I liked it and I also can’t wait to see Nick Robertson play for the Leafs.
Profile Image for Caleb Peterson.
23 reviews
February 9, 2022
This book suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. There are two main threads Fitzgerald follows in this book, the idea that minor hockey at a grassroots level is dying in Canada, and providing a view into junior hockey with the Peterborough Petes. The problem is that these two threads never really come together, making each individual thread seem incomplete. It was literary whiplash to be finally getting invested in the season of the Petes to then be whisked away to a chapter about declining registration rates in minor hockey. There are definitely good ideas in here, but it is so disjointed that I could never really get invested. The potential this book had I felt was best demonstrated in the chapter about the citizenship night the Petes were holding before a game. For one chapter, both the Petes and the author's idea that hockey is "dying" in Canada came together, looking at how new Canadians were having trouble becoming invested in the sport, demonstrating how hockey is increasingly inaccessible through the lens of Peterborough and the Petes. Unfortunately the rest of the book isn't this coherent. It almost feels as if Fitz-Gerald started with this chapter and started to build the book from there. There are definitely interesting chapters and storylines included in here (the chapters about Nick Robertson and the debate around cross-ice hockey were some of my favourites), but this book still feels like two books Frankensteined together, resulting in a half-baked thesis that never manages to draw all of these ideas together.
43 reviews
June 11, 2020
It has its interesting moments. But overall pretty disappointed. The author constantly complains about hockey being an elitist sport where parents are forced to go broke for their kids to find even moderate success. The interesting points come when he writes about the trials and tribulations of the OHL team, as it's a behind the scenes look at the day-to-day operations. I found his chapters on intergrating new canadians to hockey via Peterborough Pete's games to be a tough read. An the stories about immigrants being the author's attempt to push his political views more so then actually writing about his topic. He completely veered off topic to push his views several times. To me this book strikes me as a hockey parent of a young child who is upset with the rising costs, while sprinkling in the Peterborough Pete's and the town of Peterborough. I will say two things, the author certainly captures the fan base accurately. Secondly, it starts out intriguing but, by the mid-way point you get to the point where you've heard enough complaining about how hockey is expensive it is.
Profile Image for Kyle.
3 reviews
May 7, 2022
Fitz-Gerald outlines some crucial areas where the development (and enjoyment) of Canadian youth in hockey are falling behind while bringing the reader along on an OHL team's journey through the regular season.

Fans of hockey in Canada, or parents concerned about their child's participation in the sport, should read this book. As a fan of Canadian hockey, I hope this book finds its hands into the homes of many Canadians and into the hands of the people who possess the power necessary to right the ship and keep Canada as the world hockey superpower.
439 reviews
January 22, 2020
It was good for what it was, but I was expecting something different, so I am left a little disappointed. Definitely a good picture of hockey in Canada though.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 31 reviews

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