Books

He writes, he scores

Brian Bethune February 5 2001
Books

He writes, he scores

Brian Bethune February 5 2001

Somewhere inside Roy MacGregor there still lives the hockey-playing kid he once was, full of dreams of glory and practical jokes. And not very deep inside either, laughs the accomplished newspaper columnist and award-winning author, now a 52-year-old father of four. “Ah, I don’t think I could argue that even if I wanted to. I find it so easy to remember being 12.” MacGregor’s believable young characters have brought burgeoning success to his Screech Owls novels. His series about a mystery-solving peewee hockey team from fictional Tamarack, Ont., will soon have a million copies in print in Canada, to go with healthy sales of Swedish, Czech, Chinese and French editions. “The Screech Owls are the great, hidden Harry Potter of our business,” says McClelland & Stewart publisher Doug Gibson, who has so far issued 14 of the $5.99 adventures. And now the Owls have landed on TV, with the first of 13 weekly half-hour episodes airing on YTV on Feb. 8.

It was McClelland & Stewart that, in 1995, first thought of a hockey series as a way of catching the interest of publishing’s black hole, boys aged 9 to 13. And the first writer who came to mind was MacGregor, author of the 1983 adult hockey novel The Last Season and one of the country’s most respected commentators on the game. But the suspense element came from MacGregor, who had just become hooked on mysteries while reading Agatha Christie by the bedside of his dying sister, Ann, a longtime Maclean's researcher. And it was MacGregor, too, with his memories of his own peewee days, who provided the antics, although he keeps the printed versions on what he calls “the church side of naughty.”

Most of the books’ escapades spring from the fertile imagination and serious impulse-control problem of Wayne Nishikawa, known as Nish. The ambitious plans of the team’s prankster range from a plot to moon a billion-strong TV audience on New Year’s Eve, 1999, to repeated attempts to rewire hotel-room TVs so he can watch the adult movies. “Nish has turned out vital to the books’ success,” says MacGregor. “In the letters I get from kids he’s a runaway superstar.” But he’s not the only fan favourite. The multicultural Owls, with players of Japanese, Saudi Arabian, Russian, Swedish and Jamaican heritage, are also co-ed. Sarah Cuthbertson, the gifted centre who is the finest player on a very good team, has set pubescent pulses racing among the novels’ predominantly male readership. “I’ve never had a boy complain about having girls on the team,” notes a somewhat surprised MacGregor, an enthusiastic proponent of girls’ hockey. “Now, I’m starting to get mail from kids who have heard of the TV show, and want the e-mail address of the actress playing Sarah—they haven’t even seen her yet.”

Then there’s Travis Lindsay, from whose point of view the stories unfold. The team captain isn’t the most skilled or even the biggest Owl, but he is a responsible, thoughtful child who faces his own fears—of the dark, of being hurt by a slapshot—and leads the others by example. “Small kids love Travis,” MacGregor says, “because he’s not big, but he’s brave. He’s direcdy modelled on my son, Gordon, who loved sports but was small. What can you do? You just have to keep telling them they’ll grow.” There is a little of himself in Travis, too, MacGregor admits, “especially in his constant worrying about things.” Although, the writer adds, “I’ve got two good friends from peewee days, guys I’ve known since kindergarten, who swear I’m actually Nish.”

In fact, Roy MacGregor’s life permeates every aspect of the Screech Owls books. The team from tiny Tamarack—in reality MacGregor’s central Ontario home town of Huntsville —is not only improbably multicultural, it’s impossibly well travelled. Everywhere MacGregor has been, what he mischievously calls “the world’s richest peewee team” is sure to follow. Like the author, the Owls have been to Stockholm and to Nagano, Japan, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. In their next adventure, to be released on May 19, the Owls fly to Sydney, Australia, where MacGregor covered the 2000 Summer Games. Nor are the Owls ever far from their creator’s mind. “When I got to Nagano and saw the heated toilet seat in the bathroom,” he recalls, “the first thing I thought was, ‘What Nish could do with this!’ ”

More than MacGregor’s journalistic travels are apparent in the Screech Owls books. There are constant traces of a sports-filled life—memories of playing hockey for Huntsville against Bobby Orr’s team from neighbouring Parry Sound, of 7 a.m. practices with his own children. Decades of meditation on hockey have made MacGregor “the anti-Cherry,” as he calls himself in reference to Hockey Night in Canada's rock ’em, sock ’em commentator. “I believe it’s a fun game, that the Europeans have much to teach us, that it’s ridiculously over-coached. Hockey needs more practice, fewer games, more play." The Owls fool around with puck and stick almost as much as they compete in games, and mysteries are quickly solved to leave room for something more exciting—hockey. And his readers tell him “it’s real hockey, that it feels right. Believe me, if you write about a sport without knowing it well, kids will see right through it.”

All that created a challenge for the TV series, one the producers successfully met with some deft scriptwriting and an engaging cast. Individual traits and events MacGregor spread over an 18-member team are shoehorned into the show’s four main characters. Wisely, the producers didn’t restrict themselves to MacGregor’s physical descriptions. Their Sarah, African-Canadian Nicole Hardy, is as pretty as the author’s, but not blond. Redhaired Jonathan Malen is not of Japanese descent, but he’s clearly in touch with his inner Nish. And their enthusiastic Travis seems born for his role. The middle child of Richard Greenblatt, who co-wrote and starred in the stage hit 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, and writer-director Kate Lushington, William Greenblatt, 13, loves reading, mysteries and the same kind of hockey Roy MacGregor does. “I’m into the old stuff, too,” he says. “I play a lot of shinny. Frank Mahovlich is my all-time favourite player.” A fan of the Screech Owls books long before his audition, Greenblatt remembers thinking as he read them, “Oh yeah, they should make a series, and I should play Travis.”

In print and on the screen, MacGregor’s true-to-life hockey is framed by morality plays. The Owls don’t always win. Team members become selfish or jealous of one another, they take up smoking or get caught shoplifting. There’s real punishment and real repentance. And always a second chance. “Ah, that’s just the old coach in me,” says MacGregor, who used to run his son’s peewee team. “At the end of every year, a coach hopes each kid has improved, either as a player or as a person.” MacGregor believes that any sport that obsesses an entire population speaks volumes about the national culture. So what does hockey say about us? “The Canadian love of hockey is about stubbornness, co-operation and inventiveness,” says the old coach. “And keeping warm.” ***