REVIEW: Game Play by Lynda Aicher
Dear Ms. Aicher:
I saw people talking about this on Twitter and I love a good sports romance. The unique thing about this hockey book is that it features a female hockey player and a male one.
Samantha Yates was a star of the US women’s hockey team that won silver in the Olympics. When she faced graduation and the end of her collegiate hockey career, she decides to put it all aside to pursue a graduate degree in sports psychology in Northern California–far away from her collegiate home at the University of Minnesota.
Initially I asked myself why Sam wouldn’t try the European leagues or even Canadian hockey for women, but the answer was in the text. Because she couldn’t play at the highest level and be paid for it, she wants to turn away from hockey so no pro hockey, no coaching, no playing part time. She wants to put it behind her instead of always wanting more.
Her character arc is really a grief story. She had to come to terms with her loss and the fact that there aren’t equal opportunities in professional sports for women as there are for men and ultimately, she has to find a new way to love the game without resentment.
When she meets Dylan Riley, a young defenseman for the Minnesota Glaciers, she resents him. She resents his party boy image. She resents that he plays professionally. She resents that he still gets to have glory on the ice while she’s relegated to the sidelines.
For all that, she’s intensely attracted to him which makes everything more confusing and frustrating for Sam. I can see people not warming up to Sam. She was prickly but hers is a story about loss and dealing with that loss and I found her journey to be emotionally rewarding as we watch her navigate her sorrow, anger, denial and move toward acceptance and a new vision on life.
Dylan was slightly less interesting for me, only because he wasn’t as nuanced as a character as Sam. He’s in the middle of a contract year and is feeling the pressure to perform. His agent decided that he should play up the party boy image for the sake of publicity. He’d be able to tone it down later in his career. The story opens with him greeting puck bunnies and taking care of hungover teammates after his latest rager.
One thing I loved about Dylan was that he was eager to take every bit of help he could, even if it was with Samantha. He acknowledged her skill early on and praised her for it. In another book perhaps the character of Dylan wouldn’t view Sam as an equal until later but not in this book. Dylan almost immediately recognizes Sam as a valuable asset. In fact, after he’s beaten by her on a one on one, he asks her to coach him. He never puts her down and rarely does he get angry with her, showing a great deal of sympathy for her situation.
As Sam coaches Dylan on and off the ice, using some techniques she’s picked up and hopes to implement in her future sports psychology practice, the two begin to fall in love.
Dylan’s pursuit of a multi-million dollar contract was in stark contrast with Sam’s leaving of the sport and I thought the foil between the two was genius. It provided great emotional conflict as well. Every gain of Dylan’s was another slap in Sam’s face of what she couldn’t have. (But he never rubs it in her face and she responds–for the most part–with a lot of support and encouragement)
While the love scenes are steamy, they weren’t why I enjoyed the book. Instead I felt that Game Play took the prickly heroine and made her work which is a tough task in a romance book because female readers are often very hard on female characters. But I really understood Sam’s grief (although she never acknowledges it as such) and following her emotional journey from being angry to loving the sport again was as uplifting as the romance.
There appear to be other stories in the making and I look forward to reading them. B.