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‘Beartown’ Finds the Cracks in Hockey Culture’s High Ceilings and Thick Walls

The chilly HBO adaptation about a small Swedish town and its hockey team examines what happens to a community when its systems are confronted by the chaos they’ve helped to create

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Spoiler and content warning: This story contains Beartown plot spoilers as well as mentions of sexual violence.

All ice hockey players have their positions—center, goalie, left defenseman—but some are better defined by their roles. She’s our speed demon, a coach might say of a particularly fleet-skated athlete. Multimillion-dollar trades in top professional leagues are made on the basis of someone’s veteran presence alone. And then there’s that longtime gig that is hockey as hell: Oh, that guy? He’s the enforcer.

The enforcer has heavy elbows and a seen-it-all brow and a job that is both superficially rad and deeply retrograde. The terms of endearment and disparagement for the enforcer are the same: goon. The enforcer may have once been someone else: a nifty scorer as a kid, a gangly workaday third-line right wing as a tween. Now, though, the enforcer stands by to dole out or absorb barehanded punches to the face, to earn retribution or deliver warning, to create the conditions for talented teammates to thrive.

Exactly what it is that the enforcer is meant to enforce is a matter of you-know-it-when-you-see-it opinion and has been an ongoing subject of consensus-less conversation across hockey circles for time eternal. It involves a code of on-ice honor in which some violence is meaningful but some is abhorrent, and a system of values whereby particular players—the ones known by their role as our star—are entitled to bespoke layers of human protection while others make do with their hockey pads. The enforcer is an archetype that exists in the highest echelons of hockey’s IRL history: Marty McSorley was and is famously known as “Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard” and was even traded alongside the Great One from Edmonton to L.A. Many fictional works, ranging from Slap Shot to, yes, Goon, also consider the fighter(s).

Among them is the Swedish story Beartown, Fredrik Backman’s absorbing and best-selling 2016 novel, which was adapted into a five-episode series that originally aired as Bjornstad on HBO Europe last fall and came stateside to HBO Max last month, concluding last Monday night. In the novel, a rural junior hockey coach bristles when those around him fail to properly grasp the relationship between the most aggro player on his team and the finest. “He’s not fighting,” the coach thinks of the former. “He’s protecting the most important investment the town has ever seen.” Then the coach’s mind wanders to how his significant other is also always getting on his case for using concepts like “investment” to describe 17-year-old boys. “Either you understand that aspect of hockey or you don’t,” he concludes to himself, grumpy yet secure in the knowledge that whatever side he’s on must be the enlightened one.

The story of Beartown is steeped in this ethos about the allocation of protection and the assessment of value in enforcing the way things work around here, pal. The TV series, and its source material, understand that hockey is a sport, but it’s also a biosphere, with its own perpetual water cycle: The Zamboni scrapes and floods the ice; the players carve it up and leave deep, jagged ruts everywhere as fans ooh and ahh; and then the Zamboni returns to smooth things over. “High ceilings and thick walls,” is the motto of Beartown Ice Hockey Club, readers learn early in the novel. “The building is solid and spacious enough to keep any fights that take place inside from spilling outside,” Backman explains. “That applies both on the ice and off it.”

A chilly, vivid dive into the headiness of high school and the horror of violent crime, Beartown and its TV adaptation explore both hockey’s appeal and its aggression, examining what happens to a community when its systems are confronted by the chaos they’ve helped to create. “I’ve been dealing with sports all my life,” Beartown director Peter Gronlund says in a Zoom conversation, “so I know that culture, that macho culture. And I think the best illustration for that is probably on the ice, because of the machismo, and the roughness, and the kind of violent DNA of the sport itself. It’s like, you celebrate violence. You expect the crowd to expect violence.” He’s right: Beartown is one more reminder that in arenas around the world, when an enforcer enters a hockey game, the crowd pretty much always cheers.

Before Beartown was a TV series based on a best-selling (and, in one North Carolina school district a few years back, banned) novel, it was a novel based on an abandoned TV proposal. The Stockholm-based writer Backman already had published several works, including the hugely successful book about a bitter, middle-aged crank A Man Called Ove, when he began putting together a small-screen project about a junior hockey team, and a town, teetering on the brink between prestige and ruin—and about a sexual assault at a team party that causes a whole community to crash in on itself.

He wrote a few episodes’ worth of TV material, but ultimately the project stalled. “I have no patience for meetings,” Backman, 39, says, “and, as it turns out, making a TV show is about 99 percent meetings, so I went into a quiet room and turned it into a novel instead.” (Since then, the novel has turned into a trilogy, the third book of which is due out later this year.) This circuitous provenance made itself evident in the eventual book: Backman says that while his previous novels had been, so to speak, “one camera” in their narrative voice, Beartown was a little bit different, having started as a TV treatment that went deep into the development of a wide range of character voices. “Beartown was the first time I wrote shifting perspectives,” Backman says, “from the viewpoint of a number of different characters.”

These characters include Kevin Erdahl, a teenaged hockey prodigy who is as widely revered as he is inwardly troubled, as well as Kevin’s steely, withholding dad. There are the Anderssons: Peter, a former NHL player who returns to his Swedish hometown with his wife and kids in the hopes of turning around the struggling local hockey club and escaping painful personal memories, and his wife, a lawyer named Kira in the book and Mira in the show, who struggles to balance her own aspirations with the realities of being part of a hockey family. One of their children is Maya, a sunny, funny 15-year-old who much prefers the company of guitar picks to hockey pucks, and whom Kevin rapes at a team party at a house just steps from her own. There is Amat, the team’s speed demon as well as its moral center, and his mother, Fatima, a custodial worker at the rink whose thankless physical labor makes her body ache. There is Benji, Kevin’s best friend (and on-ice protector) who understands his role on the team but is still trying to navigate his place in the world.

There is Ramona, the salty old widow who owns the town watering hole. There are the degenerate hockey hooligans who saddle up there on the regular to complain about their team. (Swedes: They’re just like us!) There is a ruthless father desperate to make the grave, true accusations against his son go away. And there is a cornucopia of all the familiar types who can be located inside any hockey rink, in any country, at any time: those sweaty team functionaries (the club president’s vibe is described as “like a child who’s stolen something”), those rude helicopter moms.

“What I really tried to do,” Backman says, “was not write a story about a number of individuals, but about a town. The community is the main character here.” It’s a main character for whom hockey makes a captivating, and consuming, obsession: In those darkest, coldest, shortest days of a long Nordic winter, the rink is the place where anyone can find heat and light, whether they’re on the ice or in the stands. And far from being some extracurricular lark, the Beartown hockey club also represents a potential lifeline on a more structural, municipal level.

An extension of a decaying local factory whose fortunes touch everyone in town, the Beartown hockey club is also the rare local entity with an ability to make real change. Play well enough, and opportunity and money could follow. Perhaps there might be a state-sponsored national hockey training facility one day, and then a conference center, and then lucrative new developments in infrastructure and roads, and then jobs. The hiring of hometown hero Peter Andersson, laudatory as it is, is also highly expectant: an investment, in other words. And it’s made clear that if the returns aren’t there, the money won’t be anymore either, which could mean the shuttering of the rink altogether.

Hockey is not the only sport in Backman’s life; he describes himself, for example, as “the assistant coach to the assistant coach to the assistant coach to the coach of my daughter’s football team, so I’m basically the equipment manager.” But growing up, Backman loved hockey; the walls in his room were plastered with posters of NHL greats like Gretzky and Jaromir Jagr and beloved countrymen like Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg. To him, the sport is distinctly engaging because it is, as he puts it, really, really hard. “That’s what makes it a good environment for this story,” he says, “because it demands everything from everyone.” (In the adaptation’s opening episode, Peter prompts his team: “Hockey demands only one thing from us.” Everything, is the answer.)

Still, not everyone in the literary world shared Backman’s longtime enthusiasms, he says. “Most people I work with don’t like sports at all, and were really skeptical it would find a great audience outside of hockey fans,” he says. “I kept insisting you don’t have to like quidditch to like Harry Potter.”

Miriam Ingrid had never even held a hockey stick before being cast as Maya Andersson in Beartown, nor had she spent much time up in northern Sweden. Oliver Dufaker was the opposite prior to starring as Kevin Erdahl: His IMDb page may have been nonexistent, but his landing site on the international hockey website Elite Prospects was full of information about his real-life athletic career up in craggy, wooded Norrbotten County, the region where Beartown was filmed two winters ago.

In Beartown, Maya is a teenager with an age-appropriate disinterest in her father’s profession and obsession. (On her first day at her new high school, when a wide-eyed classmate asks whether she knew Sidney Crosby from living abroad, she replies, not even unkindly: “He’s OK.”) In a town where just about everyone around her is focused on hockey—watching it, arguing over it, playing it—Maya would much rather noodle around on her guitar.

In real life, Ingrid was also 15 when she was tapped to play Maya. Like her character, she arrived in the frigid northern reaches of Sweden after having led a more peripatetic existence for years, having moved between cities ranging from Warsaw to Brussels to Stockholm both with her family and on her own. (This urbane life intrigued casting directors, but wasn’t without its drawbacks: On Zoom, Ingrid admits: “I feel like I was a bit unprepared traveling up north. I didn’t realize it would be that cold.”)

Having read Beartown the book to prepare, Ingrid knew that the character she was auditioning for played the guitar; she just so happened to play too. “So I recorded myself singing and playing the guitar,” she says now. “And I actually watched the presentation video, like, last month. And I was really embarrassed!” Prior to Beartown, Ingrid’s on-screen work had primarily come in the form of short films. But compared to some of her contemporaries on set, who had no on-screen work to speak of, this made her something of a veteran presence.

Dufaker, just like many of the other young men who played Beartown teammates, was cast in part for a genuine ability to play hockey. “You have to make that choice: Am I going to have actors that I’m going to try and train, or get a double for?” says Aimee McDaniel, one of the entertainment industry’s top sports choreographers, in a phone conversation. “Or am I going to go after the athletes in that particular sport, and either train them in acting, or just let them be whatever that player is?”

There is a lot of hockey in Beartown, both thematically and in terms of volume. The contests shown are high-stakes—before a semifinal against rival Hed, the Beartown teens are casually reminded by their coach that if they lose the game, they’ll probably also lose their arena—yet the hockey itself feels almost lo-fi, in all the best ways. This isn’t the stuff of slo-mo, last-second miracle passes that rarely happen in real life; there is no frenetic, kicky montage set to big music, and no Flying V. Instead, there is just … hockey, really good hockey, hockey played at great length and almost as if in real time.

Much of the credit for that goes to McDaniel, a former collegiate athlete who went from an early-aughts internship at the erstwhile sporting operation Slamball into a gig helping choreograph Miracle, and never looked back. (She also worked on Invincible, Million Dollar Arm, and Invictus.) “I think she’s a star,” says Gronlund of McDaniel. “Her whole DNA is about sports and behavior on the field.” Speaking from the set of her current project, the CW football TV series All American, McDaniel says that Gronlund’s choice to cast hockey players first and foremost made her job “100 percent easier” and enabled her to better focus on “a story we’re trying to tell through the action.”

The result is game action that highlights hockey’s grace, but also its ferociousness, drawing viewers in with beauty but delivering lots of brawn. To Gronlund, this frozen sport was fertile ground for the themes, like “masculinity and winner culture,” that he sought to explore. “Someone is there to beat up guys,” he says. “Someone is there to get inside of their skin.” Sometimes this someone is one’s own teammate. In the series, Peter is confronted by an old nemesis with whom he once came to blows at practice; that guy is Mats Erdahl, Kevin’s cold dad and the guy on whom Beartown hockey’s financial fortunes rely. Most of the time, though, this sort of winner culture passes down messages of us-against-all. As one athlete Gronlund spoke with while making the film explained it, he says, “I was raised to hate as a 3-year-old.”

In Beartown there are exciting comeback goals, sure, and brawls, and players who get thrown into the game at suspiciously dramatic moments. But the camera also lingers on mundane necessities like D-to-D passes and chippy little cross-checks in front of the net. The clocks tick down to zero without some improbable sequence of events taking place in the final microsecond. And not only do the good guys not always win—they’re not always the good guys.

Some hockey players, marooned on dry land, don’t so much resemble fish out of water as they do penguins. They stroll around in numbers with their sloped shoulders and their side-to-side gaits, commanding attention and seeming to like it. When it’s time to don their skates and step onto the ice, it’s as though they’re diving into the quiet freedom of the frigid sea. Beartown is alternately expansive and claustrophobic, taking the viewer along on sky-high drone tours before diving into the cafeteria to gawk along with everyone else.

The novel does this, too: In one scene, when one hockey player tumbles off a lunch room table, Backman writes: “There are two types of 17-year-olds around him: those who like hockey, and those who hate it. The ones who are terrified that he’s hurt himself, and those who hope he has.” Gronlund captures this duality well. The director may not have seemed like the obvious choice to helm a TV show about teens playing hockey; past projects of his have focused on subjects like amphetamine addicts and crime syndicates. But “I was kind of intrigued by the themes of the book,” Gronlund says about first receiving Beartown from one of the adaptation’s producers, “with the toxic masculinity and other issues that I’m dealing with constantly in my work.”

What’s more, Gronlund’s past experience in casting and working with nonactors for his films—he’s a little bit like a Swedish Safdie bro that way—helped him build an on-screen teenage world that feels crushing and true. “I just feel like we had a lot of freedom, like the freedom of our own language, and we were free to improvise,” recalls Ingrid. “I think it was actually something that Peter wanted from us rather than follow a strict, strict script.”

The characters flirt and banter; they sling insults; they tell lies and reveal truths; they go from warm to cold to white-hot in an instant. “I wanted to be naturalistic,” Gronlund says. For Ingrid, who says she “adores” the dark teen drama Euphoria, portraying her age group with that kind of awkward authenticity “is actually something that I care a lot about,” she says.

By putting so much time and care into constructing a strong foundation of details—from the drills at hockey practices to the miserable car rides between Kevin and his father to the music at my-parents-are-away parties—Beartown enables itself to shoulder the weight of its more appalling elements, and to put them into context. It puts the viewer in a position not only to see how those elements develop, but also, maybe, to wonder where and how the same things might be happening in one’s own life.

“I tried to portray the way that consequences come from a chain of events,” Backman says, “and a lot of different people making small, selfish decisions. I didn’t want to write about ‘good’ and ‘evil’ people, I wanted to write about what I feel are decent people who still do horrible things to other human beings just because deep down they believe they’re protecting something they love.”

One of several departures Gronlund made from the novel was to build out the relationship between Maya and Kevin in a meaningful way early on. In the book, they are more like passing acquaintances; in the show, they are practically already confidants. This makes it particularly jarring, and horrifying, when Kevin, drunk and driven by entitlement and shame, violently shatters that trust. It also, unfortunately, makes it that much more real.

“This could be one of those love stories that could have happened,” Gronlund says. “Instead, this happened.” Of course, for Maya, it’s a struggle to get people to believe that anything happened at all.

“The worst thing about having a teenager is remembering what it’s like,” laments Maya’s mother, Mira, in Episode 3 of Beartown, and it’s easy to sympathize. Again and again, the series makes it clear that however grown-up so many of its characters may feel and act, they are also very young.

Maya has a mouth full of braces. In an accurate rendering of the adolescent experience, transportation is a constant struggle: All those big, lumbering hockey guys in the cafeteria—they still need someone’s mother to come pick them up after school. In the opening episode Kevin fights with his father, is kicked out of the car, and (after a town-wide manhunt, with flashlights) is located by Peter and Maya and driven home. He sits shivering in the back seat under a blanket, like a child. Later in the series in a heartbreaking scene, Maya stands in her room wearing a big, silly sleeping shirt with an enormous raccoon face on it and looking, stricken, out the window at her unknowing father embracing her rapist with paternal tenderness. When she goes to the hospital to report her assault, the kind nurse assigned to her says, in a manner meant to be reassuring, that she’s the mom of one of the guys on the hockey team. The teens of Beartown are no longer children, but their village has also not yet finished raising them.

“If your kid plays hockey,” Backman says, “the whole family does. There’s just so much preparation and logistics going on around every child in this game that it’s only natural that people start to take it more seriously than they should: because they’ve invested so much by now. So many hours, so many tears, so much work.” That was, he says, “my starting point for the story.”

In the HBO finale, near the end of that story, an “extraordinary members meeting” is held regarding the Beartown hockey club’s future, and all the people who feel as though they’ve invested something over the years show up. Squeezed into rows of chairs set up in a small rink-side café is what seems like every member of the community, from the team officials to the hooligans to that nurse. All of them are there to vote on whether Peter ought to remain coach of the Beartown team, which has just lost a championship game without him behind the bench and without Kevin on the ice. Both of them were at the local police station instead, confronting a nightmare of Kevin’s making. Now, they’re both sitting at the rink, arguing over Peter’s future.

“The meeting goes the way meetings like that always go,” Backman writes in his novel. “It starts hesitantly, then quickly gets out of hand.” In a way, he’s describing the meeting as if it were a hockey fight: There is structure to the chaos, if you know where to look. Everything said at the meeting is familiar and exhausting, from the concern-trolling mom who begins her smear of Maya by saying “As a woman, I take this matter very seriously” to the players who blame the victim for destroying their team. Even after Amat bravely introduces evidence that confirms Maya’s story and upends the meeting, there is no tidy resolution. Instead, several Beartown athletes are shown, minutes after the meeting, scoffing at what they’d just heard. “I bet you she put Amat up to that,” one says. “He’s got a major crush on her,” says another. “That fucking ho made him say that,” they conclude, and then make plans to kick his ass later that night. They take on this role as if by instinct, doing whatever is needed to protect their fallen star.

There are signs that some people have had a shift in perspective. Benji, Kevin’s forever enforcer, walks out, having seen enough to know that their friendship is a thing of the past. Both a Beartown player, Bobo, and a super-fan, Niklas, have changes of heart that drive them to physically put an end to the attack on Amat. Peter keeps his job and also demonstrates a renewed commitment to emotionally investing in his family.

In the end, though, Mats finds Kevin a spot on a team in another city and has the means to up and move him there for a fresh start. The police inform the Andersson family that they will not be pursuing a case. The wagons are circled, the ranks are closed, the ceilings are thick, and the walls are high. Maybe the reason it so often sounds like all the fans are cheering for the enforcer is because they drown out anyone who won’t.

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