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Volume VIII Number 4 . . . . October 19, 2001
It begins innocently - and stupidly - enough. Joel Swystun's best friend, Ryan, is going through tough times at home: his mother has just been hospitalized because of recurrent and severe mental illness. The two head off to a party where "real" drugs are readily available. Desperate to keep his friend away from a former teammate who had been sentenced for dealing, 15-year-old Joel convinces Ryan that his older sister has supplied him with some "stuff" that they can try out. Of course, it's only Sinus Minus, mixed with soft drinks, but the power of suggestion is amazing, and soon the two of them are performing fearless gymnastic feats in front of an appreciative audience of party-goers. And at the next evening's hockey game, whether because of Sinus Minus' sleep-inducing effects or the psychological high from the party, the two perform amazingly well on the ice. Other team-mates know that Ryan and Joel ingested something and decide that, as long as the substance isn't illegal, they want in on it. Their coach, is, of course, emphatic about the consequences for anyone caught using "performance enhancing" substances, but the boys on the team decide to take a chance. And so a weekly ritual begins, with Joel acting as the "supplier" of stimulants to his hockey team, the Falcons. Other than guaranteeing a good night's sleep, the power of Sinus Minus is largely psychological. However, the boys of the Falcons hockey team believe that a dose of the stuff will make them fly on ice, and, amazingly, their confidence level leads them to do just that.
Guilt gets to Joel, and that, along with an invitation to a high-level tournament, finally leads him to confide in his stepmother. Although relieved that he can tell someone the truth at last, solving the problem takes much longer than expected. In between hockey games, there's the usual turmoil of high school life: finding the nerve to get a date for an all-important dance, difficulties with completing English assignments, fitting in extra hockey practices, and for Ryan, the on-going stress of his mother's mental illness.
Although not a hockey fan, I really enjoyed Offside. It was a rarity: a sports story in which the characters had depth and dimension, and the guys were more than "jocks." Joel's concern for Ryan's family situation is genuine without being sentimental, and his feelings for Valerie - the figure skater who is the girl of his dreams - reflect all the confusing dimensions of adolescent emotion: he wants to talk to her, but he's afraid to phone her; he rehearses asking her to the Christmas Dance and then loses his nerve every time the chance presents itself.
Offside is an acquisition for senior high school collections; it's certainly situated in a high school context and male readers younger than 14 might not find themselves too engaged by the events between hockey games. Certainly, at 335 pages, it's longer than most sports-based novels. Equally important is that Cathy Beveridge has done an excellent job of tackling the issue of performance-enhancing drugs and their role in organized sport; she's never preachy, and it's clear that the players are in a real dilemma over their use of the substance.
Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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