Kira still counts her family members while they’re sleeping. Her own mother had done the same. Kira doesn’t mind her long commute to work because it feels like it transports her to a different world where hockey isn’t everything. Even though she doesn’t love hockey, she understands the love of the fight. From growing up in a big family and working in the family restaurant, she lacked the privileges of many of her fellow law students. She knows what it takes to fight to the top and to fear falling once you get there.
Kira is a fighter—a result of her upbringing, which was underprivileged and challenging in its own way. She has a fear of failure in common with other self-made characters like Mr. Erdahl, yet she is far less obsessed with success for its own sake; she enjoys the battle without forgetting its relevance to the rest of her life.
When Peter gets to the club president’s office, his stomach is in knots. The president forthrightly informs him that David is going to be appointed as coach of the A-team. Peter tells the president that he doesn’t think David is ready, looking around the office uncomfortably and hating the conflict. The president cites the sponsors’ “investment” and the fact that David gets results; now David has the chance to build something bigger, “using the products of the junior team.” Peter says, through gritted teeth, that the youth team is not a “factory” and that the players are not “products”—it’s their job to “nurture human beings.” He thinks David is already pushing the juniors too hard, but the president disagrees, saying that pressure is necessary for the players to shine.
Peter’s conversation with the club president about David clearly brings out the central issues in the town’s hockey culture—particularly attitudes toward the formation of young players’ character. If they’re “products,” they can be readily manipulated for the sake of success; if they’re human beings first, they require much more careful nurturing. In this attitude, Peter reflects his mentor, Sune. Unlike Kira, Peter hates fighting and isn’t at his best under such pressure. Meanwhile, the club president doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that excessive pressure could crush people instead of producing something beautiful.
Kira constantly feels like a bad mother. No matter how many times she hears them, she can’t let Beartown’s whispered remarks run off her back—like the ones about the fact that she has a full time job. But going to work feels liberating to Kira. She always feels like a fake as a parent, but she never feels that way at work. At work, if she does everything right, things generally go as planned. But even if she does everything right as a mother, bad things can still happen to her children.
Kira is haunted by past losses as a parent—there’s always a fear that she’s going to mess up irreparably. This helps explain her conflicted attitudes as a mother; she feels guilt about working full time, but she can also be herself at work in a way she doesn’t feel free to do at home.
The club president wants Peter to break the news to Sune after the juniors’ final game. If they lose the semifinal, then David won’t get the job, since nobody cares if the juniors merely put up a good fight; only winning matters. Peter gets the silent message that if he doesn’t comply with the club’s wishes, he, too, is replaceable. Peter leaves the office, depressed about the fact that he seems to perpetually disappoint people.
Ironically, David’s advancement hinges on the results-driven approach he’s helped cultivate—he’ll only be recognized if he wins. Peter feels like a perpetual loser in this environment, which shows how this ruthless culture can harm even its biggest stars.
As Kira gets to her office and looks at the framed photos of her family, she remembers the early years of her marriage. Peter had twice broken his foot and had to work his way back up from the farm team to the NHL. Six minutes into his fifth game, he’d fallen and not gotten back up. Nine operations later, a doctor told Kira that Peter would never be able to play again, because they were afraid to tell Peter directly. For a while, Peter had drifted aimlessly, unable to master the structures of day-to-day life.
Kira’s memories provide some background for Peter’s struggles—despite having attained NHL fame, he never got his career off the ground there. After he finally gave up playing, he faced the same challenge that most elite athletes ultimately face—how to find meaning and purpose in a life that’s no longer structured around training and competition. When winning is the goal, Peter’s story makes clear, there’s little space left over for everyday life.
Peter is grateful to see that Sune’s office door is closed. He thinks about something Sune had once told him about team culture: “Culture is as much about what we encourage as what we permit.” He looks at a team photo from the silver-medal season in his youth. Hardly a day goes by that Peter doesn’t wonder how things might have been different if Robbie Holts had gone to the NHL instead of Peter. After his hockey career had failed in Canada, Kira had helped him see that the children were his “team” now. So he’d gotten a part-time job, and they’d made it work. Then, just as they’d gotten settled, they’d realized that something was wrong.
The argument that cultures “encourage” certain behaviors continues to resonate throughout the book. Peter is well aware that his own professional opportunities were somewhat arbitrary; under different circumstances, Robbie might have had a different outcome. This makes the entire edifice of hockey culture seem questionable.
Peter remembers the night he met Kira. After they’d won silver, the team had gone out to dinner at a small, family-run restaurant. Kira was tending bar. Peter cried in front of her as he felt the shame of facing Beartown after a loss, and Kira made him laugh. Later, Kira told him that that’s when she had fallen in love with him. She knew a man who worried about disappointing the people he loved would become a good father and would protect his family from anything.
Peter’s reaction to a silver-medal win shows the immense pressure faced by athletes on his level; there’s minimal margin for success, and ample opportunity for shame. As an outsider to hockey culture, Kira was able to see other potential outlets for Peter’s loyalty and devotion. However, in family life as in hockey, Peter and Kira will discover that the line between success and failure is thin.
Kira remembers how their family had collapsed after their eldest son, Isak, got sick and died. She’d been so happy to move back to Sweden and start over. They became as happy as it’s possible for a grief-stricken family to be. But she still can’t fully face the grief. And to this day, Peter wonders what he might have done differently to protect his family—if he had given up his talent or offered to change places with his son, might the boy’s life have been spared?
Until now, the tragedy in the Anderssons’ past has only been alluded to. Isak’s death, it now becomes clear, has overshadowed the family and limited their happiness. This event also explains some of Peter’s persistent feeling of failure—there’s no area of life in which he has been fully successful; his dreams have always been cut off at an early stage.