I’ve been a lifelong romance reader (I started reading my mother’s Jude Deveraux and Judy Garland paperbacks when I was 13), but for the past few months I’ve been really into reading LGBTQ romance, specifically m/m romance. I started with the gold standards, Sarina Bowen/Elle Kennedy’s “Him,” N.R. Walker’s “The Weight of It All,” Christina Lauren’s “Autoboyography,” and then Sarina Bowen’s “The Understatement of the Year” before I started searching out other authors/books. Kindle Unlimited has a lot of options, and most of them are…not great. I read the entire catalogue of N.R. Walker and then tried some new authors: Lucy Lennox (I reviewed her first series, Made Marian, a couple weeks ago), Sloane Kennedy, Riley Hart (reviewed one of her books here), Devon McCormack, and a few others whose books I couldn’t even finish.
And then I found Avon Gale’s Scoring Chances series. Five books focusing on the ECHL, a double minor hockey league. My hockey knowledge is non-existent, but basically there’s the NHL, then the AHL development league for the NHL, and then there’s the ECHL (East Coast Hockey League), the double-minor league directly below the AHL. While a professional hockey league, there’s not a great deal of glory in the ECHL, and the series mostly focuses on men who know they’re lucky to even get to play professional hockey.
So what did I love about this series? First, Avon Gale is a much better writer than most of the ebook m/m romance writers. Her books are pretty well plotted, her characters (for the most part with one big exception) are well-drawn, and she writes with humor. One of my pet peeves in the romance genre is where characters go from 0-60 in the span of days or a couple weeks, and I appreciate that each of these books covers a year, and every relationship is really given a full year to develop and grow. She focuses on the romance, less on the sex (though there are sex scenes, they’re not gratuitous or overly-plentiful), but she also focuses on the hockey and yet somehow, I wasn’t bored. I have no idea why hockey seems to be such fertile ground for m/m writers, but I’ve learned way more about the sport than I ever intended. She does fall into some of the frustrating tropes of the genre, but out of these five books, I loved three of them (rate those three 4 stars) and enjoyed the other two with some reservations.
Breakaway (Jared/Lane) Drafted to play for the Jacksonville Sea Storm, an NHL affiliate, 20 year-old Lane Courtnall’s future looks bright, apart from the awkwardness he feels as a gay man playing on a minor league hockey team. He’s put his foot in his mouth a few times and alienated his teammates. Then, during a rivalry game, Lane throws off his gloves against Jared Shore, enforcer for the Savannah Renegades. It’s a strange way to begin a relationship. Jared’s been playing minor league hockey for most of his career. He’s bisexual and doesn’t care if anyone knows. Out of nowhere a one nighter with rookie Lane Courtnall gives him second thoughts- Lane reminds Jared why he loves the game and why love might be worth the risk. Jared hopes to show Lane how to be comfortable with himself on and off the ice. But they’re at different points in their careers, and both men will have to decide what they value the most.
I started this series with book #3, Power Play, and I’m glad for that because if I had started with Breakaway, I might not have read any of the others. This is my least favorite of the series, and it all has to do with the character of Lane. He’s written as if he’s just really socially awkward, having no filter between his brain and his mouth, no understanding of social cues or social expectations, and a significant discomfort with feelings, both expressing them and feeling them. Basically, he’s written as a character with Asperger’s or on the spectrum, but never labeled as such. I had the sense while reading that Avon Gale was really drawn to the character of Lane, and showing his growth as he’s accepted by a team for the first time, makes his first true friend, grows as a hockey player, deals with his family, and has his first boyfriend. The romance between Lane and Jared is really underbaked compared to the journey Lane takes as he finally starts to come into his own, and I honestly think this book shouldn’t have been a romance so much as it should have been a character study of Lane. The relationship seems so ancillary to Lane’s story- it felt like they met, hooked up, texted a bit, and then they were in love and I never really understood exactly why these two men made a good match. There’s also a not-insignificant 11 year age difference (three of the books in this series have a decade age difference, but the other two are between full adults- Lane is so young, and so inexperienced in all aspects of life, that this one felt a bit squicky), and a tendency to act like bisexual people really just want to have threesomes with both their partners and a person of the opposite gender, which wasn’t my favorite.
Save of the Game (Riley/Ethan) After last season’s heartbreaking loss to his hockey team’s archrival, Jacksonville Sea Storm goalie Riley Hunter is ready to let go of the past and focus on a winning season. His roommate, Ethan Kennedy, is a loud New Yorker with a passion for social justice that matches his role as the team’s enforcer. The quiet Riley is attracted to Ethan and has no idea what to do about it. Ethan has no hesitations. As fearless as his position demands, he rushes into things without much thought for the consequences. Though they eventually warm to their passionate new bond, it doesn’t come without complications. For their relationship to work, Ethan will need to learn when to keep the gloves on and let someone help him- and Riley will have to learn it’s okay to let someone past his defenses.
I liked this book a lot, and it was my second favorite of the series. Let’s go through the good: Riley and Ethan are both in their 20s, they’re reasonable well-adjusted and communicate well, they support and respect each other, it makes sense why they are together, and their relationship is given an entire year to develop so that when we leave them at their happily-ever-after, it feels earned and realistic (despite that fact that one is a billionaire, but that’s a romance trope that will never die). Now for the bad: if you absolutely hate Gay-For-You storylines, you might want to avoid this one. In the first book, Breakaway, we meet Riley as he becomes friends with his teammate Lane, and we learn that he’s probably bisexual, though he’s never acted on it- he’s never really acted much on anything. Ethan, however, is a liberal guy who has no issue with gay people in practice or in theory, but never really considered whether he might be attracted to a man. This is a first for both of them, and while I prefer to read books where both character are long past the angst of figuring out their sexuality or coming out, this one was actually pretty good. Neither guy has any real hangups about being bisexual or about falling in love with another guy and the book is refreshingly free of angst. Ethan and Riley really develop a friendship in addition to a romantic relationship, and this is the healthiest relationship I’ve found in LGBTQ romance.
Power Play (Misha/Max) A freak accident during the Stanley Cup Playoffs put an end to Max Ashford’s hockey career. Despite everything, Max gets back into the game he loves- only this time, behind the bench as an assistant coach of the Spartanburg Spitfires, the worst team in the entire league. But nothing prepares him for the shock when he learns the new head coach is Misha Samarin, the man who caused Max’s accident. After spending years guilt-ridden for his part in Max’s accident, Russian native Misha has no idea what to do when he is confronted with Max’s presence. Max’s optimism plays havoc with Misha’s equilibrium- as does the fierce attraction that springs up between them. Not only must they navigate Misha’s remorse and a past he’s spent a lifetime trying to forget, but also a sleazy GM who is determined to use their history as a marketing hook. But when an unwelcome visitor targets a player, Misha reveals his darkest days, and that might cost him and Max the beginning they’ve worked so hard to build.
This is the first Scoring Chances novel that focuses on the coaches, rather than the players (Coach’s Challenge is the other one). That means this novel is about adults- Max, age 29, and Misha, age 40. The blurb makes it sound like this book has all the drama, but it really doesn’t: Max, a happy-go-lucky optimist, is completely over the freak accident that ended his NHL pro career after only three years and very comfortable with his recently discovered bisexuality (discovered several years before the events of the book). Misha, a moody Russian, is still feeling all the guilt about the accident, with a healthy dose of self-loathing about being gay (given Russia’s attitudes towards gay people, and Misha’s specific family, it makes sense and isn’t annoying). It’s very much an opposites-attract love story, but blessedly the angst and drama are relatively low. These two characters really respect each other, respect their differences, and communicate well. There’s a significant side plot involving their team’s goalie Issac Drake (who stars in the next book), but that doesn’t detract from the main story. This is my favorite book of the series mostly due to the two main characters. I think Max is the character that Avon Gale meant to turn Lane from Breakaway into, before she took Lane beyond “easy-going guy with no filter” into “guy with Asperger’s”- Max is really easygoing and deeply optimistic, and it pairs nicely with Misha’s somber realism.
Empty Net (Isaac/Laurent) Spartanburg Spitfires’ goalie and captain, Isaac Drake, ended last season with an unexpected trip to the playoffs. He’s found a home and a family with his coach and mentor, Misha Samarin, and he’s looking forward to making a serious run for the Kelly Cup. But things take an interesting turn when Isaac’s archnemesis, Laurent St. Savoy, is traded to the Spitfires. After Laurent’s despicable behavior in the playoffs last year, Isaac wants nothing to do with him- no matter how gorgeous he is. But that changes when Isaac discovers the reason for Laurent’s attitude. Laurent St. Savoy grew up the only son of a legendary NHL goalie in a household rife with abuse. He was constantly treated like a disappointment, on and off the ice. When a desperate attempt to escape his father’s tyranny sends him to the Spitfires, the last thing Laurent wants is to make friends. But there’s something about Isaac he can’t resist. Laurent has an opportunity to explore his sexuality for the first time, but he’s cracking under end-of-the-season pressures. When facing the playoffs and a rivalry turned personal vendetta, Isaac’s not sure he’s enough to hold onto Laurent- or their relationship.
Whoo-boy, this book has some angst and drama. We met Isaac Drake in the last book, and he’s got his fair share of issues and shameful secrets, though his mentorship with Misha and his friendship with Misha and Max has done wonders for him. But Laurent has survived a deeply brutal childhood, and his defense mechanism of not letting anyone close means that he’s an asshole, and IS HE EVER AN ASSHOLE. Sometimes these books have a “character who acts like an asshole but is secretly a kind, caring person who’s just a bit misunderstood,” but not this one. Laurent never had an opportunity to develop kindness, consideration, or caring and he really, really doesn’t know how to be or express those things. Which is admirable from the perspective of an author who allows a deeply damaged character to just be deeply damaged, but makes this the most difficult read of the series. With that said, Isaac is a delight and Laurent slowly grows on you. Their journey from nemesis to teammate to friend to lover is well done and well earned, and while the subject matter got a bit dark, I really enjoyed the journey.
Coach’s Challenge (Troy/Shane) It’s been decades since blackmail forced Troy Callahan to retire from playing professional hockey, and he’s built a successful career behind the bench. When he’s offered the opportunity to coach the Asheville Ravens- the most hated team in the ECHL- he’s convinced that his no-nonsense attitude is just what the team needs to put their focus back on hockey. But Troy is disheartened when he finds that the Ravens have signed Shane North, a player known for his aggression. And it only gets worse when Shane’s rough good looks give Troy inappropriate thoughts about a member of his team, even if Shane’s set to retire at the end of the season. Shane’s career in the majors never quite took off. Wanting to quit on his own terms, Shane agrees to a one-year contract with the Ravens and finds himself playing for a coach who thinks he’s an aging goon and with a team that doesn’t trust him, the coach, or each other. Despite his determination to not get involved, Share unwillingly becomes part of the team…and is just as unwillingly drawn to the gruff out-and-proud coach. As the Ravens struggle to build a new identity, Shane and Troy succumb to the passion that might cost them everything.
Hallelujah- a book about two adult gay men where being gay isn’t an issue for either of them! Shane is a 36 year-old hockey player on his last year as a professional athlete, while Troy is a 46 year-old former NHL player who turned down an assistant coaching job with the Rangers to take over the Ravens (due to the fact that the Ravens former head coach, Laurent St. Savoy’s father, was the player who blackmailed Troy out of the NHL years ago). The Ravens were Laurent’s former team in Empty Net, so we already know just what that team went through under their former coach. The only issue standing between Shane and Troy is the fact that Shane is a player and Troy is his coach, which makes their relationship inappropriate. However, given the fact that they are mature and adjusted adult men capable of keeping things professional on the ice, this really isn’t presented as much of an obstacle. Really, their focus is on rebuilding the team, not on personal angst between them. Shane and Troy are both confident, independent men who handle themselves and their business well, and this makes for a really refreshing and enjoyable read. There’s a bit of drama 3/4 of the way through and I thought for sure we were going to do one of those “a character nobly sacrifices themselves for another character, while never actually telling the other character what they are doing or giving them any agency in the decision” but to my pleasant surprise Avon Gale sidestepped this completely by having the two characters immediately discuss the situation and agree together how to handle it. There’s a sideplot with one of the players on the team that seems clearly to be a set-up for the next book, but as far as I can tell Avon Gale isn’t writing another in this series, which is a bummer because I’m really interested in reading a book about that character!