Playing three years of high school hockey, Howard Shapiro discovered a few things about himself and what he wanted to become. Although Shapiro said he wasn't very good, hockey taught him lessons that he applied to his life and opened creative doors to what would be a series of books on how the game brings people closer together.
"Those three years of being a really bad player, the game itself taught me so much, things I was able to learn from playing that I applied in school and in my professional life. And friendships that last to this day," Shapiro said.
Since playing professional hockey was out of the question, Shapiro became an accountant and author. His latest release is his first hockey graphic novel, "The Hockey Saint." It's the story of 21-year-old Jeremiah Jacobson, the world's best hockey player but unprepared for the scrutiny of stardom, and his evolving friendship with college player Tom Leonard, an average sophomore trying to find his place in the world.
Shapiro's 'The Hockey Saint'. (Click to enlarge)
Their bond is shared through their hockey and life experiences.
"I find the game a great source for stories not only about playing the game, but also what the game can teach you both on and off the ice, more so than other sports," Shapiro said. "I've played other sports too, but for some reason [hockey] has taught me so much about working hard, being part of a team, the work ethic and seeing results from hard work. Things like that I just applied to the rest of my life."
Shapiro's first hockey book was "Hockey Days," a 2007 picture book written in tribute to his father, who had passed away the year before. The sequel, "Hockey Player For Life," is about a 13-year-old coping with failure and questioning his desire to play. The story has been used in community and educational initiatives by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers.
Shapiro took the next step creatively with his first graphic novel, "The Stereotypical Freaks," a prequel to "The Hockey Saint."
"I write in a visual kind of way as well, so doing graphic novels really works for me in that regard too," Shapiro said. "Graphic novels are a very fun and extremely creative genre or format to work in. I love to collaborate with the artists, and the best part is watching the book literally come alive and jump off the page."
In addition to the evolving friendship between Jacobson and Leonard, another theme of "The Hockey Saint," says Shapiro, is the overemphasis of sports in society. Jacobson is the reluctant superstar who shuns outside pressure from the media and turns the focus on who he believes are true role models.
"I think most people should kind of back off a little and realize what it is, which is entertainment," Shapiro said. "Jacobson sort of rebels from all that. He just wants to play. He doesn't follow any media. He distances himself and realizes it's just a game. It's something he does but he doesn't want to have all that responsibility as the voice of the league and the face of the league.
"I've always wanted Jake to be the anti-Sidney Crosby, who is what you would want as the face of the League. He accepts that role, is always speaking to the media, he's available. He is exactly what you'd want your best player in the world to be like as far as a role model, so to speak. I wanted Jake to be the complete opposite of that. He wants nothing to do with any of it."
The story of Jacobson and Leonard will continue in the trilogy's third book, which will be released before the 2016-17 NHL season. Set 10 years after "The Hockey Saint," "Can You See The Light?" is the working title of a tale that sees Jacobson coping with the end of his career and how that affects his relationship with Leonard. The common thread in the trilogy is friendship and the twists and turns that happen with any relationship. The premise is hockey, a sport that has shaped Shapiro personally and creatively.
"It's had a huge impact on me," Shapiro said. "The one line that Jacobson had about 20 feet from where I get out on the ice the world's a better place ... I go see the [Pittsburgh Penguins] play or when I go see the Leafs play, there's just something really special and everything in the world seems right. It still has a real big impact, even now as just a spectator."