When former collegiate hockey player Chris Middlebrook, just a year out of Gustavus Adolphus College, first picked up a bandy stick, he found the obscure game exhilarating and liberating. Bandy was played on skates, like hockey, but with a ball instead of a puck. No hard checking was allowed, and players spread out on a sheet of ice the size of a soccer field. The result was fluid and fast, like flight itself.
“Bandy is a game of speed, cold and ice, endurance, finesse and teamwork,” Middlebrook writes in his new book, “The Bandy Chronicles: My Pursuit of a Forgotten Sport.”
“It is an amazingly beautiful game, and it is and has always been the world’s fastest team sport,” he said.
Forty years after first trying the game, Middlebrook has traveled the bandy world — primarily Scandinavia and Russia, but also central Europe, Central Asia and China. He has played on several U.S. national bandy teams, lived and played professionally in Sweden, and participated in nearly 200 international matches. Juggling commitments to his family and his practice as a private attorney, he has been one of the most active ambassadors of the sport and has helped build a bandy program in Minnesota, the only state in the country where bandy is regularly played.
“It was the combo of what a beautiful sport with what an incredible opportunity,” Middlebrook said in a recent interview. “It opened so many doors and so many opportunities and experiences.”
Middlebrook writes about those experiences as he describes the development of the sport locally and competition with the rest of the bandy world.
He recounts the competitive details — the interpersonal alliances and conflicts, the wins and losses, the results of key tournaments in this country and between Americans and teams in Russia, Scandinavia and elsewhere.
But that’s not the best of it. Middlebrook describes a very human world of striving and success, futility and defeat, dignity and sportsmanship, camaraderie and humor, stupidity and craftiness — “our unique journeys as humans,” as he says.
Of the more than 100 very short essays, some are lyrical, some wry, some sentimental. Middlebrook opens with a touching story of a recurrent childhood dream: He is flying across the ice through wind and light snow across the gray winter landscape. It was only decades later that he mentioned this dream to his father.
“It was December 1958,” his father said. He had bundled young Chris in his arms and skated over the bare ice of Lake of the Isles. “You were 15 months old,” his father said. “How could you possibly remember that?”
Middlebrook writes of being in Moscow and running into a once-important Russian bandy official after many years, after the chaos that came with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The man, in his late 80s, saw Middlebrook from his VIP section of the stands. He smiled, struggled to his feet, and wrapped Middlebrook in a bear hug — “his humanity a beautiful thing to witness,” writes Middlebrook. “When someone gets very old … the world they lived in may be fading into the past. But they still remember who they once were, and it is still who they are inside. For them it can be a tremendous blessing to encounter someone from the past; even if only for a short time, it can revive their younger self.”
Middlebrook, who could pursue his bandy career only with the forbearance of his wife, Cathy, writes of the birth and death of his first two children, born simultaneously and prematurely: “Whatever innocence or naiveté Cathy and I had about the fairness of the world also died on that day.” And he tells of the birth of his son and daughter. “Miracle children,” he writes, “risen from the ashes of our emotional ruin.”
But at the center of the book is the game itself, particularly its development in Minnesota. At the time Middlebrook and a handful of other former hockey players were introduced to the sport by a Swedish coach, no Americans played. Hardly any had even heard of it. The sport grew as more former hockey players picked it up. The best and most dedicated, like Middlebrook, traveled abroad to be slaughtered by the far more experienced Russian and Scandinavian teams.
Bandy remained a Twin Cities endeavor, if only because harsh northern winters were necessary to maintain a natural ice sheet of such dimensions. Even that geographical advantage began to change with a warming climate.
“Our winters have changed so dramatically since the 1980s and early ’90s it just doesn’t work anymore,” said Middlebrook. The construction of the Guidant John Rose MN Oval in 1993, a giant outdoor rink with artificially refrigerated ice, may have saved the sport in Minnesota. Said Middlebrook, “But for the oval, our program would have fallen off completely.”
Now perhaps 500 men, women, boys and girls play competitively at the oval. Minnesota has hosted a men’s world championship, two women’s world championships, and international youth championships, too. Said Middlebrook: “It’s real. It’s legitimate. It’s not just a rec sport or some pickup thing — all through volunteering.”
Middlebrook, now 62, has retired from law. A stroke knocked him out of playing in 2012. “Well, I started to suck anyway,” he said. But he continued to organize teams, coach, and run tournaments. “That feels good — to still be a part of it,” he said.
Greg Breining is a writer and author from St. Paul.