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Mia Siegert’s ‘Jerkbait’ is a timely reminder of LGBTQ and mental health issues in hockey

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This debut young adult novel will hit home for many in a time of reflection about what the hockey community should be.

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When Mia Siegert’s debut novel Jerkbait hit bookshelves on May 10 of this year, the young adult hockey novel focusing on homophobia and mental illness was never more relevant. Just a few weeks prior, the hockey world was dealing with the ramifications of Andrew Shaw’s homophobic comments to a referee during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Shaw was eventually suspended for using a gay slur, but the incident brought hockey fandom’s inclusivity problem into the light for the whole sports world to see.

While Jerkbait doesn’t solve this problem, it highlights how toxic hockey’s underlying culture of masculinity — where showing weakness is shunned for being too “feminine” and sexist and homophobic language still remain staples of trash talk — affects teenagers. The novel follows the story of two hockey playing twin brothers, Tristan and Robbie, as they traverse high school. Though the brothers have shades of the Sedin twins, the pair are anything but close. Robbie has the makings of a star hockey player, loved and adored by his parents, schoolmates and friends, but is troubled by suicidal thoughts that stay hidden for fear of dropping out of drafting position. Tristan lives in Robbie’s shadow and wants to be anywhere but a hockey rink, instead eyeing a starring role on Broadway one day.

It isn’t until a suicide attempt which opens the novel that sends everyone around the brothers spiraling into a tailspin. I won’t spoil the book for you too much, but Jerkbait runs the gamut of horrors for these two kids, from psychologically abusive parents to the unforgiving nature of high schoolers and teammates. When Robbie is revealed as secretly gay halfway through, the words and actions of the people around the twins take an even more uncomfortable turn.

* * *

The story is one Siegert knows well, and one she started writing with a more personal flair in the original drafts of the novel.

Jerkbait originated as a very semi-autobiographical piece where I wanted to try to understand what happened with a toxic friendship that went astray,” Siegert said. “As it progressed, and certainly became more fictional, I noticed that more glimmers of myself came up.”

Siegert used to be an Olympic hopeful in show jumping before a career-ending injury dashed any hopes she had of making those dreams come true.

“The pressures both twins face, especially Robbie, were ones I identified with greatly,” Siegert said, “although fortunately my parents were amazingly supportive.”

It wasn’t just the pressures of athletics that she had in common with Robbie, as Siegert is also queer. In an exclusive interview with Barnes and Noble earlier in August, Siegert talked about being bigender — or nonbinary, as Siegert often uses the more widely known label.

Those facets of her life were huge parts of creating Jerkbait, but they were only the basis of Robbie and Tristan’s journeys, not the source.

“I don’t know whether it’s because I had too many concussions in my career or whether it’s just me, but I wasn’t as affected writing some of the horrors in the book as I believe some readers might feel with the experience,” Siegert said. “Some writers might disagree with me, but when I write I need to have a certain amount of disconnect in order to look at a piece objectively. It’s more voyeuristic in that way.”

One big draw from Siegert’s life was Robbie’s love of the New Jersey Devils, a team that, unlike in Jerkbait, has no relation to the affiliations of her parents.

“When I played floor hockey I mentioned that I wanted to play real hockey and my parents didn’t want me to because of the concussions,” Siegert said. “So instead I showed horses, and got concussions.”

Siegert fell into hockey in middle school when her then-best friend — the basis for Tristan’s friend Heather in Jerkbait — got into the Mighty Ducks animated series. Though Siegert said she started watching for her friend, the love for the sport became real quickly.

“Being in New Jersey in the era of Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora, it was hard not to be a fan,” Siegert said. “I even wrote a fan letter to Marty and got a little letter back that I still have!”

Siegert also expresses a fondness for musical theatre, which makes up the backbone of Tristan’s character. Though not at the heart of Jerkbait’s central conflict, Siegert’s love for both hockey and performing arts makes itself known in the forms of the book’s two main characters.

“Both characters have a lot of ‘me’ in them, especially Tristan for personality but Robbie for the pressures he faces.”

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Though Tristan narrates the book through his perspective, Robbie is the main focal point on which the story drives. The twin’s delicate balance of staying closeted while struggling with mental health issues that go untreated so he appears “normal” to the outside world got the attention of a familiar organization to hockey fans. You Can Play, an organization helping create inclusivity for the LGBTQ community in sports, partnered with Siegert and Jerkbait to help promote the book.

“From the beginning, I desperately wanted to work with [You Can Play] and do a fundraiser with some of the book sales because it was so important to me to have a YA book that maybe could help some athletes out, as well as their families,” Siegert said.

Thanks to the partnership, You Can Play praised Jerkbait in the front of the novel and got Siegert in touch with key players Patrick Burke — co-founder of the organization — and then vice president Anna Aagenes.

However, despite the good You Can Play has done in getting support for LGBTQ athletes, no active player in the NHL is out. Siegert wondered if the pressures she — and Robbie in Jerkbait — faced are affecting the players as well.

“I think the NHL is working hard to provide a safe space,” Siegert said. “I question whether fandom is holding players back from coming out. As an athlete, I was very affected by things around me. With hockey not being as mainstream a sport in the United States as football or basketball, players have more direct and close interactions with the fans. Stuff happens. Things are said.

“We witnessed the downfall of Michael Sam. Although many people said, ‘he’s too small’ or ‘he came to camp unfit,’ one can’t deny the emotional toll that he received as the first out player to be drafted in the NFL,” Siegert said. “I suspect many players, past and present, are very fearful that this might occur to them.”

Being a woman on social media while promoting her work, backlash from corners of the hockey fandom is something Siegert is quite familiar with.

“When Jerkbait came out, I received a lot of crap from people saying I was pushing an agenda. My response was, ‘Is it an agenda to write a book to prevent LGBTQ youth from committing suicide?’ They had no answer,” Siegert said. “I believe that hockey fandom needs to catch up with the professional organizations such as the NHL and NWHL.”

It is easy to blame the loud minority despite the large numbers of hockey fans that are inclusive and welcoming to the LGBTQ community. Though it’s often the detractors that make the most noise, hockey fandom has done a lot good in making the space more inclusive and making the community more aware of itself. However, like they’d most likely tell you if asked, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“After Jerkbait was published, I was surprised at how many people reached out on social media because I covered a few areas and didn’t shy away from what problems are,” Siegert said. “I included a lot possibly from me not knowing people tended to focus on one or two areas but mostly because I believe in intersectionality.”

There’s a lot hockey fandom can do to change, but there is one thing Siegert says is an easy fix.

“Stop using gay slurs. That’s the biggest thing,” Siegert said. “Every game I go to has someone screaming ‘faggot’ at an opposing team member. There are lewd references and chants.

“I think all organizations should do what the Flyers did and Blues are about to do with their You Can Play nights. That would really give the right sort of message.”

* * *

Jerkbait is almost a one-of-a-kind novel for hockey fans. There have been a few hockey books with LGBTQ main characters, but none that feel so relevant in its content and message. Hand in hand with the LGBTQ issues are also ones of mental illness, and with the death of NHL enforcer Todd Ewen by suicide just last year, Jerkbait‘s high school setting could easily be swapped out for today’s hockey world.

“As I’m new to YA, I didn’t entirely realize the magnitude and impact of an LGBTQ sports book. I didn’t realize how few there were,”said Siegert. “I’m fortunate to be a part of the movement towards acceptance.”

Though Jerkbait doesn’t pull punches when it deals these blows, there is a message that feels earned — and needed — by the time you finish the 350-page novel.

“I hope that [Jerkbait] encourages people to realize that mental health isn’t a joke. I hope they combat the stigma against it,” Siegert said. “I hope a person on the street might learn about hockey and how amazing the sport is. I hope that parents realize that their children might have different goals than them or that they might need different sorts of support. I hope that teens are able to be teens and goof off and have fun.”