Romance novel explores relationship between rival hockey players

"Game Misconduct" by Ari Baran.

“Game Misconduct” is local non-binary writer Ari Baran’s auspicious debut, a M/M romance novel set in Philadelphia and within the world of professional hockey. 

Mike Sato is a young, tattooed and muscled enforcer on the fictional Philadelphia Constitution. His chief enemy is Danny Garcia from the Pittsburgh Hornets. The guys fight whenever they are both on the ice, but one night, outside a bar, they have an erotic encounter that soon has them turning their hatred into love. As the two bruisers start to develop — gasp! feelings — for each other, they provide mutual and endearing support. Danny helps Mike become a better player and Mike helps Danny deal with some of his addiction issues.

Baran (a pseudonym), who lives in Philadelphia, talked with PGN about their new novel which is available May 16.

What prompted you to write an enemies-to-lovers M/M romance, set in the world of professional hockey? 

I go where the story takes me. I’ve been a hockey fan for a really long time. I grew up with hockey and I am interested in the way the game is played and the culture surrounding it. The culture is fascinating, and kind of horrific, and not very welcoming to people who are straight, white, heterosexual, and cisgender. Part of how dark it can get is interesting to me. The violence inherent in the game and the hazing these guys experience in juniors — they are not allowed to talk about it because of this code of masculinity; you have to be a “tough guy and take it.” I’ve always wanted to write a book that explores those themes. That was the background. I was thinking of who would these characters be? Mike is the first one that popped into my head. 

You have a female hockey player on the Constitution, which is great. Can you talk about developing the characters?

I knew some people won’t like Bea, the female hockey player, because she’s a physically strong person, but I wanted to write her that way. I knew Mike would be an angry, closed-off character. Naturally, it would be someone who would butt heads with him and force him out of his closed-off state. That’s where Danny had come from. I was thinking about an older player who had been through the ringer physically and emotionally. It ended up being a romance because that was an interesting way to explore those issues and keep it interesting to readers. 

You blame your mom in the acknowledgements for your love of hockey. What appeals to you about this sport, and what research did you do about the behind the scenes and on the ice content? 

I grew up watching it, and it is such a fun game to watch — it is so fast and physical. Once I’m interested in something, I have to know everything about it. I read biographies of players, histories of teams, articles on the website, “The Athletic,” such as, “What happens in the locker room between the periods?” “The Players Tribune” lets [athletes] write articles in their own words. I read ones about enforcers and older players who suffer traumatic head injuries and the effects on their mental and physical health. I watch videos of team practices and drills. And Substacks that break down offensive and defensive systems, so you get a professional analysis. Reading enough of those articles, I picked it up myself.

What decisions did you make regarding the characters’ conflicts, desires, and idiosyncrasies?

I feel like I’m cheating because the characters just show up in my head. Mike is really into 1980s hardcore and emo. That’s the guy he is, he has a shaved head and tattoos. With Danny, I knew his family was the most important thing to him, and it was a personal tragedy for him that he couldn’t tell them about things. From the beginning, you can tell he’s a big softie because he loves his niece so much. The cat Danny adopts is a metaphor for Mike; he destroys his hands at first, and then gradually warms up to him and softens him.

What can you say about penning the sex scenes, which are as detailed as the scenes on the ice? I liked the way you depicted consent. 

I write romance, not erotica. For me, when I am writing a sex scene, it should convey something and have a character development moment. For the physical stuff, I’m not going out and beating someone up in an alley. I was thinking these are guys traumatized by hockey culture. The way they interact with other men and the way they view themselves is through the prism of that violence. Even with that background, I don’t want a laundry list of negotiations as some books do with BDSM stuff. It is not BDSM that I am writing. I am trying to convey that the characters are consenting in other ways. It’s OK if you hit me. In their first penetrative scene, I wanted Danny to make Mike talk about what he wanted, because Mike doesn’t understand his emotions, which he has been bottling up. Danny instinctively understands that because he is the same way. That’s the first time Mike has had a chance to talk about what he wanted. 

What decisions did you make about setting the book in Philadelphia and mentioning some local places?

The next book is also set in Philly. I’m in the process of editing it, and I should mention more places. I grew up outside Philadelphia, but I still live in Philly and love the city. It’s like nowhere else. I don’t want to live in another place. It has such history and attitude, and we’re such a unique breed. With “Game Misconduct,” I didn’t get as much of a chance to do a city love letter, but I wanted to ground it in the places I liked and knew and was familiar with.

What do you see as the appeal of M/M romance?
For me, the appeal to some extent is that some of the uncomfortable power differential stuff in a straight romance is not there in a M/M romance. Or you can explore it in a different way because the characters are inherently on a more equal footing without the history of nasty patriarchal shit. If I’m writing a size difference between two male characters, it’s different than [straight] romances which emphasizes how tiny and delicate the women are. For some readers, that is appealing, but other women like not having to worry about something sexist and misogynist popping up in the sex scenes. There’s also the thinking that for straight women, if you’re sexually attracted to one man, here’s two men. 

This is your first published novel, but you use a pseudonym, which is standard for the romance genre. Can you talk about that?  

I can’t have my parents read my book. I can’t tell them my pen name. We’re a Jewish family, so my mom wants to brag to all the synagogue ladies, but I had to tell her she is not allowed to do that. It’s kind of heartbreaking. [Laughs] 

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