I find myself picking up more and more fantasy and science fiction these days, sometimes out of pure inclination, but also as a way to step away from the reading I do as an English teacher. However, every now and then something else will grab my attention, as A.L. Graziadei’s Icebreaker did. As a hockey fan, I couldn’t pass up their debut YA contemporary about rivals going to college together and (inevitably) falling in love in the face of high-stakes hockey pressure. 


icebreaker by a.l. graziadei book cover
Seventeen-year-old Mickey James III is a college freshman, a brother to five sisters, and a hockey legacy. With a father and a grandfather who have gone down in NHL history, Mickey is almost guaranteed the league's top draft spot.

The only person standing in his way is Jaysen Caulfield, a contender for the #1 spot and Mickey's infuriating (and infuriatingly attractive) teammate. When rivalry turns to something more, Mickey will have to decide what he really wants, and what he's willing to risk for it.

This is a story about falling in love, finding your team (on and off the ice), and choosing your own path.


Mickey James III is as self-aware as a white seventeen-year-old hockey prodigy-slash-legacy and college freshman could be. He’s also not doing so well. First of all, he’s fixated on going #1 in the NHL draft, second, he’s actively trying not to make close friends (he’s only going to be in college one year, after all), and third, he’s deeply depressed and hiding it from everyone who cares about him. When teammate (and fellow prodigy) Jaysen Caulfield shows up and seems to thrive off of shaking up Mickey’s world, he does the unthinkable: he starts falling for him. Icebreaker is a story about learning to listen to your feelings, learning to trust, and dealing (or not dealing) with mental illness – all under the pressure of the bright lights of an NHL future.


What I liked: okay, wow, I liked a lot about this book, so hold on tight. First off, the detail and description of/about hockey behind the scenes, and the reality of being a college athlete, were well done. I can’t claim to be a college athlete fiction completist, but I was a two-sport college athlete myself, and that portion of the book felt very true-to-life. Pre-season training, forced team bonding, figuring out a college campus while feeling woefully inadequate? Yep yep yep. Icebreaker’s authenticity of the behind-the-scenes chaos of college sporting life also reminded me strongly of an all-time favorite series, Ngozi Ukazu’s Check, Please! As did the forbidden pining for a teammate, lol.


Other things I loved: Mickey is the youngest of five sisters, all of whom are stars in their own right. I loved their back-and-forth banter, and the way they looked out for their little bro. I cannot express how much it reminded my own college experience, when my younger sister and I helped my brother adjust to campus life (yes, siblings do sometimes all go to the same school, lol). Mickey’s unabashed support and belief in his sisters was super sweet too, rounding out his character nicely. Combined with Mickey’s chip on the shoulder attitude and understandable abandonment issues, he definitely came across as a well-formed character, and a moody boy too. I also loved Mickey’s text message banter with Jaysen, his coming out scene(s), and the way that his hockey-famous family don’t make his sexual orientation a problem.


Weaknesses: Backstory and detail around Mickey’s childhood wasn’t introduced until quite late in the narrative. This left his self-identity out of focus, sort of hanging out in the background as he adapted to college, and experienced new-to-college adventures, until BAM! trauma ahead!! That was a little jarring. I think it makes sense – it’s authentic to the way humans think (avoid, avoid! avoid!!! until unavoidable), and the story is told in the first person after all. It was just a bit confusing on the reader side of things, as it was hard to understand Mickey’s unwavering focus on the draft as the be-all and end-all, and his fixation on a rivalry with Caulfield, without it. The college jock banter also felt half-formed. Some of it felt real, yes. But I think that the book would have benefited from about 20% more dialogue overall, to really get a sense of characters other than Mickey.


What I wanted more of: the James siblings! In Mickey’s eyes his sisters are certainly larger-than-life, and I feel like I could read a story centered around each one of them. I also wanted to know more about Nova Vintner, Mickey’s ex and best friend. The reader basically only gets to know her through texts, and I wanted more about her and how she and Mickey arrived at rock-solid friendship at age seventeen. There were also a couple of points where Graziadei mentions that the characters chatted about insignificant things, or important stuff… but then didn’t give details! As a reader, I would prefer to read those conversations than try to imagine them! (I didn’t know enough about the other characters to guess what they might talk about, and our protagonist Mickey is described as grumpy and socially stunted).


Overall, Icebreaker was a very enjoyable read as a fan of hockey, LGBTQ+ YA, and as a former college athlete. Though it wasn’t perfect, I was definitely rooting for Mickey (and Jaysen!), and I devoured their story in one day.


Recommended for: fans of hockey and Check, Please!, and those looking to round out their bookshelves with college-set YA, LGBTQ+ representation, and/or contemporaries that deal with mental health challenges.

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