Ask any fan of romance books for a book recommendation, and “The Deal” by Elle Kennedy is likely to come up.
Published in 2015, “The Deal” follows the college-set love story between a star hockey player and a clever wannabe songwriter. Their tutoring arrangement turns into love, and ... you get the gist.
Kennedy tells TODAY.com that she wrote “The Deal” as a break between the series she was working on, something “just fun” for her. Back then, Kennedy primarily wrote adult romances with suspense, often centered on figures like mercenaries or Navy SEALs.
But she was curious about an emerging genre: “new adult,” books centered on characters in their early 20s. While the age category now has its own page on the Barnes & Noble website, at the time, writing for the genre felt risky, yet “way more fun,” Kennedy says.
Why a novel set in the world of college hockey? A few reasons, she says. Born and raised in Canada, she’s a fan of the sport and says it’s “literally everywhere.”
Plus, the first book she ever published was an NHL-set romance called “Body Check,” so she was on the “sports romance train” early on. Athletes, she says, make for good romantic heroes for their looks, yes, but also for the nature of the game: “(Readers) are drawn to the team and the camaraderie between the guys.” When it comes to hockey, “the whole danger element” of the sport adds stakes.
The fact that she was dating a hockey player at the time (“I won’t say what level,” she says) helped create “The Deal,” too: She saw the team dynamics firsthand.
“Seeing that relationship with his teammates, it’s such a unique relationship. They have their own language and nicknames, the trash talking — it’s just so much fun,” she says.
Fearing that the book could tank, Kennedy self-published for the first time. “The Deal” ended up landing on the USA Today best sellers list, and its success led to three more books, each following a different player on the hockey team. Then came four more books about the romantic misadventures of some of the team’s younger players.
In that time, hockey romance also became a thriving romance sub-genre. BookTok, the book lover’s corner of TikTok, is overwhelmed with recommendations like “Icebreaker” by Hannah Grace (2022) and “Pucking Around” by Emily Rath (2023).
“I’m sure there are lots of different things that draw readers to (the sub-genre). I think hockey … it’s more physical. It’s fast,” Kennedy says of the genre’s appeal. “Readers like to imagine, ‘Oh, I’m the girl that this pro athlete is going to fall for, pick out of the stands.’”
Kennedy’s last hockey romance novel was published in 2020. Three years later, she has returned to the fictional Boston-area college Briar U for four more books ... following the next generation.
“It was like coming home,” she says.
Kicking off the Campus Diaries series, her third hockey romance quartet, is “The Graham Effect” following for the first time a female hockey player — Gigi Graham, the daughter of the couple that started it all, the stars of “The Deal,” Hannah and Garrett.
Kennedy tells TODAY.com about the popularity of hockey romance, how she keeps her stories fresh despite similar formulas and what’s next for the Briar U hockey team.
This interview is edited and condensed for clarity.
What inspired you to write a next-generation book and come back to the world of Briar U?
I tend to not like next-generation stories. I don’t mind reading them depending on how the author handles it, but just especially with the younger characters, if you’re doing a good growth arc, a lot of the time they’re going to have issues with their parents, right? And I don’t want to have characters who were a beloved couple, suddenly be bad parents or have strained relationships with their kids. So I always kind of avoided that.
But readers have just been clamoring for this, and I get tons of emails and DMs and messages every day. And it got worse after I released “The Legacy,” which was sort of like a novella collection for the Off-Campus series. It wasn’t that far into the future, maybe like a couple years, and people were not satisfied. They were like, “Well, we need to know what happens to the kids.”
Then I was out with my dogs, and I just had gotten an email asking if I would ever write a book for the twins, Garrett and Hannah’s kids from “The Deal.” And I was like, “I’ll think about this later.” And then as I was walking, I’m like, “What would their kids look like if I did a story?” And the first answer that flew into my head was, “Oh, yeah, the daughter has to be the hockey player.”
And then from there, I’m just walking and had an entire story plotted in my head, and I was like, “OK, I guess I’m going to write this.”
Would you say this book was written for fans?
You know what? 50/50. Because I’m a person who enjoys a challenge. I’ve never written a female hockey player, and the second that idea popped into my head, I was like, “Oh, I must do this.” Even if all the fans had said, “We changed our minds. We don’t want to see this.” I would have still written it. Like, once the right story comes along, I’m gonna do it. And it will either be for me or for everyone if they want to read it, whatever happens.
Do you have a favorite Easter egg or call back to the original books?
There’s a lot of fun ones. I hope people catch on it, but there was a mention to the team pet from Briar U. It was like, “This is why we can never have a pet again.” I liked all the little casual mentions, like “my aunt Summer.” It was really fun to just drop little hints in there. And then I don’t remember if I mentioned Dean’s son’s name in the actual book ... I knew readers would just go nuts when they saw that one.
(Kennedy revealed Dean’s oldest son’s name on Instagram to be Beau, the name of the character’s late best friend from “The Score.”)
What is your approach to finding something that makes each book different?
I have no idea. There were a few times I worried about that, because I’m like, we have already done four, and now I’m doing a spin-off, but at the same school with characters from the previous thing ...
So usually I’ll just try to throw a wrench into something. For example in “The Risk,” I was like, “OK, he doesn’t play for Briar. He plays for Harvard.” And then that just opens up this door. Now you’re not just rooting for this team, now you have to work for his team because he’s the hero.
I think it’s just a matter of throwing in little twists. I could have done coach’s daughter with an existing player. But let’s do coach’s daughter with an enemy player, instead. I don’t put a lot of thought into it, though. It’s just, I get an idea, and I’ll run with it, and then it will work or it won’t work.
With your background writing suspense, do you find that coming up with twists comes naturally to you?
Yeah, I think it probably does. My head immediately goes to, I like to kill people off, which, you know, people don’t really do that much in contemporary romance. So I have to rein myself in from doing certain things sometimes. My instinct is to be like, “OK, how do we up this angst factor? OK, well we’ll kill this one.” And I’m like, “Wait, I can’t do that.”
Did you feel more comfortable writing about that world because of your exposure to it through your then-relationship with a hockey player?
Definitely, yeah, with the lingo. When you have someone who's playing hockey, you go to his games, and you know more of the rules and the state of play. It definitely helped.
I was worried actually that readers would be like, “I don’t want to just like read chapters about people playing a sport.” So I’m happy that they don’t hate that part, because those are the best, most fun scenes to write.
I do try to limit them though because again, if I wasn’t a hockey fan, and I was reading a romance and it just had a bunch of sports in it, I’d be like, “What is this?”
As a fan, what it is like getting to create those gameplay scenes?
It’s kind of fun because you can make whatever you want happen. Like, when you’re watching the game, you have no control. You’re screaming at the screen and telling them, “Shoot!” and “Pass!” or “What are you doing?”
Here, you get to control the whole game. It’s like you’re the coach, which is really fun. But then you’re also responsible for devastating your characters and making them lose, because there’s no such thing as always winning, right?
What’s your hockey team?
I root for the Bruins. I know I’m in Toronto. I was a Leafs fan growing up. But I think I’ve been on the Bruins train for maybe the last 20 years. It started off as a joke, actually. I was trying to tick off my boyfriend at the time, just to root for the team that he hates. So I started paying attention as a joke, and then I was like, “Oh, I really like this team.” Also Boston is one of my favorite cities. There’s a lot of Boston love in these books.ight
Might a screen adaptation of “The Deal” or any Off-Campus/Briar U books be possible?
So I am not allowed to comment on any of that. Things are always happening. I will say also, there’s strikes going on, so a lot of things are on hold.
But yes, I am hopeful, let’s just say.
Do you have plans for more books with the new cast of characters from “The Graham Effect”?
Yes, I’m working on the second book now, which is with Ryder’s best friend and Gigi’s best friend — and she hates him. So it’s great so far, I’m having a lot of fun with it. And then I know the third book. I know the premise. It might surprise some readers but it’s going to fun. And then I know there’s going to be a fourth. Other than that, I’m not sure.
Who are the characters starring in that second book?
Shane and Diana.
Do you have plans for more of the next generation kids to come in?
I do. Some of them are pretty young, so not every book is a next-gen book, but every book has next-gen people in it, if that makes sense.
People on TikTok right now, it’s really funny, after I started releasing all the family trees, they’re making all of their fan-cast pairings. So they’ve already decided which kids are going to be with which kid. That just makes me laugh, and I’m like, you guys are amazing.
Are they off the mark? What is their intuition level?
One ship is very off. One is right.
CORRECTION (Nov. 9 2023, 2:12 p.m.): An earlier version of this article stated that "The Deal" hit the New York Times best sellers list. The first book in the Off-Campus series landed on the USA Today best sellers list.