Books

Hockey’s New Roots

A new crop of books on the national game travels far across the globe and deep into the past

D’Arcy Jenish November 27 2000
Books

Hockey’s New Roots

A new crop of books on the national game travels far across the globe and deep into the past

D’Arcy Jenish November 27 2000

Hockey’s New Roots

Books

A new crop of books on the national game travels far across the globe and deep into the past

D’Arcy Jenish

One of hockey’s most charming tales involves an epic journey by the Dawson City Nuggets, who travelled nearly 5,000 km by foot, sea and rail from the Yukon to Ottawa for a crack at the Stanley Cup in January, 1905. The Nuggets lost—badly, as it turned out—but have come to symbolize a time when the game was young, when amateurs prevailed and played for joy rather than money. There are still places where the sport is new and unspoiled, but it takes an enterprising traveller to find them, as Toronto rock musician-writer Dave Bidini reveals in his sparkling new book, Tropic of Hockey: My Search for the Game in Unlikely Places (McClelland & Stewart, $32.99). Bidini journeyed to Romania, the United Arab Emirates, northern China—and Hong Kong, where he witnessed Asia’s largest annual tournament and the victory lap of the jubilant UAE Nats. “They skated the perimeter of the ice, crouching behind one another in a crazy speeding train,” he writes, “15 bearded faces aglow with victory.”

Bidini’s survey of hockey in exotic locales is full of such spontaneous shows of joy and enthusiasm, which are all too rare at a time when the pro season lasts nearly 10 months and too many teams favour defence over offence.

The book is also a refreshing departure from many of the fall season’s other hockey offerings—an uneven mix of life stories and glossy, largeformat histories. But there is another title—Ice Time: A Canadian Hockey Journey (Viking, $32.99) by broadcaster Scott Russell—that takes the reader to some out-of-the way locales and introduces people, like longtime Edmonton Oiler scout

Lome Davis, with a youthful love of the game. “I’d be a pretty lonely man if I couldn’t go to hockey games anymore,” says Davis, who is nearing 70. “I get the feeling if I ever quit I wouldn’t last too long.”

A love of hockey prompted Russell to embark on a “hockey journey” from Adantic to Pacific in search of ordinary Canadians who share his passion. The most touching story involves Newfoundlander Andy Sullivan, a fish-plant worker in Witless Bay, near St. Johns, and a great natural hockey talent. Sullivan learned to play outside before starring in a provincial junior league. He eventually received a tryout offer in the early 1980s from the NHL’s Hartford Whalers, but was too shy and uncertain of his abilities to accept. For years, Newfoundland hockey fans wondered: could Sullivan have played pro? He finally showed them the winter of 1993-1994, when the Toronto Maple Leafs’ St. John’s farm team recruited him, at age 32, to shore up their injury-riddled lineup. He recorded three goals and six assists in 16 games, packed the city’s Memorial Stadium with jubilant fans and laid to rest all doubts. “Sully answers the big question,” a local newspaper declared after his debut. And along the way, he earned a place in the lore of a hockey-loving country.

This falls hockey biographies and life stories mostly chronicle existence within the ruthless, often cutthroat professional ranks. The best of them is Keenan: The High Times and Misadventures of Hockey’s Most Controversial Coach (Stoddart, $29.95) by Jeff Gordon, sportswriter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He portrays 51-year-old Toronto native Mike 1 Keenan, currently running his sixth NHL team, the Boston Bruins, as a man who will insult, humiliate and harass players to motivate them. He has made enemies— like former Chicago Blackhawk greats Denis Savard and Doug Wilson—but he also wins. He has made four trips to the Stanley Cup final, winning in 1994 with the New York Rangers. “There’s a little psycho-ness in him, an unpredictability,” says Phoenix Coyote centre Jeremy Roenick. “Sometimes between periods, you’d have to cover up for fear of getting hurt. He’d just go nutso. He’d be swinging sticks and throwing skates.”

The most troubling tale can be found in Centre Ice: The Smythe Family, the Gardens and the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club (Fenn, $32.95) by Thomas Stafford Smythe with Kevin Shea. The 54-year-old author starts at the beginning, with grandfather Conn, the legendary Leaf founder and builder of the Gardens. But the real object of interest is his father and namesake, Stafford, an alcoholic who was arrested shortly before his ^or

death in October, 1971, at the age of 50, along with partner Harold Ballard, on charges of defrauding the Gardens of several hundred thousand dollars. The author alleges that Ballard prepared a will that deprived the Smythe family of control of the Gardens and the Leafs, and convinced Stafford—then in a drunken stupor—to sign it, unread. Centre Ice is a son’s attempt to rehabilitate his father’s reputation. Unfortunately, Stafford Smythe

comes across, even here, as a flawed individual who let it all slip away.

Ballard also figures prominently in Brian McFarlane’s World of Hockey (Stoddart, $29.95), a memoir by the longtime broadcaster and prolific author of more than 50 books about the game. McFarlane’s career as a Hockey Night in Canada commentator ended during the 1981-1982 season, after nearly 20 years, when Ballard banned him from the Gardens for criticizing the team’s treatment of its star player, Darryl Sittler. The former colour s man belatedly evens the score, describing Bal1 lard as racist, sexist and obnoxious. He also re¡ counts how in 1975 Ballard sent top prospect I Doug Jarvis to the Montreal Canadiens in ex“ change for a minor leaguer named Greg Hubick because he didn’t like the fact that Jarvis was a bornagain Christian. “Jarvis would go on to win four Stanley Cups and appear in an NHL record of 964 consecutive games,” McFarlane writes. “Hubick would score six goals in a 77-game NHL career.”

The large-format books include two titles devoted to the NHL’s annual all-star game, which are likely to appeal to only the most diehard students of the sport, since the contests themselves are basically meaningless exhibitions. There are two others, however, that may provoke some debate among hard-core fans. In Hockey’s Greatest Teams: Teams, Players and Plays that Changed the Game (Penguin, $35), Toronto writer Andrew Podnieks has made some predictable choices—the 1959-1960 Canadiens and the 1987-1988 Oilers. But others, like the 1924 Toronto Granites and a 1930s women’s club from Preston, Ont., will surely raise eyebrows. And lists designed to stimulate debate—the best NHL role players and the 25 top Europeans of all time—form a big part of The Hockey News Century of Hockey: A Season-by-Season Celebration (McClelland & Stewart, $29.99).

For readers with an appetite for more substantial fare, there is Michael McKinley’s Putting a Roof on Winter: Hockey’s Rise from Sport to Spectacle (Greystone, $34.95). McKinley, a freelance journalist in Vancouver, has written an account of the first century of indoor hockey, roughly from 1875 to 1975. The best parts of the book deal with hockey’s transition from the pond to the rink, and the many colourful characters from those early years—including Cyclone Taylor, the Patrick brothers and Howie Morenz. The author also pays appropriate attention to James Creighton, the Halifax-born engineer who wrote the first set of rules as a young man in Montreal and did more than anyone to bring hockey inside. “His vision gave hockey the chance to evolve from a rough-hewn pond game into the world’s greatest winter sport,” McKinley writes, “and to those who love it, the greatest sport, period.” EH3