BOOKS

Words on ice

Hockey books are in a league of their own

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 10 1990
BOOKS

Words on ice

Hockey books are in a league of their own

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 10 1990

Words on ice

BOOKS

Hockey books are in a league of their own

In an increasingly divided country, it is easy to forget that less than 25 years ago, Canadians were united from coast to coast by their passion for—or sometimes against—two hockey teams from Central Canada. Strange as it now seems, many western Canadians spent most of a century enthralled by the exploits of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And the Montreal Canadiens, whose Englishspeaking ownership (by the Molson Cos. Ltd.) often makes them a target of suspicion in Quebec, were once a powerful symbol of French-Canadian nationalism. Since 1967, when the National Hockey League began adding new teams, such images have been distorted. But now, six new books about hockey— including three concerning the Soviet Union’s effect on the sport—offer reminders of the powerful pull that hockey still exerts on Canadians’ collective psyche. Three of those books compete with each other in excellence, while the others bring up the rear with varying success.

Except for the fact that they share a preoccupation with hockey, the half-dozen books have little in common. The most remarkable, Overtime-. The Legend of Guy Lafleur (Penguin, $26.95) is a revealing biography by Montreal writer Georges-Hébert Germain—with Lafleur’s co-operation—of the only member of the Hockey Hall of Fame to still play professionally. The second winner, The Boys of Satur-

day Night (Macmillan, $24.95), is by Toronto writer Scott Young, an honorary member of the Hall of Fame. Young’s book is a fond and well-reported history of the people behind the television broadcasts of Hockey Night in Canada. The third of the top trio is The Red Machine (Doubleday, $26.95), a comprehensive look at the Soviet Union’s hockey program by Lawrence Martin, a former Moscow correspondent for The Globe and Mail.

In the second line of new releases, the most

commendable is Larionov (Codner Books, $22.95), a thin autobiography of Soviet hockey star Igor Larionov, written in collaboration with Soviet journalist Leonid Reizer and Vancouver sports columnist Jim Taylor. Stan and Shirley Fischler’s Red Line: The Soviets in the NHL (Prentice Hall, $24.95), which purports to be about Soviet hockey players now in the NHL, is an empty work based largely on U.S. press clippings. Finally, Dick Beddoes’ Greatest Hockey Stories (Macmillan, $24.96), a collection of anecdotes from his almost four decades as a sportswriter, is filled with the kind of lewd, crude anecdotes heard in locker rooms and beer parlors.

Overtime begins with a dedication to Guy Lafleur’s wife, Lise, “who believes that what is true should be said.” That is more than just a trite admission, because Lafleur bares his life and inner traumas to Germain with extraordinary candor. The book, already a Frenchlanguage best-seller in Quebec, appears likely to repeat that success in the rest of the country. A key reason is Lafleur’s willingness to discuss such sensitive matters as his hair transplant, an affair with an unnamed singer (whose identity has been widely speculated upon in Quebec), and the fact that he had been drinking heavily when involved in a near-fatal automobile accident in 1981. He also confronts—and emphatically denies—widespread rumors in Montreal during the 1970s and early 1980s that he used cocaine.

But Overtime, like a strong hockey team, couples flamboyance with depth and balance. Germain avoids the gee-whiz hero-worshipping that turns so many sports biographies into turgid, uncritical retellings of athletic exploits. Instead, Germain, a shrewd social observer, shows how Lafleur struggled under the combined pressures of being a French-speaking

Quebecer excelling in a sport that is wildly popular in a province increasingly consumed by nationalism. As a 19-year-old, Germain writes, Lafleur was already presented as “the guardian of the glory and soul of the Montreal Canadiens, the one who alone could assure the continuity, perpetuate the tradition, lead the club out of the darkness into which it would sink without truly great stars.” The fact that Lafleur succeeded in fulfilling those seemingly impossible goals is a result, in large part, of his implicit sense of honesty and—despite his occasional indiscretions—decency, both

of which shine brightly throughout the book.

Young’s The Boys of Saturday Night is an enjoyable rarity, a book written by a venerable and uniquely Canadian institution about another venerable, uniquely Canadian institution. Young has been writing about hockey for more than three decades but, in his history of television’s coverage of the NHL, he couples a veteran’s expertise with a rookie’s enthusiasm for his topic. Young recalls how Foster Hewitt, the original radio announcer for the Maple Leafs, had an exceedingly high profile. When Chicago Blackhawks great Bobby Hull first met Hewitt—who died in 1985—he said, “it was like meeting God.” Young also tells anecdotes about longtime Canadiens announcer Dick Irvin and the CBC’s Don Cherry, whose less-thanperfect grammar, as Young recounts, the network has occasionally and unsuccessfully tried to correct.

But Young also ventures into the seamier underside of the sports broadcasting business, including the insistence by some team owners that play-by-play announcers should not be too critical or deal with controversial topics during their broadcasts. Because of the profitable nature of the broadcasts, some networks have allowed themselves to be cowed by owners. As Young writes, one casualty of network timidity is the immensely talented Dave Hodge, who was virtually blackballed from Maple Leafs broadcasts in recent years because of his refusal to be bullied. That description can also be respectfully applied to Young himself.

Lawrence Martin, meanwhile, was uniquely qualified to write The Red Machine. A onetime sportswriter, fluent in Russian, he was the only Western correspondent permanently accredited to cover hockey in Moscow during his posting there in the mid-1980s. That combina-

tion, coupled with the Soviets’ new openness, gave him an opportunity that he has exploited to the fullest.

The Red Machine provides a well-researched explanation of how the Soviets were able to challenge Canada’s primacy in international hockey, and gives engrossing descriptions of the previously faceless stars of the Soviet national teams. He quotes the brilliant, half-Spanish player Valery Kharlamov, who explains his love for the game by saying, “Hockey is not the ballet—but the two have much in common.” And he describes how the father of the since-deceased Kharlamov—who died in a car accident in 1981—commemorates his son’s death each year with a toast of vodka at his grave.

The only real flaw in Martin’s book is the baffling optimism that he directs towards the Soviets. With a crumbling economy, many Soviets say that virtually every facet of their lives, including hockey, is in decline. One unfortunate byproduct of President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms has been an overall breakdown in discipline—a key reason for the Soviets’ previous sports successes. Yet Martin’s unbridled enthusiasm far exceeds the Soviets’ own hopes for the future: he said that, eventually, “the Red Machine would be so good the world might have to start calling hockey the ‘Russian game.’ ” Despite that dubious conclusion, The Red Machine is the work of an author thoroughly on top of his own game.

Larionov, about one of the Soviets’ top players, has some merit but only limited appeal. The rhythm of the writing, while faithful to Russian literary and speech patterns, seems stilted and awkward. And Larionov, who now plays for the Vancouver Canucks, has been only a modest success in the NHL. Larionov is gloomy about the future. He says that Soviet

hockey “remains in a deep sleep [and] I cannot see any principle changes coming.” But his bitterness towards the Soviet system, while understandable, makes him incapable of impartial observation.

Both Martin’s and Larionov’s books are several leagues above the Fischlers’ vapid Red Line. Although its dust jacket claims that the book is about “the Soviet invasion of the NHL,” it appears to be little more than a game-bygame recounting of the 1989-1990 schedule of the New Jersey Devils, who had two Soviets in their lineup. Jingoistic and littered with quotes from such questionable Soviet-hockey authorities as the sports columnists of New Jersey’s Hudson Post-Disfatch and Star-Ledger, Red Line is little more than a child’s hockey scrapbook—with a $24.95 price tag.

Finally, Dick Beddoes’ Greatest Hockey Stories deserves special mention as a book that sets a gutter-level tone early and never rises above it. The book’s cover features its amiablelooking author sitting in a dressing room in a manner that suggests he is a kindly teller of § tales to neighborhood children. The book itself, however, is filled with scatological humor and slangish references along the lines of “the sauce and the susies” (liquor and women). Rambling and sophomoric in tone, it is a book that parents will likely wish to keep away from their children—and, for that matter, themselves.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH