Just how bad can life in the National Hockey League (NHL) get? Consider the disastrous end of the 1992-1993 season for the Ottawa Senators, one of five expansion teams the league has added in just three seasons. The Senators finished the 84-game regular schedule with a measly 10 wins. By then, head coach Rick Bowness and general manager Mel Bridgman were not talking. Many of the players disliked and distrusted principal owner Bruce Firestone. Yet Firestone was not complaining about the team’s results. The Senators had earned just enough points to avoid going into the record books as the worst team ever, a distinction that belongs to the 1974-1975 Washington Capitals. And by finishing last, they earned the top pick in the June draft of overage juniors. That perfect picture of haplessness, however, was tainted by rumors that the Senators may have deliberately lost a few games at season’s end to ensure their claim on the first draft choice.
The bumbling Senators were just bit players in a tumultuous NHL season, but Ottawa Citizen columnist Roy MacGregor has turned their dreary debut into a sparkling new book called Road Games (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, $24.95). MacGregor’s work
is one of a lengthy list of hockey books published this fall. The selection includes a biography of Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Mario Lemieux, a book about coaching in the NHL, an investigation of the pension-fund scandal, picture books about hockey history and two titles that deal with women in hockey. But if hockey had an MVB (most valuable book) award, it would go to Road Games, which scores high with first-rate reporting, well-told stories and sharp observations about the state of hockey and the NHL.
To most fans, the expansion Senators may have been nothing more than one extraordinarily bad hockey team. But to MacGregor, a former Maclean’s Ottawa bureau chief, they represent much of what is wrong with the current league. Existing owners collected more than $200 million in expansion fees by awarding franchises to Ottawa, San Jose, Calif., Anaheim, Calif., Tampa, Fla., and Miami. But there is too little talent to go around. As MacGregor sees it, the weaker teams generally play low-skill, grinder hockey. On offence, they dump the puck into the other team’s end and chase it. On defence, they do almost anything—clutch, grab, trip, hook or slash—to impede an opponent. The chasm between the best and worst is apparent even
in practice. ‘To watch the [Pittsburgh! Penguins skate and pass during practice is to be struck by the silence that fills the arena, the strides so smooth, the passes so surely given and so softly taken,” MacGregor observes. “A blind man would have known when the Senators were on the ice merely by the clatter.” MacGregor also makes several astute observations about violence in the NHL. He points out that the new European superstars, such as Vancouver’s Pavel Bure, Pittsburgh’s Jaromir Jagr and Winnipeg’s Teemu Selanne, endure extraordinary amounts of abuse from North American players. Yet many referees turn a blind eye because Europeans have a reputation for taking dives to draw penalties.
MacGregor accuses Don Cherry, who is famous for his tirades against Europeans, of both promoting and profiting from hockey violence. He notes that Cherry consistently uses his Coach’s Corner feature on Hockey Night In Canada to advocate hooliganism and rough play. At the same time, Cherry has been marketing a best-selling series of videos entitled Rock’em Sock’em Hockey, which are nothing more than compilations of fights and thundering body checks.
Rising above the game’s grittier side are superstars like Lemieux. In his biography, entitled Mario (Lester, $26.95), former Globe and Mail reporter Lawrence Martin has produced a serviceable account of the Penguins player, despite Lemieux’s refusal to co-operate with the author. Martin was forced to base the book mainly on interviews with friends, associates and former teammates, and their anecdotes furnish fresh information. But the problem for Martin is that Lemieux appears to have a personality as flat as a hockey rink. He spends much of his spare time playing golf or Nintendo games, or watching television. He has told interviewers that he never reads books and, if Martin is correct, has largely avoided the temptations posed by the apparently endless supply of beautiful and willing women who have hovered around him during his career.
While Lemieux’s personal life rarely rises above the mundane, he is a very unusual athlete. Because he possessed such extraordinary abilities almost from the time he began playing minor hockey, Lemieux never had to worry about diet, lifestyle or conditioning. He loves junk food, started smoking as a teenager, frequently stays up half the night and sleeps till after noon, and has never jogged or lifted weights. According to Martin, Lemieux embarrassed himself while attending his first Penguin training camp when he was unable to bench press 180 lb., a feat many less talented but more muscular players handled easily.
Despite his near-magical skills with a stick and puck, Lemieux has had a turbulent career. Martin suggests that Lemieux’s friendship with Wayne Gretzky cooled in the late 1980s when he began to challenge Gretzky’s status as the best player in the game. Lemieux, who was raised in Montreal, has
never been as widely admired as Gretzky in English Canada, not because he is French-Canadian but because he possesses an unerring knack for public-relations disasters. He has turned down invitations to compete for Canada at world championships, and he refused to put on a Penguins jersey the day he was drafted in June, 1984.
Public opinion has shifted over the past four seasons because of Lemieux’s injuries and illness. Many hockey fans now realize that his recurring back problems, as well as his battle last season with Hodgkin’s disease, have prevented a great player from being even greater. Martin captures the tragic side of the Lemieux story, and has done an admirable job in recounting his rise from minor hockey to superstardom. But Lemieux’s refusal to cooperate gives Martin’s book a remote tone: instead of being on the ice with the sensational player, the author was stuck behind the glass with the rest of the fans.
While Martin was denied direct contact with his subject, Dick Irvin received all the access he needed for his book Behind the Bench: Coaches Talk About Life in the NHL (McClelland & Stewart, $27.99). Over two dozen active and former coaches, including Pat Burns, Scotty Bowman and Cherry, shared their thoughts and memories with Irvin, who has been associated with the game all his life.
His father, the senior Dick Irvin, coached in the NHL from 1930 until his death in 1956. And since 1960, the author has provided play-by-play accounts or color commentary of more than 2,000 games on radio and televi-
sion. Irvin’s book has the strengths and weaknesses that often mark insider accounts. It is short on criticism and analysis but full of entertaining stories. Irvin recalls how Jack Adams, who coached the Detroit Red Wings from 1927 until 1947, liked to make small talk with his players in the dressing room. But he always kept a pair of train tickets to Omaha, Neb., sticking out of his jacket pocket to remind players that a poor performance meant a trip to minor leagues.
For coaches who never made it to the NHL as players, standing behind the bench for the first time can be exhilarating, if not unnerving. “It was just like, hey, this can’t be,”
Cherry says about his coaching debut with the Boston Bruins in the fall of 1974. “There I am and, wait a minute, there’s Phil Esposito, Wayne Cashman and Bobby Orr. Bobby Orr? What am I doing here? Three years before, I was an unemployed laborer.” His luck changed when he landed a minor-league coaching job in Rochester, N.Y., and caught the attention of Harry Sinden, the Bruins general manager at the time. Although he was eventually fired in Boston, Cherry’s rapid rise is one of those dream-come-true sagas that give professional sports its enduring appeal.
Over the past two decades, hockey has become a big business, and the financial stakes for owners and players have grown immeasurably. In The Defence Never Rests (HarperCollins, $26.95), Toronto-based CBC television reporter Bruce Dowbiggin attempts to investigate a complex and protracted dispute over NHL pension funds. In June, 1992, seven former players, including Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and Carl Brewer, sued the NHL in an Ontario court, charging that the league had taken millions of dollars in surplus funds from the players’ pension plan. Four months later, Justice George Adams sided with the players. He ordered the league to return the money
plus interest—the total is $35 to $40 million— a decision that the league is appealing.
Unfortunately, readers who turn to Dowbiggin’s book for enlightenment may be disappointed. He tells the story through the experiences of Brewer, Bob Baun, Allan Stanley and the late Tim Horton, who anchored the Leafs’ defence when the team won four Stanley Cups in the 1960s. They were taught by coach and general manager George (Punch) Imlach to be tough as nails in uniform, but timid and acquiescent off the ice, particularly during contract negotiations.
Dowbiggin argues that this mind-set exploit players.
has pervaded the NHL for much of its
existence, and has allowed owners to
Dowbiggin devotes nearly two-thirds of his book to profiles of the four Leafs defencemen, along with a rehash of the history of the team. When he attempts to explain the dispute over pensions, the author becomes bogged down and overwhelmed by the complexity of the subject. Dowbiggin lays blame for most of the mess at the feet of John Ziegler, NHL president from 1977 until 1992, and Alan Eagleson, executive-director of the NHL Players’ Association from 1967 until 1991. But the author never makes a convincing case, particularly against Eagleson. He starts from the position that Eagleson is guilty, and never bothers to show how Eagleson made the transition from a player advocate to a Ziegler crony who inadequately represented his clients in negotiations with the owners. Nevertheless, Dowbiggin’s book is a graphic reminder that there is more to professional hockey in the 1990s than shooting and scoring.
Hockey’s new horizons are also evident in two other books published this fall. Manon Rhéaume, the female goaltender from Lac Beauport, Que., who tried out for the Tampa Bay Lightning in September, 1992, has written her autobiography. Co-written by journalist Chantal Gilbert, Manon: Alone in Front of the Net (HarperCollins, $16.95) is a breezy account of that highly publicized event and of the 21-year-old woman’s stint in the nets with the minor-league Atlanta Knights. Women in
hockey is also the subject of Barbara Stewart’s She Shoots . . . She Scores (Doubleday, $18.95), which contains profiles of prominent female players, the history of female participation and instructions on playing the game. Finally, there are two new coffee-table books, Hockey’s Golden Era: Stars of the Original Six (Macmillan, $29.95) and Hockey Hall of Fame Legends (Viking, $50.00). The texts of both books are weak, but the photos provide intriguing glimpses of hockey’s rich history—and the days before Canada’s national sport was tarnished by overexpansion and pension scandals.
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