Armchair hockey

Fans can get their fix from the new books

Brian Bethune,JAMES DEACON,TOM FENNELL November 28 1994

Armchair hockey

Fans can get their fix from the new books

Brian Bethune,JAMES DEACON,TOM FENNELL November 28 1994

Armchair hockey

Fans can get their fix from the new books

With the National Hockey League lockout now in its eighth week, many fans feel they have been in the penalty box for too long. But this season, there is a wealth of hockey books to satisfy some of that yearning for ice time. A selection:

Wayne Gretzky (Whitecap, 177 pages, $39.95), a handsomely produced pictorial biography, has the ideal subject—a man whose royalty-like stature in Canada is bound to sell books and whose father, Walter, never went anywhere without his camera. That camera produced many of the most engaging photographs in the collection—of a wide-eyed, big-eared kid growing up in Brantford, Ont., awkward in his Sunday best, proud atop a tractor, king of the backyard rink. But Gretzky is full of compelling images from other sources too, especially of the hockey great’s own children—Paulina, 5, Ty, 4 and Trevor, 2, at home in Beverly Hills—and of his extraordinary hockey career. In the biography’s limited text, meanwhile, Vancouver Province columnist Jim Taylor details Gretzky’s charmed life and superhuman athletic achievements through anecdotes that paint a human portrait of the man. Taylor knows the Gretzkys—he co-wrote a book with Walter a decade ago—and his most recent effort reveals how much of what Wayne learned in Brantford still guides him today.

The trick with Gretzky, however, is that he is a moving target. The book—both in pictures and in print—ends last spring, when Gretzky scored his 802nd career NHL goal and surpassed the all-time stan-

dard set by his hero, Gordie Howe. But Gretzky, at 33, is still playing—or would be were he and the rest of his NHL colleagues not locked out. That fact deprives this book of a fitting conclusion, but it leaves hockey fans with something to look forward to whenever the league resumes play.

Gordie: A Hockey Legend (Douglas & McIntyre, 220 pages, $26.95), by Roy MacSkimming, tells the familiar tale of the Prairie kid with the bruising elbows and laser-guided wrist shot. But the unauthorized biography manages to add new dimensions to the story of how the right-winger for the Detroit Red Wings became one of the greatest hockey players the National Hockey League has ever seen. Howe was born in Floral,

Sask., in 1928 to grain farmer/construction worker Ab Howe and his wife, Katherine. Growing up in Depression-ravaged Saskatoon, the sixth of nine children, he learned to skate at the age of 5 wearing a secondhand pair that he shared with his sister Edna. At 17, he began a professional career that spanned 33 seasons (broken by a 1971 to 1973 hiatus), until he retired in 1980 at the age of 52, then a grandfather.

The strength of Ottawa writer MacSkimming’s book is its ability to recapture the events and people that shaped Howe’s personality and motivated him as a player. The author writes that the young Gordie

was like his mother-shy, and quick to defer to authority. Those traits stayed with him into adulthood, when Howe accepted what the Wing's man agement told him without question

and was paid far less than many other hockey players of his era. But perhaps remembering his father's admonishment never to back down, Howe deferred to no one on the ice. And on Feb. 1, 1959, Howe's aggressive side was laid bare in what MacSkimming claims was one of the most violent fights in hockey history, when New York Rangers enforcer (Leapin') Lou Fontinato was hospitalized after he clashed with Howe. But Howe, now 66 and living in Michigan, is mostly remembered for the 975 goals he scored as a major-leaguera record that still stands today.

Jean Béliveau: My Life in Hockey (McClelland & Stewart, 308 pages, $29.99), written with Chrys Goyens and Allan Turowetz, chronicles the career of a man who, like Gretzky and Howe, dominated his era. From the time he was a child playing hockey in his home town of Shawinigan, Que., it seemed preordained that the lanky Béliveau would spend his professional life with ihe Montreal Canadiens. But, to the bewilderment of hockey fans, he started out in 1951 playing semi-pro for the Quebec City Aces. Finally, in October, 1953, he switched permanently to Montreal’s NHL club and, as centre, went on to lead the Habs to an astounding 10 Stanley Cups. After he hung up his uniform in 1971, Béliveau joined the Canadiens’ management staff, ultimately serving as senior vice-president for corporate affairs before his retirement in August, 1993. In his memoirs, he offers firsthand accounts of his rise to the Canadiens, and of the careers of many of the team’s great players, including Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion and Jacques Plante. Earlier this year, Béliveau, now 63, received

a fitting proposal for one of hockey’s classiest players, when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien asked him to consider becoming governor general of Canada. But he declined, saying he wanted to spend time with his wife, Elise. Open Ice: The Tim Horton Story (Penguin, 456 pages,

$27.99) by Douglas Hunter is a very different kind of hockey portrait. It is the biography of a man better remembered for the chain of doughnut stores that bears his name, and the high-speed car crash that killed him in 1974, than for an NHL career that spanned 24 years. For Burlington, Ont.-based author Hunter, though, Horton’s life is both compelling in itself and as a study in miniature of Canadian hockey history, a “story that begs to be told.”

The result of massive research, including 100 hours of interviews with 70 teammates, opponents, friends and relatives of the Maple Leaf star defenceman, the book delivers more than anyone might want to know about a now-vanished hockey culture. But in the end, the sheer mass of information

about pro and amateur hockey in postwar Northern Ontario, plus Hunter’s brisk style and eye for telling detail, carry the reader along. A team photo of the 1963 Stanley Cup champion Leafs leads to a meditation on their origins: 11 of 20 players grew up in Northern Ontario or Quebec, between latitudes 46° and 50°, longitudes 79° and 82°.

Tim Horton was one, bom in Cochrane, Ont., 600 km north of Toronto, in 1930.

Horton followed a path to the NHL well worn by talented northern boys. And at every step along the way, from local teenage star to six-team era NHLer to expansion team member, Hunter is able to show how Horton’s career mirrored the tremendous

changes that the sport and the business of hockey were undergoing. At the height of his game, in 1961, playing for a team about to win three Stanley Cups in a row, Horton was paid $12,000. More than a decade later, when he was in his 40s and playing with the Buffalo Sabres expansion team during the era of WHA competition, his salary was

$150,000. When the league moved to a more flashy offensive style in the 1950s, Horton was one of the first players to develop a slapshot. His occasional crowd-pleasing rushes up the ice anticipated the era of Bobby Orr. He was even a physical-fitness fanatic long before it became the rage. Hunter easily makes his case—Horton’s is a story that deserves to be told.

Red Fisher: Hockey, Heroes, and Me

(McClelland & Stewart, 274 pages, $26.99) provides the ultimate insider’s glimpse of the game. Fisher, who has covered hockey for almost 40 of his 68 years—first with the nowdefunct Montreal Star and currently for that city’s Gazette—provides a lively, humorous account of his life in NHL arenas across North America. The dean of Canadian sports writers, he has been around so long that he counts many NHL managers and players among his friends. They, in turn, have often consulted Fisher in their business dealings. In fact, Edmonton Oiler general manager Glen Sather once asked Fisher to recommend a draft pick. Fisher suggested defenceman Lee Fogolin, who subsequently became a standout on four Oiler Stanley Cup teams.

Fisher even found himself on the inside of the blockbuster trade that took Chicago Blackhawks centre Phil Esposito to the Boston Bruins in 1968. The Bruins, suspicious that there may be a catch to Chicago’s offer of a player of Esposito’s quality, asked Fisher to phone his contacts in Chicago. When Hawk centre Stan Mikita told Fisher there was nothing physically wrong with Esposito, the deal was done. Despite being on both sides of the action, Fisher still manages to keep his journalistic distance, making Hockey, Heroes, and Me, both humorous and enlightening.

Years of Glory (McClelland & Stewart, 247 pages, $40), edited by Dan Diamond, with sections produced by such veteran sports writers as Trent Frayne and Milt Dunnell, is subtitled the Official Book of the SixTeam Era. For an authorized NHL history, this homage to the quarter century from 1942 to 1967 comes perilously close to telling the paying public that the 25 years since can barely hold a candle to the past. With bigleague play restricted to only about 100 players, and with so few teams that opponents met one another up to 14 times a season, the period covered by the book gave rise to most fans’ idea of team rivalry and intense hockey. This narrative history is competently written

and informative, and the 230 illustrations— not just shots of the players in action or posing, but reproductions of trading cards, magazine covers and game programs—are wonderfully evocative of their time.

100 Great Moments in Hockey (Penguin,

210 pages, $35) by Brian Kendall, also offers arresting photos: a demented-looking Maurice Richard on a breakaway, or Ted Lindsay, who had received a death threat, pretending to machine-gun Toronto fans with his stick after scoring a winning goal in overtime for Detroit. But banal writing and an eccentric choice of “great moments”—

Eric Iindros’s contract with the Philadelphia Flyers does not belong on any list with Paul Henderson’s goal in Moscow—leave it far behind in the coffee-table book playoffs.

Proud Past, Bright Future: One Hundred Years of Canadian Women’s Hockey (Stoddart, 206 pages,$30) by Brian McFarlane is another book in which the photos far outweigh the text. A fascinating piece of Canadian social history is all but submerged by the author’s relentlessly gee-whiz prose and ill-organized story. When McFarlane is

not being condescending towards male commentators being condescending towards women players, he is himself condescending towards the females on the ice. He writes in his prologue that those whom the old sports writers called “lady hockeyists” should not be referred to as “gals, girls, females or even ladies—they are simply women.” Yet “girls” and “ladies” are his preferred terms through-

out. Incidents and names are strung together with little cohesion. There is even an unbelievable story about a star player named Albertine Lapansee who had a sex change and became a man in 1918.

But the story McFarlane is trying to tell is compelling, and he packs a wealth of detail into his book. It starts with the sudden and large-scale entry of women into numerous sports in the 1890s—part of the same wave of Victorian feminism that spawned the suffragette movement. Proper university

women, who at first would not allow spectators to watch their potentially immodest games, were soon bodychecking in public and even fighting. One woman, her team being victimized in 1894 by the scoring prowess of a McGill star, solved the problem in exactly the same manner that Bobby Clark fixed Team Canada’s little difficulty with Valeri Kharlamov in 1972—by a vicious

two-handed slash to the ankles. Proud Past tells the story of the amazing Rivulettes of Preston, Ont., who established a win-loss record of 348-2 in the 1930s. And it profiles many of the early star players, some of whom rose to prominence in other pursuits—such as Ethel Catherwood, goldmedal high jumper at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, and Charlotte Whitton, later mayor of Ottawa. Above all, there are the photos, and how they evoke the passage of time. Women with long tresses and longer skirts (goalies often weighted their hems with buckshot, forming an excellent barrier) give way to players with bobbed hair and bloomers, and eventually to Canada’s world

championship teams of the 1990s. Most affecting of all is a blurry picture of Isobel Stanley (daughter of Lord Stanley of Preston, the governor general who donated the Cup) and her Ottawa friends playing hockey on the outdoor rink at Rideau Hall about 1890. Nothing could make it more clear that Canada’s game has always belonged to all Canadians.