Books

Great plays and glory days

D’ARCY JENISH December 16 1996
Books

Great plays and glory days

D’ARCY JENISH December 16 1996

Great plays and glory days

D’ARCY JENISH

A few years back, when the Toronto Blue Jays owned the best bunch of hurlers and hitters in the world, sportscasters and pundits took to predicting that baseball was destined to replace hockey as Canada’s national pastime. And when four million people a year were jamming Toronto’s Skydome to watch the Jays, when a minor-league team was drawing full houses in Ottawa, and when parents were lining up to register their kids in local baseball leagues, who could argue with the wise guys up in the press box? But the country’s book publishers knew better. They knew that when Canadian sports fans pick up a book and stretch out on the couch, it is hockey, not baseball, that they want to read about. “Canada is quintessentially a hockey country,” says Cynthia Good, publisher of Penguin Canada. “There’s no comparison in the way hockey and baseball books sell.”

Canada’s perennially cash| strapped publishers have re£ sponded by spinning out hockey 5 books faster than the NHL sells new franchises. This fall’s deluge of titles includes biographies of former stars Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion,

Howie Meeker and Terry Sawchuk. There are books about the business of hockey (the demise of the Winnipeg Jets and the fight for control of Maple Leaf Gardens), and the history of hockey (the origins of the game and the impact of the Second World War). There are books about the captains of the Montreal Canadiens and about international hockey. Predictably, there are new titles devoted to the NHL’s now-mythical Original Six era, which lasted from 1942 until 1967. And, of course, there are several big, glossy photo books destined to land with a thud under Christmas trees across the nation.

The array of books on hockey is vas( and varied

Amid this barrage, the average fan could be forgiven for feeling like a goalie being bombarded by opposition forwards. However, one title—Hockey Dreams: Memories of a Man Who Couldn’t Play (Doubleday, $27.95), by New Brunswick novelist David Adams Richards—stands out. It is a reminder that Canada’s national game is still more about culture than commerce, because hockey is so

deeply embedded in the lives and memories of so many Canadians. Richards takes a big swing at the Americanization of the sport. As he puts it, watching a game in his home town of Newcastle on the Miramichi River, “with people screaming their guts out for boys who grew up next door, is better to me than a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay.”

But Hockey Dreams is also a splendid memoir about Richards’s own futile attempts to play peewee defence in the 1960-1961 season alongside his friend Stafford Foley, a diabetic youth with failing eye-

sight. Richards has used a novelist’s gift for character, dialogue and imagery to produce a touching portrait of hockey-crazed kids. In one particularly memorable scene, he describes the joy a poor kid named Michael derived from playing hockey on the Miramichi: “Those times in the dark night air with his woollen sweater on, flicking pucks at us and smiling as he skated backwards, turning on a thin dime and breaking into strides that seemed to swallow the ice—at those times, the hurt wherever it came from, was all gone away, and he was free.”

Another winning offering comes from the prolific Ottawa author and journalist Roy MacGregor. Fresh from last season’s bestselling The Home Team: Fathers, Sons and Hockey, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award, MacGregor has turned a collection of previously published columns into The Seven A.M. Practice: Stories of Family Life (McClelland & Stewart, $19.99). Good columns can often seem stale when reissued between hard covers. But not MacGregor’s. Here he is, describing a bunch of kids who have taken a break from a game on a creek to stare at a minnow beneath the ice: “Had the minnow looked up, it would have seen Canada. It would have seen children racing and sliding and laughing. It would have seen long searches through the bulrushes for raised pucks. It would have heard a country’s

forgotten rhythm, wooden sticks on a puck.”

If there is one title that created high expectations but largely fails to deliver, it is Original Six: True Stories from Hockey’s Classic Era (Reed Books Canada, $21.99), a smartly illustrated, small-format book edited by Toronto novelist Paul Quarrington.

Unfortunately, most of the editor’s team, which includes novelist Wayne Johnston and poet Judith Fitzgerald, let him down. But two of the contributions stand out. Quarrington’s own piece on former Boston Bruin defenceman Eddie Shore is a marvelous look at the iron core of one of hockey’s legendary tough guys. And rock guitarist Dave Bidini offers a stunning, first-person narrative in which the long-dead Chicago Blackhawk goalie Charles Gardiner, speaking from heaven, recalls how he led the Hawks to their first Stanley Cup in April, 1934, when he was mortally ill and barely able to stand.

“Out of nowhere,” the ghostly Gardiner says,

“someone handed me the Stanley Cup. I saw my face in its reflection, and I looked all puffy and redeyed and dazed. But I was smiling. So, like a real, bona fide, 100-per-cent muggins, I sat there and cried a river. Hell, I cried buckets right there in front of thousands.” Tragedy of another sort looms large in Shutout: The Legend of Terry Sawchuk (Viking, $32), by Toronto writer Brian Kendall, who has put together the season’s best biography. The moody, unpredictable Sawchuk, one of the best goaltenders ever, played 21 seasons—long past his glory years with the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. He died in 1970 from internal injuries suffered in a fight with a teammate, by which time he was broke, divorced and drinking far

too much. For those who prefer light, feelgood reading, there is Boom Boom: The Life and Times of Bernard Geoffrion (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, $27.99), in which the former Canadiens star tells his story to New York City writer Stan Fischler, and Golly Gee It’s Me!: The Howie Meeker Story (Stoddart, $24.95), by B.C. journalist Charlie Hodge. Dundas, Ont., writer Michael Ulmer has produced a more substantial work in Canadiens Captains: Nine Great Montreal Canadiens (Macmillan Canada, $27.95). Ulmer wisely avoids a simple rehash of the lives and careers of icons such as Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Jean Beliveau, concentrating instead on explaining their mythic stature for hockey fans.

In contemporary professional sport, no season is complete without a few major business stories to distract players and fans, and hockey is no exception. CBC journalist Theresa Tedesco recounts a sordid financial saga in Offside: The Battle for Control of Maple Leaf Gardens (Viking Penguin, $32). Tedesco stumbles as she steps on the ice, with an opening chapter that is hopelessly muddled. But she then regains her footing, guiding the reader through five years of boardroom bickering, conspiring and backstabbing that began even before longtime

owner Harold Ballard died in April, 1990. The battle ended earlier this fall when grocery magnate Steve Stavro agreed to cough up $49.50 per share (a $15.50-per-share, or $23.5-million, premium over his initial offer) and skated away with one of hockey’s most prestigious properties.

Throughout the same period, another dollar-driven battle was occurring in Manitoba over the fate of the Winnipeg Jets, who left after the 1995-1996 season and resurfaced as the Phoenix Coyotes. University of Winnipeg political scientist Jim Silver examines that fight in Thin Ice: Money, Politics, and the Demise of an NHL Franchise (Fernwood Publishing, $15.95). Silver, who belonged to the social action group Thin Ice—which opposed construction of a new arena at public expense to keep the Jets in Winnipeg—tells a sad but familiar story of a small market losing its team due to the exorbitant demands of owners.

Hockey’s future may be in the U.S. sunbelt, but its past is firmly anchored in Canada, as Garth Vaughan makes clear in The Puck Stops Here: The Origins of Canada’s Great Winter Game (Goose Lane Editions, $24.95). Vaughan, a retired Windsor, N.S., surgeon, challenges the conventional wisdom that hockey was first played in Kingston, Ont., and Montreal in the late1870s. His well-documented book argues that schoolboys in Windsor, 60 km west of Halifax, played a primitive form of the game as early as 1810.

Freelance writer Douglas Hunter, who lives on Georgian Bay’s Severn Sound, has weighed in with a sprawling, thoroughly researched and fascinating account of professional hockey during the Second World War. Entitled War Games: Conn Smythe & Hockey’s Fighting Men (Viking Penguin, $29.99), the book is built around the Maple Leaf owner’s impassioned and controversial attacks on then-Prime

'Canada is quintessentially a hockey country'

Minister Mackenzie King over his reluctance to impose conscription.

Canadians may have invented hockey, and Americans may be taking control of the professional game, but the sport is really international. This fall, two books deal with hockey’s global reach. With some help from Ottawa-based author Lawrence Martin, Minneapolis native and onetime Winnipeg Jet prospect Tod Hartje has written a rollicking account of a season (1990-1991) in the elite Russian league in From Behind the Red Line: A North American Hockey Player in Russia (Warwick Publishing, $12.95). Roy MacSkimming, another Ottawa author, revisits the single most important showdown in the history of the game in Cold War: The Amazing Canada-Soviet Hockey Series of 1972 (Greystone Books, $27.95). MacSkimming has written a lively rehash of that eightgame heart-stopper, and reaches some pertinent conclusions. “The truth was, we Canadians had been an insular, isolationist, self-protective, ignorant lot when it came to ‘our’ game,” he writes. “We needed the shock and comeuppance the series provided, if only to open our eyes to the transforming world around us.” Hockey, having been invented in the age of horsepower and winddriven ships, has always managed to transform itself. And two new photo books capture some of those changes. Legends of Hockey: The Official Book of the Hockey Hall of Fame (Penguin, $50) demonstrates through its blend of sepia-tinted historic photos and highcontrast contemporary ones that today’s players are generally bigger, and much better equipped, than their predecessors. Finally, A Day In The Life of the National Hockey League (HarperCollins, $50), a visual record compiled by 80 photographers dispatched to all corners of the 26-team league on March 23,1996, reveals that Canada’s national pastime has become a big, brassy, colorful business—for better and for worse. □