Books

Armchair hockey

New volumes pay tribute to the national game

Brian Bethune December 10 2001
Books

Armchair hockey

New volumes pay tribute to the national game

Brian Bethune December 10 2001

Armchair hockey

New volumes pay tribute to the national game

BRIAN BETHUNE

It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas— the annual avalanche of hockey books has arrived. As wide-ranging as ever, this years tomes on Canada’s game include Walter Gretzky’s touching account of loss and recovery, tributes to past andpresent stars, and an homage to the hockey stick. Some highlights:

Walter Gretzky was so ubiquitous a presence at his son Waynes moments of greatest hockey triumph that it comes as a shock to learn that he can no longer remember them. In Walter Gretzky: On Family, Hockey and Healing (Random House, $34.95), the Great One’s father writes with affecting simplicity about the 1991 stroke that almost killed him at age 53, the torturous road back to health and the permanent loss to his memory of the 1980s—the decade Wayne won four Stanley Cups and rewrote the NHL’s record book. By his

own account, Walter was the quintessential hockey dad, who missed the birth of his fifth and final child to attend one of Wayne’s tournaments. (When he finally arrived at his wife Phyllis’s hospital bed, his first words were, “We won, we won!” Her reply? “It’s a boy, Walter.”)

But as the title to his book indicates, there was another, family-first, side to Walter, who credits Phyllis and his children with his recovery. Whatever may have happened to his memory, Walter came out of his stroke with his humour and cheerfulness—seen in an unending series of hockey anecdotes—very much intact. His sincerity is palpable when he writes of his determination to help others or declares himself “a lucky man,” privileged to have a second chance. After all, while Walter cannot recall any of the 1981 -1982 season when Wayne scored an unheard-of 92 goals, he still remembers his two-year-old prodigy skating on the family’s legendary backyard rink—no mean trade-off.

And like millions of other older Canadians, Walter Gretzky can still revel in the glories of the six-team NHL. Cold War: A Decade of Hockeys Greatest Rivalry 1959-1969 (HarperCollins, $39.95) focuses on a period when Montreal won five of 10 championships and Toronto four. Mike Leonetti provides an exciting account of the battles between Canada’s two teams, but the real highlight is Harold Barkley’s photos. Made with stop-time strobe lighting, his shots capture the sport before helmets, masks and expansion, providing startlingly clear images of future Hall of Famers.

Bobby Hull was on the Chicago Blackhawks team that took the Cup in 1961. In a tumultuous 23-year pro career, marked by achievement on the ice and turmoil off it (including a very messy divorce), Hull never won another. But the Golden Jet— muscular, handsome and in possession of one of the greatest shots ever—still had an impact on the game larger than most. Remembering the Golden Jet (Stoddart, $24.95) brings to life Hull’s two revolutionary accomplishments. First he changed the way the game was played with his warped stick and 120-mph slapshot. Then, to even greater effect, Hull altered hockey’s economic structure with his 1972 jump to the upstart World Hockey Association, which sparked an escalation in player salaries that’s ongoing.

Broadcaster Dick Irvin may not have been on any championship teams, but he was often in the rink when the Cup was hoisted in victory. In My 26 Stanley Cups (McClelland & Stewart, $34.99), Irvin writes about them all, from his first in 1940, a New York Rangers’ triumph. The luckiest eight-year-old in Maple Leaf Gardens, Irvin—son of the Leafs’ coach— watched that game from just behind the players’ bench. (Perhaps he put a curse on the Rangers—it wasn’t until his last Cup, in 1994, that New York won again.) In between those dates Irvin, who covered more than 2,500 NHL games for TV and radio, saw an awful lot of hockey, and he describes it with verve and an insider’s knowledge.

Tom Gaston hasn’t been so lucky. He began attending Maple Leaf games in 1930, only three years after the team’s founding. The next year, as he relates in A Fan for All Seasons (Fenn, $21.95), his entertaining fan’s-eye view of one of hockey’s most storied franchises, Gaston came to the first game ever played at Maple Leaf Gardens. He hasn’t missed an opening night since.

A witness to all 11 of the team’s Cup-winning years, Gaston is full of stories about Leaf luminaries—both great (Punch Imlach) and better forgotten (Harold Ballard). Still hale and hearty at 84, Gaston has patiendy waited for Cup No. 12 since 1967. Perhaps having something to look forward to really does keep you going.

If it’s championships that are wanted, Quest for the Cup: A History of the Stanley Cup Finals 1893-2001 (Key Porter, $50) has them all. The well-known stories of the Cup’s quirky early days— like the 1905 clash between a Yukon team which travelled 6,500 km, pardy by dogsled, for the pleasure of being annihilated by the famous Ottawa Silver Seven—are brought alive again by sparkling prose and rare photos. The modern era, covering the Canadiens and Edmonton Oiler dynasties, is commemorated with full-size colour photos, including a wonderful double-page overhead shot of Colorado goalie Patrick Roy surrounded by plastic rats thrown by Florida fans in 1996.

Mario Lemieux won a couple of those Stanley Cups in the early 1990s during his first stint in the NHL, but his sheer natural talent may never have been as obvious as it was last season. That’s when he returned to the ice at age 35 after a threeyear retirement, to begin what Mario Lemieux: Over Time (Fenn, $59.95) calls “the greatest comeback in professional sport.” Michael Jordan fans might quibble with that, but Lemieux exceeded all expectations when he scored 33 seconds into his first game back and went on to record 35 goals and 41 assists in only 43 games. It was a return that delighted his Pittsburgh Penguin teammates—also his employees, now that he owns the club—as well as the entire NHL and Wayne Gretzky, who’s in charge of picking Canada’s next Olympic hockey team. Gretzky named Lemieux Team Canada captain

for the Salt Lake City Games in February. Over Time, with its striking graphics and action shots, is as handsome as No. 66’s stats.

More elegiac takes on hockey are found in Jay Atkinson’s Ice Time (Random House, $33) and The Stick (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, $32.99) by Bruce Dowbiggin. Atkinson, a New Englander who traces his love of the game to his childhood experience of watching Bobby Orr’s famous 1970 Cup-winning goal for the Boston Bruins, writes of his return to his old high school team as a volunteer coach. In an intriguing American twist on a traditional Canadian motif, Atkinson depicts a hockey season as a coming-of-age story. Dowbiggin, as skilful a writer as Atkinson, has some entrancing sections in The Stick—especially about the superstitions and adaptations individual players bring to the tools of their trade—but he is doomed by his material. The hockey stick may be the ultimate Canadian icon, but it lacks a certain, well, personality.

A similar, but funnier, one-trick pony is Kevin Sylvester’s “mockumentary,” an illustrated script called Shadrin Has Scored for Russia! (Stoddart, $9.99). In this rewriting of the classic 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, Paul Henderson, hero of the two previous matches, misses a glorious opportunity to win the decisive Game 8 in its dying seconds. Instead Russia scores, sending Canadian hockey into a tailspin from which it never recovers. Sylvester does have some nice touches. Wayne Gretzky, the nation’s top curler, remembers playing hockey as a small child, but after 1972 “my dad tore up the backyard rink and replaced it with a long strip of ice.” But the author loses his grip by the end, when Pierre Trudeau seizes dictatorial power over a depressed nation. Still, Sylvester’s slender volume contains a core of eternal truth about Canadians—we sure do invest a lot of ourselves in that game. E3