the explainer

Paul Henderson gave Jim Prime a nosebleed that night in September of 1972. If that sounds like Prime was somehow on the Luzhniki ice, well, no — he was in Halifax, in his car, listening on the radio. When Henderson scored his famous Game Eight goal, Prime swerved — and his nose started to bleed. Which perplexed an American friend who was with him, as Prime recalls. “It’s a Canadian thing,” he explained.

Almost 40 years later, Prime has teamed up with the former number 19 to produce a big, brimming book, How Hockey Explains Canada (Triumph), a.k.a. the one with the foreword by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. That got a lot of the press through the fall. Henderson, too, took his share: many of the stories you might have seen in the press mentioned Jim Prime only as an afterthought. That has to do in large part with the billing on the book itself: by Henderson with Prime. Which makes a certain kind of marketing sense, I guess, as unjust as it might seem to the man who did most of the work, which is to say Prime, who lives in New Minas, Nova Scotia, and is the author previously of books about baseball greats Ted Williams and Bill Lee.

How Hockey Explains Canada ranges wide, with hockey-minded perspectives on everything from religion and Quebec politics to feminism (sort of) and dentistry. Some of the essays are stronger than others, and on the whole the book doesn’t focus as sharply as you’d wish for — which is to say, I guess, as I’d wish: I’m still trying to decide exactly how much actual explaining the book does. And the open mike it gives to Alan Eagleson is a little baffling. It is, though, a rich compendium of interviews, anecdotes, and opinions, and in pure raw material if not style and organization, there’s enough that’s new and interesting to make it the most provocative new hockey book of the season — as long as you count Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost, Roy MacGregor’s career anthology, as not-quite-new.

The Prime Minister’s piece is pretty interesting, and probably worth coming back to another time — so let’s do that. Bobby Clarke deserves some more attention, too. Also, the possibility that God may have been involved in helping with Henderson’s famous goal? Maybe so. For now, then, we’ll stick with Jim Prime. I exchanged e-mails with him not so long ago, trading questions for answers, an edited version of which goes like this:

Puckstruck: What was the seed for the book? Where did you start?
Jim Prime: I was approached by the publisher to do a book on how hockey explains Canada, loosely based on How Soccer Explains the World, a very successful book from a few years back. They gave me free rein to approach the subject in any way I wanted. I wanted to make it unique, not just another book of sappy tributes to the game. After thinking about it for a while, I decided that the best approach would be to talk to as many hockey people as possible and let them help address the subject. The rest was serendipitous. I was fortunate to meet a guy from Winnipeg who had been financial adviser for many hockey players, and he generously shared his contact list. Paul Henderson opened more doors than the doorman at the Ritz. Ron Ellis, who works at the Hall of Fame, provided many others.

Pkstrk: Do you play yourself?
JP: I was strictly a road hockey and floor hockey player. I grew up on a remote island in the Bay of Fundy and the ice there was not good. No great hockey players came form my island, but a lot of great hockey fans did. I grew up listening to Foster Hewitt like countless other Canadians, but I was really a Montreal Canadiens fan and loved to listen to Danny Gallivan and absorb his patented hockey vocabulary.

Pkstrk: How did you settle on your co-author?
JP: The publisher asked me who I’d like to work with on the book and without hesitation I said “Paul Henderson.” To me, Henderson and Jean Béliveau symbolize what is great and good about the game. Paul and I decided that we would talk almost every day and try to get our heads around the subject of hockey and Canada. He has opinions on a wide variety of hockey issues, including fighting, the lack of respect in the game today, and so on. When you’re writing with a guy like Paul, you become a good listener because he’s a very wise man and knows the game inside and out.

Pkstrk: Why isn’t it “Jim Prime with Paul Henderson” instead of the other way around?
JP: There was no ego involved on either side. This is Paul’s book as much as it is mine, even though I did most of the actual writing. I am proud to have my name alongside his. He is so loved and admired by Canadians. I found that out in a hurry while writing this book.

On a completely different subject, I think it’s bordering on criminal that he’s not in the Hall of Fame. He wouldn’t want me to be saying that, by the way. He’d never say it himself. But is there a player with more fame than Paul? Is there a player who better exemplifies the way you’d like our Canadian game to be viewed? Career statistics are all well and good but sometimes an athlete accomplishes something so significant that it deserves special recognition. I think Paul’s performance in the Summit Series more than fits the bill and I challenge the powers that be to recognize that.

Pkstrk:  You have what must be the most comprehensive post-mortem on Bobby Clarke’s infamous 1972 slash on Kharlamov. Serge Savard regrets that it’s been “overblown” over the years. Do you agree?
JP: Once we got started, it was amazing. Every player, coach, owner and media personality really opened up to me. Hockey people tend to be frank and honest, with little concern for political correctness. That makes for good reading and I’ll be forever grateful for this candor. They don’t talk through filters imposed by agents or PR flacks.

Guys like Bobby Clarke, for instance. I’m proud to say that  Clarke opened up to me on the infamous Valeri Kharlamov hit like he has never done before. He provided me with the definitive, unvarnished  version of what happened with the slash on the Russian star Game Six of the Summit Series. He pulled no punches. I confess that I went into that interview thinking that he would run from it, or pass the buck. He didn’t. At one point he said, “I hunted him down and took a wild swing with my stick across his ankle. I’m responsible for it. I don’t feel bad for it. It never bothered me.” He completely discounted suggestions that assistant coach John Ferguson had told him to do it. As much as I deplored what he did at the time — and I did — I respected his honesty. It shows a certain nobility and the unique code of honour that he lives by.

Serge Savard thinks the incident took away from the determined effort the Canadians made to beat this powerful Soviet squad. He said that Clarke had been hacking him across the ankles for years, to the point where he wore a special guard when they played the Flyers. Ron Ellis said that in the first NHL game the two linemates played against each other after the Summit Series, Clarke speared him!  They had become really close during the series and Clarke speared him!

Pkstrk:  You mention cutting back from 600 pages to 200. Was that difficult? What got left out that you think should have stayed in?
JP: I decided to make every chapter center around How Hockey Explains some facet of Canadian life: Confederation, feminism, western alienation, Toronto, religion, the Cold War, Canadian culture, Marshall McLuhan. Even Canadian dentistry. There is definitely tongue-in-cheek content, and hopefully a lot of humour, but there are also some pretty legitimate connections — like the connection between the Quiet Revolution and the Richard Riot. I found it very interesting that virtually everyone I talked to had a road hockey or floor hockey story to tell. And the vocabulary they used differed from region to region: no lifting, no slicing, hockey cushions. The only universal one was yelling car.

The biggest problem with this book was in deciding what to cut. My manuscript came in at more than twice the requested length of 200 pages. It caused me a lot of heartache to remove some of the great stuff. I’m especially sorry that a lot of the Sittler interview was slashed. Same with Ronnie Ellis and Harry Sinden and Alan Eagleson, and Ron MacLean.  I asked Ron about his favourite on-air pun for example. He said that it came after Cherry had complained because of the lack of fighting  hockey was in danger of becoming like “a silver ballet.”  The Royal Winnipeg Ballet heard about this and invited Cherry to appear onstage in one of their performances. Ron’s comment: “I told Grapes that it was the closest he had come to the Nutcracker since blocking shots in Hershey.” In the end I let the editor make the final cuts because it was just too painful for me.

Pkstrk: Is there something in particular you learned, or that surprised you, in the writing?
JP: Many things surprised me in the writing of the book. Sometimes you get the idea that hockey players all think and act the same — that they all share the same views on hockey and on life. That’s definitely not true. Bobby Clarke, for example, is a man apart. So is Harry Sinden. And Ron MacLean is just so well informed and so non-parochial in his thinking. He stands out like Don Cherry at a Mormon wedding. Ron Ellis was so forthcoming about his battles with depression and Daryl Sittler with his battles with Punch Imlach.

The impact that politics has on hockey in Quebec was another eye-opener for me. The relationship between Quebec City and Montreal and the response to the lack of French Quebeckers on the Canadiens couldn’t be more different. Everyone has a slightly different take on it: [Montreal] owner Geoff Molson just wants the best players he can find. Former player Bob Sirois feels that there is discrimination against French players throughout the league.

The reaction to women’s hockey really shocked me. Guys like Howie Meeker and Tiger Williams were so negative. Unreasonably so, I felt. Meeker said that if he was in the Hall as a player, he would “seriously consider withdrawing my name. I mean, women don’t play hockey!” They both claimed that the lack of hitting and the scarcity of elite teams makes the game somewhat farcical. On the other hand it got enthusiastic support from Ken Dryden, and somewhat surprisingly Bobby Clarke.  The response to the birthplace of hockey issue was less surprising. I knew that it would open a good discussion and that’s what happened. But on that issue I got the final say: the answer is Long Pond, Windsor, Nova Scotia. And Paul Henderson and Ron MacLean agree. Not the PM though, or Don Cherry!

Pkstrk: How did the Prime Minister come to contribute? What are your thoughts on his take on the game?
JP: The participation of the Prime Minister  was such an added bonus. I had read a brief interview with him in Sports Illustrated just prior to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and I was impressed by his obvious knowledge of hockey and his passion for the game. I’ll confess up front that I have never voted for him and I went into the interview with some preconceived biases. I came away with a much different view of the man. He was completely relaxed, open, frank, and gracious. It was a huge departure from the often stiff and officious man you see on TV. He was not only willing to talk, he seemed anxious to get some things out there.  He became especially animated when the subject of the hit on Sidney Crosby came up. It was obvious that he was infuriated by it and the way it was handled — or not handled — by Crosby’s teammates, the Penguins, the refs, and the NHL. I got the distinct feeling that he was sending a message. I think that if the PM could show this human side of himself more often, he’d get higher approval ratings. I disagreed with him on the birthplace of hockey but that was really based on  different definitions of “birthplace.”

Pkstrk: Alan Eagleson remains a controversial figure for many in hockey. It’s hard to get a sense from what’s in the book of whether he feels he did anything wrong. Does he have any remorse, do you think? Is it time for him and his reputation to be rehabilitated?
JP: Of course Eagleson was a fascinating interview. Here’s a guy who fell from a great height. He was the most powerful man in hockey, bigger than the NHL president or anyone else — and he fell in a way that makes Conrad Black’s fall look like a stumble. He was such a force in hockey and he is now on the outside looking in. I really don’t think that he believes he did anything wrong, and he has a small circle of very loyal friends that supports him completely. Clarke feels he should be back in the Hall of Fame and invited to Summit Series reunions. He blames “the Boston crowd” for much of Eagleson’s troubles and is outraged that Vic Hadfield “who gave up on the team” is invited and shows up every year and yet the architect of the Series is absent. I’m not sure his reputation can be rehabilitated until he actually admits that he did anything wrong. The average fan sees him as the guy who screwed Bobby Orr and other national heroes out of their income, not to mention defrauding the pension plan. I could feel the emptiness in his voice at times though, as if something very dear to him had been taken away. Or perhaps he had squandered it.

Pkstrk: What’s next?
JP: My next book will be baseball again and will deal with the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park [in Boston] next year. It’ll include a lot of photographs and will delve into all of Fenway’s nooks and crannies.