If you’re going to write a hockey book, I’m going to suggest you do it the way Peter Gzowski did it with The Game of Our Lives. First thing: hook up with a hockey team that’s just about to turn into one of the very best ever to play in the NHL, with a roster that makes room for names like Gretzky, Messier, and Coffey. Two: have Peter Pocklington own that team, so that in the fall of the year you’re publishing your book, he’ll pre-purchase 7,500 copies to give away to people who’ve bought season’s tickets to watch said team.
Pocklington did that in 1981, without having read Gzowski’s chronicle of the ascendant Edmonton Oilers that McClelland & Stewart published just as the team was preparing to win five Stanley Cups in seven years. I’m guessing Pocklington didn’t read the reviews, either, but if he had he would learned that in Gzowski he’d backed a winner. “He has captured everything about hockey,” Christie Blatchford effused in The Toronto Star. “And he’s done it so well, so eloquently, so plainly, that it breaks your heart.”
Readers who hadn’t bought Oilers tickets joined in with Pocklington to make the book a bestseller. Thirty-four years later, it remains one of the most perceptive books yet to have found a place on the hockey shelf.
The Oilers weren’t Gzowski’s first choice as a subject, as it turns out. As a journalist he’d been writing about the game his whole career, both in print at Maclean’s and The Toronto Star and for CBC Radio, on This Country in the Morning and Morningside. The book he first had in mind would focus on an institution that (as he put it) flourished in a time in which it was hard to flourish, one that demanded to be admired and celebrated, that made you feel good just thinking about them, “like a good piece of architecture painting or a Christmas morning.”
The hockey book Gzowski was going to write, first, was about the Montreal Canadiens. Class is what he wanted to call it.
This is all in a letter I was reading not long ago in Peterborough, Ontario. Gzowski was Chancellor of Trent University there from 1999 to 2002, and one of the campus colleges bears his name. I had lunch in the cafeteria on my visit — a Peter Gzowski Burger, no less — before walking back across the bridge over the Otonabee River to Trent’s Archives, where many of Gzowski’s papers are preserved. Studying a plan for a book that never was, I recognized the shadows of another one that he did eventually write.
It’s two pages and a half, Gzowski’s letter, typewritten, on brown paper. It’s a draft of a letter, I should say, much edited and annotated, a little jumbled, certainly unfinalized, pencilled over, xxxxxxx’d, amended. It isn’t dated, but Gzowski talks about joining the Canadiens ahead of the 1978-79 season, so I’ll guess that he was working on it in the early months of ’78. I don’t know if there ever was a second, clean copy, much less whether Gzowski got it enveloped and stamped to send to the man it addresses. That would be Doug Gibson, the esteemed editor, writer, and publisher revered for his work with Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies, among many others, not to mention the man who steered Ken Dryden’s The Game to print. He was, at this time, editorial editor of Toronto-based Macmillan of Canada.
Class, Gzowski was thinking, was the word that summed up the thing that he was interested in exploring about the Canadiens:
what the club has come to stand for, both on the ice and off it. The Canadiens exude class. They’re unquestionably the best hockey team in the world, but they’re more than that too.
He cited Herbert Warren Wind, from The New Yorker, some of his Canadiens reportage from the 1960s. Some of the spirit that excited him was in there. And in Fire-wagon Hockey (1970), Andy O’Brien’s Habs book — he’d flirted with it, too. He wanted to do what he ended up doing with the Oilers: living and breathing with them, seeing them “hurt, bruised, hungry, and triumphant.”
No-one has looked deeply inside what so many people regard as a machine and looked lovingly at its pieces, turned those pieces over in his hand and said, “look, here’s how the machine works; and it’s not a machine, it’s a collection of people.”
Gzowski felt that he was uniquely suited to the job. “I have the time and the energy,” he wrote. Not only that:
More, I think, than people who write sports full time, I seem to be able to get along with hockey players. Maybe being in a different — but equally intense — kind of limelight myself over the past few years has given me an understanding of that part of their lives.
Gzowski’s limelight was TV-bright: from 1976 through ’78, he hosted CBC-TV’s late-night talk show 90 Minutes Live. He spoke of work on a rival network, too, a project that I haven’t so far been able to identify:
“Heaven knows,” he went on,
I learned a lot about how to handle autograph seekers during the year I worked with Ken Dryden on Global. But I’m also still enough of a fan to cherish the memory of an encounter in the halls of Maple Leaf Gardens when a young man with a moustache approached me and said, “You won’t remember me, Peter, but I’m Davey Keon.”
Gzowski had written about Keon, for Maclean’s, and Gordie Howe, too, Frank Mahovlich, Jacques Plante. In the 1960s he’d penned a six-part series about the NHL’s pre-expansion teams, exploring what each one reflected of the character of the cities they represented. He mentioned this in his pitch:
Even though Stan Fischler (whose writing I don’t totally admire) has called that series among the most interesting things ever done on the NHL, I don’t like it very much. Too superficial.
That’s what was wrong with all the hockey writing Gzowski read, almost all of it: superficiality. “Even the writers I admire don’t get deeply enough into hockey and the people in it.” Here’s what he’d learned both as journalist and as journalismed — that is, a subject of other journalists. “I just don’t think,” he drafted, “no matter how good a journalist, and how fair-minded, can come into any situation or meet any person, and describe it properly after just a few days.”
Hence his plan to spend most of a season with the Canadiens. “Not full-time, of course. And not to the point where I’d get in their way.” The model he was shaping was the one he’d apply later to researching the Oilers. Starting at training camp, he’d do his best to get to know a few of the players “on a casual basis.”
When the season started, he’d stay on to watch the team in Montreal. Then, as the year went on, he’d join the Canadiens on at least two road trips, preferably on the long loop to the west coast, and also in New York. Oh, and in Toronto, of course.
“On the framework of this season I’d like to hang material about their heritage, surely the richest in hockey.” He’d write about Georges Vézina and Howie Morenz, telling stories that had (maybe) been told before, but in Gzowskisome depth. He was building to the end of his pitch now, and speaking of writing “the definitive book on the definitive hockey team, its atmosphere, personnel, feelings, sounds, fans, front office, writers, stars, hangers-on, owners and would-be members.”
In format, the book would be the diary of a year; in purpose, much more. It’s a book not only about hockey, but about Canada — a place where two cultures do work together — and the psychology of winning. It’s about pride and skill, professionalism and pain. But most of all it’s about Class. And I mean with a capital C.
I e-mailed Doug Gibson not long after my Trent visit. He moved from Macmillan to McClelland & Stewart in 1986 (post-The Game of Our Lives), and was publisher at M&S, and president, as well as overseeing his own imprint. Today, mostly retired, he writes and maintains the role of publisher emeritus with Douglas Gibson Books. He was quick and gracious in his reply:
I wish I could tell you more about Peter’s planned book on The Canadiens. After my experience with Ken Dryden’s The Game, I know beyond a doubt that I would have encouraged him to forge ahead with this idea. But so much was happening with Peter… books, articles, and some sort of radio programme … that he obviously was distracted, and took another route.