all (hockey) roads lead to peterborough

Published in The Globe and Mail on October 30, 2004

I was six years old in 1972 and Gordie Howe’s Let’s Play Hockey is just the sort of book my dad would have been reading me, along with Here Comes Bobby Orr and Ed Fitkin’s timeless Come On Teeder! What would we have made of this little offering of Gord’s, I wonder:

A priest once told me something that I’ve never forgotten. He said that you can have any two of the following three things — hockey, social life, and education.

Thirtyodd years later, a couple of questions occur:

(i)             A priest? Really?

(ii)           How about love, freedom, Internet access, hockey, and healthcare? How many can you have of those?

(iii)          What about hockey, a salary cap, no hockey?

With the NHL lying fallow there is, at least, no stop to the crop of new hockey books. It’s not the richest on record; it may even be one of those proverbial rebuilding years. The unifying theme this season? At first I thought maybe it was What A Nasty, Nasty Person Harold Ballard Was. But that’s really more of a strong current. No, this year, themewise, it’s all about Peterborough, Ontario.

Fine by me. I grew up there. Northcrest Arena? Hit a post there, once. Maybe even two.  Dave Bodrug’s driveway at the corner of Merino Road and Roper Drive? Played road hockey there for most of the period 1973—79.

None of which is documented in Ed Arnold’s Hockey Town. Arnold, who’s managing editor of the Peterborough Examiner, is the author of last year’s wonderful Whose Puck Is It, Anyway?

This new book makes a bit of meal of trying to proclaim Peterborough as the true Canadian home of hockey. First he has to do away with all challengers, which he does in his introduction. Kamloops? Ha. Red Deer? Fuh. Oshawa? Whoop-de-doop. As for Detroit, so what if they’ve copyright the word Hockeytown? Ah, but you see Hockey Town is more words. And, plus, what NHLer was ever actually born in Detroit?

One question: what’s wrong with Hockeyborough?

But never mind. It’s a great book, once you get past the preening. Turns out there’s no good science on why the Peterborough Petes have sent more players into the NHL than any other junior team in the country. The locals love the game? Support minor hockey? Build backyard rinks? Yes. But it’s got to be more than that. What about the succession of uncommon coaches and managers who’ve guided the Petes? Now you’re talking.

Arnold profiles many of Peterborough’s hockey sons, both the famous and the not so much. Stan Jonathan, Doug Jarvis, Bob Gainey, Steve Yzerman, Larry Murphy, Chris Pronger, the Plager boys, the Larmers, and Redmonds. They make for a colourful and compelling cast and Arnold tells their stories with some style. But it’s the stories of Peterborough’s superior coaches that stand out here. Scotty Bowman. Roger Nielson. Mike Keenan. Dick Todd. They’re a remarkable crew whose mark on the game is measured out not only in Stanley Cups (though there are plenty of those) but in the respect, admiration, love and yes, hate they’ve inspired in those they’ve coached over the years.

Nielson was good for three of the four. He was also a remarkable innovator; narcoleptic; highly eccentric; a religious man; passionate about the game that was his life until it ended in the summer of last year.

All of this makes Roger’s World, Wayne Scanlan’s portrait of the man, funny and fascinating and affecting — the best hockey book of the season.

Scanlan, who writes sports for the Ottawa Citizen, gives a free-flowing, anecdotal account that traces Neilson’s career from his earliest days as a baseball coach and paperboy who became a paperman. (On his famous Globe and Mail route in Toronto, Nielson delivered to more than 800 homes. He wouldn’t give it up, even after Sam Pollock hired him to run the Petes, handing it over to his friend Dick Todd — just in case the hockey gig didn’t pan out.)

It did, of course, and Nielson went on to coach 1,000 games with eight NHL teams, starting in Toronto and ending up in Ottawa.

Along the way, he changed the way the game is played.

He was a pioneer in the use of video analysis and physical preparation for players. He was the first to chart face-offs won and lost, scoring chances — all standard practice, today.

As coach of the Petes, he brought his dog onto the ice for a practice to teach his defencemen to stay in front of the net.

When he was with the Leafs, he had goaltenders submit written reports explaining why they’d let in the goals that got past them.

Goalies he pulled were instructed to leave their sticks across the goalmouth. There was no rule against it. With Nielson around, leagues were forever closing up loopholes he found in the rulebook.

In Scanlan’s telling, Nielson was brainy, tireless, easy to talk to, exciting to be around. Roger’s World is lively with his spirit.

Nielson had moved on by the time Steve Yzerman came to Peterborough, leaving Dick Todd in charge, his old paper-route partner. That’s where Douglas Hunter picks up his story in Yzerman: The Making of a Champion. It’s a good story, all about the shy kid with sublime talents who might have been the best player of his day if his day hadn’t dawned at the same time as Gretzky’s and Mario Lemieux’s.

Hunter is a practiced hand at telling hockey stories, with six previous titles to his name, including the fascinating War Games (1996) and a 1998 Bowman. biography. He’s also an accomplished business writer.

Like Bowman before him, Yzerman chose not to talk to his biographer. Hunter wasn’t fazed. The story he wanted to tell, he decided, was one about winners and winning. How did Yzerman do it? What’s the competitive stuff he’s made of?

Say this: he makes a manful effort. He interviews plenty of interesting hockey people, teammates and former coaches, Dave Lewis and Jacques Demers and the Petes’ Todd. He puts together a thorough account, especially when it comes to doubts about Yzerman’s true qualities just before he was drafted by Detroit in 1983.

And yet. For all his efforts, Hunter can’t fill the hole at the centre of the book. He can guess and deduce and surmise, but it’s always going to echo the absence. Which is not something, in the end, that the search for what it means to win can make up for. That ends up to be a bit of a snark-hunt, with lots of abstractions, quotes from Nietzsche, and a full page of online wisdom from a Red Wings bulletin board.

In the end, Yzerman doesn’t feel like it has a whole lot more insight into the Detroit captain than Bruce Dowbiggin’s short but solid profile in Of Ice And Men (1998).

Paul Grant’s Peterborough credentials are in order: he once worked for The Examiner. Not that he has time for a return visit in Baptism By Ice. Over the course of the ten-day spree recounted here, he’s in too much of a hurry to see NHL games in the league’s six Canadian homes. He’s on a mission, you see.

Despite the book’s subtitle, Grant is a Torontonian who strayed over the border, married an American, and found a job as an editor for The Sporting News in St. Louis. Now, he says, he means to reclaim his “Canadianness” while watching hockey games from pressboxes.  Oh, and maybe skate on some NHL ice while he’s at it.

As a sidekick he takes Dave, an amusingly obtuse American friend who appears to have recently read Canadian Stereotypes For Dummies.

That’s the set-up.

Sounds promising.

Doesn’t work out.

It’s a question of excess. Too many free-floating lists of hockey player names. Too many aimless descriptions of taxi rides, hotel lobbies, rambles through emptied-out Calgary malls. Too many random thoughts about gun culture, Peter Mansbridge, whether or not Canadians need bigger pants than Americans. There are funny bits here, but there are also too many jokes sighted on meaningless targets.

For too much of the book, Paul and Dave come across as guffawing teenagers on the loose with press passes.

And when Grant turns from snickering to sentiment — again, too much. It’s as hard to take him seriously as it is to take his jokes.

It’s a book that left me puzzling at every turn. Strangest of all is the relentless brand-naming. At first I thought Grant was being funny. I don’t think he was being funny. My sense now is that he must have cooked up some kind of elaborate web of endorsement deals to help speed him cross-country. How else to explain all the straightfaced cameos for companies and their products? Nielson’s chocolate milk. Sleeman beer. They’re here, and many more. Not to mention the many super Fairmont hotels across the land. They even get a friendly nod in the acknowledgments.

If Ed Willes’ The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association has a Peterborough connection, I guess it would be through Petes’ alumni like André Lacroix and Wayne Gretzky. Otherwise, this is a book fuelled by the fumes of the WHA’s audacity, reckless hope, violence, and economic hilarity.

They’re strong enough, 30 years later, to make this a highly entertaining tale, one that Willes, a sports columnist for Vancouver’s Province, tells with pace and verve.

“It wasn’t a normal league,” he writes, but for the seven years it survived, it was never boring. It gave a home to Bill Hunter and Bobby Hull, Gilles Gratton (the goalie who believed he was a reincarnated Mayan priest) and the Howes’ family act. There were coloured pucks and an entry draft in which the premier of the Soviet Union was selected. It helped opened up the North American to European players. It made Harold Ballard very, very peevish, and it changed the way the NHL did business.

There’s been talk, of course, that the WHA will rise again this forlorn season. Probably not. But it’s always worth recalling, now as before, that the NHL isn’t the only game in town.