books for troubled times

 Originally published on November 5, 2011 in The Globe and Mail.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/hockey-books-for-troubled-times/article2225629/)

And then there was backlash.

It had to come, I guess. “We are drowning in hockey bile,” Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber wrote back in April, when the addled brains of players like Sidney Crosby and Marc Savard weren’t getting better, not to mention the gathering body of evidence on links between hockey head trauma and dementia, plus (to borrow from Farber’s list of woes) all the suspensions, the awfulness of the shootout, and the generally egregious the New York Islanders.

And that was before the dismal Stanley Cup final, which led to a riot, followed by a summer of wondering why former hockey fighters kept dying. Then, with the fall, came more suspensions, racist gestures by fans, gay slurs on the ice, and no Crosby, still.

Any wonder that players past and present have been calling for everybody to just shut up about concussions and bad news and play hockey? I mean, for Christ’s skates, enough already. As Don Cherry might say, and does, in Ron MacLean’s Cornered, “Can’t you just give it a rest? This is a hockey show. We’re trying to have a good time here.”

Which brings us to the new season of hockey’s books: not sure that they got the memo in time. Not that they’re all so blackly bilious — it’s just that I’m going to have to start with Steve Simmons’ The Lost Dream, the irreducibly bizarre story of Mike Danton and the man he went to jail for having tried, albeit bumblingly, to have murdered.

Some of this will be familiar, maybe. Born Mike Jefferson in Brampton, Ontario, here was a boy obsessed by hockey from the start. “It all started so good,” says his dad, Steve, of the years when Mike was having fun and playing well. The NHL was the dream, which made David Frost seem like a godsend when he came along with his hockey savvy and connections, his apparent regard for 10-year-old Mike’s hockey future and success.

If this were a pantomime, here’s where we’d all be waving our arms at the Jeffersons and yelling for them to flee.

As it went, Frost gained a protégé and the Jeffersons lost a son. Not right away, but soon enough. And later, of course, Mike Jefferson, all grown up and playing in the NHL, would change his name, try to arrange for Frost’s murder, fail, go to jail.

The story of how it all happened is as unlikely as it is disturbing, and it’s disturbing enough that Simmons, a Toronto Sun columnist, opens The Lost Dream with a contents-may-offend warning and an apology for how difficult it’s all going to be to comprehend. Yikes. Much of the story is so breathtakingly strange that there’s a risk of whatever it has to teach about the need to protect children being swept away in the pure craziness of it all. Simmons remains a steady guide. Cautionary isn’t the word for the horror story he unwinds. It needs telling, of course, and Simmons doesn’t flinch from the job. For all the loose ends that remain, it feels like a remarkably complete account, even if he didn’t talk to either of the principals of the piece: Danton was unwilling, Frost deemed too shifty and self-interested to even bother pursuing an interview.

How to explain David Frost? Impressions of him stretch from “scary person” to “borderline psychopath.” He’s clearly a dogged bully, a practiced predator, a master manipulator. No-one who’s known him disputes that he knows hockey, but that seems more of an insult to hockey than a credit to him.

He preyed on boys from low-income backgrounds and turned them against their families. We know that. Was it power he coveted? In 2006, he was charged with and acquitted of  sexual exploitation: that we know, too. His dream, he said, was simply to get his boys to the NHL, and in that he succeeded, twice.

Still in Frost’s malign orbit, Jefferson (he jettisoned his name in 2002), landed in New Jersey, where he was a hardworking pest who impressed no-one who always seemed to think he deserved better — or Frost did. The Devils traded him to St. Louis. He was playing for the Blues in 2004 as he plotted to murder the man who poisoned his dream even as he helped him achieve it.

Only Danton knows all the whys of it — unless he’s told Frost, with whom he reconciled soon after his conviction. If that’s the strangest part of the story, the saddest is the living wreckage that is the Jefferson family, Mike’s mother and father and younger brother, Tom, who has his own dark chapter in this grim tale.

****

I once followed Ron MacLean around for most of a month on a magazine assignment, and here’s what I uncovered: he’s a great guy. It’s true. He’s an all-around stand-up character, direct and funny, boundlessly curious, very smart. The problem with his new memoir is the same one that dogs him most weekends on Hockey Night in Canada: too much Don Cherry.

I know, I know: it’s not MacLean’s fault that, as Roy MacGregor writes in his new book, the former Boston coach backs up what seems like no more than a vague interest in today’s game with a diminishing understanding of how it’s being played. I’m with MacGregor, and everybody else who prefers MacLean alongside his second-intermission HNiC panel fifty times more than the joyless first-intermission same-old.

Still, MacLean is nothing if not loyal, and so for all the tiresome re-runs in his book of ridiculous HNiC arguments, I didn’t really expect anything different. Could I also mention that Mr. Cherry is charming in person, and good company, and maybe it might be best if nobody mentioned this review to him?

What we do learn in Cornered is that MacLean is always as secretly worried as he is openly happy. He’s not a Mormon or a Buddhist. He does his own laundry. Favourite writer: Lewis Lapham. When he was a boy, his dog had a memorable case of worms; later, another dog was terrified of bubblegum. Bobby Clarke has a huge bladder. Everybody deserves love.

When Don Cherry sees a dead bird, he sings a song. So there’s that.

Like the man, the book makes good conversation. Both are genial, both prone to occasional  bouts of goofy chipper innocence, as when he recalls arriving with his wife, Cari, in Calgary in 1984: “We were broke. It was neat.”

There’s some great stuff here about his start in radio. All his contract fights with CBC? Not so fascinating. Good to find out where the puns come from. The book gets a little scattery towards the end, but even that’s kind not really a surprise.

The last two autobiographies Kirstie McLellan Day assisted on were by Theo Fleury and Bob Probert. I guess the fact that Cornered sounds so exactly like MacLean is testament to her skill in channelling her subject while erasing herself from the frame.

That’s something The Globe and Mail’s own Roy MacGregor has worked at, too, as he reminds us in opening Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost, recalling his guidance of the Great One’s short career as a National Post columnist. MacGregor was almost Ken Dryden’s ghostwriter, too, except that when he read Dryden’s notes for the book that would become The Game, he told the publisher that #29 was more than capable of tending his own typewriter.

Other than introductions, this is a career’s collection of profiles and features and commentaries from a man who, even as he reported politics from Parliament Hill, was quietly becoming the nation’s most incisive and interesting writer on the game and its hold on us. Saying so, I will have to add that I do it freely and independently — it was true when he was at The Post, too.

Many of the 58 pieces first appeared in these pages; others have been rescued from the microfiche. Stand-outs include his discovery of Gretzky as a coach; Marcel Dionne in Los Angeles; Guy Lafleur in pain, parts one (1978) and two (2008).

He talks to Jean Béliveau about why he turned down Rideau Hall, and visits Wally Gretzky’s backyard rink. His 1977 encounter with Gilles Gratton is a gem — the goalie who was convinced that he’d lived and died before as a Spanish soldier. There’s the poignant portrait of the family sorrows of Bob Gainey. And, from 1990, a piece about Dr. Roger Barnsley — fully 18 years, let it be noted, before Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers about the surprising degree to which hockey players born in early months of the year succeed compared to their late-year rivals.

It’s a calm prose MacGregor writes. If you know your Trent Frayne, MacGregor shepherds you with the same artless ease. He’s an insider, no question, but his access feels deeper, roomier, more relaxed, somehow, than the regular stuff. He can wrangle, too, of course, and when there’s fault, he finds it — he’s just as ready to analyze the foolery of fighting as he is to reflect on the virtues of road hockey. And it is, after all, good to be reminded of the game’s singular power to edify and illuminate. That’s not much to ask for, is it, in parlous times?

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