shelf-help: hockey books make you a better person

A version of this review appeared on page E22 of The Globe and Mail on November 29, 1997 under the headline “Hockey books make you a better person.”

One of the lessons that hockey teaches is that if you’re naming a child, you really ought to seek elsewhere for inspiration. Mud Bruneteau, Sprague Cleghorn, Hooley Smith, Toots Holway, Dit Clapper. Nothing against the hale fellows who bore them originally, but these are not names meant for children of the millennium.

How not to name your young may be one of the more practical teachings that hockey has to offer, but it’s certainly not the only one. Every year at this time I remind myself of that, because every year I see spawning the popular herring that while alongside America’s game, baseball, there stands a real, red-blooded literature, an exalting and myth-making marvel of a character, our national pastime goes around in the company of a sorry corpus, with a mumble and a bad cough.

To that I can only say this: toots, hooley, and likewise, mud. Not that I disparage American writers who find deeper meanings and social metaphors in forced plays at the plate, who connect their national experience to the cosmos by way of home-runs. All I’m saying is, did it ever occur to us to step aside from our metaphysical inferiority complex long enough to consider that hockey’s literature has another, eminently more practical purpose?

It took some time, but I finally figured it out: reading hockey books makes you a better person. It’s true. Baseball can have the cosmos; we’ve got lessons for life in our literature, sharp, solid advice on – well, you name it.

For instance: Roch Carrier’s timeless fable The Hockey Sweater teaches us consumer caution: buyer beware, it instructs, and perhaps also, don’t shop at Eaton’s. From Lloyd Percival I know about higher physics. “Speed,” the master tutors in The Hockey Handbook, “is about 25 per cent mental.”

A careful reading of Gordie Howe’s 1972 primer, Let’s Play Hockey, gives me all the facts I need on tobacco-addiction. “All I know,” Gordie writes, “is that when I see a boy smoking, I know that he’s either a little shot trying to be a big shot or he’s gone over to the social side and doesn’t want to be a hockey player, and that’s all we shall say about that.” And what about the education that’s contained in the underrated autobiography of the goalie Worsley? Nobody, I wager, who’s ever read They Call Me Gump can forget the great man’s straightforward recipe for Pineapple Squares. Separated eggs, baking powder, shredded coconut, it’s all there. “Bake at 350° about 30 minutes,” he concludes. “Cool and cut into squares.”

Where else but at hockey’s literary oracle have we been so improved?

Knowing what I know and ready to learn more, I came to the new fall’s yield of hockey books eager to get at the curriculum. As a team, you might compare them to this year’s bottom-browsing Calgary Flames: they’re good when they’re not bad, except for when they’re ugly.

Goodest of the good are Portraits of the Game (Doubleday, $60), a big, terrific book of old-time pictures, and The Rink: Stories from Hockey’s Home Towns (Penguin, $32), which suffers from mainly murky pictures, but triumphs when it comes to the reflective clarity of the narrative.

Portraits of the Game is the work of Andrew Podnieks, a Toronto writer who went digging into the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Turofsky Collection, a mine of almost 22,000 negatives that’s the legacy of a remarkable pair of brothers, Lou and Nat Turofsky. For almost 50 years, they kept Toronto in their viewfinders, making a name both as the city’s most popular social photographers and as photojournalists for newspapers across the country.

But while they would never say no to a wedding or a day at the racetrack, as Podnieks writes, their true passion was Maple Leaf Gardens, “their home, their reason for working, their place of perfect certainty.”

Podnieks has chosen 73 images, the earliest from 1933, the latest from 1963. The etched precision of their carbon darks and their silver brights – you don’t have to bleed Leaf-blue to concede that these are, every one, magnificent photographs. There’s such life in them, an intensity in the faces of fans and players, recurring evidence of something of which we don’t have positive proof: that game back then was rawer, more interesting, more necessary. Add to the mix the fact that Podnieks has meticulously and intelligently annotated each picture, and there’s no contest: Portraits of the Game is the runaway first pick overall this season.

Second in line, The Rink is the lovely collaboration of Hockey Night in Canada hosts Chris Cuthbert and Scott Russell. The premise is simple enough: over the course of their working year, Cuthbert and Russell looked under the roofs of 12 arenas across the country to see what stories were sheltering there. They went to places like Le Colisée in Quebec City, “the house that Béliveau built and Lafleur paid for,” to Memorial Stadium in St. John’s, and to the Viking, Alberta, Carena, where the Sutter boys first played.

The stories the authors have retrieved from each place are of goals and great games, of local heroes, and famous sons. But this isn’t merely a shiny catalogue of shrines. Wherever they go, Russell and Cuthbert take readings on how a certain arena not only influenced the lives of those who have frequented it, but just as important, how the arena shaped the character of the community it’s in. It’s surprising someone hasn’t done a book like The Rink before now. But even if they had, it’s hard to imagine a fresher connection to the roots of the game.

The best hockey biography of the season is Andrew Malcolm’s Fury: Inside The Life of Theoren Fleury (McClelland & Stewart, $29.99). I have to say I wasn’t aware that we needed a full-blown biography of the short-yet-truculent 29-year-old Calgary Flame whom Malcolm calls “the Huck Finn of hockey,” but I was willing to be persuaded.

And Malcolm, a former correspondent for The New York Times and author of The Canadians, is a persuasive writer indeed. Doesn’t matter that, unlike Huck, Fleury doesn’t have much to say for himself, Malcolm has gone ahead and rendered an exhaustive and compelling portrait of what it is to have made the NHL against the odds and how it is to be a professional hockey there in the late 1990s.

Malcolm’s charming curiosity about every aspect of Fleury’s hockey life gets us audiences with mentors, teammates, coaches, and scouts, but also with such unexpected characters as the guy who looks after the ice at the Saddledome and another who makes his living inside the team mascot, Harvey the Hound. It all works beautifully. Lesson learned? Not since Napoleon has the case been so forcefully argued that just because you’re short, you don’t need to small. Also that if you’re still looking to name that child, you can do no worse than Fleury’s parents, which was borrowed from a character in the movie Old Yeller.

Like Fury, Ross Brewitt’s Clear The Track: The Eddie Shack Story (Stoddart, $27.95) weighs in at about 300 pages. Lesson amendment: sometimes you’re long when you should have been short. Shack’s is a heartening tale of perseverance and grit. The man they call “The Entertainer” can be a funny fellow. For all his broad, crowd-pleasing foolery, he’s not the bumpkin you might think. All this Brewitt makes clear. But too much is too much.

Brewitt can write, but what he can’t seem to do is edit. “Although,” he writes of one outing with Shack, “there isn’t an order or a structure to our talk, which I chalk up to the wine, I let him ramble, deciding to interrupt or prompt only when the silence drags on too long.” That pretty well says it all: Clear The Track suffers from lack of meaningful order and a surfeit of ramble.

And the rest of the season’s roster? Ahead of the unmentionables, the bad and the ugly likes of Paul Henderson’s re-issued Shooting For Glory (Warwick, $16.95), there are the lesser worthies, starting with Murray Greig’s Big Bucks & Blue Pucks (Macmillan, $24.95), a book teeming with choice trivial stuff about that seven-year wonder, the World Hockey Association, born 25 years ago this year.

Remember how steamed the men who ran NHL were when the rebel league poached Bobby Hull and Gerry Cheevers, coaxed Gordie Howe out of retirement, signed all those underaged players? If you’ve mislaid the Houston Aeros statistics you kept for so many years, wanted to know more about Wayne Gretzky in his earliest professional days, had forgotten that goalie Gilles Gratton genuinely believed he was a Spanish conquistador, or never knew that the Winnipeg Jets drafted Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin in 1972 – yes, all this and more can be yours.

For one-stop NHL trivia, you can’t go wrong with The Best of It Happened in Hockey (Stoddart, $24.95), a book fat with anecdotes and oddments from former Hockey Night in Canada commentator Brian McFarlane. If you’re limiting yourself to just one McFarlane book this year, it’s probably this one you want, unless you’re a particular fan of New York’s Broadway Blueshirts – go with The Rangers (Stoddart, $24.95) – or King Clancy, in which case there’s Clancy: The King’s Story (ECW, $17.95).

Vying for a share of the coffee-tables of the nation are picture books like The Game We Knew: Hockey in The Fifties (Raincoast, $29.95) by Mike Leonetti; For the Love of Hockey: Hockey Stars’ Personal Stories (Firefly, $45), compiled by Chris McDonell; and Champions: The Illustrated History of Hockey Greatest Dynasties (Penguin, $39.99) by Douglas Hunter.

Each one is, in its way, an admirable scrapbook that will centre the attention of any hockey fan. Champions is lavish of colour and graphic; For the Love of Hockey lets players past and present speak in the first-person; and while in places the production values of The Game We Knew seem almost foggy compared to Portraits of the Game, no sensible fan should pass up a visit with Harold Barkley’s photographs from the 1950s.

Sorry if I sound underwhelmed in that praise. I do mean it, really, it’s just that it’s of a solution diluted with a tincture of disappointment. Nowadays, you see, I reckon that unless I’m learning something new when I read a hockey book, I may as well be baking Pineapple Squares.