under review: no pink tea

A version of this review appeared in The Globe and Mail on Saturday, October 14, 2000.

“It’s no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out.” Ty Cobb said that about baseball, but I think he really meant hockey. It was ever thus, of course: here on my desk I have Ira Gitler’s 1974 book, the inexplicable Blood on the Ice: Hockey’s Most Violent Moments. There’s an early chapter called “Woodchopping Galore” and another, later on, “Techniques of Mayhem”. So why does today’s NHL just seem so much more dangerous than it used to?

Maybe it’s Marty McSorley, the man who helped the words conditional discharge into hockey’s lexicon. Could be the terrible injuries that recently ended the careers of Trent McCleary, Bryan Berard, and maybe Eric Lindros. I think it’s the injuries. I mean, do you read the casualty lists The Globe publishes week by week throughout the season? It’s all there: Brad Werenka’s fractured orbital, Saku Koivu’s back spasms, the pulled groin, chest contusion, and torn ACL afflicting Dominik Hasek, Brian Skrudland, and Rem Murray, respectively. By mid-season, the wounded are strewn across the page in their dozens. Pour me a cup of pink tea, but I can’t help thinking that all this pain can’t be good.

Take a tour through the seasonal slate of hockey books and you may find that while the poetry of the game — its speed, athleticism, character, and event — is all there, what lingers is all the pain the game generates. This year, somehow, the pile of hockey books in my office just seems to be the source of a stubborn atmospheric ache.

It’s hard to say just how much of it originates with former Maple Leafs defenceman Bobby Baun; let’s just say a lot. Written with an assist from journalist Anne Logan, his autobiography is called Lowering The Boom (Stoddart, $26.95), though Coming Through Slaughter would have served. In his book Tropic of Hockey, Dave Bidini elects Baun, who broke his big toes thirty or forty times during his career, “the most-mangled player in the history of hockey.” I’m with him. In 1961, in a game against the New York Rangers, Baun caught Camille Henry’s skate in the neck, which it penetrated, poking through to touch the underside of his tongue. A conscientious doctor cleaned the wound and stitched it up, and Baun played another two periods. After the game, it’s true, he almost died, but he was back playing a week later. That meant he was around on April 23, 1964 to play, famously, in the Stanley Cup Finals against Detroit, break his leg, and score the game-winning goal in overtime.

The hockey memoir is, most often, a rueful vessel, foundering under the weight of lost camaraderie and elapsed glory. Baun seems like a genial fellow, but once he admits that that wounded goal is the peak around which the rest of his life is spread, well, Lowering The Boom just starts to get you down. The tone throughout is hale and jocular (“I never dared look at Henri [Richard] and call him a ‘frog’; instead, I used to call him ‘gorf’ — frog spelled backwards. In some games, Richard would claim he’d been hit so often he thought he was in a war!”), and you’d think that would help, but it doesn’t. Lowering The Boom is jocular, unreflective, and standardly lacking in telling detail, and in that it’s no worse than any other hockey autobiography. It just doesn’t feel like it contains a life.

In Remembering Tim Horton (Stoddart, $22.95), editor Craig MacInnis collects essays and photographs in celebration of the doughnut czar and Leaf defenceman who died in 1974 in a car accident. It’s a nice book to look at, but somehow, with its ode to Horton’s brushcut and testimonials to his bearish strength (he’d get you in the corner, Derek Sanderson remembers, and hug you until your ribs groaned), it doesn’t quite measure up to MacInnis’s two previous books, which focussed on Bobby Orr and Maurice Richard. (Unlike Baun in his book, it also scrupulously avoids the mention of alcohol in relation to Horton’s death.)

Techniques of Mayhem would actually be a serviceable title for Keenan (Stoddart), Jeff Gordon’s incisive biography of the fearsome former coach of Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, St. Louis, and Vancouver. Few current NHL coaches can match Keenan’s successes, which include a Stanley Cup with the Rangers, but then not many have embittered as many people as the man whose nicknames have included Iron Mike, Darth Vader, and Hitler.

Gordon shows him in full livid colour, presiding over “death-skate” practices (“two-hour skate-puke-skate marathons”), and screaming at the players he doesn’t believe have what it takes. (Dominik Hasek, Curtis Joseph, Brendan Shanahan, Tony Amonte, Brett Hull: you could stock a pretty good team with the players Keenan has scorned over the years.) Well researched and fluent in the writing, Keenan reveals a complex character who describes himself as a “striver” who runs on fear more than anger.

Michael McKinley’s new book, Putting A Roof On Winter: Hockey’s Rise from Sport to Spectacle (GreyStone, $34.95), sounds a little like a sociology thesis, but it’s actually a lively history of the professional game’s first 100 years. McKinley has a good eye for detail and casts it on some wonderful (if not altogether undiscovered) characters.

The wholly underwhelming Chronicles of Hockey: An Insider History of National Hockey League Teams (Key Porter) features an all-star line-up of writers ( Eric Duhatschek, Trent Frayne, and Al Strachan among them), but it’s hollow once you get inside. Is it just me or does the presence of the word insider on the cover suggest that the book beyond is standing by with fresh news and revelation, gossip, secret codes, possibly even a skeleton or two? Full of indifferent team histories and lacklustre player profiles, Chronicles of Hockey is as steadfastly ordinary as the modern-day Montreal Canadiens.
The NHL All-Star Game: Fifty Years of the Great Tradition (HarperCollins, $39.95) is a much more illuminating book, but then that’s no surprise, since it’s by the prolific, painstaking Andrew Podnieks.

Serious students of the game know already to follow where Podnieks leads. Set him down to study a scoring summary or an old photo and Podnieks is — well, I’m thinking his attention to and reverence for the game of hockey compares with Nabokov and his bond with butterflies. The NHL All-Star Game has the line-ups and summaries, but the really good stuff is in Podnieks’s essays. Did you know that in 1953, the NHL presented its All-Stars with “shoes, lighters, blazers, stickpins, sweater coats, hats, and fishing rods”? Or that, before the 1982 game in Washington, D.C., at a White House reception, Ronald Reagan fed Blaine Stoughton and Harold Snepsts crab bisque and cheese straws? Now you do.

Former broadcaster Brian McFarlane weighs in with two books this fall. The Blackhawks (Stoddart, $27.95) is the final installment in his series about Original Six teams. Like the others that came before, this one is a compendium of page-long anecdotes covering the history of the franchise. It’s often amusing, but also exasperating: whenever McFarlane comes to criticize, he passes off to another writer, reprinting columns by Eric Duhatschek and Al Strachan, for instance, to bash long-time Hawks general manager Bob Pulford instead of taking a stand himself.

Brian McFarlane’s World of Hockey (Stoddart, $22.95), a memoir, is more interesting. Whether he’s remembering his father, Leslie, the writer (he may be best known now as a writer of many of the Hardy Boys books), settling scores (with Stan Fischler and Harold Ballard, notably), or leading the way behind the scenes at Hockey Night in Canada, McFarlane makes an agreeable host. That said, for some reason he decides to end the book with transcripts of after-dinner speeches on which he and colleagues like Dennis Hull and Jim McKenny travel the rubber-chicken circuit. Mike Keenan’s death-skate was never so cruel.

Maybe because I wanted to go out on a pain-free note, I’ve left the season’s best books to last. In Ice Time: A Canadian Hockey Journey (Viking/Penguin, $33), Hockey Night in Canada host Scott Russell goes after the soul of the game away from the rush and glare of the NHL. He remembers his childhood hero, the Leafs’s Ron Ellis, and, later, steps through the looking-glass to get to know him.

He travels the Prairies with Edmonton Oilers’s scout Lorne Davis. He gives us the wonderful story of a sublimely skilled Newfoundlander, Andy Sullivan, who could have had it all in the NHL, but decided he didn’t want it. Ice Time is all the things the professional game mostly isn’t nowadays: simple, affecting, and true.

As far as I’m concerned, Dave Bidini’s Tropic of Hockey (McClelland and Stewart) belongs on the shelf of necessary hockey books, up there with Jack Ludwig’s Hockey Night in Moscow, Ken Dryden’s The Game, George Plimpton’s Open Ice and everything by Roy MacGregor.

The seed for this fresh, frank, and piercingly funny book was planted in 1986 in a last-ditch motel in way-out Georgia, when Bidini (who’s from Toronto, and also plays guitar for The Rheostatics) happened upon an old goalie from Oshawa. If you believe in hockey, Bidini decided that day, it will find you. A decade later, disillusioned with the state of the Canadian game, he took his belief on the road, to see how the game is faring far from its home. What’s hockey like away from “economics, corporate lust, the ravages of progress?” Off he went, with his wife, Janet, and the sticks and the big, rank bag of equipment that is our birthright as Canadians.

When Bidini told the soldier at the airport in Dubai he was there to play ice hockey, the guy waved his gun and said, “You are crazy.” But Bidini played, there and in China and in Transylvania. The ice was good and it was bad, the hockey, too. It didn’t matter which: wherever Bidini goes, whatever the conditions, Tropic of Hockey is a manic, bawdy, marvellous piece of work.

Journeys, of course, are as much about starting points as destinations, and Bidini finds plenty of room to ruminate about the game back home, its lore and history, his own complicated love for it. Going abroad, he hoped, he says, to find the game in its simplest, purest form, hockey as it used to be, a game of passion and of people. Guess what? He found it, and it didn’t hurt a bit. Not that much, anyway.