oh, dear

The Globe and Mail, October, 1998

Al Purdy it was who wrote that hockey is the Canadian specific, but I don’t know, to me that’s always seemed a little too narrow, too … well, specific. I mean, hockey is our history, our drama, our childhood, our lunch, our third official language, our Saturday night, our true north. It’s, it’s – why, it’s our very selves, isn’t it? And oh, yeah – in case you hadn’t heard, it’s sick, sick, sick.

We lost the Olympics, men and women, right? We weren’t so hot in the World Cup, either, finished in eighth place (just behind Kazakhstan) in last year’s World Juniors, and mucked up (again) in the World Championships.

In the NHL, meantime, scoring is down, head injuries are up, overtime doesn’t work, and, according to Dallas Stars winger Brett Hull, “the games suck.” Off the ice, ticket prices are ever more steeply ridiculous, all the grand old rinks will soon have been abandoned, and as for Winnipeg and Quebec – well, let’s just agree, generally, that Peter Gzowski may as well have coined the game’s new motto when he wrote, earlier this year: “Hockey? Oh, dear.”

By no surprise, then, there’s a tone of lament underlying the season’s shift of hockey books. It’s there in the nostalgia of books like Mike Leonetti’s The Game We Knew, a collection of Howard Barkley’s photographs from the 1960s; Shooting Stars: Photographs from the Portnoy Collection at the Hockey Hall of Fame by Andrew Podnieks; and Michael McKinley’s Etched in Ice: A Tribute to Hockey’s Defining Moments. They’re admirable picture-books, all three, and they pine for the days when the game was younger and, they’d like to think, still innocent.

Lament is maybe too mild a word for a book as explicitly unhappy as The Death of Hockey by two American journalists, Jeff Klein and Karl-Eric Reif. They love the game; they’re about to pop a shinpad from how much they hate what’s happening to it.

They are, um, animated in framing their indictment, which is to say that words like wrong, infertile, insular, fritter, boring, bloated, Black Death, stink, graceless, buffoonish, tacky, troglodyte, laughingstock, bush league, and ferrchrissake! are only a few of those they apply to the NHL and the way it’s run.

Many are those who stand accused of reducing what  call “the greatest game on earth” to a “cheap, shabby counterfeit” of what it once was, including Team Canada 1972 who not only “won through brutality, poor sportsmanship, and, let’s face it, cheating,” but, by winning, made sure that North American hockey continued to wallow in complacency for another ten years.

But Klein and Reif are at their fiercest fingering the true heavies, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the team owners. They’ve allowed the league to expand too much, too fast. They’ve been recklessly ignoring faithful fans in going after a new American audience. They’ve stuck their heads in the slush on the matter of hockey’s violence. In their hurry to market the game, they’ve presided over its “malling” – i.e. what was wrong with the Montreal Forum except that it didn’t have enough corporate boxes? and why are teams like Boston permitted to uglify their sweaters?

All that, and more: what it comes down to is that the men who run the game are charged with greed and excess in the first degree. Doth the authors rant too much? Well, they do rant. In the end, to their credit, they offer some solutions, many of them bright enough that NHL is sure to pay them no heed.

This isn’t the first The Death of Hockey, of course: Klein and Reif scurrilously lifted their title from Bruce Kidd’s and John Macfarlane’s 1972 classic. When it comes to impassioned cries, the old is more elegant in its arguments than the new, deeper, too, in its understanding of the game, and the book you really should be reading first (along with Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities, and Cultural Politics by Richard Gruneau and David Whitson) if you’re a student of hockey’s demise.

But before we fully embrace Deaths old and new, before we as a nation decide to administer last rites, who’s to say we shouldn’t feast a little first? On, say, Canada On Ice: 50 Years of Great Hockey, a marvellous anthology of hockey writing from Maclean’s. Some of the best writers this country has ever read are here: Bruce Hutchison, June Callwood, Gzowski, Trent Frayne, and Roy MacGregor all light the game from within.

There’s some classic reportage, too: Sidney Katz on Montreal’s 1955 Richard Riot and James Deacon on the business affairs of Wayne Gretzky Inc. There’s Robert Miller describing 50-year-old Gordie Howe checking a Russian opponent, making “the puck his by the divine right of elbows.” And just in case you thought that hockey has only recently become a culture of complaint, Canada On Ice has Lester Patrick, circa 1950, mourning the death of the game that was, and Don Cherry (in the mid-1970s, not long before the dawn of Gretzky and Mario Lemieux) fretting that “the age of the superstar, except for Guy Lafleur, has passed.”

The man who coached Lafleur in his superstar years is the subject of Douglas Hunter’s Scotty Bowman: A Life in Hockey. Bowman, of course, is now coach of the Detroit Red Wings, and, over the course of a 26-year-old career in the NHL, he’s won more games than any other, along with eight Stanley Cups (including the last two).

He’s also, by most accounts, Not A Nice Guy. Lafleur once said he loved him more than he hated him, but not by much. Most players would seem to agree with former Red Wings winger Dino Ciccarelli. “Obviously,” he said, “as a hockey coach, he is the best ever. But as a person? He’s a jerk.”         Bowman chose not to talk to Hunter, and there’s no denying that the book’s hollowed by his absence. But if Scotty Bowman practices its biography from a distance, it does scrupulous documentary work there, interviewing dozens of hockey people, and vividly portraying Bowman as a pivotal player in the way the culture and the tactics of game have evolved.

Terry Sawchuk seems to have been a man on the Ciccarellian best ever/jerk model. Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World’s Greatest Goalie by David Dupuis is the second Sawchuk biography to appear in the past two years. Where it beats out Brian Kendall’s solid Shutout is in access: Dupuis enjoyed the full cooperation of Sawchuk’s family and friends. With their help, he’s written a thorough account of Sawchuk’s life and tempestuous times. On the ice, many were the ups: he won four Stanley Cups and recorded 103 regular-season shutouts. Off it, he was alcoholic, abusive, and unfaithful in his marriage.

•••

Journalist Bill Boyd doesn’t have time for poets and metaphysicists. “I’m not interested in hockey as a metaphor for Canadian life,” he growls in his fine, flinty Hockey Towns: The Story of Small-Town Hockey in Canada, “or whether it’s our wintry religion or a frozen chunk of our soul.”

Boyd is interested in stories, and he went collecting them last winter, wandering cross-country, visiting out-of-the-way rinks, hanging around, jawing with the regulars, guys who are trying to make junior hockey pay the bills in Cape Breton, oldtimers from the Western International Hockey League, young bloods trying to fight their way to the NHL. It’s a love story, there’s no doubt about that, but that isn’t to say it’s always pretty. It’s like a fan says at a junior game in Quebec: “This isn’t for children. It’s hockey.”

The best new writing of the season is in Bruce Dowbiggin’s ambitious Of Ice And Men: The Craft of Hockey. Dowbiggin, who recently left CBC Radio to write for The Calgary Herald, seeks to understand nothing less than the “unimaginable force and power” of the game at its best. Why is Detroit’s Steve Yzerman such a fine leader? How did Edmonton’s genius general manager Glen Sather shape all those winning  teams? And how the puck does Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek do what he does in the net?

Studying the careers and characters of those three and Chicago defenseman Chris Chelios, Dowbiggin delves deep, into physiology, desire, and drive, into ritual and superstition, into pressure and patriotism. He casts a wide net: how many hockey books include pertinent references to John Keegan, Joseph Campbell, Clint Eastwood, and a couple of zoologists?

If Dowbiggin is fascinating in the scope of his study, you also have to love his detail. Bet you didn’t know that a player like Yzerman raises his leg about 2,000 times during a game. Or that if you want to know when a linesman’s going to drop the puck for a face-off, watch for the skin on his knuckles to change from white to pink. In such stuff does the true hockey fan revel. Enough, almost, to forgive Of Ice And Men its plague of misspelled names, from Federov and Hamrlick to Ninimaa and Thibalt.

For proper spellings, along with pretty much every other fact and figure known to hockey, there’s the seriously delightful Total Hockey: The Official Encyclopedia of The National Hockey League. At nearly 2,000 pages, it’s not quite as big as Eric Lindros, nor can it claim a mean streak, but in its way it’s as awe-inspiring.

What were Goldie Prodgers’ numbers when he skated for the Toronto 228th Battalion back in 1916–17? When did Smoke Eaters Geleen last win the Dutch national championship? It’s hard to know where to begin, or where to stop. Editor Dan Diamond and his team of writers and statisticians have compiled statistics for every one of the 4,959 players to have played in the NHL, and that they’ve got the complete goods on every NHL franchise and the international game. They’ve even developed a formula for Adjusted Scoring Statistics, a mathematical means (Diamond needs a page to explain it) of comparing players from different eras.

Beyond the numbers, there are some acute and unexpected entries on everything from superstitions and nicknames to hockey cards and how to build a better backyard rink. I’m not so groggy from gushing that I can’t recognize where Total Hockey goes too far (“hockey’s finest moment in a U.S. sitcom came….”) or not far enough (why is there no entry on hockey books and writing?). In general, though, I can’t say there’s been a day since the encyclopedia came through the door two weeks ago that my hockey-filled heart hasn’t been gladdened somewhere in its pages. My wife, Sarah, could tell you about it. “Total Hockey?” she might say. “Oh, dear.”