wet rice and hockey

A version of this review appeared in The Globe and Mail on October 21, 2006.

Temperatures waned below zero this week in Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, in darkest downtown Toronto, Darcy Tucker beat the Panthers of Florida with a sly backhand. It’s confirmed, then: hockey is here again. Nashville, if you hadn’t heard, is a threat to win it all. Plans to move New York’s Islanders to North Korea, in case you blinked, are temporarily on hold.

Two other hockey things you may have missed. One is that NHL vice-president Colin Campbell has announced that intermissions will be two minutes longer. Commercial breaks, too, will be extended for televised games. But wait. Wasn’t it just last year they were trying to hurry the games up, streamline the product?

“We still have to tell stories to the fans at home,” Campbell says. “The game was really flowing fast. In some ways, the game was going too fast.”

What he’s talking about, of course, is books. Maybe he doesn’t know it, probably doesn’t, but he will. What else slows the game down, tells its stories? Enough with the TV, the internet, cellphones, and whatever new handheld hockey technology Jim Balsillie comes up with next week. So that’s confirmed, too: what hockey needs right now is more hockey books.

Whereby we come to the second thing you may have missed: Hockey Haiku: The Essential Collection by John Poch and Chad Davidson. Good hockey names, both, but I looked them up, and they never played a game in the pros. It’s a strange little nonsensical in-joke of a book, to be sure, complete with mock-academic introduction and — but none of that matters too much. Here’s a good one:

I deke you, deke you.

In the crease, I deke you, you

who look sorrowful.

Or what about:

Hockey banning fights?

Who came up with this winner?

Let’s cudgel his brains.

Something else that may have passed you by — a third hockey thing — was Campbell’s boss, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, declaring that after all the tumult of the, um, labour stoppage, the time has come for everybody to focus on what’s really important. “We’ll shine the spotlight on the players more than ever,” he says.

Books again. Except that in this case, rather the future, Bettman is focussed on the present: the fall’s output of new hockey books. The considerate commish wants it known that the trend this year is to books about individual players. Sidney Crosby. Martin Brodeur. Bobby Orr. Bill Gaston. In other words, titans of the game.

Crosby’s no surprise, of course. As the latest in a long Canadian line of Next Ones, the 19-year-old pride of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, was the subject of three hockey biographies before he’d played a minute on NHL ice. With the publication of The Rookie, by The Globe’s own Shawna Richer, I’m predicting a new volume each fall until the one they call the Kid sees fit to retire.

The Rookie is the sum of the parts of a year-long assignment that sent Richer from her home in Halifax to follow Crosby to Pittsburgh for his rookie season. There were, as they seem to say in the newspaper business, plenty of storylines. Was Crosby up to life in the big league? How would he fare playing with Mario Lemieux, who’d also invited the younger star to move in with his family? Would the Penguins, newly stacked with an accomplished supporting cast, carry home the Stanley Cup? Was hockey going to survive in Pittsburgh? And what about rhetorical questions? How many of them can you really get away with, all in a row?

Richer’s series made for compelling reading at the time it appeared it in the paper. Gathered between hardcovers, it feels flattened out. That’s not to say there aren’t telling details — the boy millionaire still gets twenty bucks from his grandmother at Christmas, for instance. And you’re not going to find better coverage of Crosby’s popularity in Quebec, or his fledgling (and undeserved) reputation as a diver. But somehow, all together, this is a narrative in which most of those storylines fail to bloom into full stories.

Part of the problem is that Crosby seems to be a good guy who’s adjusted pretty well to the pressures of hockey stardom. Richer writes of his “polite polish” and that, along with the media-machining hockey players get nowadays, makes him a slippery subject. The Rookie’s platitude quotient (The kid’s a phenom/’I’m pretty proud of him,’ his dad said. ‘We both are happy for him.’) isn’t especially high, but there are few unguarded moments. It’s not Richer’s failing, exactly, but it’s a failing. That’s part of the beauty of Peter Gzowski’s indelible The Game of Our Lives, a book Richer says inspired her: all of Gzowski’s moments with Gretzky and the boys were more or less unguarded.

Brodeur: Beyond The Crease has already ruffled some shoulderpads with its no-nonsense assessment of the Kyoto Protocol and why the United States needs to invade North Korea now. Okay, actually, no, New Jersey’s goaltender isn’t quite that opinionated. Still, Martin Brodeur has a reputation as an affably straightforward fellow. He’s also very good at what he does, with Stanley Cups and Vezinas and Olympic gold medals to his name. He has a good chance of surpassing Patrick Roy as the — hockey-word warning — winningest goalie of all time. Here he enlists The Toronto Star’s forthright hockey columnist Damien Cox to the cause of saying his piece. Why now? That’s hard to say. Maybe because Cox asked? He had some extra time during the NHL’s long lockout? Or maybe just plain duty. “I think I’m probably more aware than most players,” Brodeur reports.

There’s a long and not overly distinguished of tradition of players co-authoring books while they’re still playing in the league, from the dead boring (see Eric Lindros’ Fire On Ice) to my personal touchstone of boorish bad taste, Derek Sanderson’s I’ve Got To Be MeBrodeur is another animal altogether: an entertaining and insightful read from a certifiable hockey achiever.

There’s plenty here in the way of inside stuff. He drinks three cans of Sprite during a game. He gets depressed when other teams start their back-up goalies against him. He wades into the age-old debate regarding what constitutes a bad goal, and the other one, not quite so aged, concerning how it feels to wear a goatee under your mask. He shares some hockey mysteries: did Pat Quinn really not know Roberto Luongo’s name at the Turin Olympics? What about the Swedes throw a game on the way to the gold medal game?

Brodeur doesn’t like the new CBA much, or how the NHLPA caved. When it comes to some other of hockey’s more controversial questions, he does tend to argue both sides of the crease. Answering to anti-doping supremo Dick Pound, who last year said he believed that 30 per cent of NHL players were using performance-enhancing substances, Brodeur works himself into an entirely legal lather, muscling up to Pound’s assertion and snuffing it out like a rebound — sort of. “Look,” Brodeur writes, after batting the subject about for a page, “I’m sure somebody in the league is doing something and I’m sure somebody will eventually get caught.” But 30 per cent? “My goodness.”

On he goes. Separatism? “It’s just something in which I have no interest,” he says. He admits to acting like, quote, a model idiot in his marriage, which ended in a very public way in 2003. Dominik Hasek? Strange, strange man. Todd Bertuzzi’s hit on Steve Moore? Seen worse. Brodeur does turn out — who knew? — to be a bit of a closet Bruce Chatwin: “Overlooking the town,” he writes of Cortina in Italy, “are the towering Dolomite peaks … which give it a natural beauty that gritty, hardworking Turin does not have.” Chatwin with certain saturation points, maybe. In Poland during the lockout with a team of NHL barnstormers, he turns down the chance to visit Auschwitz: “I was just too tired to do any more sightseeing or learn any more history.”

The book Globe and Mail columnist Stephen Brunt hoped to write was more of a Being Bobby Orr, but Boston’s legendary number four politely declined to cooperate — he’s apparently saving himself for his own book somewhere down the line. That’s why the book Brunt did write is called Searching For Bobby Orr. Who knows what kind of story he would have told with that other verb; with this one, he delivers an exceptional piece of work.

Those of us who missed out watching Orr in his prime can’t help but feel we were cheated, and the precision of Brunt’s portrait of the player only makes the sting sharper. As Gzowski knew and Shawna Richer, too, there’s nothing easy about transcribing hockey genius from flashing action on the ice to words on the page. “He seemed to know things,” Brunt writes, “about his teammates, as hockey players, as people, that they didn’t necessarily know about themselves.” He’s just as good in erecting the larger framework of how post-war Canada changed in the 1960s and, with it, the staid old NHL.

Orr’s is an appalling story, a big morbid Canadian tragedy somebody should put on the stage at Stratford. The golden boy, maybe the best ever at his game, up, up, up, where else to go but up? How about crashing down? Because even before the knees gave way, he was looking more and more like a man trapped by his own celebrity, impatient, angry, wanting nothing to do with any of the public trappings of stardom. He was 30 when he retired in 1978, limping and broke, too. Because of course the man who was guiding Orr’s rise just happened to be future felon Alan Eagleson.

Searching For Bobby Orr doesn’t exactly redeem the old Eagle, but Brunt does manage the deft trick of showing him how he must have seemed in the mid-1960s — bright and energetic, a player, a guy worth having on your side. Brunt also overturns the popular fable that in 1975, when the Boston Bruins offered Orr a stake in the ownership of the team, the dastardly Eagleson never told his client. Orr may later have declared his ignorance, but maybe he just wasn’t paying attention. It was all over the papers at the time.

Like Shawna Richer, novelist Bill Gaston took it into his head to follow an emerging young star around to see what makes him tick. Except that Gaston’s subject wasn’t, in fact, emerging or young or much of a star — it was himself.

Midnight Hockey is a lovely book, which is to say bawdy, beautifully written, fresh, coarse, winsome, hilarious, smart, vulgar, joyful, and as rank with the realities of putrid hockey bags, diminishing motor-skills, and impending death as …. Well, let’s just say it’s a lot like the hockey most of us play,  those of us who are willing and able past the age of 35. Sidney Crosby wouldn’t get most of it, but I think his dad would.

A few chapter subheads might be in order to set the tone.


This Mortal Fucking Coil

To Hangummup or Not to Hangummup

Nasty Extramarital Sex: What Teammates Have Done It, What

Cities They Live In, and Here Are Their Names

As a younger man, Gaston, who’s now 52, was better than most of us who toil by night in dim light. He played a season of junior in British Columbia (you can look it up) and, more important, he has his own hockey card. In and around writing novels and short stories and teaching in New Brunswick and B.C., he also found the time and fortitude to play in France and China. Midnight Hockey combines a month-by-month chronicle of a recent year with his oldtimer team with assorted hockey memories (he once stood in Bobby Orr’s Parry Sound bedroom), tall tales, dressing room anthropology, ruminations from the far end of the bench. As it does, life also squirms in, which is to say, death. As the book opens, Gaston, who’s been blacking out, is in line for a brain scan — or what he calls “a head MRI.” All in all, it’s not for the meek, and it’s not to be missed.

As it always does for hockey books, the depth chart goes on and on. I never have known quite what to make of memoirs by referees, and Ray Scapinello’s Between The Lines is no different. Thirty-three years he worked as a linesman in the NHL, retiring in 2004. He’s a genial guy, bit of a jokester, good at face-offs and breaking up fights. The whole project has the feel of a 272-page silver retirement watch.

Screenwriter and hockey historian Michael McKinley is the man behind the coffee-table version of CBC-TV’s 10-part documentary Hockey: A People’s History. It’s a handsome package, the book, and nicely narrated. There’s a lot of ground he covers, starting with ball-and-stick games in ancient Greece and continuing on at a sprightly pace right up to Crosby’s Pittsburgh debut. It’s a tough assignment, telling a lot of the same old stories to those of us who know them well. McKinley not only does it with style but manages to find new angles and characters and scenes. He also widens his focus throughout to track the development of women’s hockey, which isn’t the usual thing.

Andrew Podnieks is the Ryan Smyth of hockey chroniclers, or maybe I mean the Garry Unger. I guess what I’m trying to say is that he’s hard to slow down. He’s published more than 30 books since 1995, six in the year 2005 alone. His standard is high if (in a good way) esoteric — A Canadian Saturday Night: Hockey and the Culture of a Country is a charming example. But in a couple of cases he strays. His other 2006 book, Celebrating The Game, is one of these. Paul Bereswill, whose 136 photos Podnieks annotates, would seem to be a fine photographer but the evidence isn’t before the court here. Instead there’s a lot of background murk and dark reproduction — nothing near the etched quality of Podnieks’ previous forays in this line, Shooting Stars and Portraits of the Game.

And do we really need 700-word essays on Mike Bullard, Peter Skudra, and Nick Fotiu? I’m asking more for my own well-being than anything else, since as long as someone’s writing them, I’m sure to read every word. More haiku might be what’s needed in the future, speaking for myself. Time for one more? I think so:

Speaking Japanese,

We would know that hokku means

Wet rice, and hockey.

Hockey Haiku: The Essential Collection
John Poch and Chad Davidson
H.B. Fenn/Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Griffin, $12.95, 116 pp.

The Rookie: A Season with Sidney Crosby and the New NHL
by Shawna Richer
McClelland & Stewart, $29.99, 318 pp.

Brodeur: Beyond The Crease
by Martin Brodeur and Damien Cox
Wiley, $34.99, 278 pp.

Searching For Bobby Orr
by Stephen Brunt
Knopf Canada, $34.95, 304 pp.

Midnight Hockey: All About Beer, the Boys, and the Real Canadian Game
by Bill Gaston
Doubleday Canada, $29.95, 314 pp.

Between The Lines: Not-So-Tall Tales From Ray “Scampy” Scapinello’s Four Decades in the NHL
by Ray Scapinello and Rob Simpson
Wiley, $29.99, 272 pp.

Hockey: A People’s History
by Michael McKinley
McClelland & Stewart, $60, 346 pp.

 Celebrating the Game: Photographs from the Bereswill Collection at the Hockey Hall of Fame
by Andrew Podnieks
Fenn/Hockey Hall of Fame, $50, 138 pp.

A Canadian Saturday Night: Hockey and the Culture of a Country
by Andrew Podnieks
GreyStone Books, $26.95, 136 pp.