wheel, knife, sher-wood, in that order

Review originally published in The Globe and Mail, October 13, 2001

I spent most of the 1971-72 hockey season toiling on defence for the All Saints Anglican Minor Novices. When I say toiling I guess what I really mean is tottering in place: it would be a couple of years still before I had any moves beyond collapsing in a heap and looking pleadingly towards the bench.

This was in Peterborough, Ontario. That same season, somewhere to the west of me, an 11-year-old Wayne Gretzky was scoring 378 goals. My memories are all but goalless. I remember that because of an early-season shortage of team uniforms I was outfitted in an old oiled Irish fisherman’s sweater and the green wool stockings my mom used for cross-country skiing. I remember losing, a lot, to St. John’s, Scared Heart, St. Luke’s, and to the merciless cathedral boys from St. Peter-in-Chains, who wore a rich papal purple and regularly smoked us. I remember hearing one of our coaches say to the other, “Well, St. Peter’s really beat the hell out us;” I remember them laughing. I remember those same coaches telling us halfway through the year that if we weren’t going to use our sticks for scoring, passing, and/or checking, then we should at least talk to them so they didn’t get lonely. I remember some kids — a right winger, a centreman, the back-up goalie — who cried.

I was recalled to those days as I read Bruce Dowbiggin’s wonderful The Stick: A History, A Celebration, An Elegy (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, $32.99), which includes the story of former Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Phil Esposito taking one of his player’s sticks into his office and imploring it to help the guy score more. A columnist for the Calgary Herald and the author most recently of Of Ice and Men (1998), Dowbiggin is one of hockey’s most perceptive witnesses.

I know what you’re thinking: 272 pages on the humble hockey stick? Ah, but as anyone who’s wielded a Sher-Wood or a Koho or an Easton knows, it contains multitudes, and Dowbiggin plumbs them all. From the one-piece hornbeam sticks handcarved by Mi’kmaq craftsmen in Nova Scotia through to the “radio frequency gluing” used in the construction of today’s ultralight Hespeler sticks, Dowbiggin takes us on a fascinating tour of the evolution of stick engineering. He tracks the history of the industry, talks to Stan Mikita about the advent of the curved blade, parleys with Brendan Shanahan of the Detroit Red Wings about lie and whip and blade patterns. He quotes Auden and Frost and Purdy and Robert Graves. He writes of Percy Lesueur, a goaltender for the old-time Ottawa Senators, who used to carve messages in Latin into his stick, and of former Edmonton Oiler and Detroit Red Wing winger Petr Klima who was convinced that each of his sticks held only a single goal, which meant he had to break his stick every time he scored and go for a new one.

Always insightful, always entertaining, Dowbiggin also finds room to look, unblinkingly, at the ugly reality (and ongoing hypocrisy) of hockey violence. The Stick is smart, quirky, well-written, and full of surprises. Let Dowbiggin loose to write the history of pucks, of shinpads, of bluelines, I say.

Longtime Sports Illustrated and Hockey News writer Jack Falla calls the hockey stick “the most useful tool devised by mankind,” just behind the wheel and the knife. For proof he offers up the story the story of how one of Wayne Gretzky’s red Titans came to be holding up his backyard tomato vines. Of such tales is Falla’s fine, ruminative Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks & Frozen Ponds (McClelland and Stewart, $22.99) made.

Using the rink he’s built in the backyard of his home in Natick, Massachusetts, for the past 18 winters as a stage for essays on the meanings and joys of hockey, Falla writes about everything from how not to flooding the neighbours’ yard when your rink melts in the spring to the onrush of age and the particular restorative powers of skating around in the dark with a puck on your stick. He trades rink-talk with Walter Gretzky, Wayne’s dad, and remembers skating on a line with the Great One and Jari Kurri during a 1985 Edmonton Oilers practice. He seeks, through it all, to explain his love for both his rink and his rink hockey. Invoking the American novelist Frederick Exley, it is, he decides, “… no more than the force of a forgotten childhood.” Home Ice is funny, fluid, and thoughtful. It also, helpfully, includes Falla’s own dos and don’ts on the hows and whats of backyard rink building.

From the venerable former Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster Dick Irvin comes My 26 Stanley Cups: Memories of a Hockey Life (McClelland & Stewart, $34.99). Irvin spent some 30 years as a radio play-by-play man for the Montreal Canadiens and just as many on the HNIC crew, but his hockey pedigree goes deeper than that. His father was, of course, the legendary Leafs, Habs, and Blackhawks coach Dick Irvin, Sr., which meant that as a boy, Irvin Jr. sat on Busher Jackson’s knee and played table hockey with Gordie Drillon.

Other than facts and a few plain anecdotes, the son doesn’t have a whole lot to tell us about the father, and that’s too bad. If you’re looking for dirt, Irvin doesn’t have much to dish, either: about the best he can do is to wonder why Foster Hewitt was always so strangely stand-offish when they crossed paths. With chapters called “A Few Highs and a Low,” “My Favourite Decade,” and “Some Fond Farewells,” My 26 Stanley Cups is an amiable after-dinner speech of a book: lots of gentle anecdotes, lots of famous names (he was alone for a minute or so with Muhammed Ali; he once saw Michael Jordan on a golf course; & etc.), lots of gallant words for his wife, Wilma, lots of Irvin talking about himself in the third-person.

If you’re looking for a precedent for Jason Cohen’s Zamboni Rodeo: Chasing Hockey Dreams from Austin to Albuquerque (GreyStone/Douglas & McIntyre, $32.95), you could think of Peter Gzowski’s seminal The Game of Their Lives. Of course, you’d have to substitute the names Gretzky, Coffey, and Messier with those of Kungle, Pawluk, and Mando. Where Gzowski spent a year in the early 1980s with the sublime Edmonton Oilers, Cohen hooked up with the, um, Austin Ice Bats of the Western Professional Hockey League (league slogan: “We Play Hockey Loud”).

A transplanted Pennsylvanian who works as a freelance journalist in Texas, Cohen gave six of his months to follow the fortunes of the 1998-99 Ice Bats. In the last decade, hockey has, as Cohen writes, “flocked to the lower half of the United States like a gaggle of geriatric snowbirds.” The WPHL is, if you don’t know it, a league for “middle-aged former NHL grinders, can’t-miss prospects who did, twentysomething bush-league lifers, rookies spurned by the NHL draft.”

Boasting teams called the Jackalopes and the Mudbugs, it’s not a pretty place. No, it’s a grinding world of poor pay, playing hurt, broken-down buses, and playing in rinks where the closest thing to cheering is a bunch of eight-year-old boys banging on the glass yelling, “Fight, fight, fight!” The mark of Cohen’s achievement is that, in depicting this world, Zamboni Rodeo isn’t itself a grind. On the contrary, it’s an evocative, compelling piece of sustained reportage. I don’t know that I’ve felt closer to the trails and travails of a hockey team since the days of All Saints Anglican Minor Novices.