I was all set to get going on my pandemical tour through the thickets of hockey’s fiction with the old Burt L. Standish classic Dick Merriwell’s Stanchness, an American dime novel dating to 1908, that features, as maybe you noticed, the word stanchness in its title, which I’m all for, and look forward to using in everyday exchanges from now on, stanchness, meaning steadfast or (sometimes) watertight, plus the illustration on the cover showing this goal of Dick’s — a backhander, no less — is kind of glorious, isn’t it — unless Dick is the goaltender? Anyway, I was ready to go, really looking forward to reporting back from the far end of this 299-page epic, and yet, and yet, not even a chapter in, things took a turn for the anti-Semitic, so — nah.
Is it really 50 days since the pandemic stopped hockey, and everything else, except for in Belarus? Yes, that’s right, it was, this Thursday past — two score and ten scoreless days since the rinks closed up on March 12. Does it feel like a hundred days? Two hundred? As David Remnick was saying on The New Yorker’s podcast a couple of weeks into this strange spring, the loss of big-league sports is not — by far — the worst we’ve sustained, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bitter.
In the absence of hockey, and everything else (except in Belarus), it’s the questions that multiply to fill the ever-expanding void. They’re bulky and awkward, mostly unanswerable, and all but impossible to shepherd out of mind: How did this happen? Will everything be okay? When does it end?
Some of them are smaller, too, with a mosquito’s whine, no less nagging for being non-essential. Does hockey matter? What, really, are we missing? Were this year’s Leafs any good, does anyone recall? How do I know if my sourdough starter is still alive? Did you see those 1980s Oilers on Sportsnet the other night — how great were they? Not to mention Don Wittman on the play-by-play. Also: should I wash my hands again now? Also: anybody been able to zoom in on Ron MacLean’s good-looking bookshelves to see just what he’s got back there?
Hockey did focus itself on books in the first late-March weeks of isolation, back when we were still getting used to distracting ourselves. Remember? Back when we were focussed on tricks with rolls of toilet paper, before advent of multi-paned Zoom conclaves of housebound NHLers really got going? I suppose that people are still reading books, quietly, thoughtfully, off-screen, but in those days, the hockey world seemed to be as intent on talking books, hockey and otherwise, as much as zone starts or PDO.
San Jose Sharks captain Logan Couture started a book club.
Washington’s goaltender-on-hiatus Braden Holtby made a steeple of the books he’d been reading, or his wife Brandi did — she was the one, anyway, who tweeted out the photo:
In Seattle, the NHL’s newest franchise revealed … no, not the team’s much-anticipated name, that’s still to come — when “the mood is right,” as Greg Wyshinski of ESPN reports. The should-be Metropolitans did proffer some literary advice, even if it wasn’t exactly adventurous.
Hockey Canada weighed in:
Others turned their cameras to their shelves to advocate for hockey-minded favourites, historian and L.A. Kings writer Mike Commito had some counsel:
To which some of us answered back:
I added a novel to this massif of mine; I could have elevated more. I’ve written elsewhere about hockey fiction, superior and not-so-much. Ranking the novels I’ve enjoyed most of all, and learned from, the ones that rise above the regular, I tend to back up Roy MacGregor’s The Last Season (1985) with books like Paul Quarrington’s King Leary (1987), The Divine Ryans (1990) by Wayne Johnston, Fred Stenson’s Teeth (1994), and Mark Jarman’s Salvage King, Ya! (1997). Pete McCormack’s sweet and underappreciated novel Understanding Ken(1998) would be on it, and so would The Good Body by Bill Gaston (2000). And, from 2011, Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist.
So much for the best. What about the rest? A couple of years ago, when I was working hard to read allthe hockey books, every one of them — well, I didn’t do that, is what happened: I failed. It turns out that there are just too many, and not enough time, plus while a whole lot of them are vivid and insightful and even beautifully rendered, many others are … not.
I did read a lot, though. And for all the hockey narrative I made it through, I acquired a whole lot more, much of which I have shelved here behind me, with the fiction closest to hand, in case of emergency. It’s not all novels; this is a library rich with juvenile and genre editions, mass-market, pulp, serialized, and self-published sagas, too. Colonizing three shelves and part of a fourth behind the desk I’m sitting at, they’re all here, the great and the good and the just-entertaining mixed in with the middling, the muddled, the dumbly offensive, the merely harmless. It’s some of the latter that I’m thinking of paying some attention to here, in this space, over this next little stretch of our Great Hiatus, with a particular focus on the made-it-halfway-through and the couldn’t-get-myself-past-the-second-page. If now’s not the time to take a walk on the pulpier, predictable, prosaic side of hockey’s library, when is?
That’s not to say that some the fiction that comes under consideration in this upcoming series isn’t deftly done, incisive, insightful. We’ll look for that, without necessarily counting on finding it. The cover-art we’ll see along the way will be, I’ll mention, as fantastic as this. How far will we wander, through just how much turgid prose, down how many clichéd plotlines? We’ll see. No judgment … unless, no, I guess it’s too late for that. No harm, then — that’s what I’ll say: no harm intended. I’m not here to blame or berate or bicker. If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the books discussed here, I forgive you. Same thing if you happen to have written any of them.
So: stay tuned. We’ll get going in earnest, maybe … tomorrow? Before that I’ll just say, finally that … um … well, that I’m not sure whatto say about the novel whose several covers I’ve planted all around the property here. Keith Gessen, whose opinions I hold high in my esteem, has written that Amazons (1980) is, after Dryden’s The Game, “the other monument of hockey literature thus far.”
That should perk up your attention, even though, by and large, Cleo Birdwell’s account of her time as the first woman to play in the NHL mostly hasn’t drawn up much in the way of hockey-world notice to date. It’s no secret that the actual author has never openly acknowledged that he actually wrote the thing, nor that his name is Don DeLillo.
That alone should, to my mind, keep hockey readers flocking to its pages. That they remain relatively unflocked is — well, strange to me. It may not be Libra or White Noise or Underworld, but it’s DeLillo, after all. There’s plenty of hockey in Amazons (and lots of sex, too), but as Gessen has noted, its particular subject isn’t so much the game as it is America, “the dark schizy heart of it.” It’s a book, Gessen writes, that’s “not about hockey in just the right way.”
It’s pretty great, actually; I’m just recalling that now. Time, maybe, to revisit its pleasures? At some point? That sounds like a plan. In the meantime, will we end on one preferred passage, from the novel’s early pages?
I think so.
So Cleo, who at 23 has just made the Rangers, is talking to the blusterous Kinross, president of Madison Square Garden, who hates hockey, doesn’t understand why he should bother with it in his building.
“It’s a fuggin shit-ass game,” he tells her, “for my money. You don’t have a black or Hispanic element. It doesn’t reflect the urban reality. Who wants to see two white guys hit each other? The violence has no bite to it. It’s not relevant. It doesn’t reflect the streets and I come from the streets.”
Cleo isn’t fazed. “It reflects the Canadian streets,” she says. “It’s a Canadian game. It reflects ice and snow, that’s what it reflects.”
“Well and good,” he says. “I understand that. But this is New York, New York. Where’s the fuggin criminal element? Who do we root for? Escapist violence is all right in the movies. But this is live. Real people swinging sticks. Without any relevance, it’s kind of disgusting. If it doesn’t reflect the streets, you wonder what these guys are doing it for. What’s the point?”
A version of this post appeared in the Books pages of The Globe and Mail on Saturday, January 4, 2020.
In 1983, Ken Dryden wrote a bit of a ballad, if not quite an ode, about a former coach of his.
“Scotty Bowman is not someone who is easy to like,” Dryden confided in The Game, the memoir he published after retiring from his NHL career, a book that’s still roundly recognized as the most insightful reflection on hockey ever written. “He is shy and not very friendly. … Abrupt, straightforward, without flair or charm, he seems cold and abrasive, sometimes obnoxious, controversial, but never colourful. … He is complex, confusing, misunderstood, unclear in every way but one. He is a brilliant coach, the best of his time.”
Together, as younger men in the employ of the Montreal’s then-mighty Canadiens, Dryden and Bowman reached hockey’s heights during the 1970s, when they coincided on five of the six Stanley Cups the team won in nine years. There were other key players you could name from the Canadiens’ decade of dominance, but none who played a more important role than the coach or his first-choice goaltender.
Both men departed Montreal in 1979, Dryden for retirement, Bowman to continue coaching in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Dryden’s post-playing career has included stints as a teacher, a TV commentator, president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a federal MP and cabinet minister. By the time Bowman retired from the bench in 2002, he was hockey’s (in sports parlance) winningest coach, with more victories to his name, regular season and playoffs, than anyone else in NHL history. All told, he’s been involved in the winning of 14 Stanley Cups in his career — second only to Jean Béliveau’s 17.
The most plentiful Cup years came in the ’70s, when the coach and his goaltender helped propel Montreal to six championships in nine years. Now, 40 years later, Dryden and Bowman have collaborated on Dryden’s seventh book, Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other.
It’s a singular work in its own right: a biography, yes, but an unconventional one that also folds in a lively fantasy hockey playoff series. It’s a contrivance that allows Dryden to frame in the hockey history around Bowman by challenging him to choose the best eight NHL teams of all time, to explore how it might go if they were to face-off across time.
For Dryden, the relationship the men have shared since they first met at the Canadiens’ training camp in 1971 has remained consistent. “I think it’s essentially never changed,” he said in an interview. “I think we always got along. I think he sensed that I thought that he was absolutely the right guy to be the coach of our team and I think he felt sort of similarly about me. And we trusted each other.”
How the relationship expressed itself has, Dryden allows, been different at different times. In Montreal, in the ’70s, “Scotty was somebody who was never comfortable with a conversation that lasted more than 30 seconds.” Later, in the ’80s, working on his first book, Dryden sought Bowman out in Buffalo. “I thought we would be an hour or so — we talked for four hours.”
Dryden thought about writing about his former coach for a decade before he asked Bowman in 2015 whether he’d be interested. He was. Two things that Dryden understood about Bowman: he has a prodigious memory, but he’s no storyteller. That’s where the historical fantasy came in: Dryden had to find a way of allowing the coach to look over the players on a roster, understand what each one could or couldn’t do — he had to find a way to let him coach.
So two of the great hockey minds came up with a list of the teams they considered to be the greatest in NHL history, including the 1951-52 Detroit Red Wings and the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers along with their own 1976-77 Canadiens.
Armed with with contemporary accounts and statistics, this was how they immersed themselves in the hockey past that Bowman had lived and helped to shape. The talking went on for a year, mostly over the phone, Dryden in Toronto, Bowman at home in Buffalo or else in Florida, where he and his wife, Suella, spend their winters.
As the book makes clear, Bowman, who’s 86, is very much still in the game. Working asan advisor to the Chicago Blackhawks, the team his son Stan manages, he studies the NHL as attentively as he ever did, players and analytics, systems and tactics, what works, what doesn’t.
“The conversations were easy,” Dryden said. “I think they would have grown tired for both of us if it was just recollections. At a certain point, it’s not enough. It’s not interesting enough.” Bowman’s voluminous memory, Dryden realized, is more of a thriving depot than a dormant repository. “He remembers everything, but it comes to be in the service of whatever he’s doing now and whatever he might be doing in the future.”
For the coach who’s never really quit coaching, memory isn’t about nostalgia. “It’s an exercise of having learned and of continuing to learn and of fitting even more pieces together to learn even more.”
I arranged to meet Dryden one morning last fall near his home in midtown Toronto. Early to the rendezvous, I watched a passerby recognize and intercept him, shake his hand. At 72, the erstwhile goalie doesn’t look like he’s lost any of his playing trim, or the 6’4” stature with which he made a career of fending off pucks, and it’s just possible to imagine him stepping in to relieve Carey Price in a crisis. In fact, the only time he’s suited in goaltending gear since he retired 40 years ago was in pads he borrowed from Price for a Bell Centre celebration of the team’s centennial in 2009. The incumbent Canadiens goaltender has otherwise superseded him: Dryden notes that both of his young goaltending grandsons wear Price’s number 31 on their sweaters rather than the famous familial 29.
Don Cherry spent three decades broadcasting hockey’s blustering id. Through most of those same years, Dryden has approached the game more, shall we say, methodically and coherently. He’s celebrated its variety and beauty; he’s attended it with a restless curiosity and a public intellectual’s broadness of perspective and willingness to engage. In no-one else’s biography do the adjectives erudite and Conn-Smythe-Trophy-winningcoincide. He published The Game the same year he was ushered into hockey’s Hall of Fame. (Bowman joined him there in 1991.)
As Rick Salutin once pointed out, questioning and self-doubt come naturally to goaltenders, and in classrooms and lecture halls as well as on the pages of books and newspapers, Dryden has never stopped pondering the game’s finer points, riddling its riddles, questioning its verities, calling out its contradictions, trying to plumb — and, from time to time, restore — the game’s conscience.
In 2017’s Game Change, Dryden fixed his focus on hockey’s response to the concussion crisis, positing a comprehensive plan to re-imagine the culture of the game in order to eliminate hits to the head. Appealing directly to the man who has the power to lead the way, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Dryden was, as he’s said, trying to — create the conditions “by which he and hockey might make better decisions.”
Two years have passed since he personally presented a copy of the book to Bettman over lunch in New York. He’s still waiting for a response.
If in Scotty Dryden shifts from Game Change’s pointed advocacy, it’s no less passionate in its embrace of the game. With Bowman as his prompt and guide, he unpacks more than 70 years of hockey history, delving deeply into Bowman’s early years in Verdun, exploring the legacies of his mentors in Montreal, legendary Canadiens coach Toe Blake and Sam Pollock, who’s widely acknowledged as the greatest GM in NHL history.
Growing up on the southern verge of the island of Montreal, Bowman was a fan of the Boston Bruins. He was a good player, not a great one. He was skating for the Junior Canadiens in 1952 when a rival defenceman swung his stick and fractured Bowman’s skull. He recovered and continued to play, but as he told Dryden, “I was no longer a prospect.” Continue reading
It was October when I started talking to Ken Dryden about his new Bowman biography, Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other. We talked again, on the phone, in November and December, but for that first interview we met in person, one early gleaming fall morning, at an espresso bar not far from his home in midtown Toronto. I got there early and was ensconced in a window seat when Dryden strolled into view a block-and-a-half to the north. He was waiting for a light to cross the last of the distance between us when a man walking with his small son accosted the former goaltender and thrust out a hand for the shaking. It was a quick exchange, and friendly-looking. As Dryden continued on, I watched his admirer explaining who he was to his boy. As I mention in the feature I ended up writing for the Globe and Mail’s Books pages, Dryden, who’s 72, looks like he could slip back into the Montreal Canadiens’ net without a flinch, summoning up no problem the puck-preventative instincts and reactions that served him so well through the 1970s. He was wearing a white t-shirt white a light blue fleece pulled over it. I got a cortado, Dryden a Morning Glory muffin. In the more than 40 years have passed since Dryden stopped playing NHL hockey, he’s worked on TV and served in government, helmed the Toronto Maple Leafs, and written some of the most penetrating and insightful books known to hockey. For people like me who continue to ask him about how the diverse projects that command his attention might connect, the answer he’s assembled is this: “I’m not a hockey player, I’m somebody who played hockey. I’m not a writer, I’m somebody who writes. I’m not a politician, I’m somebody involved in politics. I’m not a teacher, I’m somebody teaches. And it depends on what the subject is and the purpose of doing it as to whether the best approach is by teaching or by writing or by administering or by … whatever.”
My feature on Ken Dryden and Scotty is up online at the Globe today, where it’s available to subscribers here. It appears in the paper proper, on paper, tomorrow.
(Image: Aislin, a.k.a. Terry Mosher, “Ken Dryden and Scotty Bowman,” 1973, ink and felt pen on paper, © McCord Museum)
A version of this review first appeared, here, at H-Net Reviews.
Hockey: A Global History
Stephen Hardy, Andrew C. Holman
University of Illinois Press, 2018
600 pp. (paper), US$29.95/C$35
By the end of May, the winter had mostly receded from the upper third of the North American map, if not yet the nation’s appetite for hockey. While on Canada’s east coast the national junior championships were wrapping up, fans of the international game settled in across the country to see whether the plucky national team could grab gold at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Slovakia. Off the ice, the sudden springtime demise of the nation’s women’s professional league continued to reverberate.
Meanwhile, at the center of the hockey world, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman convened a press conference to deliver his annual state-of-the-game address. The fact that he was doing so from Boston, and that (once again) no Canadian-based team would be playing for hockey’s most coveted prize, the Stanley Cup, isn’t enough anymore to faze the country that thinks of hockey as a proprietary natural resource indivisible from the national soul, never mind how far the Cup might wander away from home.
Bettman spent much of his time on the podium lauding the successes of the corporation he guides. “While there are things that are always debatable in our game,” he said, “let’s first focus on some indisputable facts that detail why the NHL is in the strongest position in our history.” 
Bettman went on to extol hockey as the “greatest spectacle in sports” and the “remarkable” season the NHL had seen on ice. He cited soaring TV ratings, expansion to Seattle, exciting future ventures into Europe and China, and technological innovations that will bring player and puck-tracking into play as soon as next season. He spoke about the prevailing turbulence in women’s hockey, but only in passing. His assertion that the NHL features “the best pace of play in sports” may or may not have been primarily directed at those with both doubts and attention deficits. “We have the most and fastest action in the shortest period of time,” Bettman boasted. 
Speedy as it is, the NHL has also become in its one hundred years of existence such a mighty mass that at times it can seem to displace all other forms of the game that don’t quite mesh with the massive workings of the league’s corporate machinery. For all the excitement that the league generates with its hockey, despite its many good-faith efforts to grow and diversify the game, the NHL hockey is not — and should never be — the only game in town.
Authors Stephen Hardy and Andrew C. Holman don’t command TV cameras the way Gary Bettman can, and their important new book, Hockey: A Global History, won’t be broadcast as widely as the commissioner’s messaging. It’s too bad: their expansive and very detailed study of hockey’s evolution, structures, and culture is required reading, the new standard text when it comes to understanding how the sport got from the far-off historical there to where it is today.
The library of the sport’s literature is an extensive one, but there’s nothing in it like their Hockey: A Global History. Hardy is an emeritus professor of kinesiology and history at the University of New Hampshire; Holman is a professor of history at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. It’s not that the game hasn’t been studied with serious and scholarly intent before. A stack of the most interesting and edifying books on the game’s rise and development would necessarily include, for example, On The Origin of Hockey (2014) by Carl Gidén, Patrick Houda, and Jean-Patrice Martel; Craig Bowlsby’s 1913: The Year They Invented The Future of Hockey (2013); and Deceptions and Doublecross: How The NHL Conquered Hockey (2002), by Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth.
For insight into hockey’s character and culture (including its many deficiencies and outright failings) you’d add Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities, and Cultural Politics (1993), by Richard Gruneau and David Whitson; The Death of Hockey (1972) by Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane; and the 2018 scholarly anthology, Hockey: Challenging Canada’s Game, edited by Jenny Ellison and Jennifer Anderson.
As for general histories, books like Michael McKinley’s Putting A Roof on Winter: Hockey’s Rise from Sport Spectacle (2000) stick close to hockey’s perceived home ice, which is to say Canada and the northeastern United States. No previous single-volume study has ranged so broadly as Hockey: A Global History nor dug so deeply into the details, and I don’t know of a precedent, either, for the quality of Hardy and Holman’s analysis as they make their way through hockey history, cracking open orthodoxies as they go, and briskly reordering many of what we have come to think of as the game’s immutable verities. It all makes for a brisk and fluid narrative, too: on top of everything else, Hardy and Holman unpack an awfully good story.
The crux of it all is in the title, three words in. Referencing Gruneau and Whitson, Hardy and Holman acknowledge that Canada and the Canadian experience is at the center of any discussion of hockey. “The problem,” the former pair wrote in Hockey Night in Canada, “arises when Canadians’ appreciation for hockey is mistaken for ‘nature’ rather than something that is socially and culturally produced.”
“We try,” note Hardy and Holman, “to move hockey history beyond the limits of one national bias.” Unbounded, they also succeed in their effort to transcend “dimensions beyond nationhood, particularly along lines of class, gender, and race.”
They also make a key shift in considering the game’s early evolutionary momentum. The emphasis of much previous historiographical debate has been fixed on determining hockey’s “birthplace” rather than on discussing migration patterns. As Hardy and Holman write, “birth details would matter little (beyond antiquarian interest) if the game and its followers, players, and promoters had never grown, if they had never become fruitful and multiplied.”
If there is a consistent tone to the narrative here, it’s set early on as the authors remind readers (while discouraging any romanticists who might have strayed by) that there was never a golden age of hockey, a prelapsarian frozen garden where once the game was purely, innocently yet to be spoiled. Hockey, like most human endeavours, is an imperfect, in-process, not always entirely progressive affair that its various stakeholders — players, coaches, owners, members of the media, fans — continue to make up as they go along.
And it was ever thus. The game, to start, was many games, and they proliferated spontaneously wherever people picked up sticks to knock balls—or bungs or, eventually, pucks. They note that the first skates were fashioned, probably, from animal bone, with practical purpose: in northern climes, they were developed for travel and transport before they were put to use in fun and game. Many of the proto-hockeys that were played in the wintry past were, of course, informal, without consistent rules or equipment or chroniclers. That they went largely unrecorded isn’t so surprising — as historian Craig Bowlsby has pointed out, 200 years ago, nobody was assiduously annotating the history of snowball fights, either. Continue reading
A tribute, on a summer’s Friday, where tribute’s due: today is Roy MacGregor’s last day at The Globe and Mail, where he’s been a columnist for the past 17 years. That trim word, columnist, doesn’t quite contain his talents, of course, or do them proper justice: again and again across the almost 50 years during which he’s worked his words in Canadian newspapers, magazines, and books, MacGregor (seen here, above, in a 1983 incarnation) has reminded readers just how thoughtful and sharply incisive a chronicler of our hockey obsession he is. Beyond the Globe, the papers he’s improved have included The Ottawa Citizen and The National Post, and the magazines, Maclean’s and The Canadian. His work therein was duly recognized in 2012 when he won the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for distinguished reportage. The marvelous books that confirm his standing as our finest hockey storyteller include The Home Team and the novel The Last Season. (Parents and younger readers might not forgive the lack of a mention of the Screech Owl mysteries, so here it is.) For all his icy writings, he is (again: of course) not only a hockey writer: do we have, on the page, any more reliable canoe and river guide, a better companion to Tom Thomson studies or Ottawa or Algonquin wildernesses? MacGregor is a true Canadian explorer; we’ll see where he leads us next.
The occasion seems to call for a look back at where he’s taken us before. Here then, from Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada, the 1989 book on which he collaborated with Ken Dryden, a brief excerpt in which he carries us back to his Muskoka childhood in Huntsville, Ontario:
It is difficult now to convey how deeply hockey could penetrate a life back then. We had no television. My brother had a table-top hockey game, the kind where the metal players fit on and are controlled by steel rods running beneath. There were no slots, however, so the players could no go up and down the ice. All you could do was turn the rod between the thumb and finger so they could pass and shoot. All four defence rods eventually broke and we realized a shot was faster if we flicked the players from above rather than turned from below. And marbles were better than pucks. My brother found he could raise the marbles if he slightly bent his man, I suffered my first serious hockey injury wearing my pajamas in his bedroom.
Our father took us to Maple Leaf Gardens to see the Leafs play Detroit. Neither of us had ever seen lights so bright or felt air so alive. In an instant we more than doubled the number of other humans we had seen in our lives. The urinals spooked me. Our father pointed to Gordie Howe and said he was the greatest hockey player of all time. At least once a year in the thirty-odd years since he asks if we remember. We will always remember, even when he can no longer remind.
(Top image: Fred Lum, Random House of Canada)
A version of this review appeared in the December, 2018 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.
I tend to talk on the ice. I’m speaking here not of the regular chorus of swearing and middle-aged male complaint that is the usual soundtrack of your typical Friday-morning pick-up hockey game — this has more to do with narrative. As the guys I play with will testify, if I’m not the one who’s going to score a goal, I will probably have something to say about whether the puck rollicked into the top corner or jinked there — or did the goaltender just plain foozle it? It somehow seems of vital importance, out there on the ice, lagging behind the play, to find just the right words for the hockey we’re playing here.
Hockey always did have trouble expressing itself. Part of that has to do, I think, with just how ridiculous an enterprise it remains. Don’t agree? Try to explain its fundamentals aloud, as if to someone who’s never heard of it — the skates and the sticks, the elusive puck, the fact that you’re not supposed to punch an opponent in the head, but go ahead, why not, it’s fine so long as you’re willing to sit for a full five minutes in the penalty box to ponder the assault you’ve committed and had committed on you.
That’s not to say hockey isn’t beautiful, with a power all its own that has to with its speed and surprise and its chaos, and how it distills our childhood and pride and hopes. This is also what makes it so challenging to translate it from ice to page. It may also turn out (as I’ve noted before) that the form by which hockey best expresses itself is … hockey. But that doesn’t mean the sport’s literature isn’t abundant and rewarding, and that it’s fiction can’t articulate the game as its played, gleaning its finer meanings, defining its passions, and unpacking why some of those might be problematic.
You still hear the old echo of a lament that hockey has never really generated a literature the way that other sports have — baseball, for instance. Hockeywise, I can confirm that it’s just no so. It may be that the game has yet to inspire a single towering all-encompassing piece of national prose — an icy Quixote, a Shahnameh containing all the hockey multitudes—but that’s probably a whole other discussion.
Many of the best novels are widely enough celebrated, some of them less so. If I were the one listing necessary hockey novels, I’d volunteer Roy MacGregor’s Last Season (1985) and the sweetly funny Understanding Ken (1998) by Pete McCormack, some Paul Quarrington and a Mark Jarman, a Bill Gaston, a Lynn Coady, a Richard Wagamese. That would be a start, and a rich one in style and story and character; from there I’d carry on.
As for what’s new, here’s what I’ve learned from surveying the spectrum of the season’s newest hockey fiction. Judging by the latest in both end-of-times annals and promising literary fiction, Nova Scotia seems to be at the centre of things. Out in the wider world, the most prolific and (I’m guessing) bestsellingest of hockey novelists would seem to be Swedish. None of them makes too much of an effort to express the game — most of the actual hockey is in the background or the past. Also: while I can’t really speak with any authority of what’s going on in the real world, fiction’s hockey players seem to be having a ton of sex.
Maybe should we start there?
I can’t say for certain when the words brooding and hockey and hunk were first put together in a sentence in novels populated by characters named Bex or maybe Kaija (whose bodies may or may not be made for sin), who catch the eye of and subsequently end up with hockey players called Duke or maybe Dante, colliding with them for several pages at a time in athletic ways that are (if they do say so themselves) so very hot.
How did this happen? I can’t tell you that, either. I know that five years ago when I made a project of reading as many hockey novels as I could, there were already Harlequins with titles like Her Man Advantage on the shelf, but nothing like the proliferation of hockey romances that’s now fevering the genre fiction aisle of your local e-reader.
This fall, I didn’t really know where to start scouting. I’ll tell you where I stopped short. Books I didn’t read include Kristen Echo’s Playoff King (Puck Battle Book 7) and Dumbass Trade: The Jock by Gavin Hardrock. I bypassed Kari Sawyer’s Nightfall— “a story of vampire-themed fantasy romance and ice hockey.” Also: Riley Knight’s The Goalie’s Secret: A Friends-to-Lovers Hockey Romance and Hockey Obsession: An Older Man Younger Woman Romance by Flora Ferrari.
I was browsing Jillian Quinn’s Pucking Parker(Face-Off Legacy Book 1) when I decided to all-in on Kelly Jamieson’s latest.
Jamieson, who hails from Winnipeg, has published a whole roster of novels featuring players from a fictional Chicago NHL team called Aces. These are books called Major Misconduct and Back Check, Slap Shot, Playing Hurt. I read the latest feverish installment, Big Stick, in which we’re introduced to Nick Balachov, hard-working fourth-line winger, gorgeous yet fragile. The book’s title — I don’t think I’m giving anything away here — refers to his penis.
I can’t remember who first makes the comparison — is it Nick or Jodie? The latter, whose surname we never learn, is a plucky single mum who’s a partner in a company manufactures sex toys for women. She and Nick don’t really hit it off at first, but then (spoiler alert) they do. How do we know? Something turns over in Nick’s chest; Jodie’s, meanwhile, fills with a soft warmth. Between them, they soon generate a whole lot more heat, which we know because Jamieson tells us. It — the heat — races through veins, and flares in bellies, where it also pools.
Need, too, is at work, twisting and throbbing; hearts squeeze and bump.
The anatomy lesson soon goes external, and escalates: it’s only a matter of moments before we’re into satiny neck-skin and sliding tongues. The adjectives taut and lush lead to verbs, ache and clench; there are needy noises and wordless cries.
This is just before, obviously, everything gets a whole lot more thermally explicit.
The hockey, by comparison, is relatively inert. It’s what Nick does when he’s not with Jodie. Chicago has a pretty good year, and Nick does solidify his place on the team, but when it’s not warmly exerting itself in bed or on sofas, Jamieson’s story is situated in restaurants as much as in rinks.
That’s not to say that there isn’t dimension to the story. Can I express my surprise here without it clinking with condescension: Jamieson amid all the lustful lurching, it’s actually a fairly layered story that Jamieson has rendered. There’s a sad sub-plot about Nick’s late brother and his concussions, and a bit of backstory to fill in his tough youth in the wilds of Scarborough, Ontario.
That explains some of the strife that Nick and Jamie get into, which they do, though don’t worry, it’s nothing too stressful. During my time among the hockey romances, I kept seeing the phrase repeated in blurbs and synopses, HEA guaranteed. That was new. You may have known that it wasn’t some sort of money-back offer or allergen alert, but I had to look it up to discover that what I was being promised was Happily Ever After. Big Stick doesn’t go so far as to flag it, but that’s the way it goes all the same, cruising along to its pre-ordained ending.
“Why does anyone care about hockey?” If you read Beartown, Fredrik Backman’s popular 2017 novel, that’s the question you might have faced up to — guiltily? — as you paged over to Chapter Five. Backman, who’s Swedish, made his debut with a non-hockey success of a novel called A Man Called Ove (2012) that has sold upwards of 2.8 million copies worldwide.
“Because it tells stories,” was the answer to the question in Beartown, a novel with hockey (and worse) at its core. Us Against You picks up where the previous story ended, offering thisrecap of the terrible heart of the first book: “A boy, the star of the hockey team, raped a girl.”
As it was in the first novel, the game is more than simply a sport or a pastime here: hockey is a lurking, primal force that sustains the people even as it seems to punish them. In this new novel, an existential crisis that threatens not just the future of hockey in the town, but the future of the town itself. It’s all very menacing — if only merely minimally affecting.
The idea that hockey persists against all challenges is one that The Last Hockey Player pursues, too. Self-published by Halifax writer Bretton Loney, this is a novel I came across while I was out traipsing the tropics of hockey romancing. Loney’s brief tale has some of that, though mostly the story motors along on a bit of a Walking-Dead vibe.
The epidemics that devastated North American civilization 18 years earlier led to what’s known as The Crumbling. It’s an almost medieval life the people are living, now, in the little Nova Scotian village of The Barns, all bows-and-arrows and moose-skin cloaks. Sicknesses stalk the land still, along with marauders bent on murder. “The New Times are a nightmare,” is how our sort-of-hero sums it all up, the titular Hockey Player. The good news (I guess) amid all the lethal grimness: mankind may be breathing its last ragged breaths, but hockey — the cockroach of sports! — has survived.
Loney has fun with allusions to the all-but-lost hockey past, and also teasing out just how the hockey gets played on the ice of Sweet Water Pond, gliding on shinbone skates, batting a wooden puck with their hand-carved sticks. Before the big game with the neighbouring village, the home team bleeds out a rabbit to paint the lines on the ice. There’s a little fable about the corruption of this game that brings the people such joy to their everyday present, though this falters and like the novel as whole, it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its premise.
The season’s other Nova Scotia hockey novel is Searching For Terry Punchout, the first by Calgary-based writer Tyler Hellard. It’s an assured debut, wryly funny, and if it doesn’t carve any new, I’m still ready to count it as a quiet triumph.
The Nova Scotia Hellard depicts isn’t quite so dire as Bretton Loney’s plague-ridden version. There is some sex, none of it Nick-and-Jodie vigorous; mostly here it’s played for humorous rather than erotic effect.
It’s 2005 and Adam Macallister has come home, to Pennington, Nova Scotia. He left in a hurry, years ago, to pursue a career in journalism. He was escaping, too, It’s a retreat, sure: the pursuit didn’t really work out, though he has one last chance: Sports Illustrated has (more or less) commissioned him to write a profile of his father, who just happens to have been the NHL’s all-time fightingest fighter, known to all by the nickname he acquired as a young goon, Terry Punchout.
Fearsome as he once was as a fistic Toronto Maple Leaf — think Tiger Williams or Tie Domi, but unrulier — Terry is much reduced, an ancient 58, now, “weak and worn and wizened,” angry at the world, which means at his son, too. Adam arrives home bearing some ire of his own — and so, in quite a different way than it was in Big Stick, the heat is on.
“Beating people up on the ice would become Terry’s calling in life,” Adam writes. He means to dissect that, lay bare the meaning of what his dad was and has become while at the same time jump-starting his career as a journalist. Running into an old high-school buddy, Adam explains the slant he’s hoping to lend his article. It’s going to be, he says, “about how hockey’s violent culture fits into today’s society.” Oh, and also: “about redemption.”
His father, he posits, is “swimming in regret, and it could be that hockey — our national sport, so entwined with our sense of Canadian identity — is to blame.”
The fact that Adam (and, therefore, the novel itself) doesn’t really end up taking on these subjects in any sustained or serious way doesn’t really seem to matter, in the end. It’s a satisfying story all the same, with plenty of incident and smart insight into smalltown sociology.
I would have liked to have read the feature Adam files, finally, to Sports Illustrated. Does he redeem his career? Chart a course for his future? Tyler Hellard makes the decision to wrap up his story without answering all the questions he raises. Hockey does that, too, so this feels like familiar territory. We’ve been here before, as fans and readers, stranded out at mid-ice, somewhere between the apocalypse and HEA.
Searching For Terry Punchout
Invisible Publishing, 208 pp., C$19.95
The Last Hockey Player
Self-published, 128 pp., C$10.40
Us Against You
Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith
Simon & Schuster, 436 pp., C$24.99
Big Stick: An Aces Hockey Novel
Loveswept/Random House Canada (Kindle Edition), 264 pp., C$5.99
A version of this post appeared on page B11 of The New York Times on January 4, 2018 under the headline “Hall of Famer Says N.H.L. Must Put End To Head Hits.”
Awareness is important — people need to know and acknowledge and understand — but at a certain point, it’s time to act.
That’s what Ken Dryden decided two years ago when he started writing the book he published earlier this fall, Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey.
A Hall-of Famer and six-time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens, Dryden, who’s 70, was one of 15 goaltenders to be named earlier this year to the NHL’s pantheon of 100 Greatest Players. In the years since he retired from the Canadiens, he has served as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and as a cabinet minister in Canada’s government. He’s never stopped thinking and writing about hockey. The book he wrote soon after he retired from the NHL, The Game (1983), may be the most insightful reflection on the sport ever published.
As the league continues to celebrate its centennial season this year, Dryden’s focus is now locked on hockey’s response to concussions and their devastating effects on the lives of its players. For too long, he believes, the NHL has failed to act decisively, content to let awareness be its watchword, and to treat brain injuries as issues to be rationalized and managed.
In Game Change, Dryden investigates the career of Steve Montador, a tough and capable, salt-of-the-ice journeyman defenceman who played for six NHL teams. “Hard-trying,” Dryden calls him, with respect; Montador prided himself on the importance of being “a good teammate.” Beloved by those who knew him, he saw his career ended by concussions —seven of them, at least, and probably more. After struggles with addictions, Montador died in 2015 at the age of 35. Post-mortem studies of his brain revealed that at the time of his death Montador was suffering from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The book also skates deep into hockey history: underlying Montador’s story is Dryden’s compelling and comprehensive case on just how, for reasons cultural and otherwise, the game has failed to adapt to its own evolution in pace and equipment and tactics. For Dryden, it all comes down to this: now is the time for hockey to eliminate hits to the head outright, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is the only man who can make that happen. He’s called it a “test” — for himself, for Bettman, for hockey. And so in September, Dryden flew from his home in Toronto to New York to carry that message, along with his book, to Bettman. They met for lunch.
In December, Ken Dryden sat down in Toronto to talk about Game Change and his vision for hockey.
How did it go, that meeting with Gary Bettman?
It was a good lunch. We’ve known each other for a long time, we’ve worked together. I think we each know how the other thinks, and does things. I introduced it as a serious book about a serious subject and the next few months will be a challenge for both of us. But a worthwhile challenge. I just told him about what was in the book. I told him that he was the first person to receive a final copy of the book. He said he would read it.
I came away feeling that he would. And that he would think about it very hard.
Why was Steve Montador’s story the right one to build your book around?
I wanted to write about somebody who was an Everyman player. I didn’t want somebody who was a superstar, who was too unique and unrelatable in that way. And I didn’t want somebody who was a fighter-goon, for the same reason. I wanted somebody who, when people read about Steve, they would see themselves, see their kids. Coaches would see their players. He was somebody a lot like them. And whose experience was a lot like theirs. He was somebody who was not dismissible.
You’ve talked about what you’re trying to say in your title: not just that the game needs to change, but how it has been changing, always, and keeps changing. Is that why you think this all so eminently do-able?
It’s one change that’s needed: no hits to the head, no excuses.
At the core of the problem of brain injuries is hits to the head. So you focus your attention there. The increased speed of the game generates more collisions and more forceful collisions. It’s not hard to see how this happens.
You can think about dealing with it as a revolutionary change, or you can think about it as an incremental and really evolutionary change. Right from the beginning of hockey, we’ve recognized the danger of hits to the head. We created high-sticking penalties, we created the elbowing penalty.
What we’ve come to understand better, with the force and the frequency of the collisions now, is that the dangerous instrument is not the stick or the elbow, it’s the body as a whole. So you don’t call a penalty for a stick or an elbow and not call one for a shoulder or a fist. It’s not the cause, it’s the effect. It’s not whether it’s intentional or accidental. The brain doesn’t distinguish. The brain is affected similarly. So you think of it in those terms, and you approach it in those terms. You connect it to the very set of understandings that is already in place, and to the penalties that are already in place. You just extend them to the changed circumstances of the game.
As you point out, Gary Bettman never played the game. But he is surrounded in the NHL head office by plenty of smart, committed people who did play. Why haven’t they recognized the problems you’re identifying. What’s kept them from urging the changes you’re advocating?
They haven’t played this game. We know what we’ve learned, we’ve know what we’ve heard, and we tend to then apply both, as if everything else were constant. The myth and lore of a game like hockey is very difficult to undo and rewrite. And whether it’s in hockey, sports, or climate change — anything — we all have a certain set of understandings. We’re comfortable with them. We always believed in them, and believed deeply.
But it’s a question of going beyond what you know to what there is to see. We’ve stopped seeing what is there. We notice the speed of the game, we notice the frequency and the severity of the head injuries, but we haven’t quite made the connection that then generates the response that’s needed. There’s this gap that is almost always present in terms of decision-making.
In order to get somewhere and change circumstances, you have to undo a set of understandings that are already in place. All we need to do is just see, see the game that’s there on the ice. And it’s a game that’s played with far greater skill than was the case in the past. Players are faster, they’re using lighter sticks, which become precision instruments in their hands, so they’re developing a dexterity that in turn pushes their creative minds.
And in the game now, the idea is not to go in straight lines, you go to open ice wherever open ice is, and so the pass is more important than the rush. All of a sudden you’ve got this incredible freedom, this possibility. The excitement with which people talk about Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews — that’s how they play. That is the game that has emerged, and it’s the game that’s being developed and understood by 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds everywhere in the world.
You’ve been traveling with the book, talking about it across Canada. Do you get the sense that parents and coaches and the people who run minor hockey have an appetite for change? Is it coming from the bottom up, too?
Yes. But a bottom-up movement is not going to change things as much or as quickly as needs to happen. But I think that what it means to that decision-maker at the top is important: he can feel a kind of confidence that in fact a decision that he would make about hits to the head would be understood and accepted. The conditions are present.
You haven’t heard back from the commissioner yet. Not to doubt or pre-judge him, but what if he doesn’t see what you’re seeing as quickly as you’d hope for? Does the challenge — and your campaign for change — simply continue?
Something that’s been so powerful for me on my book tour has been talking to the hockey guys, the sports guys on the all-sports radio stations: a lot of them are thinking in these directions. This is not a matter of starting at zero and trying to argue or persuade your way to 100, they’re already at 60 or 70. They see the problem. And so do people in the game I’ve been hearing from.
So all of this just kind of builds. That’s not unimportant. It will be moving forward, a little faster or a little slower. Five years from now, the game will be extremely different. How much in advance of that the change happens is really up to Gary Bettman.
At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.
Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”
Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.
Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:
No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’
That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”
Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.
That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.
Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.
Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.
We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.
Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.
“It is so extremely doable.”
That was Ken Dryden talking in December when I met him near his home in Toronto to discuss his book Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey. He was talking, as he was across Canada all through the fall, about the necessity of shifting the culture of hockey to eliminate hits to the head. An account of our conversation appears on the page in today’s New York Times — the online version is over here.
What’s not included in that exchange is a wider discussion of why Game Change and its careful reasoned, and eminently reasonable argument for urgent action isn’t at the fore and the front of the hockey conversation this winter. That’s not to say the book and its powerful message has been ignored: it’s been prominently amplified in The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s along with plenty of other Canadian media, and Game Change finished the year well up the list of national bestsellers. Others, too — TSN’s Rick Westhead is a notable and necessary follow, for one — are working hard to track hockey’s concussion crisis. But because the NHL continues to carry on as if all that were someone else’s business, it’s entirely possible that you could follow the league, with all the colour and excitement and history it broadcasts across all its many platforms, without hearing a serious mention of any of this. As Ken Dryden says, it all comes down to one man. Over to you, Gary Bettman.
A version of this review appeared in the October, 2017 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.
If you’re someone who’s mothered a famous hockey player, chances are that you have not subsequently gone out and written a book about it. Is this because your parental pride is more private than, say, a father’s, your fulfillment so much the quieter? Or that you don’t feel the same urgent need to explain your son? Maybe. In the teeming library devoted to our beloved winter game, the books of hockey-parent lit may only fill a half-shelf, but this we know: almost all of them are written by fathers. There is something charmingly local about the fact that these books are published at all: only in Canada could there be enough oxygen to sustain such a sub-genre.
If hockey fathers (necessarily) antedate the birth of the sport itself, the dads of professional hockey players only started writing books in the early 1970s. First to the font was Murray Dryden, who, if he were a primary character in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, might be dubbed Father of Goaltenders. Dave and Ken’s dad was suitably satisfied when his sons both made the NHL, with Buffalo and Montreal, respectively—all the more so when they started against one another in a regular-season game in 1971. Dryden’s Playing The Shots At Both Ends (1972) is light and genial, a quick and agreeable excursion. At 156 pages, it set a standard of brevity that subsequent exemplars from the genus Pater librorum glaciem hockey have failed to follow.
The memoir Walter Gretzky published in 2001 was called On Family, Hockey, and Healing. After a stroke threatened Gretzky Senior’s life in 1991, he faced a long and complicated recovery. As a spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, he was as focussed on advocacy and promoting awareness as he was on spinning hockey tales about his son Wayne.
Published in both French and English editions, Michel Roy’s Patrick Roy: Winning, Nothing Else (2007) ran to more than 500 pages. It was positively militant in its mission, which was to cast Patrick as a hero and correct the public’s faulty perceptions of his character. People thought the younger Roy was testy, aloof, selfish, and they were wrong. “I wanted to present Patrick as he is,” Michel told an interviewer soon after the book was published. “I wanted to defend the truth.”
The exception to the rule of mothers not writing books is the memoir penned by the late Colleen Howe. Wife to Gordie, and mother to NHLers Mark and Marty, she was a force in her own right, which you will know if you’ve read My Three Hockey Players (1975). To my mind, it remains the most interesting of the parental hockey books: filled with anecdote and incident, it’s candid and bracingly caustic, knotty with grievance and criticism, holding nothing back.
The newest addition to the shelf, Karl Subban’s How We Did It: The Subban Plan For Success In Hockey, School and Life, fits in alongside Dryden and Gretzky, down at what we might call the more generous end of the shelf. With his son P.K. — at? nearing? — the peak of his game, Karl seems to be enjoying the moment as much as he might be hoping to seize an opportunity while his son is at centre-ice to tell his own story and shape it as a platform for his ideas on parenthood and mentoring young people. Writing with an assist from Scott Colby, an editor with the Toronto Star, Karl is in a sharing mood. I suspect that theirs might be the hockey-dad book that finds a wider audience than those that have gone before. This has to do with P.K.’s compelling personality and his philanthropy, both of which transcend the game he plays. More than any other player of recent note he has also managed to unsettle hockey’s sense of itself, and there will be readers from beyond the rink who will come to the book curious about questions of race and racism, the snubs and the insults that Subban has suffered, and how they’re coded, or not.
A quick recap, for those who might have been exiled for a decade, on an atoll, far from Wi-Fi: Pernell Karl Subban is a vividly skilled 28-year-old defenceman who has been one of the NHL’s best since at least 2013, when he won the Norris Trophy. Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid: all of them can dominate a game and electrify a crowd. But is there a more consistently entertaining hockey player to watch, or one who seems to play with more joy than Subban? “Like Roger Federer, or Kevin Durant, or Yasiel Puig,” Ben McGrath wrote in a persuasive 2014 New Yorker profile, “[Subban] awes less because of the results he achieves than because of the way he achieves them — kinetic charisma, approaching genius.”
He was still a Montreal Canadien back then, beloved to many, infuriatingly flamboyant to others—a polarizing figure, including (the rumours went) within his own dressing room, and with his own coach, Michel Therrien, who was often critical of Subban’s defensive lapses. And as a columnist from USA Today wrote during last season’s playoffs, “Subban has haters.” The adjectives that have crowded into mentions of Subban’s hockey exploits over his eight years in the league include dynamic; freewheeling; passionate; booming (his shot); dazzling (his rushes); jaw-dropping (his creativity), but they also run to the more hostile emotional; individualistic; cocky; arrogant; and bigger than the team.
Debate hasn’t stopped roiling in Montreal since he was traded in the summer of 2016 to Nashville, whose golden-garbed Predators he helped attain a berth in this last spring’s Stanley Cup finals. The fact that they lost there to Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t do anything to change that: regret weighs heavily to this day with many Montreal fans who can’t — and don’t want to — forget the on-ice skill and exuberance that made him one of most exciting athletes anywhere, in any sport, or his astonishing 2015 pledge to raise $10-million over seven years for the city’s Children’s Hospital.
For all its flashing lights and bold embrace of new markets (hello, Las Vegas), the NHL remains a bastion of staid and conservative attitudes. Because he is anything but, Subban has been accused of arrogance and disrespect, of excessive self-regard, of not knowing his station. As a rookie with the Montreal Canadiens, he was called out by the then-captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. “It’s just frustrating to see a young guy like that come in here,” whined Mike Richards, “and so much as think that’s he’s better than a lot of people.”
Never mind that Subban was better than a lot of people—as he always has and will be. Hockey’s brassiest establishment voice, Don Cherry, would soon be scolding him for daring to play with verve and personality; another, Mike Milbury, called him a clown during the spring’s playoffs, berating him for courting too much attention, and for the mortal sin of overt enthusiasm.
There is no good gauge of which of or how much, if at all, the reproaches directed Subban’s way have to do with the fact that he is a black man in a sport that has been so glaringly white for so long. There are books about that, too, including Herb Carnegie’s instructive 1997 memoir A Fly in a Pail of Milk. A stand-out scorer in the 1930s and ’40s who couldn’t find a way through hockey’s colour barrier, Carnegie never played an NHL game. He had no doubt that it was racism that kept him from cracking the New York Rangers’ line-up in 1948.
Readers who come to How We Did It in hopes of a broader discussion of race and racism in hockey may be left wanting. It’s not that Karl Subban seeks to avoid it, exactly, more that he addresses the issue as he sees fit and moves on. Yes, his son has run into his share of ignorant morons and their abhorrent slurs in his time playing hockey. No, Karl doesn’t think either — the slurs or the morons — is worth engaging; they’re nothing but distractions. “Racism is a fact of life,” he writes. Why give it permission to get in the way of where you’re going? In the book’s final pages, P.K. endorses his dad’s approach. And that’s as far as it goes. Continue reading
A version of this review appeared in the October, 2016 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.
Hard to say just when the ghosts got into the Montreal Forum. We know that they were definitely ensconced in the rafters of that bygone rink by 1989, if only because the upstart Calgary Flames, in town that spring to challenge the Canadiens for the Stanley Cup, are on the record talking about having to conquer them. The Flames’ 20-year-old dynamo Theo Fleury, for instance. “I’ll bet if you sat there with all the lights off, when it was quiet, you’d see the ghosts skating,” he said. “Morenz, The Rocket. I don’t really believe in ghosts. But in your mind, I bet they’d be there.”
Easy to dismiss the musings of a young rookie before a big game — especially when (awkwardly enough) Maurice Richard still, at that point, had eleven years of corporeal life left to live.
But since Fleury isn’t the first to have evoked the spirits aloft in old hockey arenas (even as he denies them), let’s stick with the ectoplasm for a moment. To speak of a hockey arena’s ghosts — or for that matter, to talk about the game as religion, played out in “cathedrals” — is fanciful, maybe, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without meaning.
Maybe the spirit of Howie Morenz did ascend after he died of a broken hockey heart in 1937, but if so it was mixed with the clouds of collective memory and nostalgia that were accumulating under the Forum roof over the years. That’s what we’re talking about here, I think: the connections we make with venues where we gather as communities, where strong feelings take hold, and activate our own memories of playing the game, or watching our kids play, of the rituals of taping our sticks and tying our skates, of the smell of Zamboni exhaust, of what it is to skate out on pristine ice after the flood.
That emotional relationship is a big piece of the story that Howard Shubert is telling in his learned and entertaining new book, Architecture On Ice: A History of the Hockey Arena.
You’d think that somebody would have bored into the vernacular of rinks and arenas before. For structures that are as distinctive in the historical Canadian landscape as sod huts or CP hotels, they dwell in a curiously neglected field. Harold Kalman’s two-volume History of Canadian Architecture (1994), for example, all but passes them by.
On the hockey shelf, many of the histories of the game have touched on the development of hockey’s arenas — Michael McKinley’s Putting A Roof On Winter (2000) comes to mind, and Bill Fitsell’s How Hockey Happened (2006). In 2005, hockey historian Martin Harris published a helpful regional catalogue, Homes of British Ice Hockey.
Given the grip that the game has had on Canadian culture for nearly 200 years, it’s surprising that there’s such a blank in the literature to be filled. Shubert, who’s an architectural historian and former curator at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, does it in style. Teeming with illustrations, this is a thorough and broadly thoughtful chronicle not simply of design and development, but of the social and cultural spaces that ice-houses occupy in our hearts and on our streets. It is a bit of a ghost story, come to think of it. A trigger warning might be in order: if you’re anything like a hockey purist, or suffer from acute sentimentality, his account does get a little scary towards the end.
What took us so long to get around to hockey? If we hesitated, as a people, to pick up sticks and put them to use chasing pucks, we did have a crowded winter pastimes to beguile us. We’re back in the middle of the 19th century here, wherein Canadians found much of their wintry delight in snowshoeing and tobogganing. If it was the ice they were headed for, then curling was the thing, or pleasure skating. People were doing a lot of that in the 19th century, and much of the time you had a band playing nearby, and you were in costume.
Looking back, it’s difficult to conceive of a time when hockey wasn’t pre-eminent in Canadian life. Others may love hockey and even play it well, and there are occasional international tournaments that Canadians fail to win, but the game (we’ve come to feel) is both a natural resource and a proprietary technology of ours. Hockey comes from the land here, as we well know from all those beer and credit-card commercials that keep on telling us so. The freedom and purity of the outdoor, natural rink is something that we persistently idealize, and it has a history all of its own that continues to feed the emotional relationship that Canadians have with hockey even as the professional game tests our patience.
There was a time, though, when hockey was a bit of a blight on the land. Hockeyists, when they showed up on your pond, came in hordes, they were loud and heedless, knocked you down. As Shubert notes, polite skating society tended to line up at this time more or less with the opinion expressed by an English writer in London Society magazine circa 1862. Hockey, he declared,
ought to be sternly forbidden, as it is not only annoying (to leisurely skaters on a pond) but dangerous … It is more than annoying to have the graceful evolutions of a charming quadrille broken up by the interruptions of a disorderly mob, armed with sticks and charging through the circle of skaters and spectators to the imminent danger of all. I should be truly glad to see the police interfere whenever hockey is commenced.
Hockey has gone on, of course, offending its critics and detractors, and mostly it’s done so without the interference of policemen. That’s not to say that the game didn’t face an array of other existential threats in its early days. There were the struggles over amateurism, and over whose rules should prevail. Warm winters threatened early professional hockey, and so did fires, which burned down its arenas with alarming frequency.
Hockey leagues were expensive to sustain, and often tottered under financial strains in those earliest days as the 19th century turned 20. War didn’t help — with it always came the questions of whether young men should be doing their patriotic duty at the front rather than idling away on ice trying to chase a puck into a net.
Canada’ first skating rinks were mostly commandeered spaces, frozen floors of buildings originally designed and built for other, practical purposes: barns and warehouses, armouries and drill-halls.
Early hockey remained mostly outdoors — the first organized game was played in Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink in March of 1875. The venue shaped the game from the start. The dimensions of the ice they played on that day — 80 feet by 204 — set the standard for the surface that the NHL uses to this day. To save the spectators and the windows, a puck was used that day, too, for the first time, in place of a rubber ball. Does it surprise anyone that the proceedings ended with a fight? Continue reading