frank orr, 1936—2021

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Sorry to see the news today that long-time Toronto Star hockey writer Frank Orr has died. Born in 1936, he grew up on a farm in Hillsburgh, Ontario, northeast of Guelph, to which (as he later said) Foster Hewitt’s voice carried from the gondola at Maple Leaf Gardens in the 1940s. “You grew up with it — it was the Saturday night of your life,” he recalled. “We watched games on radio.”

He was a radio DJ before he started in newspapers, starting with the Cornwall Standard Freeholder and Guelph Daily Mercury before joining the Star’s sports department in 1961. Awarded the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award and elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a member of the media in 1989, he said that witnessing Bobby Orr’s rise was one of the highlights of his career.

“I saw him play his first major junior game at the age of 13 for Oshawa and watching him grow from the little blond-haired kid into one of the greatest players of all time was a thrill.”

He noted, too, his admiration for Montreal defenceman Doug Harvey.

“He wasn’t necessarily the best to have ever played, but he was my personal favourite,” he said. “I was also a big admirer of Red Kelly for the simple reason that he was an all-star defenceman as well as an all-star centre.”

As well as treading the Leafs beat, Orr wrote more than 30 books, most of them non-fictional, there were novels, too, including a couple in the mid-’60s about a plucky young centre by the name of Buck Martin and, later, in 1983, the altogether bawdier Puck is a Four-Letter Word.

owning up: don delillo comes clean

Cover Story: The cover of the 1982 British mass market edition of DeLillo’s hockey classic.

It’s a stretch of years now since Keith Gessen, a writer I’ll gladly follow into any paragraph he chooses to lead me, wrote his New York Times Book Reviewessay on hockey’s literature and its lacks, and I’m trying to remember whether, in 2006, I embraced his premise that when it comes to hockey books, two tower above all the rest —No question about Ken Dryden’s 1983 classic The Game— but what about Amazons (1980), the Cleo Birdwell novel that Gessen declared “the other monument of hockey literature thus far”?

You can read the Gessen here. I don’t think that I quite agreed with him on Amazons then, and still don’t, though the novel does tell a feisty, funny, bawdy, insightful story about the first woman to play in the NHL.

You’d expect that, the funny and the insight, of course, given that Birdwell was a masquerade and that the actual author was in fact Don DeLillo. It’s no secret that the man who gave us Libra and White Noise and Underworld has never openly acknowledged that he actually wrote Amazons, nor that he’s reportedly been adamant in his refusal to allow the novel to be reprinted: the mystery, if there is any, is in why he’s been so silent all this time in his spurning of his hockey romp.

No more. DeLillo, who turns 84 this month, has a new novel out, The Silence. Last month, in a New York Times Magazine interview with David Marchese, DeLillo finally came clean. I don’t know why this wasn’t bigger news, though I guess we did have our distractions in October. Anyway, the exchange came halfway through Marchese’s and DeLillo’s back-and-forth. The latter had already dangled a lure, earlier, mentioning Amazons in passing. DeLillo, it’s noted, laughed, but didn’t bite.

A little later, Marchese changed bait, bringing up a prominent DeLillo character. Here’s the exchange:

You know who else shows up in two of your books? Murray Jay Siskind. Both times described as having an “Amish” beard. Murray Jay! Remind me, what book is he in?

White Noise. And where else?

Amazons. Oh god. How do you remember that. Idon’t remember that.

I think I just got a scoop. I don’t know if you’ve ever publicly acknowledged that you wrote Amazons. I probably did, somewhere or other. [Laughs.] Maybe to an interviewer from Thailand.

And there it is. Boom.

I e-mailed David Marchese to congratulate him on his catch. I was also, I guess, hoping for an outtake or two, the rest of the conversation that he’d had to edit out, wherein DeLillo unpacked just how he’d come to write the book, and what he felt about the late-70s Rangers.

Alas.

What was there in the Times was all there was on Amazons, Marchese told me. “He just sort of laughed and changed the subject,” he wrote. “I didn’t really follow up on it because it seemed a little bit too much inside baseball (to mix metaphors) for the general reader.”

The novelist previously known as Cleo Birdwell

Ah, well. DeLillo’s admission doesn’t really change anything. Whether he wants to talk about it or not, the book’s prose is his, along with its vision, and that’s worth paying attention to. For all the hockey in Amazons (not to mention all the sex), the novel’s particular subject is, as Keith Gessen points out, America, “the dark schizy heart of it.” It’s a book, he writes, that’s “not about hockey in just the right way.”

At one point, 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 to host 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?”

Rookie Move: The cover of the 1980 U.S. first edition.

 

 

 

 

under review: dick merriwell’s stanchness

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.

under review: reading your way through a hockey hiatus

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.

 

buddy wasisname and the other fellers

If nothing else, “The Ice Ace From Nowhere” answers a question that no-one ever asked: where can I get me some concussion-themed fiction with a hockey slant?

I’m just really getting going, but here’s some of what I know of John Marshall’s serial tale of high crimes and head trauma: it was published in instalments through the fall of 1948 and into ’49 in a boisterous, boy’s-own English weekly called “The Champion” that somehow came to add hockey to its regular roster of adventures involving Indigenous footballers (Johnny Fleetfoot, Redskin Winger) and RAF pilots who used to be championship boxers (Rockfist Rogan).

I don’t know who Marshall was, or what else he wrote, but I can tell you that, so far, he’s gone all in on his post-concussion-syndrome storyline. Chapter one: man wakes up lying on the ice “of a frozen river in Canada.” Knowing not a thing about it (or anything), he asks himself the old Talking Heads puzzler: “How did I get here?” No clue. There’s a stick nearby and a puck; he’s wearing skates. “Guess I must have taken a big bump,” he tells himself, just like a hockey player. “I seem to have scrambled my brains a little. It’ll all come back to me in a minute.”

Nope.

Still, he figures out how to get himself going on skates. Attaboy. Within a couple of paragraphs he’s discovered a bag full of money. In a tree. Also? A helpful newspaper clipping suggesting that he may have killed a man while robbing a bank in Chicago before … skating north? The police must be after him, he decides; best to keep on skating? Before he can ponder much on that, he finds himself recruited to try out for a hockey team, the Gladiators, that just happens to be practicing around a bend of the river because, you know, Canada.

Our hero (villain?) doesn’t remember his name, so he can’t tell it to the Gladiators, who think he’s just shy, and dub him “Silent.” Uh-oh: as the scrimmaging starts, he realizes … he … he … doesn’t know the rules. So that might be a problem, especially if the Gladiators have a concussion spotter on staff. I’ll have to let you know how it goes: that’s as far as I’ve got in this particular brain-injury barn-burner.