tony o in the soo: of sock-hockey, smelts, and dandelion greens

Tony Esposito got his first pair of skates, used, from a cousin, when he was five years old. “I really thought they were something,” he would later recall, as a tender of nets for the Chicago Black Hawks. Older by a year, brother Phil had started off tying double-runner skates strapped to his boots. Phil’s first proper skates were several sizes too big — he’d remember, with chagrin, having to wear three pairs of woolen socks to find a fit.

This was in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, decades before the Espositos got to the NHL to launch their respective Hall-of-Fame careers. Tony, younger by a year than Phil, turns 76 today. Born on a Friday of this date in 1943, he would start his big-league career as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. Understudying Rogie Vachon and Gump Worsley, Esposito got first start in December of 1968 against his brother’s Boston Bruins. Phil scored twice in a game that ended in a 2-2 tie; Tony made 33 saves. Backing up Vachon, he didn’t play a game in the playoffs that year, though he did get his name on the Stanley Cup when Montreal beat the St. Louis Blues in four games in the spring of ’69.

Chicago claimed him on waivers that same year, and while the Stanley Cup would elude his grasp in his 15 seasons there, his personal excellence was rewarded over the years. Starting his Black Hawks’ career in style, he won the Calder Trophy in 1969-70 as the NHL’s best rookie, along with the Vézina Trophy and a place on the First All-Star team. He’d claim two more Vézinas, in ’72 and ’74, and he was an All-Star again in ’74 and 1980.

In 1971, Tony and Phil collaborated with writer Tim Moriarty to publish a memoir, The Brothers Esposito, that offers first-person glimpses of their early years, indiscretions, and hockey formation. To kick off chapter three (“Mother Plays Goalie”), Phil recalls that he ran a little wild in the early 1950s as a teenager in the Soo. Nothing too serious, he says — mostly staying out late, stealing his father’s car, getting “nailed by the police” for “minor violations like disturbing the peace.”

Domestically, Phil summons up the family’s move from the city’s west end to a somewhat fancier eastern neighbourhood. The new house, he remembers, “had everything — an inter-com system, stereo and hi-fi, and large rooms, including a recreation room that must have measured 30 by 40 feet.” He goes on:

We used to hold some great practice sessions in that rec room. Instead of using a puck, we’d get an old sock, a big one, and roll it up and tie it with a ribbon. Then Tony and I would take turns shooting with the sock, which would slide very easily across the floor.

Most of the time, Tony was the goaltender. But I remember my mother [Frances] coming downstairs to check on us and we’d put her in goal. She’d get down on her hands and knees and we’d shoot at her. After beating her a couple of times, she would say, “Okay, boys, that’s enough. You’re taking advantage of your poor mother.” Then she would return to her kitchen and prepare our next meal.

My mother couldn’t play goal too well, but she was a great cook. One meal I loved then, which I haven’t had since I was a kid, was a special dish consisting of smelts and dandelion greens. We’d have them with fresh Italian bread from the bakery. Man, than was a feast. Tony, though, didn’t like the greens. He said they tickled his throat.

 

 

net presence

The first time Gerry McNeil defended the Montreal Canadiens’ net was in 1947, when he relieved an injured Bill Durnan at the Forum midway through a meeting with the New York Rangers. Montreal lost a 1-0 lead that night; the Rangers won 5-3. McNeil “wasn’t given the best of protection,” the Gazette’s Dink Carroll wrote, “but the fact remains that Durnan’s absence was felt.” McNeil started the next night, too, against Boston, holding the Bruins to a 2-2 tie. “Steady but unspectacular” was the verdict on that performance.

Born in Quebec City on a Saturday of this date in 1926, McNeil remains largely unsung in the annals of Montreal goaltending greatness. To demonstrate why that’s not fair you might cite the fact that in all four seasons in which he was Montreal’s first-choice puckstop, from 1950 through ’54, Canadiens made it to the Stanley Cup finals. “The plucky goaler,” Dink Carroll called him in 1953 when McNeil led his team to a championship with a fifth-game shutout of the Boston Bruins. Often remembered as the man Toronto’s Bill Barilko scored on to win the 1951 Cup for the Maple Leafs, McNeil ended up playing parts of seven seasons with Montreal. His last stint as a Canadien came during the 1956-57 regular season when he returned from retirement to sub in for an asthmatic Jacques Plante. Canadiens won a Cup that year, too.

Gerry McNeil died in 2004 at the age of 78. For more on his life and times, his son David McNeil very good book is the one you want. In The Pressure of the Moment: Remembering Gerry McNeil (2016) also happens to be a fascinating cultural study of the game as well an incisive guide to the arts and anguishes of goaltending.

under review: in bed and in nova scotia, hockey’s fiction is heating up

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 multitudesbut 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
Tyler Hellard
Invisible Publishing, 208 pp., C$19.95

The Last Hockey Player
Bretton Loney
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
Kelly Jamieson
Loveswept/Random House Canada (Kindle Edition), 264 pp., C$5.99

four score

The Detroit Red Wings are honouring Red Kelly tonight, retiring the number four he wore for most of the 13 seasons he spent with the team before he retired this month in 1960. Kelly, who’s 91, will be on hand at Little Caesars Arena for the ceremony, which will take place ahead of Detroit’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs — the team he unretired to join two days after quitting. He wore a four in Toronto, too, a number the Leafs honoured in his name (and Hap Day’s) back in 2016.

The story in 1960 was that the Red Wings tried to trade a 32-year-old Kelly, along with teammate Billy McNeill, to the New York Rangers in exchange for Bill Gadsby and Eddie Shack. But neither Kelly nor McNeill were having any of it, and both decided to retire. Kelly reconsidered when a new deal was arranged to take him to Toronto — the Leafs got Marc Reaume. (McNeill went home to Edmonton to play for the WHL Flyers. He would return, briefly, to the Red Wings in 1962.)

As a defenceman in Detroit, Kelly won four Stanley Cups, a Norris Trophy, and three Lady Byngs. Coach Punch Imlach shifted him to centre in Toronto, where he won a further four Cups and another Lady Byng. His career as an NHL coach saw him steer the Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Leafs, too. Red Kelly was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969.

Kelly published a memoir of his own in 2016, called (straightforwardly enough) The “Red” Kelly Story. (Waxy Gregoire and David Dupuis aided in the effort.) But it’s to 1971 I think we’ll return here, to Red Kelly, a short and vividly illustrated biography that Stan Obodiac wrote as part of the “Great Hockey Player Series.” It’s here that we discover just what fuelled number four in his hockey-playing days:

Kelly loved his breakfasts and this is what he ate: pineapple juice (he says it’s good for your wind), cereal, usually Corn Flakes (at St. Michael’s College he ate so many boxes of corn flakes that the students called him “Corn Flakes Kelly”), coffee, toast, and honey (even in his adult life Kelly ordered honey by the case from a Simcoe supplier, because it was the kind of honey he loved as a boy.)

At lunch he usually had pineapple juice again, fruit salad, again ordered by the case, a T-bone steak, peas, and a baked potato — the standard foods for a hockey player. He loved ice cream and, when the season right, his father used to send him strawberries from his Simcoe farm.

For extra pep and energy, Red concocted a mixture of orange juice, one raw egg, the juice of one-quarter lemon, and three teaspoons of sugar.

howling for blood and more blood, with shouts of “get him! get that man!”

St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, is proud of its puck-pushing heritage, styling itself as a bit of a hockey cradle: the first organized game in the United States is supposed to have been played on the ice of the prestigious prep school’s Lower School Pond in 1883. American hockey’s late great lamented legend Hobey Baker learned to ply the puck there, before making his name at Princeton and with New York’s St. Nicholas Club. Other prominent hockey-playing graduates include a couple of teammates from St. Paul’s 1961-62 varsity team: former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Robert Mueller, the erstwhile director of the F.B.I. now quietly toiling as Special Counsel for the Department of Justice.

During the 1920s, the hockey coach at St. Paul’s was Thomas K. Fisher, a veteran of World War I who’d played previously for Harvard’s varsity team. When he wasn’t out on the ice, he did his best to spread the hockey gospel across the U.S. by way of pen on printed page. In 1926, he published Ice Hockey, an instructional guide for players and coaches. Dedicated to the memory of Hobey Baker, it laid a heavy emphasis on sportsmanship and, well, purity of play. Sample sentence, from the book’s opening chapter: “The individual player in nine cases out of ten desires with his whole heart that the rules be followed and the game be clean, for otherwise it is not hockey and degenerates into food for the lower appetites of the purely bloodthirsty.”

Fisher would elaborate on his theme in the cover story he contributed to St. Nicholas magazine in early 1929. The piece is a lengthy one, and ranges widely, back through the history of the sport and on through Baker’s glorious collegiate career. For all that, it does show Fisher to be pre-occupied, still, with the game’s seamier side. His optimism appears to have waned. In this exasperated excerpt he almost seems ready to give up on the game’s corrupters, not to mention those guilty of egging them on:

It seems almost incredible that in a country noted for its fair-mindedness and sportsmanship, players should deliberately reach out and trip a more skillful opponent to prevent a score, or hurl an opponent to the ice, hit him with a stick, crash him against the side-boards, or even strike him with the fist. That a player so mistreated should resent such dirty play is very proper; that he should even lose his temper to the extent of seeking revenge in fisticuffs is not incredible, though deplorable, but it is then a sad fact that a sportsmanlike game has degenerated into a gladiatorial contest. Here is where many members of the general public are to blame, for they seem to forget that they have come to see a game of skillful skating, clever dodging, well-timed passing, and exhilarating team play, and howl for blood and more blood with shouts of “Get him! Get that man! Kill him!” They should have gone to a boxing contest if they lusted for a fight, but even then I suppose such people would have been disappointed, for boxers wear padded gloves and would hardly discard them to grasp a neighborly cane with which to brain an opponent.

terry sawchuk: big hands, fast reflexes, an already much-stitched face

Wheelmen: Detroit’s powerful 1959 line-up included (from left) Marcel Pronovost, Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly, coach Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio, and Gordie Howe.

“He has big hands, fast reflexes, and an unorthodox, gorillalike crouch — ‘I feel more comfortable down there.’” So chronicled Life magazine’s unnamed writer in a February, 1952 feature profiling Detroit Red Wing goaltender Terry Sawchuk. Winnipeg-born on this date when it was a Saturday in 1929, Sawchuk was a mere 22 in ’52, and just halfway through his second season in the NHL, but already Life was prepared to proclaim him the greatest goalie ever. In 50 games up to that point in the season, he’d accumulated ten shutouts and a miserly average of 1.86 goals a game. He’d play all of the Red Wings’ 70 games that year, and be named to the NHL’s First All-Star while winning the first of his four career Vézina trophies. That same spring, Sawchuk would backstop the Red Wings to the first of the four Stanley Cups he’d get his name on before he died, aged 40, in 1970. Already in ’52, Life was registering the damage he’d sustained doing his duty, noting that it wasn’t so healthy for a man in his position to be guessing where the puck was going and getting it wrong: “Sawchuk has 40 stitches on his face to prove it.”

Sawchuk’s eventful story is the subject of a Canadian biopic due for release in 2019. It’s a narrative (as some early production notes explain) that explores Sawchuk’s youth as well as his 20-year, five-team NHL career — “during which he recorded 103 shutouts and 400 stitches to his face.”

Filmed mostly in Sudbury, Ontario, earlier this year, Goalie (Blue Ice Pictures) stars Mark O’Brien as the man himself. It also features Kevin Pollak in the role of Detroit GM Jack Adams. Adriana Maggs is directing; with her sister Jane Maggs, she also co-wrote the screenplay that draws on both the poems in Night Work (2008) by their father, Randall Maggs, and David Dupuis’ 1998 biography Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World’s Greatest Goalie.

stanley caps

ALLCAPSOFF: Back when the Washington Capitals still hadn’t won any Stanley Cups, Ron Low was one of their goaltenders. This was the design that maskmaker Greg Harrison conjured for him to wear that season, 1975-76, the Caps’ second, as depicted in Michael Cutler’s Great Hockey Masks (1983). With Low sharing the nets with Bernie Wolfe and Michel Belhumeur, Washington finished slightly better than they had a year a year earlier, posting a record of 11-59-10. That was three more wins than in their inaugural season, even if it wasn’t quite good enough to haul them up past the Kansas City Scouts and out of last place overall.