the spy who came into the cold

Cold Warriors: Moscow Dynamo, 1977-78, poses with their famous British double-agent sports psychologist. Front row (left to right): Vasili Pervukhin, Valeri Vasiliev, Alexander Maltsev, Kim Philby, unidentified KGB officer, head coach Vladimir Yurzinov, KGB officer, assistant coach Vitali Davydov. Middle row: Valeri Nazarov, Alexei Frolikov, Mikhail Slipchenko, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, Anatoli Sevidov, Sergei Babariko, Anatoli Motovilov, Alexander Filippov, Vladimir Orlov, Vladimir Polupanov, unidentified masseur (?), equipment manager Alexander Steblin. Back row: Vitali Filippov, Alexander Golikov, Ravil Gataulin, Vladimir Devyatov, Prtr Prirodin, Vladimir Semenov, Vladimir Golubovich, Yevgeny Kotlov, Vladimir Golikov. Wall: Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin.

He was, as Margaret Atwood said, “a towering writer;” historian Simon Sebag Montefiore called him “the titan of English literature.”

“As a writer he transcended mere genre,” John Banville told The Guardian, “showing that works of art could be made out of the tired trappings of the espionage novel — The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of the finest works of fiction of the 20th century. As a deviser of plots and a teller of stories, he was at the same level of greatness as Robert Louis Stevenson. His books will live as long as people continue to read.”

John le Carré died of pneumonia on December 12 in his native England at the age of 89. If you’ve been a reader of his, your sorrow at the news may have, like mine, been mixed with the awe at his legacy as a storyteller, and with the anticipation of getting back to his books to revisit it.

“Writers and spies [share] the same ‘corrosive eye,’ as Graham Greene put it: that wish to penetrate the surface to the centre and truth of things.” That’s from an Economist eulogy earlier this week for the man who was born David Cornwell. It was under that name, of course, that he had a career as an intelligence officer for Britain’s MI6 before he started publishing stories of spies in 1961 as le Carré.

And the hockey connection? With thanks to Denis Gibbons, the distinguished hockey journalist, author, and fellow member of the Society of International Hockey Research who alerted me to the photo here, I’ve got one of those to shop.

Cornwell’s career in intelligence came to an end in 1964. Working out of the British Embassy in Bonn, West Germany, he was one of the agents whose cover was betrayed to the KGB by the infamous British double agent Kim Philby, a member of the Cambridge Five.

Philby was the inspiration for le Carré’s most famous novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), the first work in his Karla trilogy.

As for the man himself, Philby defected to Moscow in 1963. As Ben Macintyre details in his 2014 book A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, he spent his initial years more or less under house arrest, writing his memoirs. Eventually, in the early 1970s, the KGB put him to work, mostly in the service of their disinformation departments, making stuff up to confound Western spy agencies.

Philby also, it seems, had a gig as a sports psychologist. As Macintyre writes:

He did odd jobs for the Soviet state, including training KGB recruits and helping to motivate the Soviet hockey team — even though, as [his former friend, the MI6 intelligence officer Nicholas] Elliott once noted, he was addicted to cricket and “showed no interest whatsoever in any other sort of sport.”

I’d love to know more about the hockey motivation, of course. Macintyre’s phrasing, so far as it goes, seems to suggest he worked with the Soviet national team, which would make sense. Did he also consult for CSKA Moscow, the so-called Red Army team, or others? The team he’s shown with here, Dynamo Moscow, was in Soviet days associated with the Ministry of Interior and the KGB, so maybe did they alone command Philby’s counsel?

For the record, the year this photograph was taken, 1977-78, Dynamo finished second that year in the Soviet championship, 13 points behind CSKA. North American browsers of the Dynamo line-up will recognize the names Valeri Vasiliev, Alexander Maltsev, maybe a few others. CSKA’s manpower included Vladislav Tretiak, Valeri Kharlamov, Vladimir Petrov, Helmut Balderis, Viacheslav Fetisov, Boris Mikhailov, and Vladimir Lutchenko.

On a visit he made to Moscow in 1987, le Carré had a chance to meet Philby. “It was tough to resist,” the writer told George Plimpton in a 1997 Paris Review interview, “but I did. The invitation was renewed and I still wouldn’t go. Then a British journalist, Phil Knightly, went and saw Philby right at the end of his life. Philby knew he was dying. Knightly said, What do you think of le Carré? Philby replied, I don’t know. I quite like the books, but the fellow doesn’t care for me. He must know something about me.”

Like Mikhailov and Tretiak, Kim Philby was a recipient of the Order of Lenin, the Soviet Union’s highest reward for meritorious service. When Philby died in 1988, a postage stamp was issued to commemorate his life. He was accorded a grand funeral with a KGB honour guard.

Kim Philby’s grave is in Kuntsevo Cemetery, outside Moscow. As it so happens, Valeri Kharlamov and Vsevolod Bobrov are buried there, too.

cleveland’s dr. no

Stitch Up: Gerry Cheevers on the cover of an Edmonton Oilers program from November of 1975. “Cleveland’s Dr. No” the accompanying story was headlined. On the ice, the Oilers won the game, 4-1.

A birthday today for Gerry Cheevers, born in St. Catharines, Ontario, on a Saturday of this date in 1940: he’s 80. He launched his NHL goaltending career with a pair of games for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1961 before he got into the Boston Bruins’ net in 1965. Steering over to the WHA in 1972, Cheevers played parts of four seasons with the Cleveland Crusaders. He won the Ben Hatskin Award as the league’s best goaltender in his first season there, and anchored the Canadian net when the WHA selects took on the Soviet Union in 1974. He returned to the Bruins in 1976, playing a further five NHL seasons before he retired at the end of the 1979-80 campaign. His famous mask was designed and built by a former plumbing superintendent in Boston, Ernie Higgins, though it was Bruins trainer Frosty Forristall who gets the credit for its famous decoration. Here’s Cheevers telling the tale in Unmasked, the 2011 memoir he wrote with an assist from Marc Zappulla:

The protection the mask afforded me gave me more time on the ice and less time in the locker room getting stitched up, which was nice. However, I hated the color of that thing. It was white. I hated white. I seldom even wore white socks. And if I happened to look down when I did, I felt a fright as if I was exposed to something with ill consequences. Call it what you want: a phobia, or outright disdain for this wholesome shade. The sight of this glimmering, shiny, white mold engaged to my facial pores drove me nuts. The color itself is a sign of purity and that wasn’t me. I was quite the opposite. In fact, I was driven by an unconventional thought process and a wayward nature my whole life; the white had to go.

And so?

One morning I tried to get out of practice, which, again, was the norm for me, not the exception. I was in net when a puck flipped up and grazed mask. The puck’s force was so softly propelled, that, had I not been wearing the mask I seriously doubt I’d have so much as a scratch on my face. It was weak, but I faked like it wasn’t. I winced in pain, came off the ice, and headed into the dressing room. I sat down and sparked up a cigarette when [Bruin coach] Harry Sinden came in and said, “Get you ass out there, you’re not hurt!”

So, before I collected myself and got back on the ice, Frosty the trainer said, “Here, hold it.”

Frosty broke out a sharpie and drew in four or five stitches where I had undoubtedly been hit, right above the eye, I believe it was. Everyone got a kick out of it, so I told Frosty, “Fros, every time I get hit with a puck, or the stick comes up, take care of it.” He did, and all the marks were legit.

my first hockey game: bill fitsell

Big Bomber Command: Bill Fitsell still has the notebooks he kept as a boy in the 1930s to celebrate his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Open on his desk at home in Kingston, Ontario, is his record of the first NHL game he ever attended, when he was 12, in 1936.

Bill Fitsell’s importance as a hockey historian isn’t easy to measure, so let’s just say this: it’s immense. He’s far too modest to elaborate on that himself, so I’ll step in, if I may, to mention the trails he’s blazed in researching hockey’s origins and geographies; his books, including Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings (1987) and How Hockey Happened (2006); his leadership at Kingston’s International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum; also that The Society for International Hockey Research got its start as a notion of his, and when it launched in 1991, he stepped up to serve as its inaugural president.

Fitsell, who turned 97 this past July, is also a legendary newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, a veteran of the Kingston Whig-Standard, which is where I first met him, years ago, and got to know just how good and generous a soul he is. In hockey terms, his calibre might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.

With word this week that Bill is under care at a Kingston hospital, I’m sending best wishes, and doing my best to infuse these paragraphs with hopes for his speedy recovery.

I’ve visited Bill in Kingston several times over the past few years, when I’ve been in from Toronto, back when there was still such a thing as dropping by to say hello. Bill has been working for a while on a new book collecting and commemorating hockey poetry and lyrics and doggerel, and we’d talk about that, and about the Maple Leafs.

Bill has been backing Toronto’s team for all the years going back to his childhood in the 1930s, which is when Toronto’s superstar right winger Charlie Conacher ensconced himself as his all-time favourite player.

Born in Barrie in 1923, Bill had moved east with his family to Lindsay in 1927. In 1942, at the age of 19, he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and was on active service through 1946. In 1945, he’d met and married the former Barbara Robson — the couple celebrated their 75thanniversary earlier this fall — and when Bill was discharged from the Navy, the couple settled in Lindsay.

That’s where Bill got his first newspaper job, at the Lindsay Post. He joined the Whig-Standard in Kingston in 1962, and he continued there until 1993.

One winter’s afternoon last year, over coffee near Bill’s lakeshore home, with the modern-day edition of the Leafs lurching a little, finding new ways to lose games they’d been winning, upsetting the faithful, we turned again from the future to the past.

That’s when I asked: did he remember the first NHL game he attended?

Yes. Yes, he did. 1936. He was 12 years old. With his dad, he drove a couple of hours to Toronto from Lindsay with … some others: they were a party of five in all. At Maple Leaf Gardens, they were close to the ice, in five seats on the rail, at $2.50 apiece — “where later Harold Ballard would jam in seven paying customers,” Fitsell laughed.

I eventually tracked down the facts of the matter, but that afternoon I was happy for the gleams and textures of Bill’s decades-old memories. The Boston Bruins were in town; the Leafs won. Turk Broda, he recalled, was in the Toronto net; Conacher, he thought, was out with an injury. There was a fight … he paused to picture it. Probably … Toronto’s turbulent Red Horner and Boston’s Eddie Shore? Fans all around the Fitsell faction began to toss their programs towards the melee on the ice; Bill braved the bombardment to run down rinkside to retrieve one. “I guess,” he told me, “that’s when I became a collector.”

Back in his office at home, Bill retrieved the notebook in which he’d memorialized that and other Leaf games in the ’30s. January 18, 1936, a Saturday. When all was said and done, the Leafs had beaten the Bruins 5-2. “One of those wild, free-clouting brawls beloved of the hockey customer,” was how Andy Lytle assessed the evening’s proceedings in the Toronto Daily Star.

Actually, it was George Hainsworth in the Toronto net that night, with Tiny Thompson guarding the Boston goal. The Leafs, who’d been Stanley Cup finalists in 1935, had hit a post-Christmas skid: heading into their meeting with the Bruins they were winless in five games. Charlie Conacher’s injury was to his shoulder, and he was expected to be off skates for as much as two weeks; Joe Primeau, his Lindsay-born centreman, was out with a cold. The Leafs were trying to keep pace with the Montreal Maroons atop the NHL’s Canadian Section of the standings; the Bruins were sunken down at the bottom of the American side of the ledger.

Sew It Is: Leaf physician Dr. J.W. Rush stitches King Clancy on the Saturday night in ’36 that Bill Fitsell saw his first NHL game.

Also on hand from the Star was Sports Editor Lou Marsh (also a sometime NHL referee). “A brawl,” Marsh called it, and “a game of hurley on ice.” Oh, and “a bitter struggle which fostered gales of lusty roaring from the drop of the rubber tart to the final gong.”

The first period ended without a goal. The fight that Bill recalled got going in the early minutes, involving defenceman Hap Day of the Leafs and Boston’s Red Beattie, both of whom incurred major penalties, though Lou Marsh classified it as “blowless.” Red Horner earned himself a 10-minute misconduct in the same sequence for saying something nasty to referee Mike Rodden — none of the contemporary accounts specify, of course, what it might have been.

By the end of the second, the Leafs were up 3-1, getting goals from Art Jackson, Pep Kelly, and Andy Blair, with Boston’s goal going to Cooney Weiland.

Toronto’s King Clancy got an early goal in the third. “By this time the Toronto audience was as excited as a roomful of children with the chimney corner hung with filled stockings,” Andy Lytle gushed.

Boston dimmed the mood a little after Day used his hand to smother the puck near enough the Toronto goal that Boston was awarded a penalty shot. Babe Siebert stepped up to beat Hainsworth. Another Bruin defenceman scored the final goal, Eddie Shore, though he would have wished it away, if he could have. He was trying to bat away a rebound from his own goaltender, Thompson, but instead batted the puck into the net for an own goal; Toronto’s Bill Thoms got the credit.

“Most fans,” Lou Marsh further enthused, “went home chirping cheerily that they had seen the best game of a couple of seasons.”

“The crowd was in a continual surging, screaming uproar as the squadrons charged relentlessly, ceaselessly up and down, floundering, thudding, crashing, skidding, as they chased each other and the flying bootheel. The attacks beat upon the defences like white-fanged waves upon the sullen rocks of a storm-threshed coast.”

“In other words … it was a great game!”

For all the excitement of Bill’s first foray to Maple Leaf Gardens, another slightly earlier encounter with his beloved Maple Leafs is bright in his memory, too. A year before the Fitsells made their way to Toronto, the Leafs had paid a visit to Lindsay.

January of 1935, this was. “The Leafs came in and played a blue-and-white game,” Bill recalled on another visit of mine. “And that was a big thrill.”

Lindsay’s Pioneer Rink had burned down several years before that, in 1931 or so. For a few winters afterwards, Bill told me, all the hockey that he and his friends were playing — as in the photograph here — was on outdoor rinks around town. Under the sponsorship of the local Kiwanis Club, a community fundraising drive eventually raised $17,000 to pay for a new arena, and when it was built and ready to open, the Leafs were invited to aid in the opening gala. Thanks to the Joe Primeau connection, they’d accepted.

The president of the OHA was in town, along with the secretary, W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father. Three bands were on hand, too. Along with the anthems and speeches the schedules featured displays of fancy skating, including one by a quartet of maiden sisters named Dunsford, the youngest of whom was 66. An all-star Lindsay team was slated to play an exhibition game against a line-up of players drawn from the local county. But it was the Leafs’ abridged scrimmage at 5 o’clock in the afternoon that was the star attraction.

“The admission was $1,” Bill remembered.

Fourteen Leafs had made the bus trip from Toronto along with coach Dick Irvin. Two days earlier, they’d dropped a 1-0 game to the Detroit Red Wings; two days later, they’d return to the Gardens to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. In Lindsay, Benny Grant anchored one side in goal, with Hap Day and Flash Hollett on defence. Skating up front was Baldy Cotton along with the Kid Line: Primeau, Busher Jackson, and Bill’s idol, Charlie Conacher. At the other end of the ice, George Hainsworth took the net along with Red Horner, Buzz Boll, King Clancy, Hec Kilrea, Andy Blair, and Bill Thoms. They scored plenty of goals in they played, with Grant’s team prevailing 7-6.

Earlier in the day, 11-year-old Bill and his buddies had spent the afternoon waiting for the Leafs to arrive. “When they get off the bus from Toronto, I introduced them to all my team — we were called the Maple Leafs.”

Later, he cornered the coach. “I had my sister’s autograph book, and I saw Dick Irvin in the waiting room, all alone. So I got his attention and he signed it, Dick Irvin, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the date. A full page. And on the other side was where my sister had written Roses are red, violets are blue.”

Later, a friendly go-between took the book into the hall where the players were eating their suppers. When Bill got it back again, the whole team had signed their names.

“It really was a great thrill,” he said, 84 years later.

Hockey Captain, Colonel, & King: With the Leafs’ famous Kid Line over his shoulder, Bill Fitsell at home in Kingston in 2019.

Updated, 12/5/2020: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of that first game of Bill’s: it was played on Saturday, January 18, 1936, when Bill was 12. 

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.

 

 

 

 

howie meeker, 1923—2020

Sorry to hear the news today that, just days after his 97th birthday, Howie Meeker has died. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1923, Meeker broke into the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1946. He won the Calder Trophy that season as the league’s top rookie, just three years after he’d been injured in a training accident involving a grenade while he was serving in the Canadian Army. Meeker went on to play eight seasons on the Toronto right wing, winning four Stanley Cups for his efforts. He was elected to Canada’s Parliament in 1951, while he was still skating for the Leafs, and served two years the Progressive Conservative MP representing the southern Ontario riding of Waterloo South.

Meeker’s tenure as coach of the Leafs lasted just a single season, 1956-57, and when the team fell short of the playoffs, Billy Reay replaced him as he took on duties as Toronto’s GM. He started job with a bang, signing 19-year-old Frank Mahovlich to a contract on his very first day in office. The thrill didn’t last: Meeker was dismissed before the pucks dropped to start the new season. He upped skates, next, for Newfoundland: Premier Joey Smallwood wanted him to come and help develop the province’s youth hockey program, so he did that.

As a player, the adjectives that adhered to Meeker were speedyand pugnacious. If you’re of an age to recall his fervent years at the Telestrator on CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada, you might remember that his style as a broadcaster was much the same, and how he shook the nation weekly with his barky sermonizing. His enthusiasm for teaching hockey fundamentals extended to summer skills camps as well as to books.

Howie Meeker’s Hockey Basics (1973) was influential enough to have been the only hockey-minded volume to be included in The Literary Review of Canada’s 2006 listing of Canada’s all-time Most Important Books. The author himself professed some shock that his modest 1973 paperback was mingling in the company of Margaret Atwood, Stephen Leacock, Jacques Cartier, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. “You’re kidding,” Meeker said when he heard the news. “That’s sensational.”

Embed from Getty Images

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.

 

books that hockey players read: goosefellas

Ebbie Goodfellow, who was born in Fallowfield, Ontario, on Ottawa’s edge, on a Monday of this very date in 1906, was a Detroit Olympic and a Falcon and a Cougar early in his career, but he built his Hall-of-Fame name as a Red Wing. He played at both centre and on defence during his 13 NHL seasons, wearing the number 5 on his sweater as he captained the Red Wings in 1934-35 and again from 1938 through 1941. Winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player in 1939-40, Goodfellow was (as The Ottawa Journal testified) “possessed of one of the hardest and truest shots in hockey.” His Red Wings were Stanley Cup champions in 1936 and again in ’37. When a leg injury curtailed his playing career in 1941, he carried on as a coach assisting head Detroit honcho Jack Adams, and it was in that capacity that Goodfellow got his name on another Stanley Cup, in 1943. He gave Old Mother Goose a read-through at least once in his time, as is documented here, in the company of his loyal son, Ebbie, Jr., in February of 1939.

 

floral’s glory

It was on a Saturday of this date in 1928 that the peerless Gordie Howe was born in Floral, Saskatchewan. Of that source, Don O’Reilly (unkindly) wrote this in his 1975 biography, Mr. Hockey: The World of Gordie Howe: “Floral, Gordie’s birthplace, was once described by the New York Times as a granary on the grim high plains of Saskatchewan, settled by homesteaders somewhere out between Saskatoon and futility.” Advising up-and-comers in a 1963 instructional book, Mr. H himself offered this counsel to youngsters eager to follow him to the NHL.   “A priest once told me something I’ve never forgotten,” Howe wrote in called Hockey … Here’s Howe. “He said that you can have two of the following three things — hockey, social life, and education. You must have an education — so that leaves a choice between a social life or hockey.” The portrait here, painted by Jacques Tremblay, dates to 1965. Gordie Howe died at the age of 88 in June of 2016.

 

 

sliding, diving, falling down, jumping up, falling down again

“Anyone seeing Roger Crozier for the first time probably wouldn’t think he was watching just about the best goalie in the National Hockey League,” Tom Cohen wrote in the pages of his slim, admiring 1967 Crozier biography. “For one thing, Roger was short and skinny and looked a bit like a timid bank clerk. And he was always flopping around on the ice, sliding, diving, falling down, jumping up, falling down again. He didn’t use his stick as much as other goalies in the League used theirs. He stopped the puck with his legs or used his catching glove instead. And he had a habit of roaming far out in front of the goal. It didn’t seem possible for him to be able to get back in time if an attack came quickly. But Roger Crozier had become famous for doing the impossible. He made unbelievable saves, turned certain defeats into victories and played with injuries that should have put him in hospital.”

Born in Bracebridge, Ontario, on this date in 1942 (when it was also a Monday), Crozier played 14 seasons in the NHL, tending the twine for the Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, and Washington Capitals. He never did win a Stanley Cup, but he was named a First Team All-Star in 1965, the year he also earned the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in 1965. A year later, when his Red Wings fell to Montreal in the Finals, he was named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. Roger Crozier died at the age of 53 in 1996.

henri richard: a reader’s companion

16 + 9: John Taylor’s 1960 still life with skates and sweaters, left behind by brothers (and Canadiens legends) Henri and Maurice Richard.

“Henri Richard, the Pocket Rocket, doesn’t want to be a little gale in the wake of a rumbling hurricane. He wants to swirl through the National Hockey League under his own power, creating his own storms, if any, and reaping the respect of his rivals strictly on his own merits.”

That was the opening to a Vince Lunny cover story for Hockey Pictorial in March of 1956, towards the end of the younger Richard’s rookie season in the NHL. It didn’t take long, of course, for Henri, who died on Friday at the age of 84, to skate up a storm of his very own alongside Maurice, 14 years his elder. It was only two years later that Milt Dunnell took to Hockey Pictorial’s columns with Maurice’s take on how Henri was faring in the league. “The Rocket gives the opinion faster than he breaks over a blueline,” Dunnell wrote in April of 1958: ‘Henri is a better skater than I ever was. He’s a better stickhandler, he’s a better puck-carrier. Henri is a better hockey player.”

Rocket’s view wasn’t, perhaps, universal at the time — Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake, for one, wasn’t yet willing to declare Henri supreme among Richards. All these years later, the question of which brother was the more valuable player might well still start a debate that wouldn’t necessarily finish. What we do know is that Henri played 20 seasons with Montreal, amassing 1,175 points in 1,436 games, regular season and playoffs, winning an unmatched 11 Stanley Cups along the way. He captained the Canadiens from 1971 through to his retirement in 1975. The team retired his number, 16, that year; he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.

It’s true that Henri’s literary legacy doesn’t measure up to Maurice’s. A quick check of the bookshelf tells the tale: the elder Richard’s life and riotous times have been the focus of at least 12 books over the years, from Gerry Gosselin’s Monsieur Hockey (1950) to Jean-Marie Pellerin’s Maurice Richard: L’Idole d’un Peuple (1998) to The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard (2009) by Benoît Melançon. No-one (to date) has published Henri’s biography or devoted a volume to his place in hockey or Quebec history.

That’s not to say the younger Richard doesn’t figure in more general histories of the game. Stan Fischler’s 1971 Hab history The Flying Frenchmen, for instance, delves into the brothers’ relationship during Henri’s early days in the NHL and offers up this telling anecdote:

The Canadiens were in the midst of a workout when Henri rounded the net at full speed from one side and Maurice approached on the same track from the other direction. They collided violently and both fell to the ice unconscious. When they were finally revived, both were escorted to the first-aid room where Maurice needed 12 stitches to close his wound and his kid brother, six stitches.

Then, in a masterful understatement, Maurice intoned: “You’d better watch yourself. Henri. You might get hurt.”

Henri rates a chapter in Michael Ulmer’s Canadiens Captains (1996). And he’s a voice throughout Dick Irvin the Younger’s 1991 oral history, The Habs. That’s where you’ll find Henri doing his best to explain his infamous 1971 outburst wherein he called Al MacNeil the worst coach he’d ever played for:

“I didn’t really mean it, but it came out because I was mad. Al was a good guy. But I was just mad, and they made a lot of things about that in all the papers. Even Guy Lafleur, in his book. He said I said to MacNeil that he shouldn’t coach the Canadiens because he didn’t speak French, and all that shit. I never said that in my life.”

Trent Frayne’s Henri essay in his 1968 anthology of hockey profiles, It’s Easy, All You Have To Do is Win is worth seeking out. While you’re arranging that, maybe settle in with the inimitable Frayne’s 1958 Maclean’s Henri profile, which is archived here.

So far as odes and obituaries published in the days since Henri’s death, recommended readings would start with this piece by Dave Stubbs at NHL.com, which includes reflections from Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer.

Tom Hawthorn’s Globe and Mail obituary is deftly done and deserves a read, along with Roy MacGregor’s reminiscence, also in the Globe, which is here.

If you read French, take a look at Gaétan Lauzon’s coverage in La Presse, ici. Richard Goldstein wrote a New York Times obituary, published Saturday — that’s here.

If you missed Friday’s broadcast of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, you can download the March 6 podcast here (and should) to listen to Carol Off’s conversation with Henri’s Canadiens teammate Ken Dryden. It gets going at the 37.40 mark.

On Saturday night, Hockey Night in Canada opened with Ron MacLean’s conversation with Dick Irvin, which includes his thoughts on the origins of the nickname Pocket Rocket. There’s tape of that here, and worth your attention, if you didn’t catch it on the night.

One more? That would be Michael Farber’s Richard tribute at TSN, which you can find over this way.

(Top image: John Taylor, about 1960, silver salts on film, gelatin silver process, MP-1999.5.5032.4, © McCord Museum)

in the crease, behind the bench: ken dryden on scotty bowman

Habs Helmsman: Scotty Bowman patrols the Canadiens bench, circa the early 1970s.

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.

Ken Dryden (Image: Sergey Smirnov)

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