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.

 

match point: hockey’s unlikeliest cautionary tale

Hockey historian Mike Commito’s daily Twitter miscellany of achievements and anniversaries yesterday revived this believe-it-or-not oddity from the annals of the icy past:

It’s a story that ran originally in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on Tuesday, February 18, 1930. The improbable news carried overseas, too, showing up in The Manchester Guardian in slightly abridged and Anglicized form that same day:

Hilarious. Well, not the phrase “badly burned:” that’s awful. The second clipping, abstracted, anonymized, is easier to laugh at than the first. What happened? How? Is it plausible that puckstruck matches could ignite? On Twitter, someone suggested that a call to Mythbusters might be in order.

I wanted to know more about Abie Goldberry. Was he okay? Did he recover? Make a return to the ice?

The London and New York stories originated with wire services; both would seem to have been more or less hastily rewritten for local consumption. The Guardian’s story suggests that the incident itself happened the day before, Monday. The typo-laden Brooklyn account bears the same Monday dateline, but also mentions “yesterday,” Sunday.

Sifting the archives of Montreal’s Gazette didn’t yield anything. I don’t have ready access to all the other Montreal papers from that era, the Star or Herald, but I did search French-language papers, La PatrieLa PresseLe Devoir. Nothing. I fed our unfortunate goaltender’s name to the standard hockey databases; none of them bit.

What if the name wasn’t Abie Goldberry? I tried another spelling, and another one. Yes. Okay. There was a hockey-playing Abie Goldberg in Montreal in 1930. As well as misspelling his and belongings, it seems, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle bungled Abie’s surname.

The new name didn’t get me anywhere in the Montreal papers, but it did unlock some vital statistics that may or may not be relevant to the case: an Abie Goldberg was born in Montreal on September 26, 1915, to Max and Mary (née Greenberg).

That Abie would have 14 in February of 1930, which makes it entirely possible that he’s our boy. Either way, a new search of Toronto papers for February of 1930 did turn up a detailed account of the matchbox story, also datelined to the Monday, in which Abie Goldberg is identified as the goaltender for a downtown Montreal team, the Dufferin Square Canadiens of the Quebec Amateur Hockey Association. “Today Abie is suffering from severe burns,” the Star reported:

When Abie changed from his school clothes to his hockey suit yesterday he transferred some odd things from his trousers to the back pocket of his hockey shorts. Included was a box of matches and a celluloid comb.

Everything went well until the second period, and Abie was guarding the net when a hard shot struck the box of matches in his pocket. The matches burst into flames, igniting the celluloid comb and also Abie’s trousers.

That’s all. As before, if the story prompts a sympathetic wince, it’s parcelled up for its novelty, as a comical anecdote. No confirmation here of the Brooklyn account of players and fans dousing the flames, nor of Abie’s removal to hospital, his condition, or prognosis — or (for that matter) of the outcome of the game.

And with that, all the Abies, both Goldberry and Goldberg, vanished from the news. No further bulletins, it seems, reached Toronto or Brooklyn or Manchester — none that I’ve been able to find, anyway.

Back in Montreal, the Gazette did take note, two years later, of the grave news that an Abie Goldberg had died. This was December of 1932 now. The age given doesn’t exactly match up with the Abie born in 1915, and nor do the names of the parents. And this Abie, who’s buried in Montreal Baron De Hirsch Jewish Cemetery, wasn’t tending nets in the year of his death. We could be talking, I guess, about as many as three different Abie Goldbergs. Could be, too, that there’s just the one, who died too young, even as his legacy lives on as hockey’s unlikeliest cautionary tale.