the thurso kid

Le Démon Blond: “The class of hockey,” winger Wayne Cashman of the Boston Bruins called Montreal’s Guy Lafleur in the late 1970s, when the two teams weren’t exactly kindred spirits. “Guy Lafleur is Guy Lafleur,” added Bruins’ coach Don Cherry, around that same time: “the greatest hockey player in the world today, bar none.” Anything to add, other Bruins’ winger John Wensink? “Guy Lafleur better have eyes in the back of his head, because I’m going to cut his ears off,” Wensink offered after a particularly spiteful encounter between the two teams in the playoffs for the 1977 Stanley Cup. Lafleur was supposed to have aimed a slapshot at the Bruins’ Mike Milbury and … but no. Whatever he did or didn’t do back then, on Lafleur’s birthday, let’s stick with the superlatives. “Quick, decisive, confident,” is what teammate Ken Dryden wrote of Thurso, Quebec’s own Flower, who turns now 67; “ever threatening, his jersey rippling, his hair streaming back the way no one else’s hair did.” That’s Lafleur’s statue above, photographed one November evening out where it guards the approaches to Montreal’s Bell Centre, on  permanent duty with his fellow tricolore titans, Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, and Jean Béliveau.

(Image: Stephen Smith)

under review: plan like subbans

A version of this review appeared in the October, 2017 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

If you’re someone who’s mothered a famous hockey player, chances are that you have not subsequently gone out and written a book about it. Is this because your parental pride is more private than, say, a father’s, your fulfillment so much the quieter? Or that you don’t feel the same urgent need to explain your son? Maybe. In the teeming library devoted to our beloved winter game, the books of hockey-parent lit may only fill a half-shelf, but this we know: almost all of them are written by fathers. There is something charmingly local about the fact that these books are published at all: only in Canada could there be enough oxygen to sustain such a sub-genre.

If hockey fathers (necessarily) antedate the birth of the sport itself, the dads of professional hockey players only started writing books in the early 1970s. First to the font was Murray Dryden, who, if he were a primary character in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, might be dubbed Father of Goaltenders. Dave and Ken’s dad was suitably satisfied when his sons both made the NHL, with Buffalo and Montreal, respectively—all the more so when they started against one another in a regular-season game in 1971. Dryden’s Playing The Shots At Both Ends (1972) is light and genial, a quick and agreeable excursion. At 156 pages, it set a standard of brevity that subsequent exemplars from the genus Pater librorum glaciem hockey have failed to follow.

The memoir Walter Gretzky published in 2001 was called On Family, Hockey, and Healing. After a stroke threatened Gretzky Senior’s life in 1991, he faced a long and complicated recovery. As a spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, he was as focussed on advocacy and promoting awareness as he was on spinning hockey tales about his son Wayne.

Published in both French and English editions, Michel Roy’s Patrick Roy: Winning, Nothing Else (2007) ran to more than 500 pages. It was positively militant in its mission, which was to cast Patrick as a hero and correct the public’s faulty perceptions of his character. People thought the younger Roy was testy, aloof, selfish, and they were wrong. “I wanted to present Patrick as he is,” Michel told an interviewer soon after the book was published. “I wanted to defend the truth.”

The exception to the rule of mothers not writing books is the memoir penned by the late Colleen Howe. Wife to Gordie, and mother to NHLers Mark and Marty, she was a force in her own right, which you will know if you’ve read My Three Hockey Players (1975). To my mind, it remains the most interesting of the parental hockey books: filled with anecdote and incident, it’s candid and bracingly caustic, knotty with grievance and criticism, holding nothing back.

The newest addition to the shelf, Karl Subban’s How We Did It: The Subban Plan For Success In Hockey, School and Life, fits in alongside Dryden and Gretzky, down at what we might call the more generous end of the shelf. With his son P.K. — at? nearing? — the peak of his game, Karl seems to be enjoying the moment as much as he might be hoping to seize an opportunity while his son is at centre-ice to tell his own story and shape it as a platform for his ideas on parenthood and mentoring young people. Writing with an assist from Scott Colby, an editor with the Toronto Star, Karl is in a sharing mood. I suspect that theirs might be the hockey-dad book that finds a wider audience than those that have gone before. This has to do with P.K.’s compelling personality and his philanthropy, both of which transcend the game he plays. More than any other player of recent note he has also managed to unsettle hockey’s sense of itself, and there will be readers from beyond the rink who will come to the book curious about questions of race and racism, the snubs and the insults that Subban has suffered, and how they’re coded, or not.

•••

A quick recap, for those who might have been exiled for a decade, on an atoll, far from Wi-Fi: Pernell Karl Subban is a vividly skilled 28-year-old defenceman who has been one of the NHL’s best since at least 2013, when he won the Norris Trophy. Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid: all of them can dominate a game and electrify a crowd. But is there a more consistently entertaining hockey player to watch, or one who seems to play with more joy than Subban? “Like Roger Federer, or Kevin Durant, or Yasiel Puig,” Ben McGrath wrote in a persuasive 2014 New Yorker profile, “[Subban] awes less because of the results he achieves than because of the way he achieves them — kinetic charisma, approaching genius.”

He was still a Montreal Canadien back then, beloved to many, infuriatingly flamboyant to others—a polarizing figure, including (the rumours went) within his own dressing room, and with his own coach, Michel Therrien, who was often critical of Subban’s defensive lapses. And as a columnist from USA Today wrote during last season’s playoffs, “Subban has haters.” The adjectives that have crowded into mentions of Subban’s hockey exploits over his eight years in the league include dynamic; freewheeling; passionate; booming (his shot); dazzling (his rushes); jaw-dropping (his creativity), but they also run to the more hostile emotional; individualistic; cocky; arrogant; and bigger than the team.

 Debate hasn’t stopped roiling in Montreal since he was traded in the summer of 2016 to Nashville, whose golden-garbed Predators he helped attain a berth in this last spring’s Stanley Cup finals. The fact that they lost there to Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t do anything to change that: regret weighs heavily to this day with many Montreal fans who can’t — and don’t want to — forget the on-ice skill and exuberance that made him one of most exciting athletes anywhere, in any sport, or his astonishing 2015 pledge to raise $10-million over seven years for the city’s Children’s Hospital.

For all its flashing lights and bold embrace of new markets (hello, Las Vegas), the NHL remains a bastion of staid and conservative attitudes. Because he is anything but, Subban has been accused of arrogance and disrespect, of excessive self-regard, of not knowing his station. As a rookie with the Montreal Canadiens, he was called out by the then-captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. “It’s just frustrating to see a young guy like that come in here,” whined Mike Richards, “and so much as think that’s he’s better than a lot of people.”

Never mind that Subban was better than a lot of people—as he always has and will be. Hockey’s brassiest establishment voice, Don Cherry, would soon be scolding him for daring to play with verve and personality; another, Mike Milbury, called him a clown during the spring’s playoffs, berating him for courting too much attention, and for the mortal sin of overt enthusiasm.

There is no good gauge of which of or how much, if at all, the reproaches directed Subban’s way have to do with the fact that he is a black man in a sport that has been so glaringly white for so long. There are books about that, too, including Herb Carnegie’s instructive 1997 memoir A Fly in a Pail of Milk. A stand-out scorer in the 1930s and ’40s who couldn’t find a way through hockey’s colour barrier, Carnegie never played an NHL game. He had no doubt that it was racism that kept him from cracking the New York Rangers’ line-up in 1948.

Readers who come to How We Did It in hopes of a broader discussion of race and racism in hockey may be left wanting. It’s not that Karl Subban seeks to avoid it, exactly, more that he addresses the issue as he sees fit and moves on. Yes, his son has run into his share of ignorant morons and their abhorrent slurs in his time playing hockey. No, Karl doesn’t think either — the slurs or the morons — is worth engaging; they’re nothing but distractions. “Racism is a fact of life,” he writes. Why give it permission to get in the way of where you’re going? In the book’s final pages, P.K. endorses his dad’s approach. And that’s as far as it goes.   Continue reading

this week: a mix of molasses, beaver, and oatmeal

true sport

Finally. The way the hockey-book writers cheered one of their own this week, you’d think the whole entire clan of them had been honoured by the Canadian chapter of the Jewish National Fund for their collective achievement in hockey scholarship rather than just the author of A Great Game. Forgive them their pride — these writers work alone, most of the time, shrouded in archival shadows. And if they want to step into the glow given off by the newly announced Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre in Israel’s north, near the Golan Heights — well, why not? This is their time, now — the birds can have theirs, later.

In Florida, Tampa Bay forward Steven Stamkos strolled into a press conference two weeks fracturing a shin. He was limping a little, to be sure, but he was “positive and hopeful” — and not ruling out a return in time to play for Canada at the Sochi Olympics in February. Was he shoved on the play, by Boston defenceman Dougie Hamilton? Yes, he thought so. But in time he’d realized: it was “a hockey play.” He hadn’t heard from Hamilton, but Bruins’ captain Zdeno Chara had texted him and the coach, Claude Julien, visited him in hospital.

Also looking this week to the Olympics was Brian Burke, who talked to Eric Francis of The Calgary Sun. If Canada’s the favourite to win in Sochi, according to Burke, another team that unnerves him is Russia. Sorry, that’s not quite right: Russia scares “the living hell” out of him:

“Because it’s their home soil, it’s going to be crazy there, and we hear rumours of huge bonuses for players if they win gold.”

At The Hockey News, Matt Larkin was counting, this week, and that’s how he determined that as of Monday, in the 82 games Sidney Crosby played over the past three seasons, he had 123 points to his name.

Profiling David Booth, Dave Ebner of The Globe and Mail told of the Vancouver winger’s love of the hunt:

For a show on a niche network, Wild TV, Booth killed a black bear with a bow in Alberta after luring it with a pile of bait, a mix of molasses, beaver, and oatmeal. Bear baiting is illegal in British Columbia and numerous U.S. states. Booth broadcast his exploits on Twitter.

Gary Bettman’s week included a big headache and a big deal. Head first: in Washington, former players with lawyers launched a lawsuit citing the NHL’s negligence when it comes to its handling head injuries over “the past decades.” From a statement by Mel Owens, one of the lead lawyers:

In 2004 the NHL introduced a series of updates to the rule-set to encourage a faster, more exciting, and ultimately more marketable product. As a result, the number of violent in-game collisions and occurrence of head trauma have increased. When coupled with the NHL’s refusal to protect players by banning full-body checking or penalizing on-ice fist fights, the league has created a dangerous atmosphere for players. The complaint alleges that the NHL either ignores or consistently lags behind other hockey leagues in adopting protections for players in accordance with current medical knowledge of concussions. Instead, the NHL continues to glorify and empower players known as “enforcers” — players with the singular intention of injuring the opposing team.

Bettman’s response was terse: “We believe this is a lawsuit without merit.”

He was much happier to talk about the massive deal he did, the 12-year, C$5.232-billion media rights agreement that all but wiped TSN off the hockey-broadcasting map; threw Hockey Night in Canada’s long-term future into doubt (not to mention the CBC’s), and united the country’s curiosity around the vital question: what about Don Cherry?

Who, of course, spoke up on Saturday night, between periods. The lawsuit is, as far as he’s concerned, a moneygrab; nonsense; a moneygrab; ridiculous; a disgrace and — did he mention? — a moneygrab.

As for what might happen to Coach’s Corner, Cherry was clear in comparing himself to Bobby Orr and demanding something else that involved a … turnip truck, which he hadn’t fallen off. Continue reading

this week: king mackerel, amberjack, bonito, barracuda

 On A Cold Road: Writer and rocker Dave Bidini strips down for a fantastic cause, the just-released Bare It For Books 2014 Calendar. Bidini — he’s April — has himself just published Keon And Me: My Search For The Lost Soul of the Leafs (Viking). Other writers joining him to pass the time in near-nudity include Yann Martel, Miranda Hill, and Steven Heighton. Proceeds from the calendar go to PEN Canada. For more information, visit www.bareitforbooks.ca. (Photo: Shelagh Howard for Bare It For Books, www.shelaghhoward.com)


On A Cold Road: Writer and rocker Dave Bidini strips down for a fantastic cause, the just-released Bare It For Books 2014 Calendar. Bidini — he’s April — has himself just published the sly and incisive Keon And Me: My Search For The Lost Soul of the Leafs (Viking). Other writers joining him to pass the time in near-nudity include Yann Martel, Miranda Hill, and Steven Heighton. Proceeds from the calendar go to PEN Canada. For more information, visit http://www.bareitforbooks.ca. (Photo: Shelagh Howard for Bare It For Books, http://www.shelaghhoward.com)

Henrik Lundqvist, the goalie for the New York Rangers, had a minor issue this week, and missed practice. The New York Daily News said it was a “minor issue.”

Kelly Chase, the former fighter who now broadcasts games for the St. Louis Blues, made the case that not enough fighting is causing mayhem in this year’s NHL. In his words (@Chasenpucks39): “Hits from behind UP! Injuries UP! Stretchers on ice UP! Number of suspensions at this of the year UP! Fighting DOWN! Hmmm”

Vanity Fair revealed its list of most stylish NHLers this — actually it was last week. “Arguably the most down-to-earth and least tabloid-friendly players, as a group, in professional sports, the men of the National Hockey League are usually lost under loose jerseys and protective masks during games,” gabbled the magazine. “Off the ice, their style may be noticeably more reserved than their football- or basketball-playing peers’, but they still know how to keep things cool, with looks that range from Power Broker to Nordic Gentleman.”

Henrik Lundqvist — “shows no fear of experimenting with color and pattern”— ranked at the top. Philadelphia’s Vincent Lecavalier ranked second (“tasteful use of open collars and V-neck shirts”) while Ottawa Senators Erik Karlsson (“defies the thuggish-defenseman cliché during his off hours in Ottawa with Euro-cut slim suits and button-downs that pop with color”) and Jason Spezza (“accessorizes his classically cut suits with polka-dot ties, candy-stripe shirts, and Don Draperian pocket squares”) rated seventh and ninth, respectively.

The goalie who stopped the pucks in 1980 that helped the USA’s “Miracle On Ice” team win Olympic gold was blogging this week for the Russian newspaper RIA Novosti. “As we get ever closer to the Olympic Games in Sochi in February,” wrote Jim Craig, “I want you to stop for a moment and think about your family.”

Sidney Crosby continued to lead the NHL in scoring this week and as he arrived in Toronto to play the Leafs, Damien Cox from The Toronto Star said that he was at the peak of his powers, now that all the concussion-related uncertainty that clouded the air just two-and-half years again has passed.

For his part, Crosby wanted to talk about Pittsburgh’s goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, who wasn’t one of those invited to Canada’s Olympic orientation camp in August. “He’s played really well,” Crosby said. “He’s definitely earned the right to be considered.”

Asked about the struggles of the New York Rangers, the team he used to coach, John Tortorella said, “I don’t work there anymore. I’m certainly not going to criticize. That’s not fair.”

Earlier in the week, the Rangers had waived their back-up goalie, the 16-year veteran Martin Biron, with an idea of sending him to minor-league Hartford. Biron: “This is not a fun feeling.” Continue reading

this week: quentin tarantino is a beauty

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Don Cherry tweeted an emergency public health warning one afternoon from flu-ridden Toronto: “If symptoms present themselves, do others a favour, stay home and avoid spreading the bug.”

In an e-mail to Adrian Dater of The Denver Post, Ryan O’Reilly’s dad said, “Ryan is not a superstar based on skill but character. I know this for a fact the player he was yesterday will not be the player he was tomorrow he will continue to grow learn and thrive. The world values it less and less, yet everyone is looking for those players that eat sleep and drink the game and are unselfish plus compete because they are intrinsically motivated for excellence. This is another trait humankind is slowly losing!”

Something else he said, Brian O’Reilly, a life coach, was this: “Character, compete level, dedication, the love of the game, is what are the building blocks for dynasties. That is a long-term picture but it has to be always the short-term value. Character has to win out over skill that is why it takes a lot of skilled players a lot of losses to understand the character element of the game.”

Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson talked about Matt Cooke from Pittsburgh, the guy who cut his Achilles tendon with an ill-placed skate: “I received a text, didn’t think too much of it. Didn’t reply. Don’t think that we have anything to say to each other.”

Sorry: Mr. O’Reilly wasn’t quite finished. “Quality of character is really hard to describe but you recognize it instantly in someone’s behavior,” he said. “Each one of us has to decide the value of their own character and the character of others by how they treat you.

“It’s as simple as that! The Colorado Avalanche I believe have treated Ryan fairly. He had three wonderful years with them. Where we go from here will be a matter of character.”

Is it possible to mutter on Twitter? @Ryan_OReilly90 definitely seemed to be muttering when he found out what his dad had done, tweeting: “I had no idea of my dads letter to the Denver post. It’s tough situation I apologize to anyone bothered by this. Hopefully its over soon.”

On Sunday, like everybody else, hockey watched the Oscars.

“Daniel Day Lewis just killing this acceptance speech,” Edmonton’s Sam Gagner tweeted.

Montreal winger Brandon Prust: “Quentin Tarantino is a beauty lol”

“Argo cleaning up,” Gagner updated. “Very well deserved. Great flick.” Continue reading

apology unaccepted

You can say you’re sorry, feel free. It is, after all, a hockey tradition. Whether or not the apology is accepted — that’s a whole other matter, as analyst and serial offender Mike Milbury learned last week.

He was blistering Sidney Crosby, as you’ll maybe remember, mocking his several concussions, besmirching his good name, calling down bodychecks on his person. Although, on second thought, maybe not. “In hindsight,” Milbury said the next day, “I realize what I said was inappropriate and wrong, and I want to apologize to the Penguins organization and their fans.”

Crosby’s agent wasn’t buying it. “Milbury went too far this time attacking the very sensitive issue of the concussion,” said Pat Brisson. “A simple apology isn’t accepted in this case. The real way to treat this disease is by either suspending or firing Milbury. Plain and simple.”

This week hockey’s big apology came from the Toronto Maple Leafs. The team bought full-page ads in the city’s newspapers on Tuesday to run Chairman Larry Tanenbaum’s letter to the fans. “We have fallen short of everyone’s expectations,” he wrote, “and for that we are sorry.”

Was the city buying it? Not so much. Funnelled through the radio call-ins and Twitterswell, that sound you heard through the day was the clatter of an apology being spurned. It’s eight years, now, of no playoffs, and 45 since the Stanley Cup took a ride down Yonge Street. When it’s that bad, as Rex Murphy put it last night on the CBC’s National, you don’t apologize, you go into exile.