think of Gordie Howe®

howe storyGordie Howe is writing a book, unless he’s already written it — either way, Penguin Canada will be publishing it, in October, under the Viking imprint. The book will appear in the U.S. under another Penguin banner, G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

The announcement came on Monday. That, as Penguin’s press release noted, was Power’s 86th birthday. That’s one of Howe’s many nicknames, Power, though the release doesn’t mention it, and it isn’t the one that will serve as the book’s title, which is Mr. Hockey. Andrew Podnieks’ indispensable catalogue of hockey biography, Players (2003), lists along with Elbows and Mr. Hockey. gordiehowe.com lengthens the list with The Great Gordie, Mr. Elbows, The King of Hockey, and Number 9. Mr. Hockey is there, too, if only ever in an armoured form that I’m certain makes good solid anti-infringement sense while never failing to annoy the eye and the patience:

His name has been synonymous with the sport since the mid 1940’s. Literally, when fans think of hockey, they think of Gordie Howe®. To millions of fans around the globe, #9 is revered as “Mr. Hockey®”.

As a book, the unadorned Mr. Hockey will be (says Penguin) “the definitive account of the game’s most incredible legacy.” “Big, skilled, mean on the ice, and nearly indestructible” was Howe, but don’t worry, it’s not going to be as intimidating as all that: Penguin associate publisher Nick Garrison promises that the book will deliver an abundance of Howe class, generosity, and rock-solid personal integrity, too.

Number 9 is embracing the project, we learn:

“I got to do something I loved for more than my fair share of years. But no accomplishment is about just one person – no championship, no statistic, and certainly not a whole career. It’s a pleasure to tell my story with this book, and especially to include the people who have meant so much to me along the way.”

For a moment there I wondered whether Howe was going to introduce his writing partner/ghost/editorial consultant but, no, wrong. Which is not unusual. Bobby Orr was Penguin’s last big autobiographer, in the fall, and no-one on the project was copping to who was co-writing ahead of publication, when Vern Stenlund finally revealed himself between hard covers.

Guesses? Elmer Ferguson Awardwinner Jay Greenberg assisted on Mark Howe’s 2013 memoir, the straightforwardly titled Gordie Howe’s Son would have to come first. Kevin Allen from USA Today helped on Mr. & Mrs. Hockey® (2004), a ponderous oral history, privately published. Or what about Tom Delisle? He’s a former Detroit Free Press reporter who joined Howe and his late wife, Colleen, to write an “authorized autobiography” (another private project in need of a cold-eyed editor) called and … Howe! (1995). Continue reading

bobby orr’s knees feel just super

Paying The Price: Bobby Orr checks himself out of hospital in 1966, after treatment for strained knee ligaments. ("Here Comes Bobby Orr" 1971)

Paying The Price: Bobby Orr checks himself out of hospital in 1966, after treatment for strained knee ligaments.
(“Here Comes Bobby Orr” 1971)

Bobby Orr’s been showing his knees as he’s been making his way around the interview circuit this week to talk about Orr: My Story, the autobiography he wrote with the help of Vern Stenlund.

It was no surprise when CBC’s cameras hovered over Orr’s scars on the national news on Monday: his many surgeries define his hockey career as much as any of his trophies or statistics. He told Peter Mansbridge that doctors have gone in 19 times over the years (both knees) — though in an interview in The National Post published Wednesday, Joe O’Connor suggested that they’ve all been on the left side, and that Orr himself can’t be sure of the exact number, only that it’s somewhere between 17 and 21.

The Post played a big photo of the knee that George Plimpton once said looked like a bag of handkerchieves. Montreal’s Gazette crowned it “the most famous knee in hockey medical history” — O’Connor notches it up to “the most famous knee on the planet.” Either way, Orr is feeling “spry.”

“Everything else hurts on my body,” he was saying, “but my knees feel great. I will do hockey clinics, but I skate real slowly, and I would never play again. I am afraid of hurting myself. I am 66, not 26.”

A look back through the annals at the optimism, guarded and otherwise, that has attended Orr’s tortured joints over the years:

• People, March, 1978:

After the most recent surgery in April 1977, doctors benched him for a year. The surgeon performing that operation said the chances were one in 10 that Bobby would play again.

Despite those odds, Orr insists that “the knee feels good” as he settles back with wife Peggy in the family room of their ranch house. Darren is in the kitchen devouring Sesame Street and spaghetti, and 1-year-old Brent gurgles in a walker. “The knee is strong,” Orr says. “It doesn’t hurt anymore. It doesn’t buckle. But inside there’s just bone on bone, no cartilage left, nothing to absorb shock. Little pieces of bone break off and float through the joint.” His wife pales at the description and turns her face. “Sometimes you can hear them when I walk.” Continue reading

the ghost of bobby orr (ii)

Peter Mansbridge didn’t mention him when he talked to Bobby Orr on CBC’s The National last night about Orr: My Story, published today, and you won’t see his name in most of the reviews and interviews. In the book itself, it doesn’t appear until page 280, at the end of a deft afterword. Then it’s there again, over the page, where he gets the final word in Orr’s acknowledgments:

My special thanks go to my friend Vern Stenlund for helping me get all this down on paper. We’ve worked on a few projects over the years, but this one required special patience.

orr 1But if little of the light that Bobby Orr’s new autobiography is generating will illuminate Orr’s friend and ghostwriter, that’s just as Dr. Vern Stenlund prefers it. Born and raised in Thunder Bay, he played his junior hockey with the Junior B Chatham Maroons before moving up to A with the London Knights.

As the Hockey Hall of Fame register of players notes, he was a scoring star in those years, netting 84 goals in three seasons. In 1976 the California Seals drafted him 23rd overall, just after Brian Sutter (20th) and ahead of the likes of Randy Carlyle (30th) and Kent Nilsson (64th). His four NHL games came in the spring of 1977, after California had moved to Cleveland. Injuries took a toll in the years that followed. “I had some knee problems and shoulder woes that kind of took the starch out of my game,” he says, “but such is life.” He retired from the game in 1981 after a final year skating in Norway.

He went on to coach, at the youth, Junior B, and university level, and for Windsor in the OHL. He got a master’s degree in education and followed that with a doctorate. He wrote influential books, Coaching Hockey Successfully (2002) with Denis Gendron and (with Steve Cady) High-Performance Skating for Hockey (1998) among them. And when Bobby Orr got involved with Chevrolet’s Safe and Fun hockey program to mentor minor hockey players, it was Stenlund who worked with him.

Nowadays, when he’s not shaping the memoirs of all-time hockey greats, he teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Windsor.

Friendly and forthcoming, he was on the phone recently from his office to talk about his work on Orr: My Story, having made clear that the background is where he’d rather remain. “This is Bobby’s book,” he started by saying, “and I sort of did some grunt work for him, so I don’t want to be perceived in any way shape or form as trying to upstage him …”

Did you and Bobby Orr ever meet on the ice?
You know, I only played four games in the Show… My fourth game was against the Chicago Black Hawks, last game of the season, ’76-77 season, and I was called up the last two weeks with Cleveland. And so we went to Chicago and I was very hopeful that I’d get a chance to play against him. He was so banged up, of course, he only played about 26 games over the two years in Chicago — or three years, actually, I guess — so by the time I got there, his time was done. I’ve always told him, I think he must have heard I was coming to town and he got a little bit weak-kneed and didn’t want to got in the line-up that night.

What kind of a player were you?
Yeah, you know I was sort of a big centreman for my time and I was a skill guy. My heroes when I watching the NHL, I was a great Jean Béliveau fan, and I remember as a kid watching him, toward the end of his career. Loved Gilbert Perreault, the way he played. I was a kind of a guy that liked to carry the puck, rush the puck, that was my game. I always felt hockey was artistry on ice, you wanted to be creative, and that’s what I tried to do. Continue reading

the ghost of bobby orr (i)

The Goal: Photographer Chad Coombs' "Hockey Night In Canada: A Bobby Orr Tribute.' For more of his work, visit www.chadcoombs.com.

The Goal, ish: Photographer Chad Coombs’ “Hockey Night In Canada: A Bobby Orr Tribute.’ For more of his work, visit
http://www.chadcoombs.com.

The news that Bobby Orr was writing a book emerged into the wider world back in March, just as Number Four was celebrating his 65th birthday. There wasn’t much more to be told at the time, beyond bare details. Orr: My Story would be the title. It would be out in October.

It’s been a while since Orr wrote books, of course, a good, oh, what, 40 years? He was pretty prolific, bookwise, back when he plying the blueline for the Bruins, publishing exactly as many of them, in the early 1970s, as he won Stanley Cups, i.e. two. (Three, if you want to count Hockey As I See It, a booklet he published in 1970 with Pepsi.)

Those weren’t really autobiographies. Orr On Ice (1972), for which he had the help of writer Dick Grace, never even pretended to be. At age 24, Orr was the game’s dominant player, had been for a few years, and he was ready to tell kids — sorry, “youngsters” — what he knew.

His foreword states the case head-on: “Believing that pictures tell a better story than words, I am presenting this book to you with as few words as possible. … Hockey is all action, and action photos speak louder than words.” Turn the page and we’re off: here’s the man himself, standing tall in jockstrap and skivvies, knees yet unscarred, showing you how to get dressed. Ten pages later, he pulls his sweater over his head, and we’re ready to move on to what’s next up: groin exercises.

Bobby Orr: My Game (1974) was textier, but as Orr new co-pilot, Mark Mulvoy from Sports Illustrated explained upfront, the aim, again, was largely instructional. The time had come (prefaced Mulvoy) for Number 4 to explain just how he played the game — in detail. After 25 pages of third-person biography, the narrative shifts over to the first to start at the start: your skates don’t need to fit at first, and if your hockey gloves don’t have palms, no worries. Get out there, skate, have fun, that’s what it’s all about.

Talking to The Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek in March, Orr came equipped with a helpful list of what the new book would not be: a tell-all, or an exposé of his dealings with his former disgraced agent, Alan Eagleson. “If anybody’s going to buy my book because they think there’s a lot of dirt in it,” he said, “don’t buy it.”

What Orr didn’t dish: who was the writer he worked with, this time out? Continue reading