THERE IS a great deal of uneasy talk these days among authors about how publishers' marketing departments are becoming the de facto editors within the industry, choosing not just which books are sellable, but also determining what the books will contain. If you want to know what's wrong with such a system, Bruce Dowbiggin's The Defense Never Rests is a perfect example of what happens when the marketeers - - or a market sensibility - dictate what goes into a book.
There is no other way to explain why an unusually intelligent and skilled journalist like Dowbiggin would write a book as strangely built as this one. Dowbiggin, you see, is more than just another talking jockstrap who thinks that Wayne Gretzky's back problems are more important than the war in Bosnia. In 1992, he won a Gemini Award for his CBC television documentary on hockey's multi-hatted dragon, Al Eagleson. The documentary revealed, among other things, that during his tenure as executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) the Eagle had been royally screwing professional hockey players in a dozen different ways. Dowbiggin is more journalists than sports booster, capable of recognizing that there are issues more complex than last nights scores and this morning's moral truisms. As this book shows, he's an excellent researcher, and he can write.
The story he seems to want to tell in The Defense Never Rests is about the small group of hockey vets from the 1950s and '60s (led by free-spirited Carl Brewer, and including Gordie Howe, Eddie Shack, Allan Stanley, and the Bobbies Orr, Hull, and Baun) who took on the NHL's power structure - specifically over the issue of its scandalous pension plan, which may have cheated players out of as much as $40 million.
By itself, it is an epic tale - a struggle by brave, occasionally sad, and always outgunned men against the wealthy owners' corruption and greed. It wends its way, not incidentally, to a point where it is eye to eye with Eagleson and the just-dismantled regime of the former NHL president John Ziegler, concluding - the book but not the epic with an Ontario court decision in the players' favour. The case is now being appealed, and the NHL seems intent on stringing it out until the petitioning players are either dead or driven mad.
It is a book, therefore, that is very much worth writing. The startlingly complicated Carl Brewer alone is worth a book, and his supporting cast offers a composite portrait of our once-if-not-future national character we've never quite seen without public relations puffery. The trouble is that Dowhiggin didn't get to write his book.
His book is there, all right. But the marketeers have superimposed another, far less interesting book over it. Marketeering logic is in evidence everywhere you look, beginning with the slightly misleading but catchy title: The Defense Never Rests. The largest audience for hockey books, you can see someone thinking, is Ontario, so righto, let's shift some of the focus onto the Toronto Maple Leafs. I mean, who really cares about a bunch of has-beens in pursuit of a financial windfall?
So after the first chapter, Dowbiggin duly provides a largely irrelevant and cliché-loaded portrait of the Maple Leaf Gardens builder Conn Smythe. From there we go through - in the same inflated tones - a history of the Leafs organization, culminating in a lot of nonsense about how the 1950s and '60s Toronto teams that eked out several Stanley Cup wins between all the Montreal Canadiens' triumphs were a symbol of Canada and the object of every Canadian boy's ambitions and dreams.
The marketeers; evidently still weren't satisfied. Dowbiggin is forced to draw his character appraisals of Brewer and the other players through the screen of Maple Leaf exaggerations and half-truths. He manages it, somehow, all the while trying desperately to weave his real story in and around the bullshit. To his credit, Dowbiggin manages to sneak some revealing social history into the midst of it. In the book's last half he appears to have satisfied the marketeers, and he gets on with the real stuff. The cliches become fewer, the adjectives disappear - and the interest grows.
Toward the end he offers an analysis of Al Eagleson's behaviour and of the NHL's pension plan so cogent that it must have had the publisher's lawyers sweating blood. It's a nasty picture he paints, with the NHL, it's various functionaries, and Eagleson in complete and ugly collusion. Nor do the players get off scot-free. Yet even though there's a portrait of Wayne Gretzky that is the least attractive one I've ever encountered, it's clear that Dowbiggin likes the players more than he does their managers and owners, and he's careful to portray them as helpless victims rather than dumb ones.
In the end, though, the marketeers win. Instead of an important piece of investigative journalism/social history about Canada's national preoccupation, we get a hard-to-understand book with a confused focus that invites readers to put it down when the complications set in and the actuarial analysis gets heavy. And unfortunately, that's what will probably happen. It makes me feel sorry for Dowbiggin, and it makes me wonder how many other good books are being similarly wrecked by the myopic demands of the marketeers.