AFTER THE Toronto Blue Jays' World Series win it is hard for sports fans to remember that there are sports other than baseball, and that hockey is supposed to be Canada's national sport. We'd do well to realize that we've probably just had the best collective moment baseball is ever going to give us, and that from here on it'll be downhill all the way; in fact, given the financial mess baseball is in, it's odds on that there won't be any baseball in 1993. Happily, this fall's harvest of sports books gives us several occasions to dust off our skates, golf clubs, and cutting brooms and get on with the rest of the unreal world.
Most of the books, not Surprisingly, are about hockey, and the best of them is The Stanley Cup: A Hundred Years of Hockey at Its Best (McClelland & Stewart, 312 pages, $26.99 cloth), by D'Arcy Jenish. It's loaded with interesting information about the ultimate focus of our national recreational pursuit, that homely little $50 fruit-bowl that was donated in 1892 by the then Governor General Lord Stanley, and has since become the six-foot standard of professional hockey supremacy. The best part of the book is its early stories, mainly because they're the least known, but also because the more recent Stanley Cup struggles have been rehashed innumerable times before. Still, Jenish's rehash is a very good one, thorough and frequently insightful. His narrative reveals, among other things, that the true golden age was the 1970s, when the 1972 Canada Cup sowed the seeds for the strengths and weaknesses of today's almost too-fast game, and when the current NHL drama over who will control play -- the skill players or the meatheads -- was resolved right on the ice by the remarkable Montreal Canadians. Jenish's book is no glitzy coffee-table air bubble. It's a solid depiction of hockey's best (and worst) moments, and well worth the admission price.
Stan and Shirley Fischler's All-Time Book of Hockey Lists (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 128 pages, $12.95 paper) -- dinner for two to anyone who can decipher exactly what the title means -- is and isn't what it purports to be. It is the Fischlers' book all right, and it does have a lot of lists, for sure. But the lists are mostly their inflated opinions about what's important or interesting in hockey, and these aren't nearly as funny and accurate as the authors seem to think they are.
In sportswriting circles, Stan Fischler is to Ken Dryden as Marty York is to Roger Angell -- brass to gold, in other words and so this book isn't quite as interesting as it might be. Fischler is a New Yorker, writes for the rednecked Inside Sports, doubles as an Islanders broadcaster, and is Out of his range when he writes about anyone who doesn't play for a Big Apple team and Out of his depth if he hasn't seen the player on television in the last year. He thinks that players get "buried in Winnipeg," that Mario Lemieux is better than Wayne Gretzky ever was, and that Denis Potvin was better than Bobby Orr. I'm not sure who Shirley Fischler is, but I have a sneaking suspicion that she's -- let tile be careful about this -- a woman who lives and agrees with Stan Fischler.
The lists that fill this book are quirky, and so are the Fischlers' opinions. I'd be 20 times as interested in the opinions of Ken Dryden (who always has intelligence and style) on the same subjects, or even those of Don Cherry (who has lots of off- the-wall opinions, but tempers them with an utterly intelligent sense of humour). You won't learn anything useful about hockey from the Fischlers, but they'll help you to do well at the bar after a hockey game -- until somebody belts you. Buyer beware on this book.
By now you're probably thinking that I'm not much of a Stan Fischler fan, so whatever I might say about his The Rivalry: Leafs versus Canadians (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 256 pages, $15.95 paper), in which Mr. Fischler, alone this time, undertakes to tell us which team is the better one over the years, might be biased. I leave it to his fans as to which team he thinks is the better of the two, along with his theory about how teams who now play each other only three times a year and are in different NHL divisions can be seriously thought of as rivals.
In a similar vein is Joseph Romain and James Duplacey's Images of Glory (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 160 pages, $19.95 paper). It is a competent, if text-thin, history of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and offers 250 photographs, of which, amazingly, 50 are in colour. Suffice it to say that the glorious ones are mostly in black and white. At $19.95 it makes a nice Christmas gift, but if you ask me, it's here about three years too soon.
The 1992-1993 Hockey Scouting Report (Douglas & McIntyre, 480 pages, $15.95 paper), by Frank Brown and Sherry Ross, isn't the best or the worst of the manuals available, but it is competent, and at least it isn't an official NHL publication. Hockey statistics haven't reached the level of sophistication of baseball stars, in which a discerning fan can actually read a player's true skills from the numbers. Satisfying complex players such as Denis Savard or Brad McCrimmon is to date far beyond the reach of the NHL's brains trust, which shows us, about three times a week, that it is more interested in protecting league marketing rights and profits than in developing the base of knowledgeable fans that would make the league an international success. But after 40 years of leadership by Clarence Campbell and the elusive John Ziegler, is anyone surprised? Working with the inadequate stars base the NHL provides, the most imaginative data Brown and Ross are able to offer are diagrams describing the typical zone from which each player is likely to score. This makes the book more useful to television armchair coaches than to the growing horde of hockey poolers and rotisserie leaguers. If that describes you, buy this book. It's Canadian, the price is reasonable, and there isn't anything available that is significantly better.
I last played golf 30 years ago, and the game ended when I sent the last of the 18 balls in my father's golf bag into the swampy underbrush off the seventh tee. Since my active career I ended, I've thought that as spectator sports go, golf is right up there with watching paint dry. Still, I'm impressed with the breadth and thoroughness of James A. Barclay's Golf in Canada (McClelland & Stewart, 672 pages, $50 cloth). It's heavily illustrated and quite expensive, but even for a non-fan it's an interesting read, in the same way that reading about any kind of organized irrational behaviour is interesting.
As with most sports histories, the best sections are the archaeological ones -- the closer we get to the TSN era, the more "objective" history becomes clouded by personal memories and video images. And indeed, the last 20 years of Canadian golf aren't among our best ones. The last chapter of the book, consequently, is mostly about the design of Glen Abbey golf course in Oakville, Ontario, by the American golfer Jack Nicklaus, over which Canadas premier golfers have since trailed more colourful Americans and Australians in search of a local champion in the Canadian Open. But then maybe there's no reason to blame that on golf. Remote history, like local history, is always fascinating. The people at the centre of it don't have to spend their free time Mouthing platitudes for television viewers, and the hijinks of the Global Village, even in a sport like golf, read too much like the financial pages of the newspapers. Given the choice between charting Greg Norman's annual income and watching that nice grey eggshell latex drying on the wall over there, I'll take the anecdote about how the Canadian golf great Stan Leonard, in the fourth hole of the 1941 CPGA Championship final, stepped back to look at his hall and did a double-gainer into a pond.
Don't get me wrong. Golf in Canada is a fine book, and a perfect Christmas gift for avid golfers. And any game that has gotten people to dress silly for 200 years and fascinates the Scottish and the Japanese alike has got to have more to it than meets the eye, even if this reviewer can't quite see what it is.
Ed Lukowich's third book on curling, Power Curling (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 172 pages, $19.95 paper) is actually four books in one. The book begins with a rather strange Yogi-Berra-meets-Dale-Carnegie treatise on the mental aspects of the game that is as unintentionally hilarious as it is pretentious. Lukowich manages to quote Berra twice for inspiration, and mentions the motivational writers Dale Carnegie, Maxwell Maltz, Dennis Waitley, and others. Under their influence, Lukowich delivers such memorable sentences as "For most curlers, the expense of hiring a mental guru is prohibitive," and talks about "positive brainwashing" and putting "a smile on the face of your mind." It's hard not to like a guy who quotes Yogi Berra, and then writes like him, but I thought curling was a sport, not another occasion for turning oneself into a juggernaut of seething will.
Happily, the other three parts of the book are quite different, and much better. Section two is a compendium of advanced curling techniques. Section three is a fascinating discussion -- even for someone who, like me, hasn't curled in 20 years -of recent rule changes aimed at making the game more strategically interesting.
Over the last 25 years, it seems, curling has reduced itself to an extremely limited and boring strategic repertoire. Most of the strategies involve blowing one's opponent's rocks through the house in order to achieve a mechanical advantage at the end of play, thus making the perfect game a wholly defensive 1-0 affair, with the key shot coming on the last rock of the last end. The game's most important moment, under this banal stratagem, occurs at the coin-toss before the game starts. Lukowich's discussion of the various recent initiatives aimed at energizing the game (several of which originated with him) makes interesting reading.
Sections four and five elaborate on game alternatives (curling now has its own version of golf's "skins game") and provide a historical and statistical overview of the game's history. When he's not waxing prolix as a curling philosopher, Lukowich, who is among Canada's elite curlers and won the 1986 world championship, is an extremely clear thinker and writer; his book will be a must for serious curlers interested in improving their game, or for those who simply want to understand the sport better.