Hockey Towns

by William T. Boyd,
256 pages,
ISBN: 038525783X

Shooting Stars:
Photographs from the Portnoy Collection at the Hockey Hall of Fame

by Andrew Podnieks,
176 pages,
ISBN: 0385258003

Scotty Bowman:
A Life in Hockey

by Douglas Hunter,
352 pages,
ISBN: 0670879908

Tough Calls:
NHL Referees & Linesman Tell Their Story

by Dick Irvin,
ISBN: 077104366X

Inside the Life of Theoren Fleury

by Andrew Malcolm,
ISBN: 0771056567

Guardians of the Net

by Daniel Daignault, Denis Brodeur,
304 pages,
ISBN: 155013745X

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Stewards of the Ice
by Kevin Keeffe

A long time ago, before the National Hockey League resembled a fast-food chain with fledgling franchises in such hockey hot-beds as Tampa Bay or Nashville; before those playing the game for a living became instant millionaires by the time they reached their twentieth birthdays; when the only agents around either booked travel or spied for one government or another-hockey was the lifeblood of this nation, the glue that held together a country frequently fragmented by regional, political or linguistic differences. No matter if you hailed from the Maritimes or the West, if your mother tongue was French or you spoke not a word, if your father was the town judge or the town drunk (or both), on the ice, such differences were minimalized, even erased. Unlike other sports, hockey gave us something uniquely our own in which we could take pride (and it helped more than a little to take our minds off the weather). So it is hardly surprising that this hockey season has witnessed the publication of a spate of books on all aspects of the sport to compete for the attentions of its devotees.

This all may seem antiquated or at odds with the current spectacle of pampered athletes holding out for contracts that could easily bankroll the governments of some Third World nations. Still it is worth noting that while the NHL may have flown south in pursuit of the big bucks, the game itself continues to survive in the small towns that pepper this vast land. It is these small towns that Bill Boyd visited, and their hockey histories that he treats us to, in his excellent book, Hockey Towns.

Travelling from Powell River, B.C. to Glace Bay, N.S., Boyd provides the reader with a smattering of historical background and a lot of hockey talk. While many of the voices may be familiar to hockey fans, there are many more who remain unrenowned outside of their local communities. Yet, within these "hockey towns", these ordinary men and women are well-known, even celebrated figures: the acknowledged stewards and trustees of no mere winter pastime, but a way of life that, enigmatically to outsiders, defines us in a manner that we find comforting. Along the way, we encounter a variety of such emissaries of the Faith: players (many from fifty or sixty years ago), coaches, drivers, trainers, and fans. Each has a part to play in this winter pageant, and each has a story to tell: of great games or players, of times gone by or times to come, or simply of how the fabric of the community is sustained and enriched through their collective participation in this religiously-endowed secular sport. A marvellous read.

To legions of hockey fans around the world, the name, Scotty Bowman, is synonymous with excellence. Since first coming to national prominence piloting the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup finals in their first year in the league, Bowman remained, over the next three decades, the preeminent figure on the hockey scene. In his biography, Scotty Bowman: A Life in Hockey, author Douglas Hunter gives us a revealing, often highly humourous study of the most successful coach in the entire history of the NHL.

While many followers of the sport may be acquainted with Bowman's incredible accomplishments (well over 1,000 regular season victories and eight Stanley Cup finals), the twists and turns on the path leading to living legend status have, for the most part, remained shrouded by the mists of time, occasionally giving rise to inaccuracies which later acquire the power of myth. Hunter does not delve into Bowman's youth for long, preferring to focus on his coaching years. However, we do learn that he was born to Scottish immigrants and grew up in the same working-class district of Verdun as Maurice and Henri Richard. Fluently bilingual (and all without the benefit of Bill 101), Bowman first became part of the Montreal Canadiens' development program as a fourteen-year-old. At eighteen, he joined the Ottawa-Hull Junior Canadiens under the tutelage of another hockey icon, Sam Pollock. This was the beginning of a professional relationship that would span three decades. It was with the Junior Canadiens during their pursuit of the 1951-52 Memorial Cup that Bowman suffered the infamous injury that has been blamed for ruining his career; yet, as Hunter reveals, Bowman was actually out of action for only two weeks and he continued to play junior hockey for another two seasons.

When his days in junior hockey did end (in 1954), and with little prospect of a professional career as a player (due more likely to a deficit of talent rather than to the injury), Bowman turned to coaching Junior B. To supplement the princely salary of $250 per year, Bowman worked as a paint salesman for Sherwin-Williams, where his famed photographic memory came in handy for memorizing product codes. He took early lunches in order to watch Dick Irvin put the Canadiens through their paces at practice, and spent his evenings coaching. He did not have to sell paint for long: Sam Pollock soon offered him a job as assistant with the Ottawa-Hull Junior Canadiens. Then it was on to Peterborough, which at that time supplied players to the big club in Montreal, but which was considered a step-down from Ottawa-Hull. Here Bowman's legend first began to take shape when, with a rag-tag team of second- and third-string prospects deemed long shots by the Canadiens' organization (some of these went on to successful NHL careers, including Wayne Connelly, Barclay Plager, Jim Roberts, and Denis DeJordy), Peterborough dispatched both the St. Michael's College team and Claude Ruel's Junior Canadiens to win the Ontario junior title.

Bowman continued to hone his coaching skills in the minor leagues while waiting for his big chance. Trouble was, no one was going to oust Toe Blake who gave no indication of retiring anytime soon. So when Lynn Patrick and the St. Louis Blues came calling, Scotty seized the opportunity. He lasted three years in St. Louis (that meant three trips to the Stanley Cup finals) before returning to Montreal, where he won five Stanley Cups over the next nine seasons. After the glories of Montreal came the "dog years" in Buffalo and Pittsburgh when some observers questioned his ability to work with the new breed of players. His subsequent success guiding the Detroit Red Wings to their first Stanley Cup victory in more than forty years (and then repeating the feat last spring) seems to have finally silenced those voices, and Bowman's reputation and record are not now merely secure, but the standard-as was once the case with Toe Blake-by which all others shall be judged.

Unfortunately, Hunter was unable to coax Bowman to participate in this biography, so perhaps too much attention is given to various trades or drafts he made over the years. Still, this is an irresistible story of a fascinating character, and the stories by former players, coaches, and associates frequently had me in stitches. Whether you love him or hate him, there can be no denying his phenomenal record. And if you want to know more about what it was like to work or play under him, there is no better place to find out than in Hunter's admirable portrait.

Fury: Inside the Life of Theoren Fleury by renowned journalist Andrew H. Malcolm is an enthralling biography of the Calgary Flames' teammate who, at five-foot-six and 150 pounds, is the smallest player in the NHL. To anyone who has seen him play, however, it quickly becomes evident that he is a remarkable hockey player possessing levels of skill in all facets of the game-skating, stickhandling, passing, and shooting-that most players only dream about. Moreover, he has a rare and ferocious passion for the sport that goes beyond mere determination.

Upon reading this thorough biography, one soon realizes that Fleury's diminutive stature was the least of the many obstacles he had to overcome on his wild ride to NHL stardom. These obstacles included extreme poverty, dysfunctional parents, racial prejudice (he is part Metis), and an arm injury that nearly ended his dream of playing professional hockey. Yet, the spirit of this young man who, given every opportunity by life to fold up his tent and quit, persevered and eventually triumphed, is an inspiration and testament to both Fleury himself and those who played an important role in his upbringing. In addition to the wealth of detail regarding his early years in Russell, Manitoba, and his progress through the ranks of minor hockey, the author unveils certain aspects of the life of a professional hockey player: the seemingly endless travel, lack of privacy, and constant exhortations to perform reveal a stressful, success-driven world considerably less glamourous than that usually portrayed.

Since the 1987 World Junior Hockey Tournament, Fleury has delighted and infuriated fans, coaches, and especially opposing players. Now, with Malcolm's book, one can also rejoice in one person's triumph over his desperate circumstances. Highly recommended.

Like playing the catcher in baseball, playing goalie in hockey is a uniquely unsettling proposition: while you don't have to cover the same distances as other players, every mistake you make is magnified by the relative importance of the goal scored, and can bring instant scorn from spectators and teammates alike. As if this pressure were not enough, the goalie must stand and wait for opposing players to fire a hard rubber disk, often at close to a hundred miles an hour, and ignoring all consideration of personal injury, stop the shot. If unable to perform this feat successfully more than ninety percent of the time, the goalie is labelled a "bum" or "loser" and dispatched to the sidelines in favour of someone who can.

In Goalies: Guardians of the Net, Denis Brodeur and Daniel Daignault invite us into the goalies' world-their challenges, triumphs, and disappointments, all of which they must experience in relative isolation. With more than 500 photographs featuring more than 150 goalies from every hockey era, this volume aptly highlights those heroic figures who are all too often overlooked or even forgotten.

The book is filled with page after page of goalies captured on film performing acrobatic saves, staring down shooters or venturing far from their nets to take charge of a play. It is a welcome addition to this season's hockey offerings and should please many a fan, young and old alike.

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of "The Hockey News", fifty respected contributors (including Al Arbour, Scotty Bowman, and Sam Pollock) selected their top fifty players of all time. Needless to say, this prompted immediate and vitriolic debate with fans, journalists, and even former players, coaches, and managers. Astounded or outraged over either selections or omissions, the Hockey Faithful reacted to the list as though it were an historical "face-wash".

Seeing such fun result (and capitalizing on their previous success), the list has now been expanded (didn't you know expansion was around the corner?) to include fifty more hockey greats. The expanded list bequeaths just due to those athletes whose considerable achievements proved insufficient the first time around. And while the addition of those previously neglected may soothe somewhat the earlier sting (I mean, Chris Chelios over Babe Pratt or King Clancy? C'mon!), it is doubtful that the new selections will satisfy certain fans who feel their personal favourites forgotten or slighted. These fans may find solace in the section titled, "On the Horizon", which profiles five possible future stars. Then again, like players who continue to jostle and push after the whistle, the "trash-talk" may go on for some time-at least until the next list appears.

In full-colour and with a foreword by Wayne Gretzky, The Top 100 NHL Players of All Time is a must for any serious hockey fan, and is certain to provide ample fodder for discussion during those senseless, empty hours between games.

A familiar voice on Montreal Canadiens radio and "Hockey Night In Canada" broadcasts for more than thirty years, Dick Irvin the author now delivers an entertaining view of hockey as seen through the eyes of the men who-win, lose or draw-find themselves the subject of endless complaints and derision from players, coaches, and fans: the on-ice officials.

In Tough Calls: NHL Referees and Linesmen Tell Their Story, more than two dozen former and currently active NHL officials share, in anecdotal fashion, their experiences from a unique perspective. Covering every era and level of hockey (including the WHA days and international bouts), the stories told breathe new life into bygone days and games.

Red Storey reminisces about his fiery run-ins with Eddie Shore and Conn Smythe. Scotty Morrison recalls umpiring a baseball game with Toe Blake when they required a police escort to leave the stadium. Lloyd Gilmour remembers how Jean "Beliveau never raised his voice, never used bad language", and how Gordie Howe dealt with players who bothered him: "Gordie would just take one look, blink once, then wham, you're gone."

This is a great read to get the view of the men in black-and-white.

Andrew Podnieks' Shooting Stars is a full-colour collection of photographs by Lewis Portnoy, culled from his portfolio at the Hockey Hall of Fame and featuring seventy-five plates taken in the 1970s. Each photograph is of full-page size and accompanied by an essay.

While featuring many star players from the era (some, like Alex Delvecchio, in the twilight of their playing careers, others, like an impossibly youthful Wayne Gretzky, just beginning), this volume also has an eye for lesser lights-those who may not have led the league in scoring but who, for one reason or another, warrant a mention.

These photographs are, without question, stunning examples of the work of one of the greatest sports photographers of our time, and constitute a visual feast that may be enjoyed over and over again.

For the fan bored by biographies comes a delightful collection of articles from the archives of Maclean's Magazine spanning the past fifty years.

Authored by a mix of sports and mainstream journalists (such as Trent Frayne, Roy MacGregor, Peter Gzowski, and Allan Fotheringham), Canada On Ice is replete with entries ranging from individual character sketches to social commentary. The articles have been grouped according to theme rather than original date of publication, thus affording the reader the luxury of topical reference-"The Turbulent Seventies" and "Hockey Goes Global"-in lieu of conventional chronology.

There are portraits of many of the game's legends-Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, to name just three-as well as stars of the present (Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros). The reader can take a whirl back to the days of dynasties in Montreal and Toronto or review some of the international bouts involving representatives from the NHL or WHA and their struggles to prevail over highly skilled teams from the former Soviet Union.

Canada On Ice reveals an excellent volume that the ongoing fascination that the game of hockey holds for Canadians, and in the process manages to provide some fine entertainment for fans of all ages.

From the multitudinous hockey towns nestled in the curves of rivers or strung along the strands of the iron rails and concrete courses that carve this country, come majestic tales of our winter'd wonder: sweet remembrances of times long past; triumphs of the individual; expectations of glory. These testaments of Spartan struggles, the successes and losses, the lineages and their heralded histories, help us to celebrate a secular communion, to bestow a profound sense of purpose upon the past, present, and future, and to transcend differences, distances, and Time itself, as they offer us (however elusive or fleeting) invaluable knowledge of ourselves, our forebears, and our place in the pantheon of modern sport. 

Kevin O'Keeffe is a Vancouver writer and educator.


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