Hockey: The Great Literary Shutout

Hockey literature takes a bodycheck

books discussed in this essay:

Roger’s World: The Life and Unusual Times of Roger Neilson
By Wayne Scanlan
McClelland & Stewart (2004) 240 pp., $35

Grace Under Fire: The State of Our Sweet and Savage Game
By Lawrence Scanlan
Penguin (2002) 320 pp., $35

The Game, 20th Anniversary Edition
By Ken Dryden
John Wiley & Sons (2003 /1983) 288 pp., $35

Hockey Town: Life Before the Pros
By Ed Arnold
McClelland & Stewart (2004) 368 pp., $35

In hockey’s winter of discontent, the season held hostage to intransigent owners and players, we are left with the literature. This fall, worshipful biographies (Yzerman: The Making of a Champion, Triple Crown: The Marcel Dionne Story, and Roger’s World: The Life and Unusual Times of Roger Neilson) were released, as well as reliable nostalgia (Hockey Town: Life Before the Pros, The Best of Hockey Night in Canada). Hockey is our mythic game, as almost every hockey book states somewhere. It sings in our blood. Yet, unlike boxing or baseball, it has not produced a mythic literature.

The only two works that are inarguably part of hockey’s canon are Roch Carrier’s classic children’s story “The Hockey Sweater” and Ken Dryden’s 1983 The Game, which remains one of the most incisive accounts in sport. Dryden documented the storied Canadiens near the end of their last dynasty with a fearlessness and élan unseen in other player accounts. His snapshots of Larry Robinson and Bobby Clarke provide more insight than most biographies.

The books on Neilson, Dionne, and Yzerman are gentle hagiographies that fill a specific niche. They satisfy the fan, they are ready in time for Christmas. All three men were brilliant talents, and deserving of biographies, but attempts to define or create a mythic figure don’t always create mythic literature. Writing sports biographies usually involves simply weaving anecdotes and statistics into an entertaining fabric. Of the three, only Neilson, a relentless innovator who was one of the first coaches to use videotape as a teaching tool, comes close to embodying something larger, to defining an era. He deconstructed the game into its various parts, was obsessed with statistics, and dreamed of being a baseball manager. He was also an early proponent of defensive-minded play, and when the Buffalo Sabres ownership summoned him to complain about the team’s static style, he fell asleep during the inquisition. Neilson in Roger’s World is multidimensional, but in general the hockey biography has been so strictly formulated as to diminish the struggles of its subjects, to make every rise familiar.

Nonetheless, hockey biographies tend to be more palatable than ghosted autobiographies, the sport’s most sorrowful genre. Wayne Gretzky’s 1990 Gretzky: An Autobiography was a chaste catalogue of mundane recollections. Equally pedestrian was his ex-teammate and protector Dave Semenko’s Looking Out for Number One, although his story was more compelling in many ways. Semenko’s considerable salary was lost to strip clubs, gambling, and an unscrupulous business manager. His wife took away his children and the furniture, leaving him behind with the television and his girlfriend, Marvette. He ended up a real estate agent in Edmonton. But this illuminating arc was ground into routine product.

There is great hockey writing, but much of it is in the short form. Mordecai Richler, Roy MacGregor (who has also written a novel and several books on hockey), Rick Salutin, and others have all written wonderfully about the game. Some of their essays are collected in 1989’s Riding on the Roar of the Crowd: A Hockey Anthology, where even Don Cherry’s recollection of playing for the lunatic Eddie Shore and the Springfield Indians (Shore called Cherry “the Madagascar Kid” because that’s where he wanted to trade him) was interesting. Parts of the game are wonderfully captured, but the whole is seldom embraced, and epic treatment gives way to mere commentary. There are hundreds of books, many of them good, but only a few have entered the public imagination, have translated the game—its grandeur and meanness and poetry—into something lasting.

Great writers have approached the subject with mixed results. David Adams Richards’s 1996 Hockey Dreams was a memoir combined with an examination of the game’s decline. His recollections of playing defence with a diabetic whose sisters stood behind the boards and chanted, “Don’t touch him he’ll go into a coma” were both wonderfully idiosyncratic and universal, but his dissection of the game, while astute, was overly familiar. “Ah but the game is lost boys, the game is lost,” Richards writes. “To go on about it, at times, is like a farm boy kicking a dead horse to get up out of a puddle.”

No theme defines hockey writing as persistently as its decline—those autopsies and laments that point out how it all went wrong. A recent entry was Lawrence Scanlan’s thorough Grace Under Fire: The State of Our Sweet and Savage Game (2002). But it has always been thus, as Scanlan points out. Hockey’s fall from grace, like man’s, began shortly after its creation. Nineteenth-century sports writing has references to excessive slashing, tripping, and referee abuse. In 1905, Alcide Laurin died after being hit by a stick wielded by Allan Loney. Loney was charged with murder when it was still a hanging offence, but was acquitted. Two years later, another stick-swinging incident, another death. There have been numerous fatalities in hockey and numerous celebrated stick incidents (as well as hundreds of uncelebrated ones), all of which have faded away, the stick wielder, on those few occasions he has been charged, almost never incarcerated. The only professional player to go to jail for a stick assault is Dino Ciccarelli, who spent a few hours in the slammer in 1988. When Marty McSorley hit Donald Brashear in the head with his stick in 2000, it was thought to be a sad watershed, a point where we would stop and take stock of the game’s violence and finally eliminate or at least curtail it. But, as Scanlan points out, amnesia is central to our acceptance of the game; each generation feels it is newly beset by barbarism and commerce.

In 1953, Bill Roche’s The Hockey Book decried the increasing American ownership of “our game” and the shameful catering to the American fan. There are decades-old complaints about the madly inclusive playoff system and the dullness of defensive-minded play. And the most familiar trope: violence. “The nhl theory of violence,” wrote Ken Dryden in The Game, “is nothing more than original violence tolerated and accepted, in time turned into custom, into spectacle, into tactic, and finally into theory.” Fred Shero, the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers in the seventies, refined this last leap. His Broad Street Bullies, armed with biker nicknames (“Mad Dog,” “Moose,” “The Hammer”) effectively terrorized the league and won two Stanley Cups. They were finally brought down by the Canadiens’ speed and finesse (though Dryden argues in The Game that the defining moment of that Stanley Cup series was Larry Robinson’s crushing hit on Gary Dornhoefer, a check of such mythic proportions that it moved the boards back an inch and left an impression in the wood). After violence became theory, it became something else, something more potent and meretricious: a marketing tool. What better way to sell the game in Phoenix, Columbus, Nashville, Atlanta—cities where a hockey lockout could go unnoticed for a generation.

It has been a long time since the National Hockey League represented the best hockey in the world. The trend was evident in 1972, and the 2002 Olympics was an emphatic coda. Compared to the grace and drama of an international series, a regular season nhl game now resembles a match between the Springfield Falcons (formerly the Indians) and the Hershey Bears. A few years ago, at a late-season game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets, a game of stunning, almost spiritual torpor, a fan in front of me began chanting, “What the hell’s a Blue Jacket?” We have only a vague idea who these diluted opponents are, just as the Phoenix and Nashville fans have only a vague sense of who Gordie Howe is. We are joined together by an aggressive business plan, not a shared mythology.

There is an ambivalence about the game in Canada, one that disappears only during international competition. The nhl has become the national id—an embodiment of the slightly corrupt, darkly murmuring, and incessantly violent ethos that has propelled organized hockey in this country for more than a century. We are wary of it; we are wary of ourselves. Only with a defined enemy (it’s interesting that the Americans are a much more potent bête noire than the Russians ever were) does the game gain coherence. Critics attacked the Flyers’ play in the seventies as an American bastardization, but of course we were staring at our own soul. Fred Shero was a Winnipegger, Bobby Clarke a Flin Flon Bomber, and they represented the distilled energy of every junior game across the prairies and those crowded emergency wards.

Perhaps nhl commissioner Gary Bettman could market those historical aspects that have broader appeal to the indifferent, winterless cities marked for expansion: Lou Fontinato’s distorted nose, or the fact that Terry Sawchuk, the brilliant, tortured goalie, kept parts of himself in separate jars: one for teeth, one for bone chips, a third for his appendix.

To paraphrase Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, “The game is still big, it’s the league that got small.” European players make up a significant and growing percentage of the league, and they tend to be highly skilled. Meanwhile, the individual skills of Canadian players are vanishing as outdoor rinks are vanishing, their countless hours of individual experimentation replaced by brief institutionalized instruction. Our junior leagues prize the brawl. All of this may eventually reduce our players to unskilled workers, peasants in their own game. “But they have grit, they have heart.” That will be the refrain we comfort ourselves with before chanting the great national liturgy: “Henderson, Henderson, he led us out of the desert.”

Was the game ever mythic? Most of us know, in our dark hearts, that 1972 was a moral victory for the Russians. Myth defines and sustains communities, and in the words of the scholar S.H. Hook “invests the birth and exploits of a popular hero with an aura of mystery and wonder.” For an adult, that is harder to subscribe to. I still regard Bobby Orr’s game with a sense of awe, occasionally replaying moments in my head, moments that I re-enacted the next day on the ice as a child. But Gretzky, despite his remarkable feats, all of them witnessed by me as an adult, is about as mysterious as the suburbs. Perhaps if he’d been the product of a broken, alcohol-fuelled home or if he’d ascended from a northern mining town, he would have a cultural potency that reached beyond advertising. But he was a nice boy with a sweet father from a small Ontario city, his rise was nationally documented from the age of six, and he arrived into the big leagues a carefully scrubbed messiah. Gretzky’s statistics are mythic, but he isn’t.

Books on hockey are often about innocence, that is, a time in the writer’s childhood when the game represented something; or they are about decline, i.e., the present. Mordecai Richler wrote about both in his 1980 essay “The Fall of the Montreal Canadiens,” which measured the thrilling days of Béliveau and “Boom Boom” Geoffrion against the failure and dullness of the 1980 version of the team and his own waning interest in hockey. Nostalgia, despite its inherent distortions, has always been a necessary commodity in hockey literature because of the game’s endless slide. Our own era (whatever that era is) is fractured and listless, but you should have seen it way back when.

This year’s Hockey Town: Life Before the Pros, by Ed Arnold, recalls hockey life in Peterborough, documenting the rise of the sons of that city from backyard shinny to the nhl. Here are the humble beginnings, fathers icing rinks in the night, games played in the dark, lives lived around hockey, and finally the big leagues. It’s a reminder of how powerful the game is at its basic level, its guileless core, as Dryden described it.

That hockey remains a binding national leitmotif is evidenced by the 10.6 million Canadians who watched the 2002 Olympic gold-medal game. It still has that primitive tribal power, but it hasn’t translated into a compelling body of work.

Perhaps the running debate on hockey violence has usurped an elevated literature. But boxing has the same essential rift—is it elemental or simply a barbarous anachronism?—and it hasn’t suffered on the literary front. Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, David Remnick, George Plimpton, and Nick Tosches have all weighed in to great effect. Baseball has also engaged the literary imagination, resulting in books by Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Roger Angell, and David Halberstam. Slap Shot, the 1977 Paul Newman vehicle, remains one of hockey’s most potent expressions. Set, perhaps presciently, in the minor leagues, in the bleak winter of those fading northeastern towns, it treated violence as farce (oddly, the psychotic Hanson brothers in the film did become mythic, in an Eddie Shack kind of way, and they remain a cultural touchstone twenty-eight years later). In her review for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote that the film decried the glorification of violence, but suffered from the same problems itself. In trying to please the crowd, the movie sacrificed artistry

Professional hockey, as players and owners happily concede, is a product, and most hockey books reflect that fact. They arrive in the fall, publishing’s big season, and they are marketed, and sometimes conceived, as gifts. Like season’s tickets, the recipients then pass them on to someone else. The lockout won’t yield much new material for writers. There are no owners like the late Harold Ballard, who was bombastic, unrepentant, Wagnerian in his venality, dim, and entertaining. And there aren’t any players like former Toronto Maple Leaf Carl Brewer, a man who sought justice in hockey in the style of Depression-era labour leaders. Instead, an army of agents and accountants trade insults.

The way myth embodies a culture isn’t always pretty. A myth can be the distillation of a sacred truth or simply a lie repeated often enough. Hockey is a bit of both.

Don Gillmor
Don Gillmor’s book To the River  won the Governor General’s Award for nonfiction.