By Stu Hackel
Unless the owners and players restart negotiations, the closest that NHL fans may come to their favorite sport this season is by reading a book. If you are still stumped about what to give the fans in your life this holiday season, you might select one of these, or from our earlier list of gift books.
Wearing The C: Hockey’s Highest Honor, by Ross Bernstein. Triumph Books, 272 pages. $22.95 — The question of leadership among players has always been an essential part of hockey, often discussed and cited as a key reason why teams win or lose. “Putting a C on natural leaders,” Scotty Bowman says in this book, “is what sets average teams apart from the great ones.” There are different reasons why a player is selected to be a captain — some inspire and instill confidence with words in the dressing room and on the bench, some lead by example on the ice, some get the C on their sweater by virtue of their playing talent, some by virtue of their physical play — and this book explores all of that and more. Here’s SI.com’s photo gallery of its top 10 NHL captains of all time.
If you’re expecting biographies of the game’s best leaders or a ranking of the best, this isn’t that book. It’s something even better: more of an oral sociological study of hockey leadership. Bernstein interviewed dozens of people — current and former NHL players, coaches and GMs, not all of whom were ever captains during their hockey careers at any level — to get their thoughts on a wide array to topics concerning the captaincy. How they are chosen? What admirable qualities do they possess? What did it mean to to be a captain or an alternate? What happens in players-only meetings? Memorable anecdotes come from these discussions, like Clark Gillies relating that at a such a meeting of the 1980 Islanders, player after player vowed to fight the toughest Bruins in the first round, which they did; it became the moment that the Isles lost the label as postseason “chokers” and began their dynasty.
That’s a theme that Bobby Clarke also acknowledges in his forward to the book. He talks about the role that fighting and intimidation played during the ’70s and how if he wasn’t willing to fight, he couldn’t ask others on the Flyers to do so. Dropping the gloves was something Clarke did in order to change the team’s momentum when they were flat.
Scott Stevens, who played in a later era, writes in his forward how he used big bodychecks, like the famous ones he delivered to Eric Lindros and Slava Kozlov en route to Cup championships, to change a game’s momentum. But Stevens also touches on how important he felt practices were in helping to get the most out of his teammates, and how he might throw a big hit on one of his own guys if he felt that player wasn’t giving his all.
The interesting section on how captains are selected goes into the debate between whether the players should vote on who leads them or the coaches should choose which guys wear the letters. The consensus seems to be that coaches make the best decisions; players can make mistakes and turn their vote into a popularity contest as opposed to picking the guy who can best handle the multi-dimensional job: having the players follow him or her, being the public face of the club, acting as liaison between the team and the coaches, and more. Among the more interesting stories in this chapter: Mike Ramsay discusses how the Minnesota Wild rotated their captaincy, using it as a reward system for players, and the hours that went into the selection process. He also relates how Wes Walz became so ecstatic when he was selected that he skated a victory lap around the ice while his teammates cheered. The lap became a Wild tradition after that. And former North Star Curt Giles, who now coaches high school hockey in Minnesota, relates that he speaks to graduating seniors about which underclassmen might make good leaders.
Still, it’s interesting that perhaps the greatest captain ever, Jean Beliveau of the ’60s Canadiens who raised the Cup five times in seven seasons, was selected by a vote of his teammates, a controversial choice because many believed that Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion would get it since he had seniority. The Boomer was hurt by that decision, but no one could ever say the players made the wrong choice. That little tale isn’t part of the book, unfortunately, and it would have been worthwhile to hear more views in favor of the voting process.
Another area absent from the book’s discussions is the emergence of European-born leaders in the NHL, players whose come from different hockey traditions. Bernstein does speak to Zdeno Chara and Igor Larionov, but doesn’t get into that area with them or any of the North American-born players who have been led by the likes of Chara or Nick Lidstrom about how potential differences were bridged to unite the group.
Regardless, this book provides a wide range of insights into team dynamics, along with some good stories that make the salient points. It’s a different kind of hockey book and worth seeking out.
The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the NHL and Changed the Game Forever, by Jonathon Gatehouse. Triumph Books, 352 pages. $24.95. (Penguin Group Canada. $32). — As timely as it is thorough, The Instigator is probably the best and most important hockey book of the year. Written to coincide with his 20th anniversary as commissioner (which has widely and mistakenly been reported as earlier this month; he didn’t actually assume the job until February 1993), this biography of Gary Bettman examines everything from his family history and his upbringing to his rise at the NBA and the time he has spent in charge of the NHL, as an outsider who has become perhaps the single most powerful individual in the game’s history.
Bettman has been called by Canadian Business magazine, “The most hated man in hockey” but as Gatehouse points out, when he’s one-on-one with fans, he frequently elicits a far more positive response (as we witnessed during a New York sidewalk press conference last month when a fan confronted him, but subsequently was engaged in a more reasonable conversation while cameras rolled). Gatehouse also brings Bettman into sharper focus by correcting other inaccuracies, such as his being the architect of the NBA salary cap (he was only responsible for enforcing it) and illuminating his intelligence and industry, most notably in tracing the long-term, exhaustive planning that Bettman led prior to the lockout of 2004-05. “The preparations for war,” as Gatehouse calls it, and it began in early 2000.
Gatehouse also senses that the NHL’s move to the Sunbelt is not all Bettman’s doing, although one thing his excellent fact-finding didn’t uncover was that the NHL Board of Governors set that course while John Ziegler was NHL president, with their “Vision for the ’90s” plan adopted in the late ’80s. Bettman has long been blamed for the strategy of placing teams in non-traditional markets, but he simply inherited it. Still, Gatehouse does well to provide the play-by-play of Bettman’s role in the move of clubs like the original Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix and, indeed, franchise relocation was the early legacy of his reign.
Much of what Bettman has done has been superseded by contentious labor relations and Gatehouse’s chronicle of them is especially strong, as are most things about this book, including the NHL’s unprecedented business success during his tenure. That makes this current suicidal moment in NHL history mind-boggling, but it has been achieved because of Bettman’s imposition of the salary cap after the last lockout. For fans weary of the lockout, they won’t find escape in The Instigator. They will find clarity and understanding. This is a well-researched and well-written book, deserving of a place in any serious hockey book collection.
Some others you might consider: A Season In Time: Super Mario, Killer, St. Patrick, the Great One, and the Unforgettable 1992-93 NHL Season, by Todd Denault. John Wiley & Sons, 400 pages. US $27.95, Canada $32.95. Rapidly becoming one of my favorite hockey historians, Denault follows his biography of Jacques Plante and tale of the Great CSKA-Canadiens 1975 New Year’s Eve game with this chronicle of the season in which Bettman became commissioner. But this book, which tells the story of one of the two seasons framed by the NHL’s first two work stoppages, steers very clear of issues off the ice in favor of what happened on it.
Through the exploits of Patrick Roy, Mario Lemieux, Doug Gilmour and Wayne Gretzky, Denault recounts a very exciting season, the last one in which a Canadian-based club, Roy’s Canadiens, unexpectedly won the Stanley Cup when Lemieux’s Penguins — who most expected to win their third straight championship despite Mario’s battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma — were derailed in a Game Seven overtime by the Islanders. The final might have been an All-Canada affair, the Habs vs. Gilmour’s Maple Leafs — yes, the Leafs were that good 20 years ago — had it not been for the play of Gretzky. His wonky back also caused him to miss substantial portions of the season, but in perhaps his greatest NHL performance, he led the Kings to a seven-game Conference Championship win over Toronto. The high drama of this campaign is worth revisiting and Denault takes you there.
Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL–The Untold Story of Hockey’s Great Escapes, by Tal Pinchevsky. John Wiley & Sons, 288 pages. US $27.95, Canada $32.95. We take for granted today when an Eastern European player joins an NHL club, but during the Cold War players from socialist countries were prohibited from emigrating to pursue careers in North American, so some amazing cloak and dagger operations were staged to spirit them to the West. This book uncovers, via interviews with the main characters, how the Stastny brothers, Sergei Fedorov, Petr Klima, and others evaded authority and defected from their countries.
Sudden Death: The Incredible Saga of the 1986 Swift Current Broncos, by Leesa Culp, Gregg Drinnan and Bob Wilkie. Dundern Press, 216 pages. $25.99. This rather remarkable book tells a tragedy-mixed-with-triumph story of the WHL Broncos, whose bus accident claimed the lives of four players in December 1986. Two years later, they won the Memorial Cup as Canada’s junior hockey champions. It’s a loss of innocence story as well, as teenagers were forced to confront not merely the loss of teammates, but also the overwhelming presence of a sexual predator in their midst — their coach, Graham James. Wilke was one of the Broncos players (along with Joe Sakic and Sheldon Kennedy), Culp a witness to the bus crash, and Drinnan the Kamloops Daily News sports editor who helps pull the story together.
Battle On The Hudson:The Devils, the Rangers, and the NHL’s Greatest Series Ever, by Tim Sullivan. Triumph Books, 240 pages. $24.95 — The slightly hyperbolic subtitle not withstanding (it was a fantastic series, but best ever? Maybe, but it certainly has company and I can think of others), this book digs into a match-up that has no small amount of history attached to it. Mark Messier’s Game 6 “guarantee,” the rise of Marty Brodeur and the Devils, the clash of coaching styles between Mike Keenan’s puck pressure and Jacques Lemaire’s trap, and Rangers radio voice Howie Rose screaming, “Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!” Sullivan gets it all and doesn’t miss a shift.
A Life in Hockey by Marcel Pronovost with Bob Duff. Biblioasis, 199 pages. U.S. $19.95. Canada, $22.95 — Defensemen rarely get the accolades they deserve, but Pronovost’s Hall of Fame career as a rock solid blueliner spanned 19 seasons, mostly in the Original Six era, for the Red Wings dynasty of the ’50s and the last Maple Leafs team to win the Cup, those geezers of 1967. He tells his story here, illustrated by glorious vintage black and white photos, and shares tales of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Johnny Bower and more, especially his friendship with the difficult Terry Sawchuk. He also goes into his later scouting career where he was instrumental in the Devils drafting Marty Brodeur. The publisher created two covers, a young Pronovost wearing a Wings jersey for the US market and an older Marcel in Leafs jersey for Canada. Both look sharp.
Next Goal Wins! The Ultimate NHL Historian’s One-of-a-Kind Collection of Hockey Trivia by Liam McGuire. Random House Canada, 227 pages. U.S. $19.95, Canada $22.95. No one surpasses McGuire when it comes to hockey trivia and this volume is more than just a simple question and answer compilation, but a collection of stories behind the stories. If you want an easily digestible but authoritative way to build your personal hockey history database, this is the book to have.
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