reprinted from the Toronto Globe and Mail
The Stick: A History, A Celebration, An Elegy
By Bruce Dowbiggin
Macfarlane Walter & Ross
259 pages, $32.99
Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks & Frozen Ponds
By Jack Fala
McClelland & Stewart
208 pages, $22.99
My 26 Stanley Cups: Memories of a Hockey Life
By Dick Irvin
McClelland & Stewart
354 pages, $34.99
Zamboni Rodeo: Chasing Hockey Dreams from Austin to
By Jason Cohen
Greystone, 242 pages
I spent most of the 1971-72 hockey season toiling
on defence for the All Saints Anglican Minor Novices.
When I say toiling I guess what I really mean is tottering
in place: It would be a couple of years still before
I had any moves beyond collapsing in a heap and looking
pleadingly towards the bench.
This was in Peterborough, Ont. In that same season,
somewhere to the west of me, an 11-year-old Wayne
Gretzky was scoring 378 goals that year, but my memories
are mainly goalless. I remember that because of an
early-season shortage of team uniforms, I was outfitted
in an old oiled Irish fisherman's sweater and the
green wool stockings my mum used for cross-country
I remember losing, a lot, to St. John's, Sacred Heart,
St. Luke's, and to the merciless cathedral boys from
St. Peter-in-Chains, who wore a rich papal purple
and regularly smoked us. I remember hearing one of
our coaches say to the other, "Well, St. Peter's really
beat the hell out us;" I remember them laughing.
I remember those same coaches telling us halfway through
the year that if we weren't going to use our sticks
for scoring, passing, and/or checking, then we should
at least talk to them so they didn't get lonely. I
remember some kids -- a right winger, a centreman,
the back-up goalie -- who cried.
I was recalled to those days as I read Bruce Dowbiggin's
wonderful The Stick: A History, A Celebration, An
Elegy, which includes the story of former Tampa Bay
Lightning general manager Phil Esposito taking one
of his player's sticks into his office and imploring
it to help the guy score more.
A columnist for the Calgary Herald and the author
most recently of Of Ice and Men (1998), Dowbiggin
is one of hockey's most perceptive witnesses. I know
what you're thinking: 250 pages on the humble hockey
stick? Ah, but as anyone who's wielded a Sher-Wood
or a Koho or an Easton knows, it contains multitudes,
and Dowbiggin plumbs them all.
From the one-piece hornbeam sticks handcarved by Mikmaq
craftsmen in Nova Scotia through to the "radio frequency
gluing" used in the construction of today's ultralight
Hespeler sticks, Dowbiggin takes us on a fascinating
tour of the evolution of stick engineering.
He tracks the history of the industry, talks to Stan
Mikita about the advent of the curved blade, parleys
with Brendan Shanahan of the Detroit Red Wings about
lie and whip and blade patterns. He quotes Auden and
Frost and Purdy and Robert Graves. He writes of Percy
Lesueur, a goaltender for the old-time Ottawa Senators,
who used to carve messages in Latin into his stick,
and of former Edmonton Oiler and Detroit Red Wing
winger Petr Klima, who was convinced that each of
his sticks held only a single goal, which meant he
had to break his stick every time he scored and go
for a new one.
Always insightful, always entertaining, Dowbiggin
also finds room to look, unblinkingly, at the ugly
reality (and ongoing hypocrisy) of hockey violence.
The Stick is smart, quirky, well-written, and full
of surprises. Let Dowbiggin loose to write the history
of pucks, of shinpads, of bluelines, I say.
Longtime Sports Illustrated and Hockey News writer
Jack Falla calls the hockey stick "the most useful
tool devised by mankind," just behind the wheel and
the knife. For proof he offers up the story the story
of how one of Wayne Gretzky's red Titans came to be
holding up his backyard tomato vines. Of such tales
is Falla's fine, ruminative Home Ice: Reflections
on Backyard Rinks & Frozen Ponds made.
Using the rink he's built in the backyard of his home
in Natick, Mass., for the past 18 winters as a stage
for essays on the meanings and joys of hockey, Falla
writes about everything from how not to flood the
neighbours' yard when your rink melts in the spring
to the onrush of age and the particular restorative
powers of skating around in the dark with a puck on
He trades rink-talk with Walter Gretzky, Wayne's dad,
and remembers skating on a line with the Great One
and Jari Kurri during a 1985 Edmonton Oilers practice.
He seeks, through it all, to explain his love for
both his rink and his rink hockey. Invoking the American
novelist Frederick Exley, it is, he decides, "no more
than the force of a forgotten childhood."
Home Ice is funny, fluid and thoughtful. It also,
helpfully, includes Falla's own dos and don'ts on
the hows and whats of backyard rink building.
From the venerable former Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster
Dick Irvin comes My 26 Stanley Cups: Memories of a
Hockey Life. Irvin spent some 30 years as a radio
play-by-play man for the Montreal Canadiens and just
as many on the HNIC crew, but his hockey pedigree
goes deeper than that.
His father was, of course, the legendary Leafs, Habs
and Blackhawks coach Dick Irvin, Sr., which meant
that as a boy, Irvin Jr. sat on Busher Jackson's knee
and played table hockey with Gordie Drillon.
Other than facts and a few plain anecdotes, the son
doesn't have a whole lot to tell us about the father,
and that's too bad. If you're looking for dirt, Irvin
doesn't have much to dish, either: About the best
he can do is to wonder why Foster Hewitt was always
so strangely stand-offish when they crossed paths.
With chapters called A Few Highs and a Low, My Favourite
Decade and Some Fond Farewells, My 26 Stanley Cups
is an amiable after-dinner speech of a book: lots
of gentle anecdotes, lots of famous names (Irvin was
alone for a minute or so with Muhammad Ali; he once
saw Michael Jordan on a golf course; etc.), lots of
gallant words for his wife, Wilma, lots of Irvin talking
about himself in the third-person.
If you're looking for a precedent for Jason Cohen's
Zamboni Rodeo: Chasing Hockey Dreams from Austin to
Albuquerque, you could think of Peter Gzowski's seminal
The Game of Their Lives.
Of course, you'd have to substitute the names Gretzky,
Coffey and Messier for those of Kungle, Pawluk and
Mando. Where Gzowski spent a year in the early 1980s
with the sublime Edmonton Oilers, Cohen hooked up
with the, um, Austin Ice Bats of the Western Professional
Hockey League (league slogan: "We Play Hockey Loud").
A transplanted Pennsylvanian who's a journalist in
Texas, Cohen gave six of his months to follow the
fortunes of the 1998-99 Ice Bats.
In the last decade, hockey has, as Cohen writes, "flocked
to the lower half of the United States like a gaggle
of geriatric snowbirds." The WPHL is, if you don't
know it, a league for "middle-aged former NHL grinders,
can't-miss prospects who did, twentysomething bush-league
lifers, rookies spurned by the NHL draft."
Boasting teams called the Jackalopes and the Mudbugs,
it's not a pretty place. No, it's a grinding world
of poor pay, playing hurt, broken-down buses, and
playing in rinks where the closest thing to cheering
is a bunch of eight-year-old boys banging on the glass
yelling, "Fight, fight, fight!"
The mark of Cohen's achievement is that, in depicting
this world, Zamboni Rodeo isn't itself a grind. On
the contrary, it's an evocative, compelling piece
of sustained reportage. I don't know that I've felt
closer to the trials and travails of a hockey team
since the days of All Saints Anglican Minor Novices.
- Stephen Smith is a Toronto writer and critic, having
failed to make the NHL.