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Going Top Shelf: An Anthology of Canadian Hockey Poetry

by Michael P.J. Kennedy, ed.

It’s bad enough that hockey monopolizes both television and the national consciousness for the bulk of each year — now it’s invading the poetry shelves as well? What is the world coming to? I would suggest taking up arms against the aggression, but it turns out that Going Top Shelf is a pretty fine collection, despite the subject matter.

Compiled by Michael P.J. Kennedy (who teaches a course in Canadian hockey literature at the University of Saskatchewan) as a companion piece to his 2003 volume Words on Ice: A Collection of Hockey Prose, this new anthology pulls together an impressive selection of poetry and song lyrics. Broken into four thematic sections, the volume also includes a pithy preface from Roch Carrier, a foreword by CBC commentator Kelly Hrudey, and two brief, explanatory essays from Kennedy.

The poetry selections are almost all strong. As one might expect, pieces from Al Purdy (“Hockey Players”), Michael Ondaatje (“To a Sad Daughter”), and A.E. Housman (“To an Athlete Dying Young”) practically sing from the page, while poems from lesser-known writers, including Red Deer poet Birk Sproxton and Black Moss Press founder C.H. (Marty) Gervais, are pleasant, and welcome, surprises.

The selected song lyrics, however, are something of a mixed bag. Stompin’ Tom Connors’ “The Hockey Song” and Kathleen Edwards’ “Hockey Skates” both hold their own on the page. Separated from its musical setting, however, The Tragically Hip’s classic “Fifty Mission Cap” lacks much of its familiar power. On the other hand, The Rheostatics’ “The Ballad of Wendel Clark” works better on the page than on album – already a powerful song, its unadorned lyrics reveal significant depths.

Going Top Shelf is a fairly impressive collection: diverse in tone and treatment, but tightly focused on its subject. If there’s one problem, it’s that the book’s too short.