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Book Reviews

Mario Lemieux: Best There Ever Was

by Dave Molinari, Ron Cook, and Chuck Finder

Tough Calls: Nhl Referees and Linesmen Tell Their Story

by Dick Irvin

The Rink: Stories from Hockey’s Home Towns

by Chris Cuthbert and Scott Russell

A Fly in a Pail of Milk: The Herb Carnegie Story

by Herb Carnegie

For the Love of Hockey: Hockey Stars’ Personal Stories

by Chris McDonnell, ed.

The NHL playoffs now drag on so long it seems like there’s only a long weekend between the Stanley Cup finals and the start of training camp. That’s why it’s interesting that some of the better hockey books in this country have come not from full-time writers, but from broadcasters who pull out the typewriter in the ever-shrinking off-season. One such broadcaster is Dick Irvin who, as a veteran of the Montreal chapter of Hockey Night in Canada, has witnessed his share of hockey’s men in black – stripes, that is. NHL referees and linesmen take more abuse than just about any other profession, but their job also provides them with the opportunity to rub shoulder pads with the greats and surround themselves with the game they love. Tough Calls is filled with memorable anecdotes, like the game in 1988 when a coach shouted at referee Don Koharski – on network television – “Have another doughnut, you fat pig!” The refs are invariably colourful storytellers, and their wit and candour bring the book alive. There’s also a dark side revealed when they explain how they’re haunted by one or two bad calls, even if no one remembers the hundreds they got right. Linesman Leon Stickle, for example, is still loathed by Philadelphia Flyers fans for an offside he missed in the Stanley Cup finals 17 years ago.

The strength of this very entertaining book is its format: rather than making it a Q&A, Irvin has edited out all his own questions and let the officials speak uninterrupted. It makes for a smoother read, and it’s probably the first time that anyone has listened to a referee for more than a few seconds.

To write The Rink, another pair of Hockey Night in Canada broadcasters, Chris Cuthbert and Scott Russell, visited arenas in 10 Canadian towns to profile how they helped shape their communities, from Cominco Arena in Trail, B.C. to Memorial Stadium in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Cuthbert and Russell aren’t great stylists, but their writing is generally serviceable and they’ve uncovered some fine hockey lore in these pages. Particularly, their stories show to what lengths Canadians will go to build an arena. In Prince Edward Island, Russell visits the tiny village of Rustico (population 400), where the parish priest spearheaded a drive to raise $145,000 for the local rink. In Viking, Alberta (population 700), home of the famous Sutter brothers (six of whom made the NHL), a local entrepreneur raised funds by raffling off dozens of cars. When the rink opened in 1952, it was aptly (if ridiculously) dubbed the “Carena.”

Interviewing not only the NHL stars who cut their teeth in these rinks, but also the hockey moms and the Zamboni drivers, Cuthbert and Russell add perhaps too much detail to these stories. While a parade of rink rats named Moose and Scoop is colourful for a while, there ultimately isn’t enough substance or insight in their anecdotes to make them anything less than a bore. The Rink would have worked better as a photo essay in a magazine, or as a series of 10-minute documentaries to air between periods of a hockey broadcast. As a 300-page book it goes on too long to be consistently compelling.

Banality is also the downfall of Herb Carnegie’s A Fly in a Pail of Milk, a book that should have contributed an important part of hockey history. In this 50th anniversary of the year Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s colour barrier, Carnegie’s autobiography reveals how hockey was slow to open its doors to black athletes. Born and raised in Toronto, the standout centre was denied his dream of reaching the NHL despite being a three-time MVP in the Quebec senior leagues in the 1940s and 1950s. At the time, no NHL owner was brave enough to be the first to sign a “coloured” player.

Now pushing 80 and suffering from failing vision, Carnegie has been successful not just in hockey but in business, community service, and as a golfer. While his life supplies great raw material, his story should have been told by a competent biographer. It’s difficult to get beyond the poor quality of the writing in this book; it’s filled with mundane anecdotes, trite observations, and clichéd prose. Carnegie’s reflections on the racism and hardship he faced are vague and underdeveloped. That isn’t to trivialize his life or his ordeal – he is a man who has overcome tremendous obstacles, and he was cheated out of a lifelong dream because of his colour. If only his struggle, his frustration, and his passion came through in his writing.

No doubt a Mario Lemieux autobiography will appear one day, too. In the meantime, Mario Lemieux: Best There Ever Was is the type of book that is hastily compiled to cash in on a sporting milestone, like Lemieux’s final NHL game last April. Organized as a photo-heavy scrapbook of Mario’s greatest moments, the book is made up of game stories that originally ran in the sports pages of Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette. This could have been simply a fast and cheap way of filling a book, but it works well here. The main writer, Dave Molinari, is a fine sportswriter and his reporting vividly recalls Lemieux’s feats – the highlight-reel goals, the eight-point nights, the two Cups, and his battle with Hodgkin’s disease. The only drawback to the newspaper origins of the book are the quality of the photographs, which are often grainy and unspectacular. Canadian fans might also get smug enjoyment out of reading selections from an American newspaper that has to explain to its readers how a major penalty works and who Jean Beliveau is.

Lemieux and Beliveau are among the 91 players sharing personal reflections in For the Love of Hockey, compiled by Chris McDonnell. This isn’t a book that one would read cover to cover, but for long-time fans of the game it’s an attractive coffee-table book that makes for enjoyable browsing. There’s a nice mix of Original Six giants like Johnny Bower and Gordie Howe, post-expansion stars like Marcel Dionne and Denis Potvin, as well as the younger generation of players including Paul Kariya and Mats Sundin.

Texts of this length – a page or a page-and-a-half each – can’t hope to sum up a career, but McDonnell has coaxed some honest revelations and more than a few entertaining anecdotes from his subjects. (Though, as with any crop of top athletes, there’s a good bit of solipsism here as well.) That these stories are consistently readable is also owing to McDonnell’s hand – while no NHL team would put a pair of editors on the blue line, it’s always nice to have one around to massage the prose of the pros.