The National Hockey League is a league and hockey is a sport I have repeatedly tried to like more than I do.
While I don’t dislike them, passionate embrace has been a bit more problematic, having quite a lot to do with my hometown of Atlanta twice losing NHL franchises to Canada, the birthplace and spiritual home of the sport.
Above the border has been the place to be this week, as the NHL celebrated the centenary of its inaugural game in a gala event in Toronto, and on Saturday, in Montreal in a regular season game between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also in This Issue: Ken Dryden on Today’s NHL; The Jerry and Roger Melodrama; Jackie Robinson and Richard Nixon; Bill James Goes to War on WAR; Women Fight Back; USC Shuns O.J.; Colin Kaepernick and the Syracuse 8; Remembering Bobby Doerr and Ferdie Pacheco
Nov. 26 is the actual 100th anniversary of the first game in league history, and in its typically understated (and often puzzling) ways, the NHL paid homage to its illustrious past while exuding excitement about what’s to come.
But it did so in a near virtual vacuum, at least in the United States. Hockey Hall of Fame inductions on Monday included some great names: Dave Andreychuk, Paul Kariya, Mark Recchi and Teemu Selanne.
If you get the NHL Network (I had to look it up on my cable programming guide), you were good to go to watch this history-in-the-making. For the last decade or so, since the lockout season, national television coverage of the league in the United States, at least during the regular season, has been limited, currently on the NBC Sports Channel.
While the league continues to expand into the Sunbelt, adding an expansion team this season in Las Vegas, paying homage to the history and the greats of the NHL remains for the diehards, in Canada and the Northeast and Upper Midwest in the U.S.
Also this week, the NHL announced that its New Year’s Day “Winter Classic” will be played at Notre Dame’s football stadium in South Bend, Ind., between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins.
This game has become appointment viewing for me, a nice respite from the bowl games and a great excuse to finish off the previous evening’s champagne, usually chasing nova lox and poached eggs.
And that’s just one of the problems with this game, the spectacle of it all. While I think the NHL is wise to do things like this for the Yanks, I can understand how hard-boiled Canadian fans and writers have (sometimes a lot) sniffed at the whole idea.
Dropping pucks on the same hallowed ground where Knute Rockne once barked out plays to the Four Horseman can’t be a bad thing (“Get me rewrite: Outlined against a blue-gray January sky . . .”). But while former Canadian prime ministers pen books about hockey history, a larger audience, largely in the States, remains largely and sadly uninformed about the rich past of the game.
I don’t blame the NHL for pulling out of the Olympics, and I understand why players may be disappointed. NBC, the American Olympics rights-holder, decided in retaliation that it won’t air any NHL games during the Pyeongchang Games in February.
Shutting down for three weeks in the mid-season isn’t just about losing money (a lot of it, to be sure; could you imagine the NBA doing this? Didn’t think so); it’s also about plotting a better course for “growing” the game.
The globalization of the NHL has been underway for the better part of four decades now, with elite players from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia enriching the sport with their skill, flair and prowess with the puck.
The NHL has 32 teams spread across the North American continent, most of them outside of the hotbed hockey markets once popularized by the “Original Six.”
I’d love to think the NHL might return to my hometown in my lifetime, because Atlanta was one of those markets where, had there not been lagging ownership, could have been a shining example of the sport’s future.
As a teenager in the 1970s, I often saw former Canadiens great “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, the original coach and later TV commentator for the Atlanta Flames, who lived in the suburban neighborhood next to mine. He drove around in a Lincoln Town Car (courtesy of a local Lincoln-Mercury dealership he plugged on commercials), waving and tossing out candy to children. His son spoke to my high school French class about hockey, in far better English than Père Bernard ever mustered. I’ve long forgotten those confounding irregular verbs, but fondly remember that classroom as the place were I learned about Rocket Richard and other luminaries of Les Habitants.
The late Geoffrion and other ex-Flames remained accessible (and as year-round golf hounds, many still remain here, in the South), and they were real. There’s much more money and obstacles to that kind of grassroots appeal these days, even in the NHL.
But of the four major, long-established team sports, the NHL is the one that still has something of an authentic touch that can’t be ginned up with more teams in places where ice is commonly found in drinks rather than covering ponds, dashing into mid-season Olympic forays and playing outdoor games on frozen gridiron tundras.
The venerable history, traditions and legendary people of hockey and the NHL have so many more tales waiting to be told, if only the gatekeepers of the game will allow them to live and breathe and charm those of us who really want to soak in all that they have to reveal.
Sports Book News and Reviews
- Ken Dryden’s “The Game” is often regarded as the best hockey book ever written, and the Hall of Fame goalie and Canadian politician has a new look at the state of NHL that’s especially grim. “Game Change,” published in October (Signal Books), details the concussion-marred career of the late Steve Montador, and claims the sport isn’t properly dealing with a looming catastrophe; review here at Buffalo Sports Page;
- Given the harrowing headlines coming out of Hollywood, Washington and Silicon Valley these days, the timing of Wendy Rouse’s new book, “Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement” (New York University Press), couldn’t be better. At New Republic, Charlotte Shane writes that male fear of women physically challenging their aggressiveness has a long history;
- Also published recently: “The Map is Not the Journey,” about faith and hiking in the Alps, by Richard Dahlstrom (Abilene Christian University Press) and “The Blueprint,” about LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, by Jason Lloyd (Dutton Books) and “Replays, Rivalries and Rumbles: The Most Iconic Moments in American Sports,” edited by Steven Gietscher (University of Illinois Press);
- Christian Ryan’s new book about the cricket photographer Patrick Eagar, “Feeling is the Thing that Nappens in 1000th of a Second” (RiverRun Press), is reviewed at The Hindu, which happily touts what it calls:
“A great excuse of a book. The cricket is an excuse, the pictures are an excuse, Eagar is an excuse. It is about the writer’s passion for the sport and its players and those who capture the movement in a moment.”
A Few Good Reads
Major League Baseball’s MVP awards were announced this week, and with it the typical jostling among sabermetricians. The granddaddy of the field, Bill James, goes to war with those in the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) crowd who preferred the Yankees’ rookie Aaron Judge over eventual American League winner Jose Altuve of the World Series champion Astros:
“I am not saying that WAR is a bad statistic or a useless statistic, but it is not a perfect statistic, and in this particular case it is just dead wrong. It is dead wrong because the creators of that statistic have severed the connection between performance statistics and wins, thus undermining their analysis.”
- Jackie Robinson, a longtime Republican, finally voted for a Democrat for president in 1968 when he decided that Nixon wasn’t the one;
- The proliferation of over-the-top (OTT) streaming services has led to speculation on whether there might someday become a Netflix of sports, and if UK-based Perform Media is among those moving into that space;
- A list of the Top 10 historically significant female athletes that’s hard to argue with;
- Wesley Hall, the legendary West Indies bowler, revisits the Accrington Cricket Club, where he played as a rare black star in the 1960s;
- Two years after being involved in a racially charged incident in a Sussex County cricket match, Craig Overton is preparing for his England Ashes debut next week;
- It’s been 50 years since O.J. Simpson starred for USC in a classic rivalry game against UCLA in a national championship season. However, there was no commemoration of the “Game of the Century” when the Trojans and Bruins met on Saturday. Now released from prison, Simpson is not welcome in any formal football functions at his alma mater, not even for practice;
- As another lackluster NFL regular season continues, the animosity between Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and commissioner Roger Goodell is taking on epic proportions, which makes a bored media happy. It’s also threatening to fracture the league in ways not seen since Al Davis took on Pete Rozelle. While Goodell seems to have the upper hand for the moment with the Ezekiel Elliott suspension and a pending contract renewal, don’t discount “the shadow commissioner” in the long run;
- Football at Fenway Park is a money-grabbing gimmick, but it’s a great thing for small-college players or power conference players on nowhere teams who can dream of scoring a touchdown in the shadows of the Green Monster;
- The annual high school football rivalry game between Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket is being cancelled for only the second time since the Island Cup began in the early 1950s, due to a depletion of players.
GQ has named Colin Kaepernick its “Citizen of the Year,” which is a more telling statement about the magazine than the unemployed quarterback and cover/poster boy for “athlete activism.” It’s rather rich to laud a “citizen” who’s never bothered to register to vote, and to proclaim that an individual who rarely speaks in public refuses to be “silenced.” Then again, with this kind of media fawning, Kaepernick doesn’t have to say a word.
Here’s the classic copout line from GQ, in an unsigned introduction to what’s essentially a Kaepernick pictorial:
“Colin also made it clear to us that he intended to remain silent. As his public identity has begun to shift from football star to embattled activist, he has grown wise to the power of his silence. It has helped his story go around the world. It has even provoked the ire and ill temper of Donald Trump. Why talk now, when your detractors will only twist your words and use them against you? Why speak now, when silence has done so much?”
I read these as empty words for a misguided protest led by a miscast messenger. But they do speak volumes about the hollowness of today’s “social justice” movement, which in regards to the NFL has succeeded only in alienating fans who pay good money to watch the games.
Only a Game tried to tie the alleged “blackballing” of Kaepernick to the 1969 saga of eight black Syracuse football players who paid a professional price for boycotting a season due to their unequal treatment as college athletes. None of the “Syracuse 8”—who played there after Jim Brown and Ernie Davis—played in the NFL, despite drawing interest from scouts before the boycott.
Some of those players think Kaepernick may be later appreciated by critics, but linking these two situations isn’t quite the same. The Syracuse protest was directly aimed against an institution that was treating them differently because of their race.
Kaepernick used his “platform” as a prominent athlete, not to attack the NFL, which had done nothing but made him a multi-millionaire, but to wage a larger protest against American society that’s devoid of any kind of form of action, beyond taking a knee during the national anthem. This included wearing “police pig” socks as part of his game uniform and a Fidel Castro t-shirt at a post-game press conference explaining his actions.
I’m no flag waver, but it’s laughable to read the fine editors of GQ insisting that Kaepernick these days wants nothing more than to “reclaim his narrative.” Actually, he lost control of his own story the minute he naively ticked off a significant chunk of fans who helped pay him a once-exorbitant salary he’s not likely to enjoy again. For that, he has only himself, and those goading him on, to blame.
- Bobby Doerr, 99, last survivor of “The Teammates” of mid-century Boston Red Sox fame and the oldest living former Major Leaguer, was also the last player who suited up in the 1930s. He was a steady, workmanlike, if unspectacular second baseman in a Hall of Fame career that spanned from 1937 to 1951. It was his membership in that “greatest generation” of Red Sox, immortalized in David Halberstam’s book and included Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky, that helped establish an endearing legacy long after his retirement;
- Ferdie Pacheco, 89, personal physician to and boxing corner man for Muhammad Ali, earned the nickname “Fight Doctor” long after his ringside work had ended, becoming a media figure and Emmy Award winner for his fight commentary. Asked about the role he played for Ali, Pacheco rattled off one of his many (often off-color) one-liners: “It was like being Queen Victoria’s gynecologist. The title didn’t mean much, but the view was spectacular.”
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 104, published Nov. 19, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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