Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: A Matter of Inches (2014)

By Clint Malarchuk with Dan Robson

It's odd to see yourself referenced in a book of any type, even if it's anonymously. I pop up in that manner in Clint Malarchuk's book, "A Matter of Inches." That demands an explanation.

I was working in the Buffalo Sabres public relations department when Malarchuk had his throat slashed during a 1989 game in Memorial Auditorium. It was as terrible a moment as you'd expect. I even took a frantic call in the press box from Malarchuk's brother, who had been watching on TV a couple of thousand miles away.

Two days later, the Sabres were again home for a game, and Malarchuk - who had gone through surgery and was released from the hospital - stopped by the Aud to pick up a few things. I suggested that it would be nice during a break to have him wave to the crowd during a break in the action, since the fans were part of that traumatic experience. My boss convinced Malarchuk to do so, although it wasn't easy.

I was one of the public address announcers at games, so I turned on the microphone and (as is mentioned in the book) said, "It's been a tough couple of days in the Sabre organization, but we thought you'd like to see someone. So at the Zamboni entrance, please welcome back Clint Malarchuk." The standing ovation, which included everyone on the ice from both teams, lasted three or four minutes. The doors were eventually opened so that Malarchuk could walk out on the ice and allow everyone to get a better look. It was an emotional moment.

Malarchuk's name has come up in the sports media in various ways over the years, sometimes associated with the accident. Now we can read his entire story in his book, which is a very unusual one by sports publication standards - mental illness is rarely discussed in the world of alleged fun and games - and it's not the least bit pretty. Interesting, yes; pretty, no.

It turned out that the accident was only one of Malarchuk's issues, albeit one of the biggest. He had an alcoholic father who exited the family during Malarchuk's childhood, and you can guess how that will mess up everything it touches. Clint also suffered from anxiety attacks, refusing to go to school at times. Throw in an undiagnosed case of OCD, and it's the recipe for disaster.

Hockey was his refuge, though, and Malarchuk was very good at goaltending. He worked very hard at it too, and moved up to the ladder to the point where he was drafted by the pros. There after an apprenticeship in the minors, Malarchuk landed in the NHL. He played for the Quebec Nordiques and Washington Capitals - not at the top of the class at his position, but certainly a worthy NHL goalie.

Malarchuk hadn't figured out all of the demons yet during that time, and the accident added another large group of them. Within a year, Malarchuk was filled with anxiety, nightmares and ulcers, to the point where he drank a bottle of whiskey at a sitting in something close to a suicide attempt. His time as an NHL player ended shortly after that, and the transition to ex-player is a difficult one for even the most well-adjusted of people.

Malarchuk goes through the ups and downs of his life from there in almost painful detail. He'd seem to be headed on the right path, and then have a relapse almost have to start over. Malarchuk has been married four times in his life. After reading this, it's not amazing that the first three left him; it's amazing that the fourth one stayed.

The story's climax comes when a depressed Malarchuk actually shoots himself in the mouth in 2008. As could be guessed, he somehow survived it. But that doesn't mean the story of the medical recovery and the time in rehab isn't harrowing, because it certainly is. This is tough reading.

There is one aspect of the book that doesn't exactly ring true. Malarchuk's own descriptions of himself aren't particularly pleasant. It's part of his disease certainly, but he's not a likable or mature person as presented here.

Yet, those who knew him from his playing days will tell you that he was one of the good guys. I had a Washington writer tell me when Malarchuk was traded to Buffalo that "not only is Clint one of my favorite hockey players, he's one of my favorite people period." His sense of humor was a little quirky, but we passed off that and some of his actions to the fact that he was a goaltender. In the hockey business, goaltenders often are a different breed, perhaps because their job carries so much pressure with it.

By the end, "A Matter of Inches" hints that while Malarchuk has beaten back some of those demons for now, it always will be a battle to keep them at bay. But maybe getting it out of his system in this way will help him, and maybe he'll find comfort to know that many of the people he encountered on this journey are rooting him to register the biggest of victories. In the meantime, let's hope that this book offers a helping hand to others in a similar situation who will realize after reading this that they need some help, and don't have to face it alone.

Four stars

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review: Save by Roy (2014)

By Terry Frei and Adrian Dater

Luck plays a role in the business of books. Example One in this case comes from Denver newspaper columnist Terry Frei and reporter Adrian Dater.

The two men saw that a sleepy Colorado Avalanche franchise had taken a dramatic turn with the hiring of a new coach, legendary goaltender Patrick Roy. The Avalanche also had Joe Sakic, another hockey Hall of Famer, in the front office, and had some good if unproven young players on the roster.

It figured to be an interesting season. Therefore, they decided to make a book out of it. "Save by Roy" is that book.

The luck comes with what happened, particularly at the start. The Avalanche got off to the best start in team history, which was rather unexpected considered it had missed the playoffs the season before. What's more, the team stayed good throughout the season. If you follow hockey, you probably know that the team had one of the great turnarounds in recent history.

Roy turned out to be an inspired choice to be coach. The number of former NHL goalies who have been NHL coaches over the years is a small one. There's Emile Francis, Gerry Cheevers, Eddie Johnston, Glen Hanlon, Ron Low ... there must be someone else around. It's almost like baseball pitchers, who mostly become pitching coaches and rarely move up to become managers. Yet goalies have a good view of the ice at all times, and have to think about offense and defense constantly.

Roy is considered one of the greatest goalies in history, and paid some dues by coaching in junior hockey. Still, he hadn't been an NHL head coach or assistant, so it was a risky choice. Yet it paid off nicely with a great first season.

The majority of the book covers the season, game by game. It doesn't get too bogged down in the play-by-play, sticking to larger trends for the most part and quotes from those involved. Every player on the roster, important or not, receives a short biography. Yet Roy is the star of the show, as he unquestionably has the spotlight much of the time. After an emotional start to the season (understatement), the new coach generally calmed downed and was quite calculating in his public "performances." The authors believe he turned in one of the great coaching performances in memory in this particular season.

The best part of the book comes when Frei and Dater go off on tangents by themselves. There are some good anecdotes about issues that came up during the season, as well as journalism matters in which there often is no easy answer. That's our business, all right. Oh - you'll shake your head when you read about how tough it is to get to your car after covering a Super Bowl. I did say tangents, right?

The obvious question here is whether the book works well enough to appeal to an audience outside of the state of Colorado and certain parts of Quebec (the Roy connection, as he spent part of his playing career in Montreal). That's tough to say. The games do tend to blend together a bit here without much analysis at times, which is only natural in an 82-game season. And the story ends with a playoff whimper, as fans no doubt remember - there's that luck issue again.

Therefore, it's a little difficult for me to give "Save by Roy" more than a three-star rating from this distance. However, at 1,500 miles away, I'm not in the target audience. Colorado hockey fans probably would enjoy reading about the surprising Avalanche, and they would bring some personal knowledge of memorable games to the table. In other words, they will like this book better than the typical after-the-fact, quickly published book on championship seasons that are often produced. Those people will give this another star and are sure to enjoy it.

Three stars

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Review: Straight Up and Personal (2014)

By Don Cherry

Don Cherry has become something of a one-man industry in Canada.

He is best known for his appearances on Hockey Night in Canada's "Coach's Corner." Those segments on television broadcasts have made him one of the most popular figures in Canadian history - a statement that must sound like an exaggeration to Americans, but it's true.

Cherry also has produced videos, written books, done a regular radio show, and made personal appearances. He's still going strong past the age of 80.

Book four has arrived at the stores this fall in the form of "Straight Up & Personal." It's a breezy volume of stories of his past and snapshots of his life.

Cherry always was a good story-teller. Back in his coaching days, the media used to line up to talk to him after games along the lines of children waiting in a department store to see Santa Claus. It was almost guaranteed to be the best 10 minutes of their journalistic year.

What's it like to be Don Cherry now? He takes the reader along a few times by keeping a diary of some of his activities, essentially. Cherry went over to Afghanistan to see Canadian troops. He came down with gout early in the trip, but he limped his way around a war zone to show that he cared.

Other segments aren't so life-and-death dramatic. Cherry went to Sochi for the Olympics in 2014, and watched Canada take gold medals in men's and women's ice hockey. The hours were long and difficult, partly because of the time zone change. Then there's the Stanley Cup playoffs, which kept Cherry on the move for the better part of two months. Ever try to carry five suits across the country a few times? The always dapper Cherry did, thanks to that New York-Los Angeles final. 

Otherwise, though, Cherry writes about whatever comes to mind. There are stories about lessons he's learned in life, comments about hockey figures, thoughts on the state of the game today, etc. It was particularly interesting to hear Cherry's take on one of the most famous penalties in hockey history - Boston's "too many men on the ice" violation in Game Seven of the 1979 playoff series with Montreal, which probably cost his Bruins a Stanley Cup. Yes, he's still angry at himself about it.

If you wondering about the lack of an assisting writer for the book, it's interesting to look at the inside covers of the book. There are photographs of some of the pages of material written out in long hand. While Cherry certainly had some help putting the book together, it looks like he did a lot of the work involved in the old-fashioned way.

Admittedly, it's difficult to come up with A-level material when you are on your fourth book. You'd have to think that the best stories already have been published. The less-than-200 pages go by pretty quickly for the price tag, even if the material isn't overly memorable. Still, it's always interesting to read Cherry's views in this format, just as he remains popular after 30-plus years on the air in Canada.

In other words, "Straight Up & Personal" is like spending a couple of hours talking with Cherry. What hockey fan wouldn't want to do that?

Three stars

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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Review: Scribe (2014)

By Bob Ryan

The Buffalo News put the full review on line; you can find it by clicking here.

Short version - Ryan always has come across as someone who loved his work and loved the games, and this approach comes across very well here. There are plenty of personal stories about encounters the sports celebrities to satisfy anyone, and the tone is conversational and friendly throughout. Followers of Boston teams will love this; others will merely enjoy it thoroughly.

Four stars

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Monday, November 3, 2014

Review: Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball (2014)

By Dolph Grundman

It's been argued that most Hall of Famers in sports deserve an autobiography, or at least a biography. We should remember more about these people than the mere statistics and honors they leave behind. They've provided too many thrills for so many to be forgotten.

Dolph Schayes almost missed that distinction. Schayes was one of the NBA's all-time greats, but he spent his entire pro career as a member of the Syracuse Nationals (1948 to 1964). Before that, Schayes was an outstanding player at NYU.

Schayes is 86 years old now, and he'll no doubt enjoy being the centerpiece of Dolph Grundman's book, "Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball." As for the rest of us, well, the publication might strike many as being a bit odd and thin.

Just for the record, Schayes' full first name is Adolph. However, someone who was born in 1928 into the Jewish community probably wasn't anxious to use it in its entirety by the time he was 10. His college career ended in 1948, just at the time that organized professional basketball was starting to take shape. The Knicks weren't interested, so Schayes ended up in Syracuse. He's still there.

Yes, such towns as Syracuse, Rochester and Fort Wayne were in the NBA back in the 1950s. The fans were rabid, but there weren't many of them and the buildings were small. Therefore, economics were always a concern. Still, Schayes loved the game, and he could do almost everything on the court except jump. Schayes was an excellent scorer, at one point serving as the NBA's all-time leader in points. He also had a knack for rebounding, had a good outside shot, and was an excellent free throw shooter. That was quite a package for someone listed at 6-foot-7. No wonder he's in the Hall of Fame and was picked as one of the league's 50 greatest players in 1999.

Syracuse's franchise eventually moved to Philadelphia after that city lost its team to San Francisco. Schayes went to Philly too, but the 76ers needed him as a coach. So that's what he did, at least for a couple of years. Schayes also coached the Buffalo Braves, and worked for the NBA for a while. He eventually went back to Syracuse, had a son who played for Syracuse University (and the NBA), and worked in rental property.

If you look at the beginning and ending of the book, this all sounds promising. Grundman, who is a college professor in Denver who has two basketball books to his credit, has a ton of resources listed in the notes section. He also interviewed plenty of people who were around back then, including Schayes. Stories of the creation are generally interesting, and the NBA's story was a colorful one by most accounts.

But Grundman opted not to use quotes from any of his interviews, for whatever reason. OK, some quotes are taken from the odd newspaper account of events. But the technique makes the tale read more like a term paper than a book designed to have some entertainment value.

Without anecdotes along the way, Grundman is left reciting what happened in Syracuse on a year-by-year basis. Transactions, player and coaching, come up, followed by a short review of each season. Then come playoff time, each game is reviewed. Schayes' role in the situation usually is highlighted, since he was usually the team's best player throughout his career. Some perspective is provided about the state of the league and of the times along the way. There's less than 200 pages of type in all, not including sources. My Kindle said reading time was a little over two hours.

One time I described a book by saying it had all of the notes and none of the music. I should have saved that line for this effort, since it describes it quite well.

There's no doubt that Grundman put in plenty of good work while compiling "Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball." The research is fine, and the author succeeds in making Schayes a worthwhile historical figure. It's enough to make the reader coming away wanting more.

Two stars

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review: Bleeding Orange (2014)

By Jim Boeheim with Jack McCallum

It's a little difficult to be personally objective for me when it comes to a book about Jim Boeheim. He's something of a last link for me to Syracuse University, since his first season as a head coach was my senior year there ... way back when.

Heck, I covered the news conference for the student newspaper when he was hired as head coach. And if Boeheim's book is any indication, I remember his first win as a head coach better than he does. The longtime coach writes that it came against the Chilean National Team in an exhibition game; it was actually against the team from Peru. (Want to read my game story? Still got it.)

Boeheim finally has gotten around to writing an autobiography, and "Bleeding Orange" works quite well as a stroll through 50 years of basketball at the Central New York school.

Boeheim has become part of the furniture at Syracuse. After growing up down the road in Lyons, he was the backcourt partner of the legendary Dave Bing in the mid-Sixties there, stayed on after graduation to work on the basketball staff, and eventually was promoted to head coach in 1976. The program has gone ever upward, more or less, since then. Boeheim is now second on the all-time list of coaching victories, and home games average almost 30,000 fans per game at the Carrier Dome.

The fun part of the book comes exactly when you'd expect - descriptions of memorable Big East battles in the Eighties. That's when almost every game seemed like an event, and great coaches with unforgettable personalities - John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca, Jim Calhoun, Rollie Massimino, Rick Pitino, etc. - roamed the sidelines. Boeheim won more games in the conference than all of them. There are stories about games from the past, and stories about relationships off the court. They all loved to win, especially against each other, whether it on the scoreboard or at the offseason league meetings.

You'd figure stories about the big moments would be here, and they are provided. Syracuse has gone to three Final Fours under Boeheim (one more with him as an assistant), winning the national title in 2003. They are well described, as are such other games as the six-overtime game in the Big East Tournament with Connecticut. Boeheim has done a lot of winning over the years considering he's only had four players with truly otherworldly talent - Dwayne Washington, Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens and Carmelo Anthony. The veteran coach also gets some thoughts down on serving as an Olympic assistant basketball coach twice.

Boeheim and co-author Jack McCallum, one of the best in the business, also make some good decisions along the way. Portions of the book are something of a diary of the 2013-14 season, which are used as something of a launching point at times to discuss the state of the game and other matters.That prevents the book from getting too bogged down in the past.

More importantly, Boeheim comes across as personable, thoughtful and frequently funny. Some times his barbs are directed at opposing coaches, sometimes at his own players, and sometimes at himself. There are insights into decisions made along the way of his career, comments on his personal life, and tangents about transfer rules and age restrictions on turning professional. He may have even crossed a line once. The paragraph of the book that has received the most chatter so far was how Boeheim revealed Anthony's grades in his first semester at Syracuse; not sure that was the best idea.

By the way, the situation surrounding former assistant coach Bernie Fine, who lost his job during the 2011-12 season in something of a scandal, receives some coverage but not a great deal - probably due to pending legal matters.

"Bleeding Orange" isn't great literature, but it's one of those books that's simply a breeze to run through. I found myself picking it up at times, turning to a page and getting caught up in some anecdotes. The book should work for just about anyone who is a fan of college basketball. However, if you have some orange in your wardrobe, you probably shouldn't miss this surprisingly candid look offered by a Hall of Fame coach.

Four stars

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2014

Edited by Christopher McDougall

The full review is on the Buffalo News website. You can access it here.

Cliff Notes version: This is another very good collection of sports stories as the series turns 24. It's interesting that no newspaper articles or Sports Illustrated stories didn't make the final cut, which might be a first. But the stories that are included are generally very well done.

Four stars

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