Saturday, December 6, 2014

Review: We Are Your Leafs (2014)

By Mike Ulmer

Give the Toronto Maple Leafs credit for one thing - they know how to plan ahead.

The Leafs will celebrate their 100th season later in this decade. The team's marketing department decided to celebrate with not one book of reviewing all that history, but eight - and by not waiting for the actual anniversary season to start.

"We Are Your Leafs" is one of the first shots over the bow, so to speak.

The Leafs have an odd place in North American sports. They were part of the "Original Six" teams from 1942 until 1967, and shared Canada's fan enthusiasm with the Montreal Canadiens. Since Montreal was the obvious choice for French-Canadian fans, the Leafs earned the rest of the country. Even though other NHL teams from Canada are around now, there are no doubt Leaf fans across the country in strange outposts to this day.

There's also the fact that the Maple Leafs haven't given their fans much to watch often since 1967, the year of their last Stanley Cup. They have been generally mediocre since then, with some close calls at greatness and some lapses into farce. Baseball fans know how the Cubs haven't won a World Series in more than 100 years but still have loyal backers throughout the country. That's probably the closest comparison to Leaf Nation.

This particular book shines the spotlight on the Maple Leafs players and management over the years. It starts with Conn Smythe and ends with current coach Randy Carlyle. What's striking about the list of players, and certainly everyone close to important has a small section dedicated to him, is that Toronto has never relied on hockey icons. The best runs came in the late 1940s and the mid 1960s. I suppose the best players in team history were Frank Mahovlich and Mats Sundin, with exceptions made for those who played in the 1920s and 1930s and are tougher to judge from the perspective of today.

They all are represented here, though. Everyone gets a page or two or three, with some good pictures for each one. Ulner, a fine veteran journalist from Toronto, comes through with appropriate text for each personality. Therefore, it's a good-looking package.

But is "We Are Your Leafs" worth buying? That's a fair question. The listed price is $40, which seems a little steep for a book that only takes a day or two to buzz through. It might have been nice to have made it a little bigger, with more text on each player. Some Toronto boosters probably are a least vaguely familiar with the top names in team history.

Then again, I'm not in the target audience since I'm not a Maple Leafs fan. Those who qualify probably will find this to be a good keepsake. It's still not going to be a "best buy" from a consumer magazine, but I could see it being a very suitable gift for that Toronto hockey fan on your holiday shopping list.

Three stars

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: Hockey Confidential (2014)

By Bob McKenzie

About the biggest complaint anyone could have with Bob McKenzie's new book is the title.

It sounds like it should be a Canadian pulp magazine from the 1930s, full of slightly scandalous stories and material a little south of the truth. In fact, a friend saw the book cover and asked, "Is it full of raw material about the players?"

Well, no. McKenzie tackles the issue of the title right at the start of "Hockey Confidential." He says he didn't have anything better than "A Bunch of Stories Bob Would Like to Tell." That wouldn't sell too many copies.

Come to think of it, maybe it might. McKenzie, who had a long newspaper career before becoming a reporter for Canada's TSN, is actually the most respectable of journalists. He's had to be talked into the social media responsibilities of the business with the odd kick and screams. McKenzie prefers a more leisurely approach at telling stories than revealing facts 140 characters at a time.

Therefore, he feels right at home with the book-sized format. Most of the accounts here have not been covered at great length before, especially in this way, so they feel new and fresh. But the tales take a leisurely, thoughtful approach.

A good example of this comes in the early going. Take it from someone who covers lacrosse for a living, McKenzie is right on target with a profile of John Tavares. If you thought I was talking about the New York Islanders' young star, you'd be right. And if you thought I was talking about the indoor lacrosse legend of the Buffalo Bandits, you'd be right. The lacrosse player is "Uncle John" to the hockey player, and the connection has been well publicized in the lacrosse community. After bios of both, McKenzie sits down with both of them and has them compare notes, if you will. It's a good enough conversation to have been video taped and shown on television somewhere.

Other chapters cover a variety of hockey-related talk. Former NHL player and executive Colin Campbell tells about how he almost drowned when he drove his tractor on to a frozen lake when the machine sank through the ice. Some of those in the information revolution in hockey get their chance at explaining what's going on - to someone who was lucky to get out of high school math. McKenzie watches a youth hockey game with Don Cherry and his son. Connor McDavid, the Next Big Thing in hockey, gets a long look, particularly concerning the pressures that come with that sort of title.

Some of the story subjects branch off the mainstream a bit. There are chapters on a massage therapist, a skating coach, and the lead singer of Canada's top band who is a huge fan of the Boston Bruins. Then there's the Subban family, a most unlikely group that has produced three NHL draft choices - including one of the league's best defensemen.

The chapters were designed to be about the same size at first, but some expanded when necessary. Two - the McDavid saga as well as the story of Sheldon Keefe, a junior hockey coach - both get 45 pages or so each, and they are the longest of the bunch.

Does it help to be Canadian to read this? Maybe a little. For example, the Mike Danton/David Frost story, in which Keefe plays a small role, probably was a much bigger story in Canada than the U.S. But Americans who like hockey, or who merely like a good story, well-told, will find this worthwhile.

I'd like to think that there's still room fora collection of stories like this, and McKenzie is a good choice to come up with them. "Hockey Confidential" is a good way to spend time on a cold winter night waiting for the next hockey game to begin.

Four stars

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Friday, November 28, 2014

Review: Parcells (2014)

By Bill Parcells and Nunyo Demasio

Bill Parcells is nothing if not prolific. He's written more books than most writers while still finding the time to put together a Hall of Fame career as a football coach.

The latest example of this is "Parcells," a sprawling autobiography of sorts that covers more than 500 pages. It's a football life that still has the ability to fascinate, despite a variety of odd twists and turns.

Parcells' time in football started with the usual bouncing around the country. He was a good enough player to be drafted into the National Football League, but not good enough to play. So he turned to coaching. There he worked his way up the ladder, which means a lot of stops in a lot of different places.

Eventually, coaches are supposed to gain a little stability in their lives in terms of location, and Parcells appeared to have that with the New York Giants after becoming their head coach. He won two Super Bowl titles there, and it seemed as if he could buy, and not rent, after several seasons there. But factors ranging from health to financial insecurity pushed him out the door.

From there it was on to a variety of other stops, coaching the New England Patriots, New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys and running the operations of the Miami Dolphins over the years. There were plenty of other negotiations along the way as well, as he came close to joining a few other organizations as well. The effect was to make the coach something of a puzzle, as in "Why is he doing this now?" The stories of those switches are interesting, and Parcells admits now he could have handled some of those moves in a better way.

This publication follows a trend in sports books, the third-person autobiography. It's written in someone else's voice, although it clearly has plenty of input from Parcells himself. There is some other material from those who were part of Parcells' long ride over the years.

Does the format work? Reasonably well. However, it does create a little distance from the subject, Parcells, and the reader. Demasio certainly comes across as an admirer of Parcells here; Parcells might be tougher on himself than his collaborator. Plus there is a great deal of material here, as the number of pages suggests. Demasio probably could edited some sections of game descriptions over the years rather easily, losing a few dozen pages in the process. I also could have done without the constant references to "Big Blue" as a nickname for the Giants.

Still, there is plenty to enjoy here. Parcells-watchers say there isn't much bombshell material included, but that's fine. It's interesting when the anecdotes take the reader behind the scenes into the locker room or negotiation room. Parcells reached the status he did in football for a variety of reasons, and one of the biggest was that he was good at getting the most out of his players. They may not have liked him along the way, but they appreciated his efforts after the fact in most cases.

All of this came with a bit of a price, as Parcells says he was married to football. That led to divorce and a father who was never around for his children. He would have been much better off had he told his children that he loved them as often as he told Lawrence Taylor that he loved him. It's all part of the package.

Someone once said to a reporter who covered a Parcells-coached team that he was extremely lucky to spend a couple of hours a week with Parcells, just to see his intellect in action on a regular basis. Indeed, he's a fascinating individual. "Parcells" provides insight into why he was and is an interesting man, and why we're still drawn to him more than 25 years after his first championship.

(I received this book from "Blogging for Books" for free in return for this review.)

Four stars

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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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