Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: Hockey Night Fever (2015)

By Stephen Cole

Can you write a history of hockey in the 1970s without writing very much about Bobby Hull, the World Hockey Association, and NHL expansion?

Obviously. At least Stephen Cole can.

That's what he did in the book, "Hockey Night Fever," a look back at some of those times in the Seventies. What's more, it's an enjoyable read - to put it lightly.

Cole spends most of the book on the three great teams of the 1970s, the ones that dominated the headlines through the decade. The first was the Boston Bruins, led by superstars Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. They won Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972, and probably should have won a few more. Several players defected to the WHA, and Orr's knee problems sent him on a slow, painful path toward retirement. Plus, maybe the Bruins had a little too much fun in those years.

In the middle years of the decade, the Philadelphia Flyers ruled the roost in the NHL. They had some skill players like Bobby Clarke, Reggie Leach and Bernie Parent, but they were also tough. Tough. Players on visiting teams often came down with the "Philly flu" at the mere thought of facing the Broad St. Bullies in their home lair of the Spectrum. The Flyers would beat you on the scoreboard, and would beat you up in the process. It's a team that is to this day hated everywhere but Philadelphia.

Hockey purists will tell you that just the right team came along in 1976 to restore order and balance to the sport. If the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1970s weren't the best team in history, they were close. They were loaded with talent from Guy Lafleur's scoring to Ken Dryden's goaltending, and everywhere in between. They could only beat themselves, and coach Scotty Bowman made sure that never happened. Their skill and grace was a counterpoint to the Flyers' style.

There are chapters along the way about the key figures of the Seventies - Orr, Clarke, Shero, Lafleur, Bowman, etc, Perhaps because I've read more about the Bruins and Canadiens teams more, some of the stories about the Flyers and their coach were quite interesting. Philadelphia had some brains behind the brawn; otherwise the team wouldn't have been successful.

Cole also goes in-depth on some of the key games of the era - the night the Bruins won their second Stanley Cup of the decade, the Flyers' first Cup win, Canada-USSR's Game Eight, "Too Many Men on the Ice" (say that to any Canadiens or Bruins fan of the era, and he or she will know the story instantly), and a couple of others. It is difficult to make games come alive after more than 35 years, but Cole does that very nicely.

Indeed, the research here make this book work so well. The author seems to have read every imaginable book on the subject, done interviews, tracked down microfilm, and watched videos. There are some familiar parts, but a lot of it is fresh and interesting. For example, the rivalry, if that's the right word, between Lafleur and Marcel Dionne when they were juniors is almost frightening to read.

The problems here are minor. The NHL was essentially bankrupt by the mid-1970s, with expansion fees keeping the league afloat at times, thanks in part to the WHA war and the lack of a major television deal. That's a bigger part of the story than is mentioned here. I'm also not sure how interesting hockey stories from the era might be for those younger than, say, 45.

But make no mistake here. "Hockey Night Fever" is an extremely entertaining and well-done book. Not only will readers learn a lot, but they'll laugh a bit along the way. I would guess that many will consider it one of the best hockey books of the season.

Five stars

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Review: This is Your Brain on Sports (2016)

By L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers

L.Jon Wertheim apparently likes to hang out with smart people.

You might remember his book "Scorecasting," which came out about three years ago. He and co-author Tobias Moskowitz took something of a "freakonomics" approach to sports. For example, they crunched some numbers and figured out that football coaches are generally too conservative - most notably in the area of going for it on fourth down - and fall into the "everyone else is doing it this way, so why chance it?" trap.

Now Wertheim, who has done some excellent work with Sports Illustrated and written other books, is back with a different smart guy, Sam Sommers. Their work is called "This is Your Brain on Sports," and it's another solid effort.

Sommers is a psychologist from Tufts University. The two team up to look at some subjects that usually don't get much attention. The chapters come in rapid-fire fashion, one after another, in varying lengths.

One of the most interesting chapters, at least from the standpoint of this Buffalo writer, was a study done on leadership. Do quarterbacks have that certain something that makes them an obvious choice for the position? Do they look the part? The authors did a study in which pictures of starting quarterbacks from around the NFL were shown to people without any sign of their sport or abilities. Could fans pick out the ones who were good, just by their looks? Well, sort of. Four of the top five were good quarterbacks. But the No. 1 guy in the category turned out to be Bills' quarterback EJ Manuel. It's mere coincidence that I happened to read this when Manuel, now a second-stringer, has been the target of fire from fans because of his play lately. I guess looks aren't everything.

Wertheim and Sommers examine the reason why fans follow losers. Part of it, they discovered, is that the feeling that comes with finally winning - if it ever comes - is so good. Ironically, they opened that chapter with a discussion about the fans of the New York Mets, who when they were doing the original writing had suffered through a long dry spell. Now, the Mets are the National League champions after a surprisingly good 2015. My copy was sent well in advance by the publisher, as publication will take place early next year. Will the manuscript receive some quick changes? We'll have to see, but the point remains valid.

There's also an interesting chapter on the t-shirt toss that takes place at games. The authors argue that those t-shirts have little to no value otherwise. But throw them into a crowd for free, and fights almost break out over the opportunity to get them. It's an interesting exercise in economics and psychology. Do sports lessen differences between countries and make for a more peaceful planet? Well, apparently not - sometimes hostilities can break out shortly after a competitive sporting contest between national teams.

The list of subjects go on, including fighting in hockey and how great players do when they turn to coaches (generally not well, backing up the thought that most people had instinctively on the subject). The authors' batting average isn't perfect, but almost all of the stories are worthwhile. Besides, if one bores you, another one will be along in a few minutes.

It's always good to see someone think a little out of the box, and Wertheim obviously likes to do that. Let's hope he comes up with similar efforts to "This is Your Brain on Sports" in the future.

Four stars

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review: Mark Rosen's Book of Minnesota Sports Lists (2014)

By Mark Rosen and Jim Bruton

You may be wondering how a guy from Buffalo, without any connections to the land of 10,000 lakes except a couple of friends, decided to pick up "Mark Rosen's Book of Minnesota Sports Lists."

Easy. I wanted to see if the book was "portable."

Not in the carrying sense. It checks in at 6 inches by 9 inches. You can take it anywhere.

Rather, I wanted to see if the idea was portable. Could be applied to other cities? Based on what I read, I think the answer is yes.

First of all, you need someone with credentials to pull this off, and Rosen seems well qualified. He's been involved in Minnesota sportscasting forever. Rosen hasn't seen it all, but he's seen a lot of it.

The veteran sailed through his lists pretty quickly, starting with "My Favorite Things," followed by chapters devoted to football, baseball, hockey, basketball, wrestling (one list), and "More of My Favorite Things."

The categories for Rosen's lists are generally predictable - favorite sports moments, best finishes, best coaches, best athletes biggest trades, all-time teams, best things about stadiums, top five reasons to have lunch with Lou Nanne (that last one did sort of come out of nowhere, even though Nanne has been known an engaging character since his days with the North Stars).

This is all done with enthusiasm and good humor. Rosen obviously loves his job, and has enjoyed the people he's encountered and the games he's watched. No wonder he's lasted so long in the Twin Cities. It's a breeze to go through this, and one of those books that can be examined at an point without missing a beat. In other words, it's fine bathroom reading if you are looking for it. (I had a book described that way, and considered it high praise.)

There are a few drawbacks here that should be mentioned, though. Some of the lists are pretty similar, and that means the information is about the same in each list. The good points and the bad points tend to get repeated a lot, and it's easy to wonder if there was a way around that. Maybe some different lists, or lists by others, might have helped.

And, naturally, there are places for disagreements. That's part of the fun of such an effort. Still, it was surprising to see Steve Payne ranked second on the list of great North Stars, ahead of Dino Ciccarelli. And only one mention of a personal favorite, Mike Ramsey, who is No. 10 of the great Minnesota athletes?

Finally, Kirby Puckett gets a great deal of love here. The Twins outfielder was the most popular athlete in Minnesota until eye problems forced him to retire. His winning personality captivated the state. But after retirement, Puckett was involved in several incidents that caused him to resign his front-office job with the Twins, and spend some time with lawyers and in courts. Even one of the tour guides at Target Field when I was there mentioned that opinions about Puckett have turned complicated. Puckett's legacy has changed since his retirement, but it doesn't read like it here.

Even so, Rosen accomplished what he set out to do - bring back memories of some good athletes and good games from the past. In that sense, "Mark Rosen's Book of Minnesota Sports Lists" accomplishes its goal.

Three stars

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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: The Battle of Alberta (2015)

By Mark Spector

"The Battle of Alberta" - the actual games, not the book - was something of an "inside story" in the world of professional hockey in the 1980s, especially in the United States. We knew all about the Edmonton Oilers, thanks to the fabulous Wayne Gretzky and his supporting cast that was much more than a supporting cast. Names like Messier, Kurri, Anderson, Coffey and Fuhr were Hall of Famers in their own right.

Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames were just down the road in Alberta. They were obviously a very good team in those days, but they were constantly bumping up against one of the great teams in the history of hockey. Sadly for the Flames, the playoffs were intramural affairs within the division in the first couple of rounds, which meant Calgary had to go through Edmonton to get to close to the promised land.

Those games, regular season and playoff, were close to off the charts in intensity. The Oilers usually won, especially when the Flames were just building their team.Eventually, though, Calgary broke through. The catch in terms of public attention is that Edmonton and Calgary aren't major media centers, and therefore few people knew about those games.

That left the subject open for Mark Spector, attacking the rivalry in his book, "The Battle of Alberta." He does a thorough job of getting the feelings of the participants out in the open. In fact, it doesn't sound like there was a great deal of prompting.

The Flames were never going to match the Oilers' level of skill, so they built up a slightly different type of team. The roster had a bunch of college players from America who were overlooked by NHL scouts, so they had a chip on their shoulder coming into the league. Playing second-fiddle to Edmonton fit in nicely with that formula. And if that meant using players with grit to do anything possible to slow down the speedy Oilers, well, whatever worked. Neil Sheehy, who went to Harvard, became well-known in the sport for his efforts to at least slow Gretzky.

Author Mark Spector was around for much of the fun, which ran through much of the 1980s and leaked into the start of the 1990s. The Oilers and Flames were good talkers, as they say in the media, and they haven't lost the touch. Spector only needs to turn on the tape recorder, ask a question, and sit back.

He uses a different technique of organizing the book that many such efforts. Since the matchups were irregularly played, Spector opts to use a different theme for each chapter. So we read about coaches Glen Sather and Bob Johnson, Edmonton's Steve Smith and his famous "own goal" in which he took too much of the blame, the goaltenders, and so on. About the only drawback is that sometimes facts and stories get repeated. It interrupts the flow a little bit.

Still, the passion comes out on practically every page. It's great fun to read the reactions of what happened when coach Terry Crisp of Calgary opted to dress Lanny McDonald for a potential Cup-clinching game in Montreal in 1989, from the players who had to sit out the game to McDonald's thought as he scored the go-ahead goal - the last goal of his career.

Ken Dryden once said that playoff meetings developed rivalries, and there's no doubt that it worked in the case of Edmonton and Calgary. There's nothing like seven games in 10 days between two teams to develop a good-size level of emotion, year after year.

The Oilers and Flames haven't been very good too often in the last 25 years, and when one has been good, the other has been mediocre or worse. Fans from the 1980s certainly have a head start when it comes to enjoying "The Battle of Alberta," but I think most hockey followers will get the idea about what an interesting time it was - and to hope we see a renewal of the rivalry sometime relatively soon.

Four stars

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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Review: Art Ross (2015)

By Eric Zweig

Mention the name of Art Ross to a very casual hockey fan, and you are likely to draw a blank stare. Say the name to a more involved observer, and the first response will no doubt be connected to a piece of hardware - the Art Ross Trophy is given to the National Hockey League's leading scorer.

But hardly anyone at this point in hockey history knows much about Art Ross himself. Eric Zweig marches fearlessly into the void to write a full-fledged biography of this important historical figure in hockey circles, simply called "Art Ross."

Ross, it turns out, was one heck of an athlete. He played practically everything while growing up in Canada, and did it well. That includes baseball, football and lacrosse, among other sports. But since he was in Canada, he turned to hockey for a profession.

Ross broke in to a higher level of competition in 1905. It was a different game then, but Ross established a reputation as what we now would call a defenseman who could bring the puck up the ice and lead the charge. Think Denis Potvin. These were times when organized professional hockey wasn't particularly organized, and Ross did some serious bouncing around Canada in search of good teams and paychecks. He went through Montreal, Winnipeg and Ottawa, among other stops. The story does have a "follow the bouncing ball" feeling to it, as it's a little difficult to keep up with the movement. Then again, teams of that era probably has the same problem.

Ross stayed around the game long enough to play in the National Hockey League. He spent three games there in the initial 1917-18 season. He did a little coaching in the next few years after that, but he really didn't settle down and find a home until 1924. That's when he took over as general manager and coach of the Boston Bruins, who were just getting going.

Ross essentially became Mr. Bruin in the next 30 years. Ross coached through 1945, winning one Stanley Cup in 1939, and then stayed in the Boston front office for another decade or so. The book makes it sound like that Ross had quite a strong personality, and made some enemies along the way. But no one could deny that Ross had a creative mind. As an example, he invented the goal nets with a design that has more or less lasted until this day. In fact, Ross is said to have made one big mistake financially with that invention - he forgot to take out a patent on the netting, and thus lost a good-sized pile of money. Ross even suggested that the center red line be striped, so that it would be seen better on black-and-white television.

By the way, Zweig points out that Ross took the easy way to hockey fame when it came to the trophy: he donated it himself. It was supposed to be awarded to the most valuable player as voted by the players, but that somehow got sidetracked by the war and other issues.

Will this interest fans of today? That's a tough one. The pre-NHL era is more than a little dusty at this point, and most of the names aren't familiar ones. Ross' executive days with the Bruins have some good stories about the era, but the Bruins weren't exactly the Montreal Canadiens when it came to great teams and players.

However, there's little doubt that the important pioneers in any field, including sports, deserve to have their lives examined in full. Ross is a member of that group. It takes someone dedicated to research and accuracy to do a subject like this justice, and Zweig's research comes across well on virtually every page.

"Art Ross" may not be the classic page-turner, then, but Zweig has brought a big name from the past back to the public eye with this book. Those who have an strong interest in the subject, and in hockey from a century ago, will find this more than merely worthwhile.

Three stars

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Monday, September 28, 2015

Review: Leafs '65 (2015)

Forward by Stephen Brunt

The significance of the title takes a bit of time to register, at least outside of the Toronto area.

It really has been about 50 years since the Maple Leafs were consistently good.

Toronto won four Stanley Cups from 1961 to 1963, and added another one in 1967. They have flirted with success a bit at times after that, but for the most part times have been dreary for Maple Leafs fans for a half-century.

Therefore, books about this group tend to sell pretty well in Toronto, Canada's center of publishing. There certainly have been a lot of them.

Here's another: "Leafs '65." And it comes with a story.

Photographer Lewis Parker was a well-known photographer in the Sixties, and got the unusual assignment from a magazine of taking photos of the Maple Leafs in training camp in Peterborough, Ont., in 1965. The story fell through, but he still had the pictures ... and kept them for decades. A friend saw a folder marked "Leafs '65" that was full of negatives, heard the story, and suggested that they shouldn't go in the trash. Good decision.

Stephen Brunt, a top Canadian sportswriter, wrote an introduction of sorts as he covered where the Leafs were in the fall of 1965. They weren't the defending champions this time, as they had been in the previous three training camps, but they were still good. The Leafs for the most part had a bunch of wise veterans - Frank Mahovlich, Allan Stanley Dave Keon, Bob Pulford, Tim Horton, Johnny Bower, Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly, Marcel Provovost. A lot of those players are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, although the Montreal Canadiens had the Canadian market cornered on icons. Leading the team was Punch Imlach, an old-school coach and general manager who was crusty but knew his business.

Parker took a couple of hundred black-and-white pictures of whatever interested in him, and many are printed here. Thus, the era comes back to life for a little while, with pictures of Peterborough and its early '60s cars.The players look rather normal, hanging out together without entourages and showing no signs of wealth - because they weren't wealthy. On the ice, the workout sweats look primitive and  cheap. The locker room space was small, and some of it was only a step or two up from hooks on the way. Some of the players are shown smoking, a habit that hung around the sport until the 1980s.

This is mostly a picture book, of course. That means, according to my usual standards, it doesn't take long to go through, and it always a question about whether the price is worth it. In this case, $35 (Canadian) is a little steep. But it certainly gives an interesting look into an era that's long gone. Those who still love those Leaf teams of the Sixties, and their lot is always shrinking at this point, certainly will linger over this book and add a star (or maybe two) to the rating.

Three stars

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review: Got to Give the People What They Want (2015)

By Jalen Rose

Every school kid in America ought to send Jalen Rose a thank-you note. It's not for the fact that Rose played on one of the most famous college basketball teams in history, or that he was a solid NBA player for more than a decade, or that he's now an analyst on ESPN.

We're talkin' about shorts.

When Rose and the rest of the "Fab Five" got to Michigan, coach Steve Fisher ordered the sporting goods company that supplied the team's uniforms to add a few inches to the shorts. As soon as the Wolverines took the court, everyone instantly knew that the look was a huge improvement over the dorky short shorts that were the standard in schools across the country. We moved on, and haven't looked back.

Thanks for that, Jalen and Company.

Rose has gone through a lot at a young age - he's 42 as of this writing - and he's gotten some of his experiences down on paper. "Got to Give the People What They Want" is an honest look at his life and career.

First, let's explain the title. Rose writes (and there's no sign of a ghostwriter, at least in the advance proof I received) that the phrase means "Be honest, unfiltered, unbiased. Raw, refreshing, real. Give people the kind of insight and understanding they don't get anywhere else." Rose tries his best here to do that.

The first half of the book is the better portion of it. Rose grew up in Detroit in the 1980s, when the city was clearly headed downhill. He didn't even know who his father was for part of his childhood, and didn't really care. Jalen - the name was made up by his mother, and has caught on a bit - made do as best he could with the help of his family and friends. He gravitated toward basketball, and discovered he was good at it. Stardom in high school ball came rather easily.

And that led him on a path to Michigan. He and four other top recruits, such as Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, all arrived at Ann Arbor at the same time. This wasn't a basketball team, it was a rock and roll band - and a popular one. The games were like concerts, the players were celebrities. The all freshman starting five led Michigan to the NCAA Championship game, which lost to Duke in 1993. The next year was another trip to the final, and a heart-breaking loss to North Carolina. By the way, Rose credits a hip-hop group's lyric for the nickname of "Fab Five"; I always thought it was a take-off by some old sportswriter of the Beatles "Fab Four" nickname. Whatever. It's quite obvious how much Rose enjoyed those days.

Rose had a rather odd NBA career. As he correctly points out, fate/chance can have a greater role in how a player does at that level than many think. He did average more than 18 points per game in five different seasons, and played on some good Indiana teams that were good but not good enough to win a title. It did make one trip to the Finals. Rose started his career in Detroit, thrived in Indiana, and then went through Chicago, Toronto, New York and Phoenix.

One of theme of Rose's personal journey deals with his father, who happened to be Jimmy Walker - the first overall pick in the 1967 NBA draft. Walker apparently left a string of children behind as he traveled through life, not taking responsibility for any of his actions. Rose did talk to him on the phone once, but Walker died before any sort of relationship could develop.

Rose isn't really bitter about that, but he does blast a few targets here. The list starts with the NCAA, not surprisingly. If you saw how much money others were making off the "Fab Five," you'd be a little angry too. Rose also tees off on Larry Brown, who coached him twice in the pros and according to the player wasn't completely honest with him.

Rose also outlines his relationship with Webber, which turned complicated. The NCAA went after the Wolverines of the Fab Five days because of an improper relationship with a booster, if that's the right word, and the wins of that era were erased from the record book. Webber has separated himself from any contact with his college teammates, and Rose seems genuine in writing that he'd like to patch that up. Webber will have to give his side of the story some time. Rose has stayed close with the other three members of the band, er, team. In an odd twist, he actually spent a couple of days in jail with one of them when Rose served a short sentence for a drunk driving conviction.

Rose has grown up quite a bit over the years, starting a school in the city of Detroit to help give kids a better chance to climb out of poverty. It's an ambitious project, and he deserves a lot of credit for it.

"Got to Give the People What They Want" is a quick read, even if you don't get some of the hip-hop references. The obvious climax of the story comes with the Fab Five moments, which is roughly halfway through. The story could have used a few more dramatics after that, but that's not Rose's fault. That's the way life played out.

Even so, Rose comes across as an interesting personality here. Readers probably will pay more attention to him the next time he pops up on television.

Three stars

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