Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: The NHL (2013)

By D'Arcy Jenish

Here's an interesting idea about writing a history book about professional hockey: Take out practically everything that happens on the ice.

That's what D'Arcy Jenish essentially does with his book, "The NHL - A Centennial History." Yes, he's a little early, since we are about four years away from the actual 100th birthday party for the league.

But there's no reason to complain. No matter when it comes out or when it is read, Jenish's book is a valuable addition to the story of professional hockey in North America.

The author concentrates on the off-ice action here, and when reviewed in this context it's easy to see that hockey has had a rough go of it at times over the years. Any business is going to have troubles at the start-up, but the NHL has faced all sorts of issues in nearly a century of duty. As the author says, the story is all about trying to survive and grow.

The league started in the midst of a dispute. The NHL began in 1917 when the members of its predecessor league got involved in something of a big difference of opinion, and four teams in three cities in Canada essentially said to the others that they were going to go off and start their own league, thank you. And that's what they did.

From there, it was something of accordion time for the league, which grew across the border in the United States in fits and starts. The idea of big arenas was just getting started then, and sometimes it was tough for the owners to make money. Then it became tougher to do so in the Thirties when the Depression hit, and World War II didn't help either. No wonder we got down to the Original Six. It's easy to look over the all-time year-by-year standings in the NHL record book and wonder what happened. This tells the story very nicely.

Jenish got a hold of some documents in the post-WW2 era that have never been released before, and the summaries of official league meetings from that era are full of treasures. Not only do they contain "inside information" on the state of the league during the time, but they supply quotes so we can hear the voices of the game's leaders at the time actually speak to us. There are even some financial statements that show the true fiscal state of the league - it hasn't always been a license to print money.

One of Jenish's good points is that for all of the nostalgia about the "Original Six" days, it wasn't such a splendid time. The league was essentially the haves and the have nots for a couple of decades, and the Board of Governors tried and failed for years to balance out the talent level.

The league shifted its balance of power with the 1967 six-team expansion, although a price was paid with the struggles of some of the new teams to stay afloat - just like the 1920s. By the early 1970s, the arrival of the rival World Hockey Association changed the economics of the game for the worse, at least from the owners' perspective.

One of the best moments in the book, in fact, comes from former NHL President John Ziegler. He tells how, when he took over that job around 1978, he asked about the league's financial situation and was told that the NHL was insolvent. Ouch.

Ziegler has never opened up at length in public about his days as President, and it's quite interesting that Jenish got him to talk here. Ziegler may have gotten too much credit for the NHL's reversal of fortunes in this text, but after reading this he seems more effective at least behind the scenes than most realize.

The book also covers the corrupt Alan Eagleson era with the Players Association, the labor actions of the past 20 years, and the arrival of the league as a legitimate player on the North American sports scene - albeit one that still has its problems.

Taking most of the ice out of the game's history makes this story a little dry (sorry), so that means some people aren't going to bother with the nearly 400 pages plus notes here. Their loss. There's plenty of great information here that makes the record book come alive. "The NHL" definitely is going to be a huge favorite for students of the game of hockey.

Five stars

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Great Expectations (2013)

By Shi Davidi and John Lott

The first point to be made about the new baseball book, "Great Expectations," concerns the title, naturally. Someone else got there first.

In other words, don't go to the nearest bookstore and ask for it by name without saying, "It's in the baseball section." Otherwise, you'll be directed to the work of Charles Dickens, who is not a go-to person when it comes to baseball. And don't do a search just for "great expectations" on the computer, either.

With that obligatory joke out of the way, let's start by saying what "Great Expectations" is. It has to be the fastest season review in baseball literary history. Authors Shi Davidi and John Lott, who both cover the Toronto Blue Jays, collectively have written something of a summary of the 2013 season. These books usually come out just in time for the season opener, so it's odd to read it before American Thanksgiving.

The title works because everyone who followed baseball thought the Blue Jays were poised for a great season in 2013. They completed a couple of huge trades that brought them such players as Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey, and added free agents like Melky Cabrera. Clearly, the Blue Jays management saw weakness for a change in the American League East, long dominated by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and struck in an attempt to become relevant again in baseball circles.

Simply stated, it didn't work. The Blue Jays got off to a poor start, lost Reyes to injury, rallied with a long winning streak in June to get to .500, and then collapsed mostly under the weight of a pile of injuries - particularly to the pitching staff.

Give Davidi and Lott credit for a good start. They dug into the mess that the Blue Jays were in at the end of the 2012 season, which eventually led to the trading of manager John Farrell to the Red Sox for a shortstop. (That one worked out pretty well for Boston.)

The Blue Jays didn't immediately think of such a massive remodeling. But general manager Alex Anthopoulos saw opportunity arrive when the Marlins decided to have a fire sale on some of their veteran talent. After receiving permission from ownership to raise the budget, Anthopoulos went to work and put together a team that was a favorite to win the division.There are some good details here about the negotiating process in the trade and in the discussion to extend Dickey's contract.

When the season starts, the coverage is less comprehensive and interesting. The chapters are split between on-field developments and extended profiles of some of the star players, such as Jose Bautista, Mark Buehrle and Brett Lawrie. Munenori Kawasaki even gets his turn in the spotlight, as he became an unexpected fan favorite despite backup status. The mini-bios aren't boring by any means, but there's no sense of urgency involved.They more or less float in space, unattached to the season around them.

And perhaps that's the biggest problem with the book. It reads as if everyone had big plans for the Blue Jays in 2013 and decided to capitalize by planning on publishing this volume. Even when the team disappointed, people were bound and determined to make sure the book still was going to come out at its scheduled time. The writing does feel a little rushed in spots, with some duplication of material. The deadlines must have been oppressive.

Davidi and Lott do review the year to a certain extent at the end of the book. There is some discussion about leadership problems - always tough to get a handle on in a team sport - and "the little things" that are difficult to quantify. But there are few signs of huge problems on the Blue Jays, such as a lost of respect of manager John Gibbons or an unhappy clubhouse.

Sometimes teams simply have off years, as there are no guarantees to success in baseball. That's what makes it a little maddening to those involved, but it also makes it so much fun to watch. "Great Expectations" will be of interest to Blue Jays fans who want to know more about this particular set of players, but the rest probably could do better elsewhere.

Three stars

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: Their Life's Work (2013)

By Gary M. Pomerantz

"Their Life's Work" is the answer to a bookstore's prayers ... at least in Pittsburgh.

There is little doubt that this particular book will be a huge seller in that part of the world. What's more, it should be. For Gary Pomerantz's work will be sought out by everyone who can recite the members of the defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s - frequently called "The Steel Curtain."

Just for the record, those players are Joe Greene, Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood and Ernie Holmes, and they helped the Steelers win four Super Bowl titles in less than a decade. They were merely part of one of the great runs by a group of players in pro football history. The line's members were joined by such players as Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster and Jack Lambert.

Heck, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton ought to have its own wing devoted to those Pittsburgh teams. The Steelers of that era started out with a ferocious defense that intimidated opponents and had a conservative offense that stuck to the ground. By decade's end, as the rules and game changed, the Steelers could strike quickly via long-distance passes from Bradshaw to Swann and Stallworth.

Pomerantz essentially splits the story into a couple of parts. The initial sections deal with the rise of the Steelers. You could argue that they were one of the last teams to raid an undervalued talent pool in the historic black colleges, adding to some of the best drafts in football history. Four eventual Hall of Famers in one draft is tough to top. Then it was simply a matter of the pieces coming together. It took some time - the so-called "Immaculate Reception" of 1972  was a major steppingstone toward that goal - but the Steelers finally got that first Super Bowl title in January of 1975.

Happily, there are plenty of good stories about that team told along the way. Pomerantz obviously put in plenty of time through interviews and research to get as complete a story as possible. He doesn't get too bogged down in game details, sticking to personalities and anecdotes. You'll love the portion about the Steelers hanging around the Three Rivers Stadium sauna, reviewing games well into the dinner hour - even inviting the odd respected opponent once in a great while.

After a quick review of the remaining years of the dynasty, Pomerantz moves to the story of what's happened to those players and other members of the organization over the years since everyone went their separate ways. The title refers to what happens to players when they are done with football, usually at a young age.

It's fair to say some of the stories are relatively well-known - Bradshaw is best known for his work with Fox Sports before NFL games, Webster died after suffering from brain damage, etc. A surprising number of people from that team have died already, which is rather sobering. It is a little easy to wonder if some of the other, less-known players on the team had even more compelling stories, but those aren't the ones people care about.

Overseeing it all is the story of the Rooney family. Art, one of the most beloved figures in Pittsburgh history, gets plenty of coverage here as could be expected. He took a chance on pro football in the game's infancy, and it paid off in a big way. Stories about his generosity here still touch the heart. Some of his sons took over the family football business, which took a rather Shakespearean turn fairly recently.

There have been a couple of comparisons here to baseball's "The Boys of Summer," which is a terribly high standard. This isn't quite as sentimental, and therefore probably won't be quite as beloved by a mass audience.

But "Their Life's Work" certainly serves as a glowing valedictory for the most glorious era in Steelers' history. This book will be on the bookshelves of fans of those teams for years and years to come, who probably will want to give it six stars out of a possible five.

Five stars

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