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

Learn more about this book from Amazon.com

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