Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review: The Great One (2012)

Foreward by Michael Farber

An anthology from Sports Illustrated on the career of Wayne Gretzky is an interesting business decision.

One of the well-known rules about the sports publishing business is that hockey covers don't do well on the newsstand for Sports Illustrated. The publication only has a few each year, and that number hasn't been rising over the last couple of decades.

A collection of articles, then, on the greatest player in hockey history, is something of a natural ... in Canada. That's where the biggest fan base is, since Gretzky is considered something of a natural resource even today. That's where this book was published, although (maybe a better word is because) SI probably isn't as influential north of the border as it is the United States. Still, my guess is that it is sold in hockey hotbeds in the U.S., particularly along the border.

It would be a cheap laugh to say about this book, "There's nothing new here," since it is an anthology. OK, Michael Farber does write a fine new introduction to the book. Otherwise, these are all of the stories SI has published on Gretzky over the years, conveniently packaged in one place.

It's a breezy enough read, with none of the stories of intimidating length. Some are profiles at a particular moment in time, and others are closer to news stories about a moment in which Gretzky plays a large but not necessarily starring role in the story. In other words, that Rangers' playoff win over the Panthers is less than compelling now. The writing is first-rate, as you'd expect from Sports Illustrated. I'm not sure any of the stories, though, are particularly memorable, something that's worth saving for a lifetime even by the biggest of Gretzky's fans.

It's quite a realization for those who watched Gretzky perform his magic that he's been retired since 1999 - coming up on 14 years. That means, as the analogy goes, that there are college-aged kids who don't remember Gretzky from his playing days. He might as well be Maurice Richard from that standpoint.

This book, then, is a reminder that it would be interesting to read a story about Gretzky from today's standpoint. After retirement, he eventually coached in Phoenix for four years. He left that position when the league had to buy the team because of financial problems. Gretzky is said to be owed a seven-figure settlement for his share of the team, but no one seems to be too sure who owes him that money. The Great One doesn't have a particular role in the hockey world at the moment, and that's a shame on many levels. So what does he do with his time?

"The Great One" is a nice enough review of some of Gretzky's highlights, and will serve as a good lesson on his exploits for those too young to remember them. Fans, particularly who don't read SI regularly and thus will see the material for the first time, will like it. Still, a thorough biography putting his life into perspective needs to be written down the road.

Three stars

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Review: The Instigator (2012)

By Jonathon Gatehouse

Now that the National Hockey League lockout is over, raise your hand if you want to learn much, much more about Commissioner Gary Bettman.

There's one hand, two ... no, wait, that guy was just stretching.

I would suspect that the author of "The Instigator," a book about Bettman and how he's changed the business of hockey, probably doesn't expect many people to run out and buy this book in this particular week. Jonathon Gatehouse, a writer for the Canadian magazine Maclean's, no doubt became a little tired of seeing Bettman and Donald Fehr of the Players Association on television all the time for the past several months.

Still, that's not to say that Bettman isn't an interesting personality. He certainly has had a major effect on hockey, and that's what this book studies in a thorough, relatively interesting way.

Bettman came to the National Hockey League about 20 years ago. The league had some aspirations of joining the big boys in baseball, football and basketball, but pretty clearly didn't know how to do it. After some clearly ineffective individuals tried their hand at it, the NHL went after Bettman from the NBA office.

Bettman was at first glance an unlikely choice. He grew up in the New York City area, went to Cornell, and worked his way to the NBA office. Eventually he became a top aide to the NBA's David Stern, and was a natural target for the NHL.

As Gatehouse reviews here, Bettman has brought the NHL into the modern age in a lot of areas. Revenues have gone up drastically, the games are on national television in the United States on channels that people can actually watch, and teams have been placed in large markets throughout the country - including the Sun Belt. Bettman is smart and has taken charge, and the league has benefitted.

It's not an unblemished record. There have been four work stoppages on Bettman's watch, and some of the Sun Belt teams are still bleeding money. Bettman will never be forgiven for not having Canadian blood somewhere in his family tree by some Canadians. He's also never been the smiling face of hockey. Bettman is quoted in the book that he spends about 75 percent of his time on the problem franchises, and that would make anyone dour.

This is not a classic biography of Bettman. Rather, Gatehouse covers his life story in a chapter and then takes a look at some of the issues he's faced over the two decades. For example, franchise relocation, marketing and sponsorship, and television negotiations are covered here. Obviously, the labor disputes come up as well. There's some good attention to detail here, and plenty of facts that aren't well known come to light. The little things are good too -- such as the fact that Bettman has a picture of his grandchildren on his smartphone.

The ultimate question surrounding Bettman's time on the job is whether hockey is better off because he's been there. The answer probably is yes. Even so, the idea that hockey will take a firm foothold throughout the warm climates of the South in the U.S. still seems like a far-off dream at times. The game's stars still aren't instantly recognized by American sports fans. And we'll have to see if this latest labor agreement proves to be something of a cure for many of hockey's problems; the NHL's track record isn't too good in that department. Good negotiators get deals done, and the record there is spotty.

There's plenty to like here. Gatehouse covers plenty of ground, has good sources and writes well and clearly. The subject never rarely turns dry, at least for those even slightly interested in the subject. "The Instigator" may not be at the top of your reading list now, but it's not a bad idea to pick up later when the idea of discussing hockey related revenues isn't a stomach-turner like it might be now.

Four stars

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Review: Lamar Hunt (2012)

By Michael MacCambridge

I haven't read every book by Michael MacCambridge from cover to cover yet. Forgive me for that; it's a little tough to read the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia that way.

As for his other titles, he's come up with four quality efforts in four tries. Number four is the latest one: "Lamar Hunt."

Hunt is one of those sports people who has a well-known resume to fans, but the entire story, including personality and family background, hasn't been completely explored too often. This makes Hunt a fine choice for a biography subject.

MacCambridge is up to the task of doing the subject justice too. The details of Hunt's early life are given in almost astonishing terms. It's filled with facts, to the point where there's a lot of "how did the author know that?" moments. The answer, along with good interviewing, is that Hunt did a lot of note-taking and collecting, and didn't seem to throw much out.

Lamar Hunt was the youngest son of H.L. Hunt, who at one point was called the richest man in America. OK, this isn't a rags to riches story. In fact, considering that Lamar never seemed to have much money in his pocket or expensive "toys," some people probably never guessed how well off he was (at least by the time he was allowed to access the trust fund).

While other family members stayed in the family business (and got into considerable trouble at one point along the way), Lamar never did outgrow a love of sports that started as a boy. He was always attending or playing games, even serving as a backup on the SMU football team. By the late 1950's, Hunt was out of college and looking for a big project.

What could be much bigger, and potentially more fun, than starting a pro football league? When the NFL turned down his bid to move a team to Dallas or acquire an expansion team, Hunt found a few other people interested in the sport, and the American Football League was born.

The AFL turned into a fabulous success, fully merging with the NFL by the end of that decade. Hunt didn't get to have that team in Dallas for long - the NFL did expand into Dallas and drove Hunt's team to Kansas City - but the Chiefs worked out just fine. The team's ownership is still in the family.

But football wasn't enough to satisfy Hunt. A trip to the 1966 World Cup convinced him that America was missing on something by not taking to soccer. He spent the rest of his life trying to make the game popular here, and lived to see his efforts finally produce some fruit. Hunt also did much to push tennis into the 20th century through professionalism. And that doesn't include owning a share of the Chicago Bulls as well as a few other ventures.

What's striking about MacCambridge's methods here is that he draws from all sorts of sources. Heck, Hunt's first wife even gave an interview. There are fresh quotes from many of his personal and business associates over the years, as well as stories published at the time they happened. Plus, there are Hunt's own papers. It gives the book a nice balance.

What jumps out here is while Hunt certainly could have used some power and wealth to wield influence, he never seemed interested. Chiefs' executives all have stories about him meekly asking if he could sit in on a meeting. Soccer executives were astonished when Hunt passed up a seat in a suite to go sit in the stands with regular fans.

About the only drawback to the story, at least for some, is that the soccer portions of the book don't quite measure up to the football sections. Admittedly, I'm a much bigger fan of football than soccer, and the names and stories about football ranked higher on the fascination scale. It's fair to say that any biography of Hunt needs to have plenty of soccer chapters, though, so it's difficult to blame the editorial decision by the author to include them.

"Lamar Hunt" gets a "mere" four stars for that reason, but it probably ranks between four and five stars for these purposes. Here is a more definitive evaluation: There is little doubt that this will be the definitive biography of the book's subject. MacCambridge makes a good case that Lamar Hunt was one of the most influential sports figures of his time.

Four stars

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