Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Review: Changing the Game (2014)

By Stephen Laroche

Sports figures will tell you that a good idea is more or less worthless unless it is well executed.

That even applies to books. Case in point is "Changing the Game." Stephen Laroche's reach was longer than his grasp in putting together this publication.

The subject, expansion teams in the National Hockey League, is an interesting one. The league was like an accordian in its first 25 years (1917 to 1942 or so), growing or shrinking due to a variety of factors. The league settled at six teams for another quarter-century, and then started growing and growing. The NHL eventually reached 30 teams.

Along the way, most expansion teams suffer severe growing pains. The league record book is littered with numbers of pure futility from these teams - the Capitals and Senators, for example. The stories behind the numbers - trades, coaching changes, ownership problems, etc. - are just as gruesome.

Laroche, who has a book on trading cards to his credit, has a simple format. Each expansion team, which covers almost every team that entered the league in the past 90 years, gets a chapter. There's a brief overview of the team's history, followed by capsule descriptions of players from that first year. Laroche talked to close to 100 people who played on such teams, starting with those in the six-team expansion of '67 and going through the WHA merger of 1979 (there are a few exceptions after that, but not many). The author also poured over plenty of newspapers, including The Hockey News, and web reference sites.

Alas, plenty goes wrong along the way. Let's start with the biggest one, an error that left me a little stunned. There are a variety of quotes included here from what seems like a variety of sources. Some obviously come from newspapers, others from current interviews. There is no attribution on any of them. What's more, there's not even a "he said" in the middle of most of the quotes; it's simply what was said in quote marks.

The legalities of such matters are tough to determine. Clearly, though, the least that should have been done with borrowed quotes is to write something like "Goyette told the New York Daily News after the game" in the middle of it. Otherwise, you can't tell the difference between the quotes you personally obtained and the quotes someone else contained. That's considered plagerism. I've seen people lose their jobs for this - in fact, that just happened to a Florida writer in the past week. Crediting some hockey writers in the acknowledgements isn't good enough. I'm surprised this aspect of the book made it through the publishing process.

Meanwhile, there is one easy way to tell the difference between new quotes and old ones - a few of the new ones contain profanities. While they were said on the record, they feel out of place here. Removing them wouldn't have hurt the book at all. Those are words best saved for oral histories, if that.

There are other, less important issues here:

* Some of the capsules are only a couple of paragraphs long, really too short to be of much use. Since not every player is profiled, why bother? The book is more than 400 pages as it is. And the writing style in them has sort of a "gee whiz" approach. This includes recap of the odd good game for a player, such as a two-point night for a defenseman, without much context. The author sure likes his game-winning goals, even though at times it's pretty useless in determining an important goal (as in an 8-0 game). That also applies to a description of someone like Dickie Moore, who becomes "ageless" for scoring a goal in a playoff series (he actually had a good series and five more goals in 1968, although you wouldn't know it by reading this), or that Gordie Howe "hadn't lost a step" while playing hockey in his late 40s - dubious at best.

* Statistical recaps of each team's season would have been very handy - even if it's just a roster with goals, assists, points, penalty minutes, etc.. That would have filled in several gaps in the player capsules.

* There are very few interviews with coaches for the expansion teams, and none with general managers, other team officials, or media representatives. Such material could have been useful, especially in the initial team history which is quite dry. A few laughs would have been nice along the way.

* Expansion drafts are ugly processes. The rules have different every time, which affects how those teams are put together. There are references to it in the player capsules, as they pertain to how a player arrived with the expansion team, but it's confusing. A brief description of each year's method of dispersing talent would have been helpful, and the list of expansion selections by team over the years would have been nice too. (Based on my Kindle copy, it was planned - but the finished product doesn't have it.) It is particularly needed for the WHA teams of 1979, because that merger featured a bizarre set of ways to send players bouncing around the NHL.

In fairness, this book certainly displays the effort that went into it. There are some facts in here that are relatively unknown, and some of the first-person comments are interesting.

That's what makes "Changing the Game" frustrating, and that's the reason why it's not ranked lower here. It's easy to wish it were better. Let's hope Laroche learns some major lessons - particularly on attribution - and tries again, because he obviously has a passion for the game.

Two stars

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