Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: A Matter of Inches (2014)

By Clint Malarchuk with Dan Robson

It's odd to see yourself referenced in a book of any type, even if it's anonymously. I pop up in that manner in Clint Malarchuk's book, "A Matter of Inches." That demands an explanation.

I was working in the Buffalo Sabres public relations department when Malarchuk had his throat slashed during a 1989 game in Memorial Auditorium. It was as terrible a moment as you'd expect. I even took a frantic call in the press box from Malarchuk's brother, who had been watching on TV a couple of thousand miles away.

Two days later, the Sabres were again home for a game, and Malarchuk - who had gone through surgery and was released from the hospital - stopped by the Aud to pick up a few things. I suggested that it would be nice during a break to have him wave to the crowd during a break in the action, since the fans were part of that traumatic experience. My boss convinced Malarchuk to do so, although it wasn't easy.

I was one of the public address announcers at games, so I turned on the microphone and (as is mentioned in the book) said, "It's been a tough couple of days in the Sabre organization, but we thought you'd like to see someone. So at the Zamboni entrance, please welcome back Clint Malarchuk." The standing ovation, which included everyone on the ice from both teams, lasted three or four minutes. The doors were eventually opened so that Malarchuk could walk out on the ice and allow everyone to get a better look. It was an emotional moment.

Malarchuk's name has come up in the sports media in various ways over the years, sometimes associated with the accident. Now we can read his entire story in his book, which is a very unusual one by sports publication standards - mental illness is rarely discussed in the world of alleged fun and games - and it's not the least bit pretty. Interesting, yes; pretty, no.

It turned out that the accident was only one of Malarchuk's issues, albeit one of the biggest. He had an alcoholic father who exited the family during Malarchuk's childhood, and you can guess how that will mess up everything it touches. Clint also suffered from anxiety attacks, refusing to go to school at times. Throw in an undiagnosed case of OCD, and it's the recipe for disaster.

Hockey was his refuge, though, and Malarchuk was very good at goaltending. He worked very hard at it too, and moved up to the ladder to the point where he was drafted by the pros. There after an apprenticeship in the minors, Malarchuk landed in the NHL. He played for the Quebec Nordiques and Washington Capitals - not at the top of the class at his position, but certainly a worthy NHL goalie.

Malarchuk hadn't figured out all of the demons yet during that time, and the accident added another large group of them. Within a year, Malarchuk was filled with anxiety, nightmares and ulcers, to the point where he drank a bottle of whiskey at a sitting in something close to a suicide attempt. His time as an NHL player ended shortly after that, and the transition to ex-player is a difficult one for even the most well-adjusted of people.

Malarchuk goes through the ups and downs of his life from there in almost painful detail. He'd seem to be headed on the right path, and then have a relapse almost have to start over. Malarchuk has been married four times in his life. After reading this, it's not amazing that the first three left him; it's amazing that the fourth one stayed.

The story's climax comes when a depressed Malarchuk actually shoots himself in the mouth in 2008. As could be guessed, he somehow survived it. But that doesn't mean the story of the medical recovery and the time in rehab isn't harrowing, because it certainly is. This is tough reading.

There is one aspect of the book that doesn't exactly ring true. Malarchuk's own descriptions of himself aren't particularly pleasant. It's part of his disease certainly, but he's not a likable or mature person as presented here.

Yet, those who knew him from his playing days will tell you that he was one of the good guys. I had a Washington writer tell me when Malarchuk was traded to Buffalo that "not only is Clint one of my favorite hockey players, he's one of my favorite people period." His sense of humor was a little quirky, but we passed off that and some of his actions to the fact that he was a goaltender. In the hockey business, goaltenders often are a different breed, perhaps because their job carries so much pressure with it.

By the end, "A Matter of Inches" hints that while Malarchuk has beaten back some of those demons for now, it always will be a battle to keep them at bay. But maybe getting it out of his system in this way will help him, and maybe he'll find comfort to know that many of the people he encountered on this journey are rooting him to register the biggest of victories. In the meantime, let's hope that this book offers a helping hand to others in a similar situation who will realize after reading this that they need some help, and don't have to face it alone.

Four stars

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