Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: Black Ice (2015)

By Val James with John Gallagher

Buffalo Sabres' fans were used to having a black man on their favorite team in the early 1980s. Tony McKegney had broken into the NHL during the 1978-79 season, and he was still around in the 1981-82 campaign when he received some company.

When Val James came up from the minor leagues to make his NHL debut in 1982, he was something of a curiosity. Coach and general manager Scotty Bowman thought the Sabres needed some toughness, and James certainly could supply that. James played in seven regular season games and three playoff contests - not seeing much ice time along the way - and that was it as a Sabre.

However, Game One was a milestone of sorts. James became the first African-American to reach the NHL. That makes him a pioneer of sorts, and is something of a starting point for a book on his life in hockey, "Black Ice."

And speaking of starting points ... the very first part of James' book is the most compelling. He had just completed playing for the Sabres in a game in the Boston Garden against the Bruins. Afterwards, the Sabres' team bus was surrounded by a mob that broke the front windshield and chanted a racial slur. I'd never heard that story before, and I was covering the team at the time for a radio station. By the way, it's interesting that teammate McKegney didn't come up there or in any other part of the book. 

From there, the book is a straight-forward recap of James' hockey career. It's an unusual story. His parents moved from the South to Long Island in search of a better life. James' father eventually became a rink manager in Commack, where a minor league team played. Thus James had a connection to such personalities as John Brophy and John Muckler. James picked up the game pretty quickly, and his great size and condition quickly gave him a reputation in hockey circles as a physical force to consider at all times. As a youngster he played in a league that was spread out around the New York City metro area.

It was on to Canada and a shot for James to improve his hockey skills at a teenager. He was good enough to be selected by Detroit in the 16th round of the NHL draft in 1977. That allowed him to meet current Sabre coach Ted Nolan (another Red Wings draft choice) at training camp, but he was quickly cut. James bounced from senior hockey to a pro team in Erie, where Nick Polano used him as a security blanket for Erie in the Eastern Hockey League. In a league full of tough guys, James was as tough as anyone, and he played a role in helping Erie win three straight championships.

When Polano jumped to the Sabres, James came along to the Sabres' organization. The rugged forward spent four years in Rochester in addition to his cup of coffee in Buffalo. Then it was on to the Toronto organization, and four more games in the NHL with the Leafs, before retiring in 1988. As you can see, this is not the places for pages and pages of memories about NHL experiences.

The key point of the book centers on his treatment as a black player in a virtually all-white world of hockey. It wasn't too pleasant at times. Teammates told James to simply ignore such ignorant talk, but that's easier said than done. Opposing players sometimes offered slurs, and James "rewarded" them with a good-sized beating the first chance he got. Payback was more difficult with opposing fans, though. Heading into the stands in search of justice can get a player into trouble with the law as well as the league office.

While those sorts of stories are sad but interesting, the rest of the book won't be of much interest to most readers. He recounts fights and games from minor league games from 30 years ago, and it's difficult to make those gripping. For what it's worth, some of the material in the book is definitely R-rated. The book contains a brief reference to James' wife and a short, vague description about his current job, but otherwise this could have been written in 1990.

Most hockey enforcers generally are honorable people, who make the conscious decision to get punched in the head for living. James certainly comes across that way here, and as a good guy. It seems like his life would have made a good magazine story, but there probably aren't enough interesting details to stretch it into a book. "Black Ice," then, probably will only be of interest to those with a connection to James' career ... which doesn't cover a great many people.

Two stars

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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Review: We Are Your Leafs (2014)

By Mike Ulmer

Give the Toronto Maple Leafs credit for one thing - they know how to plan ahead.

The Leafs will celebrate their 100th season later in this decade. The team's marketing department decided to celebrate with not one book of reviewing all that history, but eight - and by not waiting for the actual anniversary season to start.

"We Are Your Leafs" is one of the first shots over the bow, so to speak.

The Leafs have an odd place in North American sports. They were part of the "Original Six" teams from 1942 until 1967, and shared Canada's fan enthusiasm with the Montreal Canadiens. Since Montreal was the obvious choice for French-Canadian fans, the Leafs earned the rest of the country. Even though other NHL teams from Canada are around now, there are no doubt Leaf fans across the country in strange outposts to this day.

There's also the fact that the Maple Leafs haven't given their fans much to watch often since 1967, the year of their last Stanley Cup. They have been generally mediocre since then, with some close calls at greatness and some lapses into farce. Baseball fans know how the Cubs haven't won a World Series in more than 100 years but still have loyal backers throughout the country. That's probably the closest comparison to Leaf Nation.

This particular book shines the spotlight on the Maple Leafs players and management over the years. It starts with Conn Smythe and ends with current coach Randy Carlyle. What's striking about the list of players, and certainly everyone close to important has a small section dedicated to him, is that Toronto has never relied on hockey icons. The best runs came in the late 1940s and the mid 1960s. I suppose the best players in team history were Frank Mahovlich and Mats Sundin, with exceptions made for those who played in the 1920s and 1930s and are tougher to judge from the perspective of today.

They all are represented here, though. Everyone gets a page or two or three, with some good pictures for each one. Ulner, a fine veteran journalist from Toronto, comes through with appropriate text for each personality. Therefore, it's a good-looking package.

But is "We Are Your Leafs" worth buying? That's a fair question. The listed price is $40, which seems a little steep for a book that only takes a day or two to buzz through. It might have been nice to have made it a little bigger, with more text on each player. Some Toronto boosters probably are a least vaguely familiar with the top names in team history.

Then again, I'm not in the target audience since I'm not a Maple Leafs fan. Those who qualify probably will find this to be a good keepsake. It's still not going to be a "best buy" from a consumer magazine, but I could see it being a very suitable gift for that Toronto hockey fan on your holiday shopping list.

Three stars

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: Hockey Confidential (2014)

By Bob McKenzie

About the biggest complaint anyone could have with Bob McKenzie's new book is the title.

It sounds like it should be a Canadian pulp magazine from the 1930s, full of slightly scandalous stories and material a little south of the truth. In fact, a friend saw the book cover and asked, "Is it full of raw material about the players?"

Well, no. McKenzie tackles the issue of the title right at the start of "Hockey Confidential." He says he didn't have anything better than "A Bunch of Stories Bob Would Like to Tell." That wouldn't sell too many copies.

Come to think of it, maybe it might. McKenzie, who had a long newspaper career before becoming a reporter for Canada's TSN, is actually the most respectable of journalists. He's had to be talked into the social media responsibilities of the business with the odd kick and screams. McKenzie prefers a more leisurely approach at telling stories than revealing facts 140 characters at a time.

Therefore, he feels right at home with the book-sized format. Most of the accounts here have not been covered at great length before, especially in this way, so they feel new and fresh. But the tales take a leisurely, thoughtful approach.

A good example of this comes in the early going. Take it from someone who covers lacrosse for a living, McKenzie is right on target with a profile of John Tavares. If you thought I was talking about the New York Islanders' young star, you'd be right. And if you thought I was talking about the indoor lacrosse legend of the Buffalo Bandits, you'd be right. The lacrosse player is "Uncle John" to the hockey player, and the connection has been well publicized in the lacrosse community. After bios of both, McKenzie sits down with both of them and has them compare notes, if you will. It's a good enough conversation to have been video taped and shown on television somewhere.

Other chapters cover a variety of hockey-related talk. Former NHL player and executive Colin Campbell tells about how he almost drowned when he drove his tractor on to a frozen lake when the machine sank through the ice. Some of those in the information revolution in hockey get their chance at explaining what's going on - to someone who was lucky to get out of high school math. McKenzie watches a youth hockey game with Don Cherry and his son. Connor McDavid, the Next Big Thing in hockey, gets a long look, particularly concerning the pressures that come with that sort of title.

Some of the story subjects branch off the mainstream a bit. There are chapters on a massage therapist, a skating coach, and the lead singer of Canada's top band who is a huge fan of the Boston Bruins. Then there's the Subban family, a most unlikely group that has produced three NHL draft choices - including one of the league's best defensemen.

The chapters were designed to be about the same size at first, but some expanded when necessary. Two - the McDavid saga as well as the story of Sheldon Keefe, a junior hockey coach - both get 45 pages or so each, and they are the longest of the bunch.

Does it help to be Canadian to read this? Maybe a little. For example, the Mike Danton/David Frost story, in which Keefe plays a small role, probably was a much bigger story in Canada than the U.S. But Americans who like hockey, or who merely like a good story, well-told, will find this worthwhile.

I'd like to think that there's still room fora collection of stories like this, and McKenzie is a good choice to come up with them. "Hockey Confidential" is a good way to spend time on a cold winter night waiting for the next hockey game to begin.

Four stars

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