Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review: Joining the Clubs (2015)

By J. Andrew Ross

Here's an interesting concept: a hockey book without much talk about hockey.

All right, that's not completely fair. The hockey business certainly pops up in this work by J. Andrew Ross. There are a few references to rules changes that popped up in the early years of the National Hockey League.

Still, this is a business book. There's barely a reference to the game's great players. As you'd expect, that's going to limit the potential audience of a book like this.

Ross starts back in the pre-NHL days of the 19th century. The structure of hockey evolved about how you'd expect it to do so. Amateur leagues popped up in major Eastern Canadian cities. When they proved popular with players and fans alike, someone came along to try to turn it into a money-making proposition. That led to cities have a super-team, or teams, to compete against the other cities' best players. As soon as admission was charged, you can bet that the players wanted their shares of the proceeds.

After some stops and stars, pro hockey finally was headed on the right track with the formation of the National Hockey League in 1917. By the way, I never paid much thought to the fact that the NHL kept its name all these years, even though "National" is in the league name, despite expanding across the border. The NHL essentially was formed over a fight about the Toronto market. As Ross patiently explains here, it took a while for the game to catch on.

Eventually, though, the business took off. Mix that with the construction of arenas that were much bigger than anything that had been seen in North America before, and a business opportunity comes into focus. Cities such as New York and Boston saw an opportunity to book events in the form of hockey games over the winter, and soon many cities throughout North America wanted to get in on the fun. Look at the standings of the NHL in the 1920s sometime, and you'll see cities that didn't get a big arena built and thus quickly disappeared from the scene (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Ottawa).

The Thirties, as Ross outlines, was a time to try to gain stability in membership, no easy task with the Depression. It also was a period when teams were trying to work out rules involving acquiring amateur players and setting up farm teams. When World War II arrived in 1939, the book spends much of its time concentrating on what the rules would be concerning players, the draft, and international travel by members of teams in two countries.

Ross obviously put in his time at the library here. The footnotes go on for pages and pages. I've read a variety of books on National Hockey League history over the years, and this has a great deal of new information. Therefore, it's exactly the type of book that a university should publish. Syracuse University is the owner of the press in question. This also reads like most of the scholarly efforts I've come across, with long summations about what was covered in the chapter.

In other words, it's not written for a mass audience. There are sections here that are a little dry, and there are other parts that are dry to the point of being dusty (mostly the beginning and ending portions). My guess is that not many people are going to be able to get through all of this.

It's good that people do care enough to write a book like this, in the sense that it fills in the gaps of hockey history. But it's tough to picture someone paying the $45.68 to get it. Those looking for something of a readable business history of the NHL should stick to "The NHL," which will be much more accessible to a mass audience.

Three stars

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