Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review: Mark Rosen's Book of Minnesota Sports Lists (2014)

By Mark Rosen and Jim Bruton

You may be wondering how a guy from Buffalo, without any connections to the land of 10,000 lakes except a couple of friends, decided to pick up "Mark Rosen's Book of Minnesota Sports Lists."

Easy. I wanted to see if the book was "portable."

Not in the carrying sense. It checks in at 6 inches by 9 inches. You can take it anywhere.

Rather, I wanted to see if the idea was portable. Could be applied to other cities? Based on what I read, I think the answer is yes.

First of all, you need someone with credentials to pull this off, and Rosen seems well qualified. He's been involved in Minnesota sportscasting forever. Rosen hasn't seen it all, but he's seen a lot of it.

The veteran sailed through his lists pretty quickly, starting with "My Favorite Things," followed by chapters devoted to football, baseball, hockey, basketball, wrestling (one list), and "More of My Favorite Things."

The categories for Rosen's lists are generally predictable - favorite sports moments, best finishes, best coaches, best athletes biggest trades, all-time teams, best things about stadiums, top five reasons to have lunch with Lou Nanne (that last one did sort of come out of nowhere, even though Nanne has been known an engaging character since his days with the North Stars).

This is all done with enthusiasm and good humor. Rosen obviously loves his job, and has enjoyed the people he's encountered and the games he's watched. No wonder he's lasted so long in the Twin Cities. It's a breeze to go through this, and one of those books that can be examined at an point without missing a beat. In other words, it's fine bathroom reading if you are looking for it. (I had a book described that way, and considered it high praise.)

There are a few drawbacks here that should be mentioned, though. Some of the lists are pretty similar, and that means the information is about the same in each list. The good points and the bad points tend to get repeated a lot, and it's easy to wonder if there was a way around that. Maybe some different lists, or lists by others, might have helped.

And, naturally, there are places for disagreements. That's part of the fun of such an effort. Still, it was surprising to see Steve Payne ranked second on the list of great North Stars, ahead of Dino Ciccarelli. And only one mention of a personal favorite, Mike Ramsey, who is No. 10 of the great Minnesota athletes?

Finally, Kirby Puckett gets a great deal of love here. The Twins outfielder was the most popular athlete in Minnesota until eye problems forced him to retire. His winning personality captivated the state. But after retirement, Puckett was involved in several incidents that caused him to resign his front-office job with the Twins, and spend some time with lawyers and in courts. Even one of the tour guides at Target Field when I was there mentioned that opinions about Puckett have turned complicated. Puckett's legacy has changed since his retirement, but it doesn't read like it here.

Even so, Rosen accomplished what he set out to do - bring back memories of some good athletes and good games from the past. In that sense, "Mark Rosen's Book of Minnesota Sports Lists" accomplishes its goal.

Three stars

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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: The Battle of Alberta (2015)

By Mark Spector

"The Battle of Alberta" - the actual games, not the book - was something of an "inside story" in the world of professional hockey in the 1980s, especially in the United States. We knew all about the Edmonton Oilers, thanks to the fabulous Wayne Gretzky and his supporting cast that was much more than a supporting cast. Names like Messier, Kurri, Anderson, Coffey and Fuhr were Hall of Famers in their own right.

Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames were just down the road in Alberta. They were obviously a very good team in those days, but they were constantly bumping up against one of the great teams in the history of hockey. Sadly for the Flames, the playoffs were intramural affairs within the division in the first couple of rounds, which meant Calgary had to go through Edmonton to get to close to the promised land.

Those games, regular season and playoff, were close to off the charts in intensity. The Oilers usually won, especially when the Flames were just building their team.Eventually, though, Calgary broke through. The catch in terms of public attention is that Edmonton and Calgary aren't major media centers, and therefore few people knew about those games.

That left the subject open for Mark Spector, attacking the rivalry in his book, "The Battle of Alberta." He does a thorough job of getting the feelings of the participants out in the open. In fact, it doesn't sound like there was a great deal of prompting.

The Flames were never going to match the Oilers' level of skill, so they built up a slightly different type of team. The roster had a bunch of college players from America who were overlooked by NHL scouts, so they had a chip on their shoulder coming into the league. Playing second-fiddle to Edmonton fit in nicely with that formula. And if that meant using players with grit to do anything possible to slow down the speedy Oilers, well, whatever worked. Neil Sheehy, who went to Harvard, became well-known in the sport for his efforts to at least slow Gretzky.

Author Mark Spector was around for much of the fun, which ran through much of the 1980s and leaked into the start of the 1990s. The Oilers and Flames were good talkers, as they say in the media, and they haven't lost the touch. Spector only needs to turn on the tape recorder, ask a question, and sit back.

He uses a different technique of organizing the book that many such efforts. Since the matchups were irregularly played, Spector opts to use a different theme for each chapter. So we read about coaches Glen Sather and Bob Johnson, Edmonton's Steve Smith and his famous "own goal" in which he took too much of the blame, the goaltenders, and so on. About the only drawback is that sometimes facts and stories get repeated. It interrupts the flow a little bit.

Still, the passion comes out on practically every page. It's great fun to read the reactions of what happened when coach Terry Crisp of Calgary opted to dress Lanny McDonald for a potential Cup-clinching game in Montreal in 1989, from the players who had to sit out the game to McDonald's thought as he scored the go-ahead goal - the last goal of his career.

Ken Dryden once said that playoff meetings developed rivalries, and there's no doubt that it worked in the case of Edmonton and Calgary. There's nothing like seven games in 10 days between two teams to develop a good-size level of emotion, year after year.

The Oilers and Flames haven't been very good too often in the last 25 years, and when one has been good, the other has been mediocre or worse. Fans from the 1980s certainly have a head start when it comes to enjoying "The Battle of Alberta," but I think most hockey followers will get the idea about what an interesting time it was - and to hope we see a renewal of the rivalry sometime relatively soon.

Four stars

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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Review: Art Ross (2015)

By Eric Zweig

Mention the name of Art Ross to a very casual hockey fan, and you are likely to draw a blank stare. Say the name to a more involved observer, and the first response will no doubt be connected to a piece of hardware - the Art Ross Trophy is given to the National Hockey League's leading scorer.

But hardly anyone at this point in hockey history knows much about Art Ross himself. Eric Zweig marches fearlessly into the void to write a full-fledged biography of this important historical figure in hockey circles, simply called "Art Ross."

Ross, it turns out, was one heck of an athlete. He played practically everything while growing up in Canada, and did it well. That includes baseball, football and lacrosse, among other sports. But since he was in Canada, he turned to hockey for a profession.

Ross broke in to a higher level of competition in 1905. It was a different game then, but Ross established a reputation as what we now would call a defenseman who could bring the puck up the ice and lead the charge. Think Denis Potvin. These were times when organized professional hockey wasn't particularly organized, and Ross did some serious bouncing around Canada in search of good teams and paychecks. He went through Montreal, Winnipeg and Ottawa, among other stops. The story does have a "follow the bouncing ball" feeling to it, as it's a little difficult to keep up with the movement. Then again, teams of that era probably has the same problem.

Ross stayed around the game long enough to play in the National Hockey League. He spent three games there in the initial 1917-18 season. He did a little coaching in the next few years after that, but he really didn't settle down and find a home until 1924. That's when he took over as general manager and coach of the Boston Bruins, who were just getting going.

Ross essentially became Mr. Bruin in the next 30 years. Ross coached through 1945, winning one Stanley Cup in 1939, and then stayed in the Boston front office for another decade or so. The book makes it sound like that Ross had quite a strong personality, and made some enemies along the way. But no one could deny that Ross had a creative mind. As an example, he invented the goal nets with a design that has more or less lasted until this day. In fact, Ross is said to have made one big mistake financially with that invention - he forgot to take out a patent on the netting, and thus lost a good-sized pile of money. Ross even suggested that the center red line be striped, so that it would be seen better on black-and-white television.

By the way, Zweig points out that Ross took the easy way to hockey fame when it came to the trophy: he donated it himself. It was supposed to be awarded to the most valuable player as voted by the players, but that somehow got sidetracked by the war and other issues.

Will this interest fans of today? That's a tough one. The pre-NHL era is more than a little dusty at this point, and most of the names aren't familiar ones. Ross' executive days with the Bruins have some good stories about the era, but the Bruins weren't exactly the Montreal Canadiens when it came to great teams and players.

However, there's little doubt that the important pioneers in any field, including sports, deserve to have their lives examined in full. Ross is a member of that group. It takes someone dedicated to research and accuracy to do a subject like this justice, and Zweig's research comes across well on virtually every page.

"Art Ross" may not be the classic page-turner, then, but Zweig has brought a big name from the past back to the public eye with this book. Those who have an strong interest in the subject, and in hockey from a century ago, will find this more than merely worthwhile.

Three stars

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