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

Learn more about this book.

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