Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: Hockey Night Fever (2015)

By Stephen Cole

Can you write a history of hockey in the 1970s without writing very much about Bobby Hull, the World Hockey Association, and NHL expansion?

Obviously. At least Stephen Cole can.

That's what he did in the book, "Hockey Night Fever," a look back at some of those times in the Seventies. What's more, it's an enjoyable read - to put it lightly.

Cole spends most of the book on the three great teams of the 1970s, the ones that dominated the headlines through the decade. The first was the Boston Bruins, led by superstars Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. They won Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972, and probably should have won a few more. Several players defected to the WHA, and Orr's knee problems sent him on a slow, painful path toward retirement. Plus, maybe the Bruins had a little too much fun in those years.

In the middle years of the decade, the Philadelphia Flyers ruled the roost in the NHL. They had some skill players like Bobby Clarke, Reggie Leach and Bernie Parent, but they were also tough. Tough. Players on visiting teams often came down with the "Philly flu" at the mere thought of facing the Broad St. Bullies in their home lair of the Spectrum. The Flyers would beat you on the scoreboard, and would beat you up in the process. It's a team that is to this day hated everywhere but Philadelphia.

Hockey purists will tell you that just the right team came along in 1976 to restore order and balance to the sport. If the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1970s weren't the best team in history, they were close. They were loaded with talent from Guy Lafleur's scoring to Ken Dryden's goaltending, and everywhere in between. They could only beat themselves, and coach Scotty Bowman made sure that never happened. Their skill and grace was a counterpoint to the Flyers' style.

There are chapters along the way about the key figures of the Seventies - Orr, Clarke, Shero, Lafleur, Bowman, etc, Perhaps because I've read more about the Bruins and Canadiens teams more, some of the stories about the Flyers and their coach were quite interesting. Philadelphia had some brains behind the brawn; otherwise the team wouldn't have been successful.

Cole also goes in-depth on some of the key games of the era - the night the Bruins won their second Stanley Cup of the decade, the Flyers' first Cup win, Canada-USSR's Game Eight, "Too Many Men on the Ice" (say that to any Canadiens or Bruins fan of the era, and he or she will know the story instantly), and a couple of others. It is difficult to make games come alive after more than 35 years, but Cole does that very nicely.

Indeed, the research here make this book work so well. The author seems to have read every imaginable book on the subject, done interviews, tracked down microfilm, and watched videos. There are some familiar parts, but a lot of it is fresh and interesting. For example, the rivalry, if that's the right word, between Lafleur and Marcel Dionne when they were juniors is almost frightening to read.

The problems here are minor. The NHL was essentially bankrupt by the mid-1970s, with expansion fees keeping the league afloat at times, thanks in part to the WHA war and the lack of a major television deal. That's a bigger part of the story than is mentioned here. I'm also not sure how interesting hockey stories from the era might be for those younger than, say, 45.

But make no mistake here. "Hockey Night Fever" is an extremely entertaining and well-done book. Not only will readers learn a lot, but they'll laugh a bit along the way. I would guess that many will consider it one of the best hockey books of the season.

Five stars

Learn more about this book.

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