Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review: Hockey's Greatest (2015)

Edited by Bill Syken

You have to give Sports Illustrated credit. They sure know how to put out a good-looking, coffee-table book.

They also sure know how to put their photography file to good use.

Those are two easy conclusions at looking through "Hockey's Greatest," the latest in a series of books covering the major North American sports. Baseball, football and basketball are done, and now it's hockey's turn.

My guess is that the formats are pretty similar. Come up with a bunch of categories, have some experts come up with a ranking, and print them with illustrations - big, glorious illustrations. The pictures are displayed in a book that measures at 10 3/4 inches by 13 inches - big enough to show them off to their best advantage. There are explanations of the picks, with comments from the selectors and/or quotes from stories and personalities involved.

The categories go as expected. Best players by position. Best coaches. Best enforcers. Best rivalries. Best teams. There are a few reaches (best shootout specialists, best franchises). Most of the choices are rather conventional; the biggest surprise might have been Ted Lindsay as the third-best left-winger ever. He beat out Alex Ovechkin, Frank Mahovlich, Valeri Kharlamov and Brendan Shanahan, among others. 

Sometimes - one per major section - the items come up a longer print treatment. For example - spoiler alert - the best game in history from an American perspective is the U.S.-U.S.S.R. game in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid. I'm not sure if some or all the story from a 1980 article about the game is reprinted, but it's still fun to read about that particular game. It always will be too.

One extra bonus is that Michael Farber contributes a witty, interesting forward to the book, as well as some good comments and a few of typically interesting stories. Sometimes I read Farber's work and think I should have gone into plumbing instead of journalism. He sets a high bar.

One drawback comes from the format. It's mostly a picture book, which means you can plow through it pretty quickly - a couple of hours. I'd prefer a few more words for my $32.95. Speaking of that, the concept reminds me of the type of magazine that The Hockey News puts out as a special edition every so often. It doesn't look as good, but it's also one-third the price.

Still, the pictures from "Hockey's Greatest" will lure many in. It's not called Sports Illustrated for nothing, and their photographers are some of the best in the business. For those looking for a fine-looking gift for the holidays, you've come to the right place.

Four stars

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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

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