Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review: Hockey Night in Canada (2012)

By Michael McKinley

There's just something magical in the concept and execution of the television program, "Hockey Night in Canada."

There's no real equivalent in the United States, a place where most of the romance of sports broadcasting probably is associated with baseball radio broadcasters. HNIC is a national broadcast, and thus is a share experience across this giant broadcast.

Hockey means so much to our neighbors to the north, and one of the reasons has been the top-notch broadcasts (radio and television version over the years) of games. It's a distinctly Canadian image - families gathered in the den on a Saturday night to watch a National Hockey League game together.

That sort of tradition makes it easy to think of commemorative books and programs when anniversaries and milestones roll along. Thus, the CBC in Canada cranked out this tribute to the program on the occasion of 60 years of programs ... although "Hockey Night in Canada" also tips its hat, or at least its toque, to the program's radio origins.

Sixty isn't one of those numbers that ranks with 25, 50, 75 or 100 when it comes to the major anniversaries as these things go. But 60 is a familiar number for hockey, since regulation games last that long in minutes. So author Michael McKinley takes us through 60 small topics for each chapter, with a foreword by veteran host Ron MacLean and an epilogue. McKinley has worked on several big projects over the years, in book and film form, so the story is in quite good hands here.

Thus the reader sails through a variety of hockey- and broadcasting-related events, never stopping too long to get bogged down. As you'd expect, there are articles on the famous players of the era - like Maurice Richard, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby. Some big games come up too, like the Canada-USSR series of 1972 and the first outdoor game. The announcers get some glory here too. There's Danny Gallivan, of course, and Bob Cole. Dick Irvin and Howie Meeker. Don Cherry and Jim Robson.

But there are enough little charming facts thrown in that really make the book work. There was Murray Westgate, who played an Esso service station attendant in commercials. The woman who wrote the theme to the program gets to have her story told. And I'll bet you didn't know that instant replay on sports broadcasts was invented for HNIC. Some good, rare pictures pop up along the way that add to the charm. There's even a little criticism thrown in of broadcasting standards from back in the day that now seem somewhere between outdated and archaic.

As of this writing the book is four years old, and there have been some management changes to the show's operations recently. I don't get to watch it any more, so it's hard to know if the present-day show is worthy of admiration. I'd hope so; tradition means something. This fine look back at the program ought to tell American readers an idea what the fuss is all about. As for Canadian hockey fans who watched much of those 60 years of broadcasting, there's no doubt that this will strike a chord in their hearts - and might just be a five-star keeper.

Four stars

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review: Grant Fuhr (2014)

By Grant Fuhr with Bruce Dowbiggin

Here's why I was interested in an autobiography by Grant Fuhr:

When I was covering the Buffalo Sabres in the lockout-shortened 1995 season, Fuhr was on the roster. He was in the process of losing his starting job to Dominik Hasek, whose NHL career was just taking off. Fuhr made the "mistake" of getting hurt in the 1993-94 season, giving Hasek his chance. That was a tough situation for Fuhr, who already had had enough success for a few careers, but was taking matters relatively smoothly under the circumstances.

I always recall Fuhr being polite and pleasant, but I can't say I'd ever describe his remarks to the media as "insightful." I'm not saying Fuhr was unintelligent by any means, but he wasn't a memorable talker. So it was easy to wonder if co-author Bruce Dowbiggin would have any luck getting material out of Fuhr.

The results are in, and it looks as if my initial impression was more or less on target. "Grant Fuhr" doesn't offer too much about the hockey life of a Hall of Fame goalie.

The format might be the first clue to these findings. Instead of Fuhr supplying most of the material, it's Dowbiggin who does the heavy lifting in terms of the facts of the goalie's life story. Fuhr simply adds quotes every so often. This certainly adds a little distance of the story to the subject, and Fuhr doesn't have many good stories to add. It's not as if Dowbiggin supplies an even-handed narrative  to Fuhr's life. If anything, the co-author goes a little overboard to praise Fuhr's accomplishments ... even though the goalie's body of work stands up pretty well. The facts speak pretty well for Fuhr's career and don't need a sales job.

For those who don't know or remember, Fuhr has an odd position in the history of hockey goalies. He played on the greatest offensive machine of all time, the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. They were always on the attack, leaving Fuhr to fend for himself a lot. That led to a higher goals-against average than he might have had elsewhere, but he won a lot of 4-3 and 5-4 games when the team needed him to make that clutch third-period save. And that led to a series of Stanley Cups in that era.

The Oilers couldn't afford to pay all of those stars forever, and Fuhr eventually joined players like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey on a train out of town. Fuhr went throug Toronto, Buffalo and Los Angeles before landing full-time work in St. Louis, where the Blues came close to a great playoff run than most people outside of Missouri might remember. Retirement followed shortly after his time with the Blues ended.

Fuhr doesn't go into great detail about his time in Buffalo, with one exception. The story about how Fuhr was allowed to join a country club in suburban Buffalo, allegedly because of his race, does come up here. It was a claim that Fuhr made at the time, and it received plenty of attention then. The story I heard from the proverbial sources that the country club had a much larger problem with the fact that Fuhr was suspended by the NHL earlier in his career for cocaine use. No matter what the true story was, there is little doubt that the club handled the situation is a rather clumsy manner, and it didn't do much good for anyone.

"Grant Fuhr" doesn't cover too much that's new about the goalie and his hockey times. The 200 or so pages can be read in a day rather easily. Unless you are a huge fan of Fuhr, you'll find that other hockey books will be better sources of information on those Oilers' teams - which probably are still of interest to those who love the game.

Two stars

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Review: Baseball Prospectus (2016)

Edited by Patrick Dubuque, Sam Miller and Jason Wojciechowski

You have to give the people who put out Baseball Prospectus credit. They apparently listen to their customers.

Last year, those people made some changes in a book that had been widely successful with a certain segment of the baseball-loving community. The writing was still smart, and the comments were on target. But graphically, the new package didn't really work well. Some of it was simply hardly to read. It was also smaller than "normal" in terms of number of pages. It all wasn't enough to drive me away, but the danger signs were there.

Others had the same observation, and the word must have gotten out. This is back to the old normal, which is why it's been a favorite for more than two decades.

The formula remains in place. Each team has a chapter. It starts with an essay illustrated with some charts, and the words about the team are all over the map in terms of style and information during the course of the book. Most work well. Then every significant player in the organization receives a statistical box and some analysis. Yes, some of those boxes contain statistics that aren't found in your daily newspaper (although it's interesting that some writers usually things like WARP pretty casually these days). The end of each chapter goes over some other prospects; you'd probably have to be at a minor league game to care about most of them. Then there are a few paragraphs on each manager.

Finally, after 552 pages, you get to a few essays on random subjects. Then there's the popular list of the 100 top prospects in the game.

Want a complaint? Here's one. The cover got boring. Someone designed it in about 10 minutes. The others jumped out a lot more.

So what? If baseball is one of the biggest things in your life, Baseball Prospectus should be part of your life. Again. No extra-powerful eyeglasses are needed to read it this time.

Five stars

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Review: Showtime (2014)

By Ed Arnold

The system of junior hockey in Canada probably strikes most Americans as a little odd. But that's all right - Canadians probably can't understand NCAA football and basketball rules either.

In Canada, many potential pro hockey players are identified at the age of 16 or so (a few younger), and told to move out of their homes for the most part and join a team in another city. There they find a place to live and a school to attend, and start playing a schedule that's more like minor league baseball, I guess, than anything else.

Ed Arnold, a journalist from Peterborough, Ont., had the chance to spend the entire 2012-13 hockey season with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League. His story of that experience is told in "Showtime," which offers a pretty good look at what the structure of the league is like and what goes on at that level.

The Petes are one of the more famous junior teams in Canada. They had such future NHL stars as Bob Gainey, Steve Yzerman, Chris Pronger, Larry Murphy and Craig Ramsay suit up there. The arena's street is named after the late NHL coach Roger Neilson. There's some good-sized tradition there, although it's difficult to keep winning year after year.

The Petes found out that last part the hard way. They had gone through some tough times before the season chronicled here, and life didn't get much better at the start. General Manager Dave Reid and coach Mike Pelino are shown as hard workers from Day One who struggled to figure out how to get the Petes to play better. Not only was talent an obvious issue, but there were other factors. Remember, these are kids for the most part - more than capable of goofing off in school, missing curfews, and so on. It's not supposed to be easy to succeed at this level, and Arnold shows that it might not be the most efficient process to develop talent. There are some modern issues as well, such as the fact that players often put their own interests in front of the team's - even when they are 16 or 17. But Canada is still the motherland for hockey talent, and a lot of it comes out of it year after year.

Arnold specializes in the management side of the story here, as he had excellent access to the coaches and front office members. The author held some stories back until the book was published, which helps give it a "fly on the wall" approach. The players' stories aren't as flushed out, although a few personalities do come out along the way. A problem for American audiences might be that few of the players have made any sort of impact in the pros yet as of a few years later. The No. 1 draft choice on the roster, Slater Koekkoek, was in Tampa Bay's farm system at last look. That makes everyone a little more anonymous, and it takes some time for the reader to sort everything out.

Books like this often depend on a good season to thrive, and Arnold's year on ice was more dramatic than successful. It's interesting that the book has barely started the season when the reader is at the halfway point or so of the text. The season's finish goes by pretty quickly, in part because there are some surprising twists.

It obviously takes a strong interest in the subject for a reader to pick up "Showtime," but those with a strong interest in hockey will learn some things along the way. Cross the border to Canada, and I'd bet it struck a chord with the hockey-loving population of that country.

Three stars

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Review: This is Your Brain on Sports (2016)

By L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers

The Buffalo News published my updated review of this book. You can find it by clicking here.

Since I read the book, it went through a little rewriting about a section on following losing teams. The catch was that it was about the New York Mets, who became winners last season.

Otherwise, though, this is still a sharp look at a variety of subjects in the world, from psychology to human behavior. Just don't be intimidated by that statement, because the authors take you through all sorts of situations - starting with why people fight to get a free, flimsy t-shirt shot out of an air cannon at games.

Four stars

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