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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