Friday, December 27, 2019

Review: The Russian Five (2018)

By Keith Gave

"The Russian Five" starts in a very unusual way for a sports book. Author Keith Gave goes back in time almost 30 years to 1990 when two Soviet hockey players found out in Helsinki that they had been drafted by the Detroit Red Wings.

The catch is that Gave, a hockey reporter in Detroit at the time, was the person who told them.

And then it gets better. Gave handed Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov some materials that included a Red Wings media guide ... and a handwritten note by Gave in Russian that said the Red Wings were ready to offer both of them large contracts (by the standards of the day - $250,000 per year) to come to the United States and play hockey in Detroit.

That started the wheels in motion of something of a hockey revolution. Those changes also included political ones, as the relationship between the United States and Soviet Union/Russia changed drastically as the Cold War between the countries came to a close in the early 1990s. The hockey revolution, in a sense, when the Red Wings - with five Russian players playing key roles - won a Stanley Cup in 1997 for the first time in decades.

That's quite a story, and Gave gets to tell all of it at length in his fascinating book, "The Russian Five."

Gave's route to becoming a hockey writer was an unusual one. He had joined the National Security Agency earlier, where he learned the Russian language and was part of a monitoring service in West Germany. Therefore, he was in the right place at the right time to serve as the go-between in the story that reads something out of a spy novel. Fedorov defected in 1990, following his linemate Alexander Mogilny who left the Soviet Union in 1989 to join the Buffalo Sabres. Konstantinov needed some serious help to get out of the USSR, which included doctors signing statements that the talented defenseman was dying of cancer. (Yes, good old American cash help lubricate the process.)

Eventually, those two players had company in the form of comrades. Slava Kozlov was another Red Wings draft choice. He came close to defecting before 1991, and it took some behind-the-scenes maneuvering to get him to Detroit.

The final two pieces arrived in the form of Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov. Those two were veterans who were considered all-time greats but perhaps a little old. They were acquired in trades with New Jersey and San Jose respectively. Coach Scotty Bowman opted to put the five players from Russia together on the ice at times, and the result was almost magical. Not only did the Red Wings win a Stanley Cup thanks to the "Russian Five" in 1997, but the "foreigners'" style of play changed North American hockey forever after a while. Today we see a sport that resembles the style of the great Soviet teams that dominated international play from the 1960s through much of the 1980s - with only a few exceptions, like in Lake Placid in 1980.

The early chapters of the book are absolutely fascinating, as cloke-and-dagger stories usually are. it would be difficult to match that the rest of the way, and the story falls off slightly once everything is in place. The book turns into a tale of the rise of the Red Wings to become champions, only to receive a terrible shock once they reach that pinnacle.

Gave apparently was part of a documentary done a while back that reviewed the story. He has first-hand material from the time it all happened, of course, but has the advantage of using interview material from 20 years after the fact that provides additional stories and valuable perspective.

Here's an example of the effect this story of hockey and cultural history can have. Once the 1997 Stanley Cup was won, captain Steve Yzerman took a spin around the rink with it - and then handed it to Fetisov. The defenseman then called Larionov over, and the two skated around Joe Louis Arena together with the last remaining prize to be won their brilliant hockey careers. After reading about the emotions of the two players, I headed to the computer for a bit to watch the scene on YouTube. Great stuff.

The only complaint here is a small one in the form of editing - some stories get told more than once, and the jumps in the book's time line may confuse some a times. Still, the best sports books are the ones in which more than sports are involved. "The Russian Five" will touch all sorts of buttons to all who read it.

Five stars

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Thursday, December 19, 2019

Review: Cujo (2018)

By Curtis Joseph with Kirstie McLellan Day

Hockey fans might know about Curtis Joseph's exploits on the ice, but they may have no idea on what he sort of odds he overcame to reach the National Hockey League.

"Cujo" - by Joseph with Kirstie McLellan Day - fills in that huge gap fully. It's an amazing story.

Joseph was born to a pair of unmarried teenage parents, and he was put up for adoption shortly after that. A friend of the mother took him in and raised him with her husband for most of his childhood. It wasn't easy for all concerned. There was no money for anything in a less-than-nuclear family (other children with various combinations of parents were around as well).

Curtis spent part of his youth in a group home that his mother was working in, sleeping on the floor and keeping an eye out for other residents. Sports sometimes is called "a way out" for such kids, even if counting on such an event is a long shot. But Joseph took up hockey after displaying an interest and ability in athletics, and he separated from his family as a teen. You don't read too many stories like this, so give him all sorts of credit for rising as far as he did.

Once Joseph's story settles in on his days as a goalie, it becomes a rather typical sports biography. He worked his way up the ladder, a few steps behind the rest because of his late start, and spent a year at the University of Wisconsin. That put him on the NHL's radar, and he signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Blues.

What he did from there is very impressive from a hockey standpoint. Joseph worked his way through six teams (including two stops in Toronto) and played 19 years. He did not win a Stanley Cup, which might be a reason why he's not in the Hall of Fame yet. But that should happen at some point, since he is among the NHL's all-time leaders in several statistical categories.

There are a couple of oddities about the presentation of this book. There aren't many life stories with 74 chapters in it. That makes it a little choppy to read, and some jumps between subjects probably don't help much either. Meanwhile, there are good-sized descriptions of virtually all of his teammates over the years. There are no scores settled here; Joseph has good words to say about everyone. That sort of positive approach certainly can be admired, but it's a bit difficult to believe they all of those players were such good people. Maybe since he's tough on himself, Joseph has trouble commenting on teammates. A more nuanced approach might have worked better.

Those aren't huge drawbacks, especially for those who enjoyed Joseph's work on the ice. If the idea of an autobiography is to tell what the author is like and why he turned out this well, "Cujo" succeeds quite well. It's easy to be happy that he achieved success in a game he loves.

Four stars

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Monday, December 16, 2019

Review: Insight Pitch (2018)

By Skip Lockwood

Skip Lockwood didn't have a typical professional baseball career. And he certainly didn't have a typical life after baseball.

So why would you expect him to write anything close to a typical memoir about his career? You wouldn't. And he didn't.

Lockwood has taken a look back at his baseball days in "Insight Pitch" - even though he retired almost 40 years ago. His career requires some initial explanation here.

Lockwood was one of the last of the bonus babies. He came out of a Massachusetts high school in 1964 at just the right time, in the sense that Major League Baseball was headed toward an Amateur Draft the following year. Therefore, he was part of the last class that could be the subject of a bidding war for prospects. Lockwood signed a $135,000 contract with the Kansas City Athletics, a team that was buying as many good players as possible as part of a rebuilding program.

The catch was that Lockwood started his career as a third baseman, no matter what the subtitle of the book says. The Athletics were a little dysfunctional in those days, and Lockwood bounced around that organization a bit with no particular plan. By 1966 he was given a chance to be a pitcher, since he had taken the mound at times in high school. Lockwood made the majors that way, although he bounced around a bit.

Finally he landed with the Mets in 1975, and found his niche: closer. Oddly, there's not much material here about those best years. Lockwood held that job through 1979, and jumped to the Red Sox - his hometown team in a sense - in 1980. There he suffered a shoulder injury that ended his career.

That brings us to the book. It mostly contains stories about key moments in his career, and after a couple of early tales he eventually goes through his career in something close to chronological order. There are a few stories about others - including Tom Seaver, Yogi Berra, Charley Finley, Jim Hunter, etc.. - but mostly they center on Lockwood and what he was feeling at the time.

The writing style is not exactly in your face. It's closer to flowery in that it is very descriptive. Your reaction to that may vary, but a thought does go through the mind that this is quite detailed for events that happened over 40 years ago - and in some cases, more than 55 years ago. That probably explains little slip-ups along the way, such as hearing a sports talk show and the Beatles on New York City radio in 1962 - when both of those items were still a couple of years away.

Still, Lockwood gets the point across about what his feelings were at certain moment in his career. What's it like to walk into a major league clubhouse for the first time? To throw at an opposing batter? To work with a team employee who hates you just for being you - a young kid with talent from the North?

Lockwood went on to get a couple of degrees, and still does some work at sports psychology. Maybe he wanted to get his memories down on paper while he could. In any event, "Insight Pitch" has its moments, but it's too bad that it wasn't written much sooner. But one more point is necessary: Those that find this book in the publishing universe who enjoy a liberal sprinkling of words in their baseball writing probably will enjoy it.

Three stars

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Monday, December 9, 2019

Review: If These Walls Could Talk: Boston Red Sox (2019)

By Jerry Remy and Nick Cafardo

Jerry Remy has had a busy life in many ways - probably enough to fill a couple of autobiographies. Let's count up some of the aspects of it.

First of all, he had a good-sized career in major league baseball. That alone makes him a rare individual, as he did something millions aspired to do. Remy spent most of his career playing with good teams that had some Hall of Famers.

Then after his first retirement, Remy coached for a year and slid relatively smoothly into the broadcast booth. He's been working of the games of the Boston Red Sox for more than 30 years. Remy has achieved something close to icon status, and he's been a familiar presence on Red Sox broadcasts for a long, long time.

If that weren't enough, Remy has had plenty of off-field incidents - more than anyone deserves. He suffered from depression, to the point where he could barely go to work. Remy has battled cancer a few different times; he blames a cigarette habit for that problem, which has recurred a few times over the years.

The biggest shocker, though, when his name was in the news when his son murdered his fiance. The son will spend the rest of his life in jail, and you can imagine what that did to the family. Considering that Remy is a public figure, the horrible situation certainly became magnified.

There have been lives that have much less full that have been recorded in books close to 400 pages. Therefore, a glance at the relatively thin volume called "If These Walls Could Talk" would make the reader guess that the autobiography is going to be on the superficial side. And he or she would be right.

It's a relatively standard story for a sports figure, except for the fact that Remy is a bit hard on himself at times. He grew up in Massachusetts as a Red Sox fan, and baseball was well above academics when it came to his priorities in school. It eventually paid off with a contract with the then California Angels. Remy was on the small side and had no power, but he could run. The second baseman overcame some obstacles and became a major-league regular.

From there, he was traded to the Red Sox before the 1978 season - which was something of a dream come true. His first season went from dream to nightmare when Boston lost a playoff game that fall to the Yankees to keep the Red Sox out of the postseason. But Remy was surrounded by such players as Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk and Dennis Eckersley - all in the Hall of Fame. Soon after that, Remy started having injury problems that led to his demise as a player. And after a year of coaching in the minors, it was on to the broadcast booth. The play-by-play men have revolved over the years, but Remy has been a constant.

There are some stories about people Remy encountered along the way. He's also come across as a good-natured individual, even if he apparently can be a little introverted in certain situations. There aren't many stories about people encountered along the way that he didn't like, and not many stories that are particularly revelatory. Some of the pages are filled with short recaps of Boston's four championship seasons in this century, although most of the details there will be familiar to fans of the team.

The pages do go by pretty quickly, and Remy comes across quite well on a personal level here. The broadcaster had some help with the book with a newspaper reporter, but there's a tragic part of that story there too. Nick Cafardo was a baseball writer with the Boston Globe who died in spring training of 2019.  That puts a slightly bittersweet tone to the project.

"If These Walls Could Talk" obviously is targeted toward Red Sox fans, and they won't find anything objectionable here. It's just not a book that you'll use as a reference book for a lifetime.

Three stars

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Friday, December 6, 2019

Review: Scotty (2019)

By Ken Dryden

Ken Dryden just might be my favorite author.

Dryden has written seven books over the years, in-between his other projects. Remember that he also was a Hall of Fame hockey goalie, and a member of parliament and a Cabinet minster in Canada. Dryden certainly could write an interesting autobiography if he gets around to it, but he seems content with other subjects of interest.

"The Game" was his first effort, and it is generally considered the best hockey book ever written. Just to show his range, his book "Becoming Canada" has a first chapter that contains the best analysis of Barack Obama's 2008 election that I've read anywhere. He wrote a book about schools, because he needed to know about them for his government job, and he wrote a book about one of his constituents, because he wanted to know what they were thinking.

Dryden is very thorough, and chooses his words and phrases carefully. Every so often, his books contain a piece of insight that make the reader stop and think for a moment, "How come I never thought of that?"

Book number seven is a tough assignment. "Scotty" in some ways is an authorized biography of Scotty Bowman, the Hall of Fame hockey coach. Bowman was never too interested in writing his own life story down on paper, so he did the next best thing. He let Dryden write it. The two teamed up on some great Montreal Canadiens teams in the 1970s.

Bowman's resume is the stuff of legends. He won a record nine Stanley Cup champions as a coach, and was involved in five more titles as an executive. Bowman had a career that still continues at the age of 86; he's an advisor to Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman. Yes, Stan is Scotty's son. Yes, Stanley Bowman was born right after Scotty claimed his first Stanley Cup in Montreal in 1973.

Dryden and Bowman had a year-long series of conversations about a variety of subjects in this book. It's a rather unlikely story in some ways. Bowman grew up in the Montreal area as a hockey player, only to see his playing career derailed by a high stick to the head at age 18 by Jean-Guy Talbot. (Footnote: Bowman later coached Talbot in the NHL, an amazing example of letting bygones by bygones.) Bowman took whatever work he could get in hockey on the side, but seemed destined to work for a big paint company in Montreal when the Canadiens called to offer him a full-time job. Bowman didn't have to be asked twice.

That started a career that lasts to this day. He still attends NHL games regularly from his two homes in the Buffalo and Tampa areas.

Of special interest to some of my readers, of course, is about the time spent in Buffalo as general manager and sometimes coach of the Sabres. It's really the only place that Bowman ever failed in hockey. He really wasn't cut out to be a GM, and the Sabres were the only team to use him in that role.

The section on Buffalo isn't a long one, but it does have some information of interest. Bowman described Gil Perreault this way: "As a teammate, you couldn't find anyone better. But he had no leadership at all. None. He didn't want that responsibility."

Bowman also was surprised that the Sabres didn't have many players under contract when he arrived in 1979. "When I went to Buffalo that summer after I had signed, and I started looking around, they had 25 professional players under contract. Twenty-five! And the reason was, and I found out later, the Knoxes were rich people, they had money, but they weren't going to spend it."

Bowman also admitted that he never got the administrative part right, shuffling people in an out of the head coaching job but realizing that coaching was what he did best. (Bowman doesn't mention here that he once tried to bring Herb Brooks in as the Sabres' head coach, but couldn't get it to work.) As Dryden writes, "For perhaps the first time in his career, he seemed out of answers." That led to his dismissal in 1986.

Bowman's life is covered nicely enough, but it's the subject of hockey history where the book turns thrilling to those who like that subject. Bowman has been watching the NHL closely for about 70 years, and he's an encyclopedia of what went on and why. Dryden took the unusual step of having Bowman pick the eight best teams in "modern" NHL history (only one team per dynasty was allowed), and squaring them off. Bowman provides analysis of each team and then reveals who he'd think he would win such games. No spoilers here, but it's great fun to read opinions of great players and teams. 

Taken on its own merits, "Scotty" offers some fascinating insights into Bowman's life and the game of hockey that you won't find anywhere else. But there's one aspect of the story that isn't explored.

Scotty has the reputation now as the kindly, wise grandfather type who remains relevant as the years wind down, and the book doesn't change that. But during his prime years, Bowman was considered a genius but not particularly loved by anyone outside of his family. The quote that received the most repetition was that the Canadiens hated Bowman 364 days a year, but loved him the day they all won the Stanley Cup together.  When Rick Martin of the Sabres sued the team and Bowman over the way his knee injury was handled, he said at the time, "People all over the league were coming up to be saying, 'Stick to Scotty.' " Media members in those pre-Internet days wondered why Bowman would lie to them in a private conversation about things like the starting goalie for that night's game. They also noticed that he was one of the few coaches in history that were more talkative and analytical after losses than wins. Scotty did mellow a bit later in life, and perhaps he realized after retiring from coaching that he could relax a bit. Still, it would have been interesting to see that part of his personality explored.

Covering such subjects would make it a different book, of course, but the book we have is absolutely worth reading by hockey fans. Who wouldn't love to hear Dryden and Bowman talk at length about the game they shared and loved? This is the next best thing.

Five stars

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Sunday, December 1, 2019

Review: Play by Play (2018)

By Verne Lundquist with Gary Brozek

The best announcers are the ones that the listeners grow comfortable to their voices.

They are the ones that clearly know their business, handle everything professionally, and know when to talk and when to keep quiet.

That's Verne Lundquist in a nutshell. He carved out a mighty fine career in the broadcasting business for several decades. After retiring, it was clearly time to write down some of his memories.

It turns out he's pretty good at that too. For proof, see "Play by Play."

Lundquist started his career at a radio station in Austin, Texas, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson. You may recognize the name of the 36th President of the United States there. Virtually every announcer in the business has to pay his dues, and Lundquist did that. But soon he was working on the broadcasts of the Dallas Cowboys, and soon after that the networks came calling.

Eventually Lundquist landed a spot at ABC for a few years, which eventually turned into a spot with CBS. That's where Lundquist became part of the furniture. Remember when Jack Nicklaus birdied No. 17 on the final day of the 1986 Masters? That was Lundquist with the emphatic "Yes, sir!" description. How about the fabled Duke-Kentucky basketball game in 1992, which is merely the greatest game in that sport ever? Or Tiger Woods' chip-in on No. 16 in the 2005 Masters? Or the 2013 Auburn-Alabama football game that ended with a 109-yard return of a missed field goal for the winning score? Lundquist was working all of those moments. That's a pretty good run of once-in-a-lifetime events.

That doesn't even include the figure skating shootout involving Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding at the 1994 Olympics. It's surprising to read that Lundquist absolutely loving doing that sport on television, particularly when working with Scott Hamilton. Verne even did some work on "Bowling for Dollars," which ought to stir the hearts of those who remember it from the 1970s.

As you'd expect, there are some worthwhile stories about some of the personalities that Lundquist encountered along the way. That includes broadcast partners such as John Madden, Gary Danielson, Terry Bradshaw, Bill Raftery, and Al McGuire for starters. There are even some tales about athletes and coaches encountered along the way, but not too many.

About the only place that in the book that bogged down for me was the part about some of the memorable games he called involving Southeast Conference football teams. Those contests shouldn't be downgraded, of course, as they involved some great teams and players. And they helped establish Lundquist as one of the top voices in the sport, something of a successor to Keith Jackson. Still, the matchups do blur together at this point; even Lundquist had to go back and do some review work.

"Play by Play" doesn't require a great deal of thought. Just sit back and relax while reading it, and you'll probably swear that you can read Lundquist reading it to you. It's a fine way to spend some leisure time.

Four stars

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