Friday, April 24, 2020

Review: Losers (2020)

Edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas

There are plenty of sports anthologies out there if you go looking for them. There are books about the best writing of a particular year, the best stories of a particular author, articles about particular teams, and so on.

"Losers" is ... different. It's a collection of articles, more or less, about a more abstract subject - losing.

Editors Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas have put together a collection of stories about one of the darker sides of sports. As a subject, it's generally been unexplored.

Take it from a veteran of postgame interviews - you always feel like you are intruding when you talk to someone after a loss - the more dramatic the loss, the worse those feelings are. It's all part of the journalistic game between players, coaches and reporters, of course.  Hockey player Craig Ramsay was one of the few who enjoyed the debriefing process under any circumstances. He once told me, "I knew it was time to retire when reporters only came to talk to me after losses."

Still, it's never fun for most and can be the subject of gallows humor. One time last season, the media was lined up to enter a losing locker room after a bad loss by the home team. I quipped sarcastically, "Well, this should be a lot of fun." Heads nodded in agreement. I still remember the game between the Buffalo Bills and Houston Oilers in which the Oilers blew a 31-3 lead to lose a playoff game. You don't know how happy I was not to be assigned to the Houston locker room.

The catch, though, is that sometimes you get good stories. The often hidden emotions bubble to the surface, and that adds insight to the subject and the game itself.

There is all sorts of ways to lose in a sense, and Pilon and Thomas went in a number of different directions here. There are careers that get off track one way or another, fans that lose their favorite teams, athletes who chase but never catch a better athlete, teams that unravel like a cheap sweater, and situations where it's advantageous for a team if its players fail. There's even a brief essay on the greatest losers in all of sports - the Washington Generals, the name of the team who has the job of losing to the Harlem Globetrotters night after night. Not all of the stories worked for me and a couple weren't a perfect fit for the subject, but the winning percentage was quite good.

The two biggest names among the contributors are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Gay Talese. Sir Arthur gained a bit of fame by writing about the fictional exploits of a detective named Sherlock Holmes, although he apparently could have covered running pretty well too. Talese's article on Floyd Patterson is justifiably famous. The author caught the boxer soon after Patterson had lost two championship fights to Sonny Liston in devastating fashion. Still, Patterson was amazingly articulate about expressing his feelings later on.

"Losers" isn't a long book, and some of the stories are newspaper-column length. Therefore, it goes down rather easily. There might be a worry that a typical fan might not want to explore this dark side of the sports business. But if that person does by reading there, there will be some unexpected rewards.  

Four stars

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Thursday, April 16, 2020

Review: Toe Blake (2020)

By Paul Logothetis

One of the joys of reading history is the way it came make somewhat dusty names from the past spring to life. Take Toe Blake, the person and the title of the new biography by Paul Logothetis, as a good example of that.

If you look up Blake's record in hockey, the first fact that will jump out is that he won eight Stanley Cups as a coach. That's second to Scotty Bowman on the all-time list. A little more digging indicates that he was a great player for the Montreal Canadiens before he became their coach.

But he did almost all of this before the NHL entered something of a modern era in 1967 by expanding from six to 12 teams. (Blake's last season in Montreal came in 1967-68.) There isn't much video of him, and there hasn't been a full biography written of him.

Logothetis fills in the gaps of the story nicely with a full look at his life. The story essentially starts with the title - what sort of person is named "Toe"? It turns out that Blake's real name is Hector, which sort of got mangled along the way into Hec-toe. From there, it was an easy jump to Toe.

The story takes back to Blake's childhood, which was mostly spent near Sudbury, Ontario, known for its mines. That area had a history of immigrants and their families relocating there in search of a better life. No one works inside the mines if they can help it, and Blake probably knew he might work there if he didn't find a better alternative. Hockey provided it. No wonder it was said that Blake had such a fierce determination to win and to excel at the sport.

Blake arrived in Montreal for good in 1936 after some time in the minors, and played at a high level. He won an Most Valuable Player award and a scoring championship, and is remembered as part of the famous "Punch Line" with Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Elmer Lach. Blake's career ended a little ahead of schedule when he broke his leg in 1948, and it was time to turn to coaching.

Blake was named the coach of the Buffalo Bisons of the American Hockey League in 1948 and lasted a half-season. It seems he and owner/general manager Art Chapman weren't on the same page, and an angry Blake left in disgust. It's interesting that two of the greatest coaches in hockey history, Blake and Bowman, are linked by their inability to make things work in Buffalo.

Blake coached in junior hockey before landing with the Canadiens. He stayed for 13 seasons, made the playoffs 13 times, and won eight Stanley Cups. It's tough to top that record. About my only complaint with the book is that some of the championship seasons are a bit overlooked in terms of details. You win five Cups in a row, though, and maybe they start to look the same.

Blake was one of the few great players who made a successful transition to coaching, perhaps because he wanted it so much. There are plenty of stories about slights from referees and instances where he was ready to get physical with third parties (officials, fans, etc.) who got in his way. He retired after the last Cup. The word "burnout" hadn't been invented yet, but the hard-driving style that he put himself through took its toll. (His wife also was fighting cancer at the time.) Blake was done around the age of 56.

Logothetis does a thorough job of exploring available information on Blake's hockey career. Bowman, who got to know Blake personally over the years, has some insight into the older man's philosophies. The author also had the chance to talk to some family members. They are honest and frank about what life with a man named Toe, with that sort of drive, was like. It sounds like it was hard on everyone at times - some more than others. It also sounds like Blake started to learn how to smell the roses a little bit.

Most Hall of Famers deserve a biography or autobiography, and it's tough to write the history of the National Hockey League without a mention of Toe Blake. After reading this book, Toe won't be just a silly name from the past.

Four stars

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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Review: The 1993 Canadiens (2019)

By K.P. Wee

Reading selections can provide a bit of whimsy even when you aren't thinking about it.

My last sports book was on the 1993 NHL playoff series between the Los Angeles Kings and the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Kings won that epic matchup, which is still remember in Toronto for obvious reasons, and advanced to the Stanley Cup final. There the Montreal Canadiens were waiting.

By coincidence, my next sports book (I usually read them in the order they are received) is on ... the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. In fact, "The 1993 Canadiens" is the title. Well, it's good to see how the story comes out.

That Montreal team has an interesting place in history. The Canadiens went through much of their history winning a championship every seven years or less. But the 1993 title was their last as this writing - 27 years later. What's more, no other team from Canada has won the Cup in that span, which is downright odd. 

It's often said that you have to be a little lucky to win a Stanley Cup, as a lot can go wrong along the way. In hindsight, a great deal went right for the Canadiens in that particular spring - which, as the subtitle says, indeed makes them unlikely heroes.

You start with the fact that Montreal won ten straight overtime games that year. Apparently the law of averages was repealed, because there is a lot of luck in extra time games. Of course, the Canadiens had the advantage of Patrick Roy on his side, and he was pretty much unbeatable when it counted that year. That playoff run really put him in the argument about the identify of the greatest goalies in history.

Then there were the matchups. Montreal had a tough time with Quebec in the opening round but got through it. The next team on the schedule was not powerful Boston but rather Buffalo, a sleeper as these things go but a team that was too banged up to be a strong Cup contender. Then the Islanders were up next in the conference finals, as they surprised powerful Pittsburgh.

That brings us to the finals, where the Kings were waiting after a rugged seven-game series. They did have Wayne Gretzky, who was just about at the end of his peak performance years because of back problems. The rest of the roster had talent and the team was on a nice roll, but even some of the Canadiens thought the Maple Leafs would have been a tougher opponent.

Author K.P. Wee takes an unusual approach in writing some of this book. He has found some of the players who didn't see a lot of ice time during the finals, and told their stories in chapters that alternate with descriptions of the games. Checking in are such players as Jesse Belanger, Gilbert Dionne, Sean Hill and Stephan Lebeau. The results are a little mixed. It's interesting to check out the stories from guys who don't have the chance to offer a retrospective on their careers very often; the league isn't filled with Gretzkys. Still, some of their observations about the playoff games themselves come off as less than insightful in spots.

It's easy to appreciate the research that went into this one. There are plenty of quotes from newspapers and the link. I appreciate the fact that former two co-workers of mine, Bob DiCesare and Jim Kelley, are quoted a few times. Hockey writer Todd Denault gets plenty of ink too; he wrote a book some years ago on the 1992-93 season, so he knows a lot about the subject.

"The 1993 Canadiens" might not be that interesting for those who don't live and die with the fortunes of Montreal's hockey team. However, it will bring back some good memories for those who do think that way.

Three stars

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