Friday, November 27, 2020

Review: Willie (2020)

By Willie O'Ree with Michael McKinley

It took the National Hockey League quite a while to learn what a special player and person Willie O'Ree was and is.

Luckily, we now have Willie's own story about his hockey journey for reference. "Willie" shows what a remarkable life he's led.

O'Ree has been the answer to a trivia question for decades, of course. He was the first person of African descent to play a game in the NHL. Hockey's color line was shattered in January 1958 when he set foot on the ice for the Boston Bruins. To give you some perspective on what a step forward that was, the Boston Red Sox still hadn't used a black player at that point. Green integrated the Red Sox in the summer of 1959. 

You might say O'Ree beat some long odds to play in the NHL. He played at a time when there were few blacks playing hockey in Canada, the usual spawning ground for hockey talent. O'Ree had an ancestor escape from the South in the United States in the 19th century, and he landed in New Brunswick. It was the most natural thing in the world for someone in that part of Canada to want to play hockey, especially considering he had plenty of athletic ability. 

Yes, Willie encountered plenty of predjudice and racial taunts growing up, but in spite of the odd incident he mostly kept quiet and played hockey. It was a slow rise through the ranks, but O'Ree acquitted himself well in the NHL when he got the chance. The problem was that he didn't get much of a chance. Willie was traded by the Bruins in the summer of 1958, and wound up spending most of the rest of his career in the minors. 

And here's the amazing part. O'Ree did it with one eye that worked. He was blind in his other eye. Considered that maybe 130 players could call themselves NHL players in the Original Six era. Willie was right on the fringe of making it with one eye. Is there any doubt he would have had a good career in the world's best league with two good eyes?

O'Ree has a few stories about how the color of his skin led to some skirmishes during his hockey years. A couple of players, Erik Nesterenko and Doug Messier, get singled out for some unnecessary physical abuse here. Others in the game, from officials to the fans, are mentioned here as well. Willie stuck up for himself when necessary. For the most part, though, O'Ree turned the other cheek and tried to respond by winning the game. 

After retirement, O'Ree had a variety of jobs but couldn't get hockey out of his blood. Therefore, when the NHL called and asked if he'd like to help the league become diverse, he was ready. O'Ree has thrown himself into those duties for more than a quarter-century, and has received a ton of honors from a variety of sources. The biggest came when Willie went into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builders' category. It was a popular choice.

O'Ree and Michael McKinley have written a relatively short book, but certainly Willie's class comes across nicely here. I could see this serving as an inspiration to teens, especially those in hockey. But fans of all ages ought to enjoy this. 

O'Ree's unofficial nickname became "the Jackie Robinson of hockey" along the way. They certainly had similar landmarks but very different lives. Still, they both are members of an exclusive club. It's about time we heard O'Ree's story at length, and "Willie" works nicely in filling in a gap in hockey literature. 

Four stars

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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Review: Remembrances of Swings Past (2020)

By Scott Pitoniak

Apparently retirement didn't stop Scott Pitoniak from his writing/publishing career. It just moved him into a new phase of his career.

Pitoniak is the fine sports writer from the Rochester area who has put together more than 20 books. This is the new one - at least as of this writing.   "Remembrances of Swings Past" is something of Pitoniak's greatest hits - with the emphasis on hits.

That's because this anthology is all about his work in baseball. He's obviously a huge fan of the game, having convinced his father to make some car trips from Rome (NY) to New York (NY) for New York Yankees when he was a child. The baseball still had a grip on Pitoniak, based on the way he writes so affectionately about the game.

So upon opening the book, we're off on a good-sized journey through the National Pastime through Pitoniak's eyes and pen/typewriter/computer. Since Scott spent most of his career writing in Rochester, you might guess that the book would concentrate on that city's athletic heritage. That's represented here, of course, but there's more to the story. 

Pitoniak jumps on anything that could be a good story involving the game. You can tell that he enjoyed going to the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, talking to a variety of people who passed through that picturesque little town - including Pete Rose, who looks as if he'll be on the outside of the Hall looking in for the indefinite future. Some history lessons come up along the way, as do the human-interest story such as the one about a baseball reporter who just happens to be blind. 

Pitoniak's boyhood affection for the Yankees still can be implied by reading some of his stories here. While that wouldn't be my choice for a team to back (ahem), Scott no doubt realizes that the Yankees are the favorite team of a plurality of fans in Upstate New York and thus he was writing for an enthusiastic share of the audience when he did stories on pitcher Ralph Terry and public address announcer Bob Sheppard. 

This is a self-published book through, and it doesn't have a great deal of bells and whistles connected to it (photos, graphics, etc.). Still, I've read a few of such projects, and I feel safe in calling it as well-edited as any such book that I've read. It's nice to have a professional in charge of the job. 

Each of the stories printed in more than 300 pages comes with a date. The one question worth asking is where the story originally appeared in print. I'm not sure what the copyright issues might be in such a book, but it did strike me as an odd omission. What that covered, I'll add that the book doesn't really feel dated at all. Pitoniak gets credit for that too.

Scott isn't a writer that has much venom in him, and he isn't trying to impress the reader about how smart he is (even though he's clearly a bright, inquisitive guy). The stories in "Remembrances of Swings Past" come out smoothly with the spotlight on the subject. That's harder than you'd think. 

One of the attractions of baseball for many is the chance to lean back into the past and talk about other eras. Pitoniak's book will more than please those who are in that classification. 

Four stars

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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Review: Hockey's Hot Stove (2020)

By Al Strachan

Sometimes good information from Al Strachan can pop up when it is least expected. Here's an example.

Strachan writes in his book, "Hockey's Hot Stove," about the time when Alexander Mogilny announced in 1990 that he had a fear of flying and only would be playing games within driving distance of Buffalo, his home location at the time. This caused quite a bit of commotion at the time, since NHL players fly to games all over the continent. 

Here Strachan reports that shortly after the flying issue became public, Mogilny hopped on a plane, flew to New York, and headed for the office of Rangers' general manager Neil Smith. There Mogilny - who had defected from the USSR in May of 1989 - announced that he wanted to play for the Rangers. Smith treated Mogilny as if he were radioactive, telling him to get out of the office and go far, far away as fast as he could. I had never heard that story, even though I was working for the Buffalo Sabres at the time. It puts an entirely different tint on the situation.

That's what good reporters do, though - come up with good information. And Al, during a long newspaper career in Canada, was a good reporter. 

Most newspaper types usually are famous in their region. However, a national television job on the side can do wonders for visibility. That's what happened to Strachan, who was something of a regular on CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada" for several years. Now in retirement but still pounding out books, he's come up with some stories from that era in "Hockey's Hot Stove."

The backstory requires some explanation, especially for those American readers who aren't near the Canadian border. Hockey Night is a great tradition in Canada on Saturday nights, as millions have been sitting in front of radios and then televisions for many decades. While the games obviously are the attraction, producers have thought about another part of the broadcast - what do we do during the two intermissions? One of the long-term answers was supplied by Don Cherry, the former coach who had a run of more than 30 years on "Coach's Corner" in the first intermission. 

Then in the 1990s, CBC came up with "Satellite Hot Stove" for the second break, as opposed to player interviews or canned features. Baseball used the concept of a "hot stove league" informally to describe winter conversations about the game and its teams and players. People would gather around a stove on cold nights and talk about the summer game. It was that way in Canada too, except the subject was hockey and playing it wasn't far into the distance. CBC linked four analysts (usually newspaper people) by satellite during the second intermission, and let them slug it out. Strachan often filled one of those seats. It all worked, as the ratings stayed high right through the breaks in play.

In the book, Strachan reviews some of the segment's history from his perspective. He talked to some of the show's executives about how everything came together, as well as some of the other "insiders" who were part of the panel. Mike Milbury and John Davidson might be the most familiar names to American readers. 

As you might guess, that's not a particularly sturdy frame to hang a book on. Therefore, Strachan takes quite a few tangents along the way. He talks about his career, and how he went about acquiring information from various sources. Hint: It sure sounds like Al spent a lot of time in bars, to the point where it's easy to wonder in hindsight if that much drinking became something of a problem. 

Along the way, Strachan does make a key point about access in the hockey world these days. As the NHL has gotten bigger, it has become more conservative in its dealings with the outside world. That happens to large institutions when they grow. Interview opportunities for home teams on game days are essentially limited to mini-news conferences, with everyone getting the same quotes. As a result, the number of chances to talk to players and coaches on a one-on-one basis has been reduced drastically. Throw in the addition of the team's own media, which posts interviews on its website shortly after they take place, and it's difficult to get unique information. There are ways around that occasionally, but stories certainly are more homogenized than they used to be. 

This is all cheerfully disorganized, jumping from place to place at times. Strachan often has criticized people connected to hockey in his columns and books, and he doesn't back down here either. CBC executives probably take the worst hit this time around. Think of it as a Sunday notes column in some ways, and you'll be fine with it. 

It's tough to judge how well "Hockey's Hot Stove" will go over. For those who aren't within driving distance of Canada, obviously it's not a good fit. It obviously helps to have watched the show during Strachan's era. I was usually working on Saturday nights in those years, so I can't say I was a fan of the segment. But the resulting book is quick and easy to zip through with an entertaining, no-nonsense writing style. Besides, you might be surprised about what sort of information pops up along the way.

Three stars

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