Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Review: A Helluva Life in Hockey (2021)

By Brian McFarlane

Veteran hockey fans probably remember the name of Brian McFarlane. On this side of the border, Brian worked on some of the early hockey television broadcasts in the 1960s and 1970s, introducing the game to a wider audience. 

Over in Canada, McFarlane might be best known for his work on Hockey Night in Canada. He's written dozens of books and articles, produced broadcasting shows, and on and on and on. It's a rather remarkable story - even if he doesn't reveal how he squeezed everything in during this hockey-filled life. 

McFarlane is now past the age of 90, but the writing bug still hasn't left him. He's come up a good-sized memoir called "A Helluva Life in Hockey," and there's no doubt he's enjoyed the ride. 

It doesn't take long to get the idea of what's enclosed in their pages. The table of contents reveals that there are 45 chapters of material, covering more than 340 pages. The math says that's a little less than eight pages per chapter on average, so it's easy to be prepared for bite-sized bits. 

Oddly enough, some of the most interesting parts of the book cover McFarlane's early life. You probably don't know about his father, but you might know about one of his jobs. He wrote several of the original "Hardy Boys" books. The problem was that he took a flat fee for the work, which sold millions of copies over the years. In other words, someone else got rich on it. But the senior McFarlane never was too bitter about it. Brian found his dad's diary from those years, and they add some interesting depth and perspective to the family's history. 

As for Brian, his love affair with hockey started at a young age just like any Canadian boy. He was good enough to play junior hockey and well as make it to college play. But that was as far as he could get up the hockey ladder. Eventually, he turned to broadcasting, making the usual stops along the way. We go through the first couple of hundred pages that way, getting through most of the 1960s - otherwise known as the last decade when the Maple Leafs were really good. 

Then the story turns more episodic. There are chapters about hockey stars he's known, executives he's worked for, business deals he's tried, and so on. Bet you didn't know that McFarlane essentially invented Peter Puck, the cartoon character that was used to explain hockey to American audiences on national broadcasts. Mention Peter to anyone over 60 that watched hockey from that era, and you'll get a smile in return. Still, a little of the material is repeated along the play, which is a bit annoying.

Two points are a worth a mention in this generally breezy book of memories. There is some settling of old scores here, as McFarlane fires back at some slights from people he's encountered over the years. For example, McFarlane quotes a chapter of a book by Ralph Mellanby, a former Hockey Night in Canada executive, and reacts to comments at length. Yes, Brian is over 90, and he's certainly entitled to state his opinion here. But the tone of it is a little nasty and petty for a book of this type. 

Then there's the issue of dates. There certainly aren't many references to hockey players to took part in a game in this century. McFarlane offers much more material about such players as Red Kelly, Johnny Bower, Jean Beliveau, Don Cherry and Bobby Orr than anyone who has played lately. In other words, the last quarter-century doesn't come up.

That's going to limit the audience for a book like this. "A Helluva Life in Hockey" might appeal to some hockey fans. It has some good stories and some laughs, and the pages go by quickly. But it would help if you have to pay for the book by using your Social Security check. 

Three stars

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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Review: Fight Songs (2021)

By Ed Southern

"Fight Songs" is a complicated book ... and not just because that big word is included in the subtitle.

Ed Southern is one of those serious writers, at least at times. He has a variety of credits to his name, including some books, and he is the executive director of the North Carolina Writers' Network. It's pretty obvious a few pages into this book that he's a smart guy; I had to go running to the Kindle dictionary to figure out a few of the words. 

Southern does, however, have something in common with the masses. He's a college sports fan, even though he might have the thought in the back of his head that he's a wee bit guilty about it. Southern went to Wake Forest, a fine university by almost any standards. Rooting for the Demon Deacons connects him to some good times and good people from his past, and there's no harm in that. In fact, he may be considered something of a diehard.

But it's a relatively small school, especially in the world of big-time sports. That means in most years, Southern is destined to be disappointed much of the time. It's very hard for a university with a four-figure enrollment to keep up with some of the other powerhouses of college sports. That's particularly true in the South when it comes to football, when Alabama, LSU, Georgia and the big three Florida schools hover above them in most seasons. 

Let's emphasize the Alabama part. His wife turned out to be a huge Alabama fan, and not just because a relative of hers wrote a book on Bear Bryant. Her whole family lives and breathes Crimson Tide football. You may have noticed that Alabama has done really, really well in the sport in recent years since Nick Saban took over. It's a happy family most autumns.

Southern takes a bit of a look on how college football got so big in the South in terms of history. Personally, I think part of the reason is that there was virtually no competition for many years. Pro football didn't arrive until the mid-1960s with the Falcons and Saints, and baseball didn't turn up until the Milwaukee Braves arrived in Atlanta around the same time. Therefore, college football was about the only way to get national attention in a sports sense. You can throw in the fact that the Southeast Conference didn't fully integrate until 1970 or so, and the story becomes even more nuanced. Meanwhile, the traditional Atlantic Coast Conference usually didn't have many national powerhouses in football, and basketball seemed to take over as the No. 1 sport - especially around North Carolina. 

While history lessons are fine, Southern seemed more intent on writing about college football in the South - and what it's like to sort of have a foot in both the ACC and SEC doors at the same time. It's pretty light-hearted reading, and not particularly interesting if you don't have a dog in that hunt. 

But then the pandemic came, and the tone changes with the last part of the book. Suddenly Southern had to cope with the idea that his favored universities were determined to play football if only for the money it generates. It's not a particularly good look for a school when the academic portions of its mission statement are hanging by a Zoom thread when it is expending a ton of effort to keep the games going. Then there's the rise of the "Black Lives Matter" movement. That's forced many universities to take a look at their roots, which in many cases date back to the Civil War. It's also forced some fans - at least the thinking ones - to consider how the players are raising millions of dollars in revenues for their efforts, and not seeing a very high percentage of it. Based on the recent Supreme Court decision, we're going to be hearing more about this issue in the near future. Is it OK to be emotionally invested in such a venture? That's an increasingly difficult decision that each fan must ponder.

Any conversation about this book should mention Southern's writing style. Admittedly, I am someone who prefers a story to go from A to B to C on a direct line. This one goes through a great many more letters of the alphabet, and may not end up at the expected destination. There also are plenty of tangents particularly in regard to Wake Forest. The closest I've been to the school was when I drove past the exit on the Interstate, so the references left me cold. 

I'm not sold on the idea that "Fight Songs" works particularly well, even if graduates will enjoy it and those in the "mixed marriages" of different loyalties will recognize some of the characters. At the least, though, its readers will be given some ideas to consider as they get ready for the next rivalry game.

Three stars

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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Review: Gathering Crowds (2021)

By Paul Hensler

A great deal happened to baseball in the years between 1975 and 1993, more or less.

That doesn't include what happened on the field, either.

That was an era that was essential to the game's growth, and set the stage for Major League Baseball to become a business giant again. Believe it or not, the baseball business had suffered from a distinct lack of attention before that, and that allowed pro football to fill a void and take over as the number one sport in America. 

Luckily, a series of events took place that caused baseball to take steps to improve the situation. Those interesting years are the subject of "Gathering Crowds." It's another in the series of books on different parts of baseball history. 

Author Paul Hensler wisely starts with labor matters. The players and owners had been building toward a pivotal moment, and it came when the reserve clause fell in what is called the (Peter) Seitz decision. That allowed players to test the marketplace for the best contract after playing a certain amount of years (usually six). If you listen to the background noises that can be heard while reading this historical review, you can still hear the owners claiming free agency will ruin baseball. As we know, the opposite happened. It increased interest in the game, turned it into a year-round business, and raised revenues for everyone. Other sports have followed the same formula with similar results. 

It wasn't easy to reach that point. The collective bargaining agreements represented stops and starts in the evolutionary process. The occasional roadblock turned up for a while, such as the time when baseball owners stopped signed expensive free agents in the 1980s - only to be hit with collusion charges and suffered damages that were more expensive than the actual contracts. Now, of course, there's a lot of money out there, and it takes time to figure out how to divide it. But the ground rules are fairly clear. We know what works, more or less.

Hensler covers other off-field issues that sometimes overlap, nicely divided into nine chapters. Commissioners came and went during this era, as ownership clung to hopes of returning to previous standards. Drug use by players came with all sorts of trap doors for everyone. The multi-purpose ballpark mercifully died (I know, it's not my money), to be replaced by baseball-only stadiums that could be downright intimate considering their size. Expansion came back on the table, and new teams were added. Marketing became much more sophisticated. Plus, as society changed, baseball had to change - giving a new set of issues to encounter, such as women in baseball, gay rights, locker room access, etc. Even the baseball card wars and fantasy games get mentioned along the way, and some of the sport's top general managers get a hat tip in a chapter.

Hensler is a good guide to all of this. He has done a lot of writing for the Society for American Baseball Research, and covers what needs to be covered. Hensler comes to conclusions along the way, and there's nothing here that will raise anyone's ire. 

But there is a problem here, and it's a fairly substantial one. All of that fairness is probably necessary in this format, but the product comes out rather dry. Part of the reason for that is it's a baseball book that has very little to say about the actual games between the white lines. It was an issue in the other book in the series that I read earlier this year. The material also is going to be very familiar to anyone who lived through that era, or has read a lot about it. This in part may be because of my relatively advanced age at this point, but I found myself skimming the material at time. 

I have no doubt that "Gathering Crowds" is a worthwhile addition to the reference libraries of America. Those seeking information on the business of baseball in that era will find what they need to know. It's simply difficult to picture it attracting much of an audience.

Three stars

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Sunday, June 6, 2021

Review: Glory Days (2021)

By L. Jon Wertheim

Year-in-review books usually represent something of "hanging fruit" when it comes to books. Pick a year, review what happened, perhaps overstate its importance, and ... you have a book. 

"Glory Days" is different. L. Jon Wertheim sets out to make a case that the summer of 1984, give or take a few weeks, represented a transformational moment in the world of sports. What's more, he does such a good job at it that the reader is forced to shake his head after a while and say, "Yup, he could be right."

That's because even if such transformations don't work like an on-off switch, they certainly were centered in that particular summer. In hindsight, it was a significant and crowded time for sports.

Want a list? Happy to help.

* The biggest event of the summer was the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. That particular sporting festival was in big trouble at that point, with few cities/countries wanting to take on such a major event as host because of the costs involved. Even though the Eastern Bloc countries didn't show up via a boycott, Los Angeles proved you could host the Games successfully ... and make a profit along the way.

* Larry Bird and Magic Johnson played their first NBA Finals against each other. Not only was it great theater, but it started a rivalry that lasted through the 1980s and attracted attention from a growing number of sports fans. 

* Speaking of basketball, a kid named Michael Jordan came out of North Carolina to join the NBA. Not only was he about to become one of the greatest players ever, but he revolutionized sports marketing with a deal with Nike that gave him his own signature line of shoes. 

* While Wayne Gretzky already had achieved almost mythical status in the National Hockey League with unbelievable scoring totals, he still hadn't won a Stanley Cup entering the 1983-84 season. The New York Islanders were always in the way. But in 1984, Gretzky and his Edmonton Oilers beat the Islanders in the finals, giving them the Stanley Cup. The Great One had taken the last step, and it helped the NHL start down a road that helped it claim a firm status as a fourth major league sport along side of MLB, NFL and NBA.

* ESPN had been around for a few years by that point, but it figured out a way to make money. It charged cable companies a monthly fee for each subscriber who watched it. That made it financial solvent that summer, and its future was assured. ESPN soon became the most valuable media property in the business, and began a run of success that lasted into the 2010s. 

* The NCAA lost an anti-trust lawsuit involving television rights of its member schools filed by the University of Oklahoma. Suddenly, universities weren't restricted to rare appearances on networks on Saturdays (and, as it turned out, every other day of the week).  Games could be shown anywhere and everywhere ... and piles of money soon followed. 

* It was also the summer of John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova, who dominated the tennis courts in spectacular ways. The Chicago Cubs turned their fortunes around and reached the playoffs, creating a new set of fans through broadcasts on cable television. Mike Tyson was just coming on to the scene, losing in the Olympic trials but showing that he would be the proverbial force to be reckoned with in the future. 

That's a lot. Wertheim also has chapters on a few unlikely events. This was the summer when rock and roll merged with wrestling, thanks in part to a chance airplane flight in which Cyndi Lauper sat next to Lou Albano. That relationship had its entertaining moments and did give pro wrestling some national status, but feels like an odd fit here. The Jacksons' Victory Tour gets a chapter, in part because the family that owned the New England Patriots at the time ran the tour and lost millions along the way. The author also covers a sleeper movie called "The Karate Kid." I'm not sure I buy the idea that the film helped us down the road toward Mixed Martial Arts and Ultimate Fighting, but it is a good story. 

This all could have been done rather routinely, but luckily Wertheim did his homework. He talked to a variety of people who were there at the creation of these events, and did plenty of other research as well. This is really the key to this book - there is information here that at the least is little known and at most new to virtually everyone. What's more, it's almost always interesting. Wertheim is a fine reporter and writer, with several good books and articles to his credit, and he obviously threw himself into this project with full enthusiasm.

I am duty-bound to report on one little slip-up along the way. In a brief item on the movie "The Natural," the text says the climatic scene was set in a place that was supposed to be Wrigley Field in Chicago. While such a scene took place, it occurred earlier in the movie. The big scenes, including the last one, were shot in the departed War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo. That movie came out in 1984 too, and anyone from Western New York will tell how that film doubled as a love letter to "The Old Rockpile" that started something of a baseball renaissance in the area that continues to this day.

"Glory Days" is irresistible. Those who lived through 1984 will enjoy the memories of all that went on, and those who didn't will learn much about the proverbial question asked by the popular 1980s band Talking Heads, "How did we get here?"  Many will race through it with a smile every step of the way.

Five stars

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Friday, June 4, 2021

Review: Teemu Selanne (2019)

By Teemu Selanne with Ari Mennander

It's tough to know where to begin when discussing Teemu Selanne's semi-autobiography, "My Life." But that word, "semi-autobiography," seems like a good place to start.

Selanne, the veteran star of the National Hockey League, decided to come out with a book recapping his career. He was a great player for a long time, won a Stanley Cup, and performed all over the world. That works. There's plenty to admire here when it comes to hockey. 

In the introduction, Selanne explains that the book is written in the third person. "Part of the reason why is that I wanted to include quotes from my friends, family members, and former teammates, who know me better than anyone," he writes. Hmm. That's been done a few times, but it's a difficult task to make work. Let's face it - would you offer anything but praise if asked to answer questions for someone's autobiography? Me neither. 

Then there's the language barrier. Selanne is from Finland, and this book was first published over there. He spent enough time in North America to become fluent in English. Still, it's never easy to reveal someone's thoughts in a second language, as translations are difficult. The words will never be as expressive as they might be in the native tongue. 

Co-author Ari Mennander gives it a try here, but he is up against it. The finished product is something of a basic roundup of his life, told a piece at a time. Some information is presented, followed by a quote by Selanne and someone else. It's difficult to carry that off for more than 300 pages, so that this gets dry pretty quickly. Some material is repeating, so a little more editing would have been nice. It just doesn't work well.

It's too bad, because there's a good story here. Selanne took his time coming to the National Hockey League, but he took the league by storm when he arrived in 1992-93. Teemu scored a record 76 goals to set an NHL record for rookies.  He didn't stay at that level - who could? - but was still a star. Even so, the Jets traded him to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks for prospects during the 1995-96 season. He had some success there, scoring more than 50 goals two more times, and had a nice run in Anaheim on some good teams. After a trade to San Jose and a free agent signing with Colorado, Selanne returned to Anaheim on a year-to-year basis. He ended up staying for eight seasons, finishing with 684 goals and 773 assists for 1,457. Yes, he skated smoothly into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

There's all sorts of praise handed out to Selanne for his play and his personality, which is fine. It's his book. Sometimes Mennander goes over the top in his descriptions about just how good he is. His career was terrific without exaggeration, thank you, and some sentences published here are a little tough to take seriously. There's a little complaining about some coaches Selanne had along the way, particularly about how they didn't play the forward enough in the later stages of his career. Does he have a legitimate gripe, or is it simply a case of a star player being the last to know he's at the end of the line? Tough to say.

A couple of issues about Selanne come up as well. He's always been fond of fast cars, even if he tells the story about how he almost killed some people in an accident on a test track. There's a matter-of-fact edge to some driving adventures, such as the time Teemu drove from Anaheim to San Jose - a distance of 400 miles - in about four hours. Jeez, isn't that rather - OK, very - dangerous?

Teemu also admits that he wants to have people with him who engage in his every whim, particularly now that he's retired. If he feels like playing golf in the afternoon, he calls people who are willing to do that. If they aren't, they fall out of his life. This sure comes off as someone who wants friends to give up their own lives at times to keep Selanne happy. It's not a good look for anyone.

 "Teemu Selanne," then, comes off as a boring book. I suppose his biggest fans will find this to have some behind-the-scenes stories about his life and be satisfied with it. That's fine. Others, though, will want to move along.

Two stars

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