Friday, October 27, 2023

Review: The Game That Saved the NHL (2023)

By Ed Gruver

Amy discussion of Ed Gruver's book probably starts with the title. 

The publication is called "The Game That Saved the NHL."  That's a rather powerful statement that begs the question, "From what?" We're going to need a little background information about that moment in time before discussing how it is covered. 

The game in question was played between the Red Army team of the Soviet Union and the Philadelphia Flyers of the NHL in January, 1976. Hockey fans certainly remember the unique moment in 1972 when the all-star teams from the Soviets and the NHL met in an eight-game series which was barely won by the North Americans. That generated interest in the potential of a series of "exhibition games" between NHL teams and their Soviet counterparts in midseason.

The USSR sent two of their best teams, the Red Army and the Wings, to play a total of eight games. Both of the Soviet teams picked up a couple of reinforcements from other teams, which meant it wasn't exactly a true test of comparative abilities. Through the first seven games, things had not gone well for the NHL. The two Soviet squads had five five games, while the NHL had one win (Buffalo over the Wings, the lesser team of the two). The other game was a tie between Montreal and the Red Army.

Going into Game Eight, then, the Flyers were the NHL's last chance for a win over the perennial power of Soviet hockey. Philadelphia also was a two-time defending champion of the Stanley Cup. It certainly figured to a contrast in styles. They didn't call the Flyers the "Broad Street Bullies" for nothing. While they featured some terrific skill players in Bobby Clarke, Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish and Bernie Parent, they were more known for a rough and tough playing style that often left opponents intimidated. Essentially, the Flyers perfected an approach that had started in the expansion era because the new teams didn't have the talent to keep up with the Original Six ... and thus had to try something different in an attempt to win and sell tickets. 

Flyers' coach Fred Shero had studied Soviet hockey, and came up with a game plan that worked well. It probably was helped by the fact that an NHL referee worked the game, since a Soviet official might have not let some infractions go unpenalized. At one point late in the first period, the Red Army squad was furious enough at the Flyers' tactics to leave the ice and to threaten to leave the building. It took a while, but eventually the Soviets returned ... and little changed. Philadelphia poured on the shots and came away with a 4-1 win. It might have been the team's signature performance of that era.

Gruver covers the bases well enough here. He reviews the international hockey situation during the 1970s, which the game started to become more of a melting pot than its previous status as one that practically had a "North Americans Only" sign at the front door. Graver has mini-bios of anyone who played a role in the series. The second half of the book is mostly dedicated to the game itself. It's not easy to devote a lot of space to the play-by-play of a sports event that has been over for almost 50 years, particularly in the case of a free-flowing sport like hockey. There's a little repetition along the way, and it's a little surprising that the Soviet walkout wasn't a bigger deal in the story.

Still, this book essentially comes down to perspective and legacy. Those Flyers teams are very well remembered in the Philadelphia area, and Gruver comes off as a fan of them. After all, they won the only two Stanley Cups in team history. That's enough to make names like Clarke and Parent legends, and then some. But the team's playing style generated a lot of debate about whether the ends justified the means, and whether the intimidation tactics were good for hockey as a whole. 

If there was a game in that international series that might have "saved" the NHL, it might have been the one between the Canadiens and Red Army. It was an instant classic in terms of quality of play, and taught many people how exciting and beautiful the game could be played in a certain style. (The book, "The Greatest Game," by Todd Denault, covers the contest well.) The Flyers' approach when done without all of the wins turned off some potential fans by the amount of violence involved. The transformation of hockey took a long time, but the game today features much more skill and speed than ever before. The players are better, and the game is better to play and to watch.

Yes, the Flyers did beat the beat the Soviets had to offer on that January afternoon. That means that the NHL's three best teams - Philadelphia, Montreal and Buffalo - all did not lose to squads from the USSR. That was good for some debating points, especially since the Soviet teams had extra weapons. But it is tough to argue that its effects were long-lasting.

If you have fond memories of those Flyers' teams and that day in 1976, you'll certainly enjoy the look back at "The Game That Saved the NHL." Others are going to have trouble with the premise.

Three stars

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Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Review: The Last Miracle (2023)

By Ed Kranepool with Gary Kaschak

Most fans of the New York Mets of a certain age have a soft spot in their heart for Ed Kranepool. 

After all, he was part of the original Mets in 1962. Kranepool was signed right out of high school, and had some at-bats for those lovable losers who lost 120 of 160 games in that initial season. The difference was that while everyone else from that team soon moved on, Kranepool hung around..

And hung around, and hung around. He stayed through 1979, which means he spent 18 seasons wearing the orange and blue of the Mets. Kranepool was part of the furniture for a long time, and you can build up a lot of good will that way.

Therefore, it was a bit of a surprise to read "The Last Miracle." It turns out that Kranepool was always something of an angry young man during his playing days. Billy Joel would have been proud of him.

Ed grew up in New York City and was a good-sized prospect out of high school. In those days, players could sign with any team - a decision that often came down to money. The fact that Kranepool had ties to New York City made it easy to want to stay home and play baseball. Besides, the Yankees were rather loaded with talent then, while the Mets were running on empty. The National League team offered the quickest path to the majors possible. 

In fact, it was probably too quick. Kranepool did play in three games for the '62 Mets before he had even turned 18. He also spent time in Triple-A, Class A, and Class C. But realistically, Kranepool should have gone to the low minors and learned how to be a pro ballplayer. It was the same story a year later, when the first baseman/outfielder split his time between New York and Buffalo (AAA). For a guy who hit .209 with the Mets in 1963, he seemed to carry a grudge over the assignment to the minors. He seemed to take it out on the city of Buffalo, even turning down a chance to work on the movie "The Natural" in the 1980s after retirement.

From there, Kranepool became a regular through 1967, and usually hit around .260 in that span. Eventually the Mets figured out that Kranepool was better off platooning. That was his role on the 1969 Miracle Mets, who ended several years of frustration with a surprise World Series championship. Those players will walk together forever, and Kranepool has some stories about that amazin' season in the book.

But the magic soon wore off, which usually happens in baseball as players age or get shuffled. New York did get back to the World Series in 1973 despite a mediocre regular season. Soon Kranepool was left filling a pinch-hitting role that kept him employed in the big leagues but apparently wasn't too satisfying. He finally retired after the 1979 season.

The possibilities for a good book seem obvious enough, but Kranepool's attitude drags things down quite a bit. It's interesting how Ed didn't seem to appreciate manager Gil Hodges much until Hodges took Kranepool's side in an argument with Tim Foli. Suddenly Hodges could do no wrong. In the meantime, Kranepool didn't think much of the managerial abilities of Hodges' successor, Yogi Berra. Ed is still angry over the fact that George Stone wasn't picked to start Game Six of the 1973 World Series over a less than fully rested Tom Seaver. To be fair, he might have a point, especially since Berra's plan didn't work out. 

The anger comes out in other places. Kranepool thought he deserved more consideration for a Gold Glove at first base, even though perennial winner Wes Parker of the Dodgers played a lot more games. Ed thought he could be a player-coach once Joe Torre took over as manager. When Torre had other plans, his stock dropped with Kranepool. At the end of his career, Ed thought he was ready to move into a front office job - perhaps general manager. That didn't come true either, although considering the way the Mets handled things in the late 1970s, Kranepool couldn't do any worse than those on the job. 

Oddly, Kranepool sticks to the old belief that winning the close games is the sign of a champion. According to most of the research, the good teams usually have a one-sided record in the blowouts ... because you are only doing bad opponents a favor by letting them hang around. Luck has a lot more to do winning the close ones. The '69 Mets went 41-23 in one-run games, even better than the 21-12 in blowouts. A year later, the Mets were under .500 in close games, and the team turned mediocre. Everything went right, including the breaks for the Mets in 1969.

Adding to some bad feelings about the book was that the fact that there were some typos and other mistakes along the way, and sometimes the story jumped in some odd directions. One more read of the manuscript by an outside source probably would have helped a lot. 

Autobiographies often rise and fall on how the person at the middle of them come across. "The Last Miracle" suffers because of that. If you carry warm feelings about the Mets of that era, maybe you'd better go elsewhere.

Two stars

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Thursday, October 19, 2023

Review: Life in Two Worlds (2023)

By Ted Nolan with Meg Masters

One of the problems with big-time sports these days is that it is difficult to obtain explanations for behind-the-scenes activities even well after they happen. The money has gotten bigger, and the stakes have gotten higher. That's led to non-disclosure agreements in many cases, the equivalent of a gag order that would be costly if ever broken.

But sometimes, we do hear a version of what went on - even if takes a while. In this case, Ted Nolan gives his life story in th3e book, "Life in Two Worlds." And it's positively fascinating, particularly those who are old enough to remember a particular era of hockey.

The centerpiece of the book is the story of Nolan's time with the Buffalo Sabres. He was hired by the team after only one year as an assistant coach in the NHL in 1995. Nolan lasted two seasons in Buffalo, and it sometimes seemed like every day was a soap opera ... with the tension building as the end of his tenure approached. 

There's only a couple of chapters on this part of his life, but it's really the centerpiece of his hockey career. Nolan won the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL's coach of the year in 1996-97, only to lose his job that summer when he turned down something of a token contract offer from new general manager Darcy Regier. 

But there's one central fact to Nolan's first time around in Buffalo. John Muckler was kicked upstairs to be a general manager only after the 1995 season; he had been the coach as well before that. Basically, he wanted someone he could control as the head coach. Based on the book, I'm not sure Nolan realized that. But clashes were almost inevitable in that situation, and they eventually happened. 

Nolan writes about those unpleasant moments that in hindsight don't make a whole lot of sense. For example, Nolan became an instant fan of his best player, Pat LaFontaine, upon his arrival. Pat was the captain, and Ted was immediately impressed about how his star worked the room. That what made, and makes, it so puzzling that Muckler asked Nolan to strip LaFontaine of his captaincy. It's hard to know what happened between the GM and star. I do know that once when Muckler was asked about LaFontaine's leadership abilities, Muckler supposedly replied (more or less) than LaFontaine couldn't lead a prostitute to bed. 

Eventually, Nolan developed a reputation as a "player's coach." That usually meant he tried to be someone who took the time how to figure out what was best for the player and his development. Muckler was more old school, and thought a good screaming session was necessary every so often. Muckler asked Nolan to be tougher, and Nolan refused. It was a basic difference in philosophy that probably should have come up in the interview process.

Then early in the 1996-97 season, LaFontaine suffered a serious concussion on the ice. Nolan could see something was seriously wrong, even after some recovery time. Muckler tried to order Nolan to play LaFontaine, pointing out that Pat was cleared for play and was earning $5 million per year. Nolan wouldn't do it, saying LaFontaine wasn't healed. A few months later, a story circulated that Muckler wanted to fire Nolan and replace him with assistant coach Don Lever, but that the Sabres' front office told Muckler he'd have to coach too if wanted to make that change. So the idea died, and the frayed relationship between general manager and head coach continued. 

The team still played well under Nolan, winning a divisional championship. But the rift grew. In the book, Nolan said that an opposing general manager had said he was drunk on the bench at times. An exhausting season ended with the only Game Seven victory in Sabres' history (still true), and a second-round loss to Philadelphia. Then star goalie and league MVP Dominik Hasek added to the story by saying he didn't want to play for a coach in Nolan that he had no respect for. Nolan writes that has no idea where that came from - but he did hear all the rumors that he was having an affair with Hasek's wife. Bizarre stuff. 

Muckler exited right after the end of the playoffs, and Regier took over. He greeted Nolan in their first meeting without taking his feet off his desk. For someone who battled his entire life for respect, Nolan thought it got the relationship off to a horrible start. Nolan soon first heard from Buffalo News reporter Jim Kelley that he was going to be offered a one-year contract with no bonuses. Nolan eventually turned that down, and the Sabres eventually hired Lindy Ruff as coach. 

Nolan's luck wasn't much better when it came to his other coaching jobs. The Islanders hired him as a head coach in 2006 after a long gap from his first departure from the Sabres. But New York hired a new general manager in Garth Snow shortly after that, and GMs always like to have their own man in such an important job. Later on, Nolan returned to the Sabres as coach in 2013. But later Tim Murray was hired as GM. Murray was in the process of guiding a tank in an ill-fated attempt to land Connor McDavid in the draft, and that tank ruined just about everything it touched within the organization in those years. When Nolan wouldn't hire Murray's uncle, veteran hockey coach Bryan, for his coaching staff, Tim fired Ted - at least in Nolan's version here - in 2015. The in-between periods might have been even tougher for Nolan. From what I've heard, Ted was in a rather dark place at times, and did a couple of things in trying to find a coaching job that didn't go over well with the rest of the NHL coaching fraternity.  

This is all quite interesting to hockey fans, particularly for those who follow the Sabres. However, the rest of the book is quite well done as well. That might be the biggest surprise of the entire publication. 

Nolan overcame a lot to do as well as he could. The systemic problems of Native communities are quite well known, including such issues as poverty, racism and alcoholism. It's difficult for anyone to come from that environment into the world beyond the reservation and not be changed by it. Nolan was no exception. He came from a large family in Western Ontario, and has gone through more than his share of tragedy over the years. Nolan also has been a victim of stereotyping along the way, which was a large problem for Native players in hockey. But he overcame them, paid his dues, and reached the top of his profession. 

It's really difficult to read some of this material. Then again, it's really difficult to understand what people are thinking when they hand out abuse to someone because he or she is a member of a particular group. Nolan comes across as an innocent during his youth, sometimes fighting back and sometimes giving in to temptations like alcohol use and quitting. He even had to deal with insults and abuse from his own teammates - such as "What are you doing here, ya stinkin' Indian?" Fans might have been worse. To his credit, Ted battled his way up the hockey ladder as a player and as a coach. Nolan rightfully thanks several mentors here who helped him along the way.

Nolan is 65 now - seems impossible at first - and lately he's been working on a 3Nolans program that's designed to help the youth of First Nations make their way in society. Ted is helped by his two sons, Brandon and Jordan, who also were pro hockey players. It sounds like he's somewhat at peace by end of "Life in Two Worlds," although he'll always wonder what might have been in a different world. 

As will we.     

(Footnote: There is one story from the book that needs to be told here because I've never heard it anywhere else. Nolan was welcomed by a group of Native Elders to Buffalo. He writes,"Apparently,in the 1930s or 1940s, one of the best First Nations athletes in the area tried out for a Buffalo team, but because he was Indigenous the team wouldn't sign him. Upon hearing of this injustice, some of the Elders put a curse on all sports teams in the area. ... Now that I had arrived, however, these Elders told me they were going to remove the curse." Did someone put the curse back on?) 

Five stars

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Sunday, October 8, 2023

Review: If These Walls Could Talk: Buffalo Bills (2023)

By John Murphy with Scott Pitoniak

This must have seemed like a simple enough task at the time.

John Murphy has been announcing the games of the Buffalo Bills on radio for many years. He started on the broadcasts as the color man for the legendary play-by-play announcer, Van Miller. When Van finally retired, John moved over a spot to take over those duties. A few different former Bills have worked with Murph on commentary over the years.

That's obviously a good starting point for a book. Murphy has been around the team for a few decades, and he knows several of the personalities involved in the game well. Certainly, Murphy and coauthor Scott Pitoniak had visions of sitting around with a beverage, cranking out some good stories, and publishing an entertaining book. The deal for "If These Walls Could Talk: Buffalo Bills" quickly came together.

But fate got in the way. The Bills were preparing to play the Bengals in Cincinnati late in the 2022 season when Murphy started to have some physical problems.  He never did make it to that game, which is also remembered as the one in which the heart of Bills' defensive back Damar Hamlin briefly stopped after a hit to the chest. Hamlin returned to action in 2023; Murphy wasn't so lucky. He was diagnosed as suffering a stroke, and he's been recovering from it since then. 

From the writing sense, it must have been interesting to try to figure out how Murphy should handle the issue - especially since it figured to be a long-term issue that wouldn't be completely solved by the time the book was out. Murphy and Pitoniak chose to deal with it quite simply as part of the life story; it's not particularly highlighted but several pages are devoted to it. This was a wise move, since Murphy is something of a public figure in his role as the Bills' radio announcer and many people have been rooting for him to fully recover. 

Otherwise, this is exactly what you'd expect in a book like this. The authors start with a chapter on Josh Allen, which is rather interesting. It probably shows just how popular the quarterback is in the Bills' community. Then Murphy spends a little time on his background. He reveals a few things that I didn't know, even though we've been friends for quite a while. We went to Syracuse University at the same time for three years, but our paths did not cross then.  That had to wait when we bumped into each other at sports events in the Buffalo area some years later. 

With that established, Murphy is off with his recap of the Bills over the years as he's seen it. The players, coaches and front office executives all get the once-over. There have been a lot of them, which isn't surprising since the Bills have been bad more often than they've been good during this tenure. As you'd expect he grew fond of the chief architects of the Bills' best run of success, Bill Polian and Marv Levy. 

There are a couple of points told along the way that surprised me. The first is that Murphy is absolutely, positively convinced that "Home Run Throwback" - the play that gave the Titans a playoff win over the Bills in 2000 - was a forward lateral. Having looked at that play a few dozen times (it's tough to avoid when researching team history), I've concluded that at best it's too close too call, meaning the play stands. But if I had to pick a direction, I'd say it was a legal play as a lateral.

Murphy also writes a bit about the problems that developed between Polian and owner Ralph Wilson. John is clearly on Polian's side on most items. I'm not going to say that Wilson was faultless in that relationship, but everything I've heard indicates that Polian could have handled the situation better ... something Bill admits now. 

Here's the key point, though, about Murphy. He's that rare individual who can take strong opinions, and still be universally liked. That's less common than you'd think. 

Reading "If These Walls Could Talk: Buffalo Bills" is like sitting down and having a nice long chat with John. I've done that on several occasions, and it's always been a pleasure. The book is the same way. 

Four stars

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Thursday, October 5, 2023

Review: Banana Ball (2023)

By Jesse Cole and Don Yaeger

There's something going on in the world of baseball, and it's really difficult to describe from a distance. 

After some modest origins, a new form of the sport has taken the business by form. The rules were blown up, with the emphasis on fun. Pitchers on stilts? Foul balls that are caught by fans in the stands becoming outs? Time limits? Bats literally on fire? Let's try them all and see how they work. 

Now within a couple of years, the Savannah Bananas - and who doesn't love that name - has become something of a talk of the sports business world. It went on a national tour this summer, and packed in the crowds wherever it went. 

A good promoter knows how to spread the word, and Jesse Cole certainly is that. He has a book out on how it all happened from his standpoint. "Banana Ball" is that story. 

Cole was something of a prospect while growing up, good enough to reach the college ranks. Any chance that he had of turning professional essentially ended with an injury, so he had to find another way to scratch his baseball itch. Jesse found work in the world of organized ball, doing a little bit of everything. Eventually, he moved on to run a college-age summer league team in 2016. While Cole probably didn't realize it at the time, it was the perfect laboratory for his creative brain. After all, no one is paying close attention. 

Slowly but surely, the concept grew a bit bigger, week by week. Concepts were tried and discarded like jokes in a late night television monologue. But do that enough, and you'll find out what works. And the fans responded nicely. 

Cole and Company decided to take the act out on the road in 2022, turning the Bananas briefly into a barnstorming team. It seemed to work, and the concept was expanded in 2023. Yes, those bright yellow uniforms turned up even in Cooperstown this past summer, and trips to major league parks seems rather likely. It's easy to think of this as something along the lines of baseball's answers to the Harlem Globetrotters. The biggest difference is that both teams really are trying to win while putting on a show on the side. 

And so Banana Ball seems destined to find a niche in the sports entertainment business in a good-sized way. But how is "Banana Ball," the book?  It's easy to be less enthusiastic about that. 

This is written as a straight autobiography. While the story has some charm - struggling young couple beats the odds - there is some repetition and some self-congratulating along the way. That makes it relatively easy to speed through the book. It's easy to wonder if an "outside in" approach would have been the better way to write this, as the other participants could have added some perspective on the experience. 

There are video programs on the Bananas - ESPN did one - and the team itself has embraced social media to complete effectiveness. That's probably the best way to learn about the team. As for the book, it's quick and easy and spreads the word well enough. It's another tool in the promotional toolbox, and after finishing it you'll probably be curious enough to go to a game when the opportunity becomes available. 

Three stars

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