Monday, May 27, 2024

Review: Bernie Nicholls (2022)

By Bernie Nicholls with Kevin Allen and Ross McKeon

It doesn't take Bernie Nicholls long to set the tone in his autobiography, "Bernie Nicholls." 

After a brief introduction to his life in the first chapter, Chapter Two is devoted to the pranks and practical jokes that he pulled during his hockey career. If that gets the idea across that this book is not going to appeal to the crowd that reads Doris Kearns Goodwin's books, you're on the right track. It's a slightly curious literary effort in that it has two co-authors; it's hard to know if the pandemic got in the way of the process of producing the book.

Nicholls was a very good player during most of his hockey player. He piled up some good statistics, compiling 475 goals and 1,209 points in 1,127 games. Those sorts of numbers have him on the fringe of discussion for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Nicholls broke into the NHL with a bang in the 1981-82 season, and stayed through 1998-99. He played for the Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks. The highlight was a 70-goal/80-assist/150-point season in 1988-89, but he was quite productive whenever he played. Injuries hurt him in the second half of his career, which probably kept him out of the Hall of Fame in the second half of his career. 

His life seems rather unlikely considering his roots. Nicholls grew up in West Guilford, Ontario, a place that almost could put the words "Welcome to West Guilford" on both sides of the same sign. It actually was about a mile wide, and Nicholls was related to many of the town's few residents. His home didn't even have a street address. The town is northeast of Toronto and west of Ottawa in Ontario, and it's near a huge provincial park so there was plenty of open space - and not much competition for ice time among the kids.

So let's take a youngster out of that area and place him in ... Los Angeles, where Nicholls first arrived in the NHL. Welcome to Disneyland, indeed. Nicholls became known as someone who could play quite quickly, and he also spread his wings a bit. His reputation for loud clothes quickly spread, and by his own account was someone who took his hockey seriously but also played hard off the ice. Nicholls points out that he stayed away from drinking and drugs during his life, but wasn't so resolute when it came to the other major temptations of the hockey life, gambling and women. There are a few stories in the book about betting on NFL games for example, a matter that might have caused some conversation had it comes out at the time.

It's hard to talk about Nicholls without bringing up the name of Wayne Gretzky. When No. 99 arrived in Los Angeles in 1988, he brought massive amounts of attention to the Kings. Gretzky couldn't have done more on the ice for the team, and he was a great boost for Nicholls. Bernie thrived as teams couldn't afford to worry about much else but Gretzky's play, which helps explain Bernie's 150-point season. Nicholls here explains about how the two men became pretty close friends, surprising in that they seem a lot different in personality. 

But a little more than a year later, the Kings decided to trade one excellent player - Nicholls - to the Rangers for two good ones in an attempt to add some depth to the lineup. After that first season in New York, Nicholls never had more than 25 goals in a season. The bouncing around the league continued through 1998. He did a little coaching for the Kings in 2012, and played a role in that team's championship.

There are plenty of stories about games, teammates and opponents here, and they are fine. There are also stories about expensive houses and fast cars. Nicholls' salary reached a million dollars a year at one point, and it's fair to say he got his money's worth out of it. He does spent quite a few pages near the end talking about how much he respected his father. That's nice, although Mom doesn't get the same level of attention, which is at the least interesting.

The book is a very quick read; I got through it in a day without much effort. As you might guess, it's on the superficial side. Nicholls' wife pops up only briefly in the narrative, mostly because of a difficult pregnancy that led to Bernie not reporting to Edmonton for two months after he was traded by the Rangers. The twin children don't come up much in the story. Nicholls did have a child die shortly after birth, and certainly that level of tragedy must have put all sorts of stress on the family. The couple split at some point after that. Nicholls writes here that he never went to therapy after that tragedy, and didn't want to discuss his feelings on the subject. "I don't talk about my feelings," he says in the book. That's his right, although it's easy for bystanders to wonder from a distance if that was the best course of action under those horrible circumstances. 

Nicholls didn't have many great team moments in his career, but "Bernie Nicholls" will supply some background on the hockey career of this very good performer. Just don't expect more than that, and the book will work as the story of a fish that wound up way out of the Ontario waters. 

Three stars

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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Review: Game On (2024)

By David Bockino

If you been following the sports media during recent times, you know that the business seems to be changing by the hour these days. It's tough to keep up with all of the methods and choices that are out there, partially because the options turn over so quickly. 

In other words - used an AOL account to sign on to the Internet lately?

I suppose all of this started with the rise of spectator sports in the 19th century, when people began to have enough leisure time to participate and watch in physical activities rather than worry most of the time about where the next meal was coming from. The newspaper industry was cranking up its mass production levels at the same time, and it was a perfect marriage ... for a while.

But then, around 100 years ago, the business began to change. That's where David Bockino's book, "Game On," comes in. He's taken a good-sized look at some of the highlights of the big moments of development for that industry, and has put together a relatively easy-to-read guide to the subject. 

Bockino, a former ESPN employee who now works as a professor at Elon University in North Carolina, begins with the rise of a couple of different vehicles for telling sports stories. One was film. The Johnson-Jeffries fight had such strong interest that there was a demand to capture the fight that way so that it could be replayed later for audiences. Jack Johnson's victory over James J. Jeffries (who played The Great White Hope in that drama) led to some problems in the America of 1910, which in some cases wasn't happy about the sight of a Black man beating up a white man - even in motion pictures. 

The other came a decade or so later, when a Jack Dempsey fight with George Carpentier was broadcast on radio on a network of sorts in 1921. We didn't know what the future held at that point, but we could see and hear it to a certain extent.

With that we go on a ride through some important moments in the history of the sports media. Television displayed its potential with a broadcast of the 1947 World Series. Sports Illustrated offered a different perspective soon after its arrival in 1954. The NFL was allowed to sell its television rights collectively after an act of Congress permitted it in 1961;. The first Ali-Frazier fight of 1971 displayed the potential of closed-circuit broadcast of big events; you can see the link to pay-per-view broadcasts from there. 

Then there's the birth of ESPN, the opening of college sports broadcasts on a much larger scale, the rise of sports talk radio, the birth of social media, and the spread of sports broadcasts nationally. Lately, the decision to legalize sports betting in 2018 is changing the landscape in unseen ways as we talk about it. It's worth noting that Bochino spends some time on "foreign" events, such as European and Latin American soccer, along with cricket and the opening of the Chinese market to outside interests.  

Let's give Bockino credit for doing his homework. This is a well-researched book. Even someone who has followed events closely will learn some things along the way. That should keep you reading if you pick it up in the first place. The events might not be all interesting; I had a little trouble figuring out why I should care too much about sports media in Argentina. I'm also surprised that the demise of newspapers doesn't receive some examination along the way.

It doesn't seem as if there's an overriding theme that unites the chapters of the book together. Bockino does make a fair point that the sports media seems to be racing toward more personalization as a rule. In other words, fans these days can stick to watching a particular team or sport exclusively if they wish. They also can tailor the news through certain outlets to reflect their own interests. Companies can still make lots of money focusing on one team, but it's not like 60 years when fans had to take what they were fed. 

There will be more of that in the future, naturally, and we'll be surprised again by how fast the changed arrived. "Game On" is done well enough to offer quite a few rewards to those who are willing to pick it up and read it.

Four stars

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Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Review: Magic (2023)

By Roland Lazenby

One of the unforeseen aspects of the rise of computers in the publishing industries is that some books are getting bigger.

Because they can be. 

A friend of mine in the industry once told me that it became much easier to write a mammoth publication when paragraphs could be bounced around the page like basketballs on the court. Since it's easier to put words in than take them out, it's only natural to see books on sale that are a heavy lift when carrying them out of the bookstore or when toted to your front door by the guy from Amazon.

That brings us to Roland Lazenby's book, "Magic."

This checks in at an impressive 832 pages. My edition was on Kindle, so no muscles were pulled in reading this book for a review. To be fair, there are some notes and a bibliography at the end, so the actual text probably under 800 pages. We're used to that when Robert Caro is writing about Lyndon Johnson, but basketball players usually don't get this sort of treatment. 

Still, the subject of this book is Earvin "Magic" Johnson, and he's in rare air. Magic certainly ranks as one of the best basketball players in history - a unicorn as a 6-foot-9 point guard who could make opponents' victories disappear. Even better, his absolute joy in playing and his flamboyant style made him one of the few players in history that just everyone loved to watch. They didn't call the Lakers' style in the 1980s "Showtime!" for nothing.

Lazenby goes well back into the past in opening the story of Johnson's life, climbing the roots of the family tree back to the Old South. The Johnsons eventually landed in Lansing, Michigan. By the time Earvin was a couple of years into high school, everyone knew he could be something special - although it was difficult to know how special. What's more, Johnson's infectious personality was on display right from the start. As Lazenby writes about, Earvin played a role in helping schools get through some difficult times when it came to integration. Johnson even made some speeches to his classmates along the way.

The man who picked up the nickname of "Magic" along the way in high school opted to stay close to home in college by going to Michigan State. He played in one of the most famous basketball games in history in 1979, the NCAA final against Larry Bird and Indiana State. It was the start of a relationship hat would last a lifetime in various forms. 

You probably know what happened from there. Johnson joined the Los Angeles Lakers, and helped them win an NBA title in 1980. The championships popped up regularly through the 1980, featuring some epic clashes with Bird's Celtics that did wonders for the NBA's image. But then Johnson tested positive for HIV, essentially and eventually cutting his career short. Magic moved into the business world, and perhaps surprisingly showed that he was a quick learner there too. Johnson's wealth is well into nine figures these days.

Lazenby certainly has the time and space to explore just about everything at length, and no one can dispute that the major moments of Johnson's life are fully covered. There are even quite a few "I didn't know that" moments that pop up along the way, and not all of them are flattering. Still, the author captures the player and his era quite nicely. That's not unexpected, since he's written a number of basketball books over the years, many of them on the Lakers in particular. 

The last word about "Magic" comes down to a simple question. If you are intently interested in the life of this Hall of Fame, then you're sure to go through this book in its entirety with enthusiasm. As for the rest of us, we probably could have lost a couple of hundred pages without much difficulty - but it's still worth the read.

Four stars

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Sunday, May 12, 2024

Review: Finished Business (2021)

By Ray Didinger

Ray Didinger had been following the Philadelphia Eagles for essentially his entire life. It started with parents who had the idea that there was nothing better on a summer afternoon than to go watch the team work out under a hot sun in training camp.

From there it was on to college, where he decided to become a sports journalist. Didinger quickly rose up the ladder from one job and newspaper to the next, eventually becoming one of the youngest beat writers in the NFL and then moved on to become a columnist. Eventually he moved into other mediums, such as working for NFL Films and in radio and television. 

Along the way, eventually he became one of "those guys" that became the most respected opinion on local sports in the area. Every city has a couple. They seem to tap in to what the community is thinking, simply because they are so familiar with how the population thinks. 

When Philadelphia won its first Super Bowl in 2018, Didinger did a little celebrating too - famously with a big hug with his son on camera. And he thought to himself that an NFL championship was just the bow he needed to tie his life in sports together in the form of an autobiography of sorts.

That book is called "Finished Business," and it holds up very nicely as a readable look back at an interesting career. 

One of the good parts about books like this centers on the basic job of reporters. That is to say, they rely on the kindness of strangers for information. Yes, Didinger's life story is covered here. But it's basically a clothesline to hang stories about famous athletes and personalities. Since Philadelphia is a big town, its stars are well known nationally.

Therefore, there's information about a variety of athletes from an upclose viewpoint. Bobby Clarke. Mike Schmidt, Julius Erving. Dick Vermeil. Some other characters come up who might be a little less familiar to national readers, like Eagles' owner Leonard Tose and wrestler Sergeant Slaughter. 

The best chapter in the book, though, might have been the next-to-last one, though. It's the story of Didinger's relationship with Hall of Fame wide receiver Tommy McDonald. Ray first met him as a seventh grader at training camp as he walked back to the locker room after practice with him. It became a ritual that took place over the course of six years. Much later, the two were reunited in a different way - even if Didinger didn't immediately reveal the old-time connection to McDonald. Ray played a role in Tommy's induction in Canton, and they remained close until he died. Didinger even wrote a play about their relationship; it sounds like it would be worth seeing, even outside of Philadelphia.

There are a few excerpts from his writing here, enough to give you an idea of his style. But there's a book that's a collection of his work from 2007 that is available elsewhere. This is a more personal story, and the reviews of it on are downright rapturous.

Admittedly, I'm an easy target for stories from sportswriters, especially the veterans. But "Finished Business" goes down very smoothly - as you'd expect. Let's put it this way: You don't have to be from Philadelphia to enjoy it. 

Four stars

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Thursday, May 2, 2024

Review: The Greatest Comeback (2022)

By John U. Bacon

Do you like oral histories?

Hockey fans who pass that test certainly will like "The Greatest Comeback," even if the structure of the book doesn't completely fit the traditional description of that technique. 

It's a look back at the famous 1972 hockey series between Canada and the Soviet Union. For those of you who weren't paying attention back then, there's never been anything quite like this in sports. Canadians essentially invented the sport and developed it and its world dominance hadn't been questioned for decades. But after World War II, the Soviets came along with a completely new way of playing the game. It featuring puck possession, speed and conditioning. They eventually began to dominate international competition, although the Canadians usually were excluded from such matches as the Olympics because of their professional status. (Yes, we know the Soviet team was paid to play hockey by the government, but it was all part of the gamesmanship going on.)

With nothing else left to prove, the Soviets challenged the Canadians hockey to a series of games Team Canada accepted the offer, figuring in many cases that they could simply cruise to an easy victory and maintain its reputation as the world's ultimate hockey power. Overconfidence is never becoming in sports, and it can come back to bite you. Ask the Soviet hockey team of 1980, which figured it would have no trouble with a bunch of college kids from the United States at the Olympics in Lake Placid. Some on this side of the pond, including general manager Punch Imlach of the Buffalo Sabres, in 1972 figured Canada would win all eight games easily.

But it didn't work out that way. Team Canada was an all-star squad at the start without much of a sense of team. The players had enjoyed the summer off and weren't in top shape. And the administrators had made some decisions about such factors as scheduling and officials that didn't help. It's tough to describe the reaction in Canada to Game One of the series - a stunning 7-3 loss in Montreal. It only took a dozen minutes in that game for Paul Henderson of Team Canada to note, it was going to be a loooooong series.

But as we know now, Team Canada eventually got its act together. It started thinking like a team, and playing like one too. Fitness came around, and the coaches made adjustments in reacting to the Soviet's approach. The result was out of a storybook - three straight wins in Moscow to capture the series, 4-3-1. Was it the Greatest Comeback Ever? Under the circumstances, you could make a good case for it. Meanwhile, there are open fields in Canada because of all of the trees that needed to be chopped down in order to print all of the books printed on this matchup. 

What was it like for Team Canada to go on that ride? Answering that question was Bacon's biggest task. He managed to talk at great length to just about everyone connected with the squad, as well as a few others. Even the players' wives chipped in with some valuable memories. Bacon also had books by Harry Sinden and Ken Dryden that were written as the series progressed, and he talked some others such as Wayne Gretzky - who was watching as a youngster back in Ontario. It's all edited together nicely with a ton of quotes along the way, supplying the same effect as an oral history.

It's that effort that makes this book a winner. We read about what all of the players were thinking along the way, on and off the ice. As an example, the NHL players rarely even spoke to opposing players in that era - even at All-Star Games. That created some walls that had to be broken down. By the end of the series, though, they realized that they were forever linked as participants in what was voted as one of the most significant events in Canadian history. The Soviets are kept at a distance here, and that really doesn't hurt the story much. There are books out there that cover that angle if you are interested.

There are all sorts of details of the series here that hadn't come up elsewhere. For example, four players left the team about halfway through as something of a protest about a lack of playing time. Two of them were Sabres - Gil Perreault and Rick Martin. I can't say I've read much about that particular aspect of the series, but the departure is covered quite thoroughly here. The reaction of the rest of the team, by the way, seems like it could be summed up with "good riddance." Bacon even comes up with the answer to a great Buffalo trivia question - what were Perreault and Martin's uniform numbers for the series? (It's 33 and 36 respectively.)

Bacon hasn't received enough acclaim for his work over the years. That's probably because he has written several books about the University of Michigan. That's a rather limited audience, particularly in the state of Ohio. But I've read a few of his books, and they've all been extremely well done. His name on the cover means you'll get something good. 

Meanwhile, the effects of that 1972 series linger to this day. The game we see today on the ice is a hybrid of the two styles that clashed back then. The skill level and pace of the game has improved drastically as a result. "The Greatest Comeback" is a full and readable account of how the road taken by the sport began. Even more than 50 years later, it's more than worth your time.

Five stars

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