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Literary hat trick: Trio of hockey titles worthy additions to the game's canon

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/10/2015 (665 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

With another NHL season up and running, the shelves are filling up with hockey books hoping to distinguish themselves come Christmas shopping season. Like the starting lineup of a scrappy underdog squad, each of these titles has something to contribute and will appeal to different readers in unique ways.

Veteran hockey writer Eric Zweig's latest, Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins, is sure to thrill history buffs, but may well leave casual readers behind. Zweig does fine work, breathing life into 100-plus-year-old details; his descriptions of Stanley Cup matches from the era of the rover and the "60-minute men" manage to evoke the excitement of those bygone times, while his detailed analysis of the power struggles and high drama in which Ross was fully involved in the early days of the NHL, and the National Hockey Association before it, are both educational and entertaining, even if the reader has little to no prior knowledge of the subject.

Art Ross (back row, centre) was the first coach and general manager of the Boston Bruins when they entered the National Hockey League in the 1924-1925 season.

SUPPLIED PHOTO

Art Ross (back row, centre) was the first coach and general manager of the Boston Bruins when they entered the National Hockey League in the 1924-1925 season.

David Zalubowski / The Associated Press files
Patrick O�Sullivan in 2010.

CP

David Zalubowski / The Associated Press files Patrick O�Sullivan in 2010.

Fans of the big, bad Boston Bruins will delight in the detailed history of Ross's involvement in building the franchise, which entered the NHL as an expansion team in the 1924-25 season, while those who loathe the franchise may still enjoy the vivid details of early, pre-Original Six era.

Perhaps most interesting of all is just how much of what we recognize as the modern game of hockey is owed to Ross. As an inventor, Ross held the patent for the puck and net design used by the NHL for decades. And as a coach, general manager and part-owner who wanted to keep the game exciting for players and spectators alike, Zweig argues Ross provided countless modifications to rules and strategy, including the concept of forward passing, substitution of players, full rolling of lines and even pulling the goalie. Zweig quotes the Boston Globe's Victor Jones noting that "It would be impossible to play (hockey), as now played, without Mr. Ross's gimmicks."

Such a detailed, though lively, history may not be every reader's cup of tea, but for those with an interest in the roots of the game, Zweig's latest is well worth a look.

***

Manitoba-born Reggie Leach's autobiography, The Riverton Rifle: Straight Shooting on Hockey and on Life, swings the other way. From the rink at Riverton all the way to glory -- first with the Flin Flon Bombers and then the legendary Broad Street Bullies, then back down in the dumps in Montana and the mean streets of Philly -- Leach lays it all on the line as though the reader is just shooting the breeze with the ex-NHL sniper over a cup of canteen coffee at a local rink.

While it, too, will be of interest to hockey historians, particularly those with a local interest, Leach tells his story straight, as the title suggests, with little in the way of detailed recounting or moral pontificating. Some may find that lack of critical depth wanting, particularly with regard to issues of racism that Leach, who is aboriginal, dealt with throughout his career, or his battle with alcoholism. However, many more will appreciate the story for what it is: an exceptional hockey tale that hasn't yet received the attention it's due.

***

Patrick O'Sullivan's memoir, written with veteran sports journalist Gare Joyce, is a more difficult read. Very much a cautionary tale, Breaking Away is in many ways reminiscent of Theo Fleury's Playing with Fire. O'Sullivan's story is one of constant verbal and physical abuse at the hands of his father, who was overly "involved" (to use the terminology of minor-hockey coaches) in his early hockey career and who was hell-bent on seeing his boy make the big leagues.

O'Sullivan did make it to the Big Show -- first winning world-junior gold with Team USA in 2004 before lacing up with the Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers, Carolina Hurricanes, Minnesota Wild and Phoenix Coyotes. But he writes that he found his greatest enjoyment on the ice when he played in the minors for the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League towards the end of his pro career.

"I never felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders," O'Sullivan writes. "We just went out and played."

Much of what O'Sullivan was put through as a child, described in grisly detail throughout, may be too much for some readers. O'Sullivan, who today suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to his father's abuse, struggles to understand why nobody stepped in to help him when so many warning signs seemed to be out in the open. Parents and coaches were aware that O'Sullivan's father, "Crazy John," would bang on the glass, yelling and screaming instructions at O'Sullivan not only at every game, but at every practice too.

What those around the O'Sullivan family didn't realize, or didn't take steps to deal with, was that John O'Sullivan took it even further outside the rink.

Indeed, the whole purpose of the difficult trip down memory lane for O'Sullivan seems to be to raise awareness about child abuse at the hands of parents who push their kids too hard. While Breaking Away isn't exactly an enjoyable read, it has the potential to start a needed conversation -- not just at the rink, but around any sport where kids are competing at a level that could be unhealthy. It's a sobering reminder that even though hockey is a game, it has the potential to leave lasting scars -- both figurative and literal.

While none of these titles is likely to rise to the pantheon of the great hockey books of the ages, they all stand on their own merits. Depending on the tastes of the reader, they may well find themselves on a first-ballot all-star list come season's end.

 

Sheldon Birnie is a reporter with The Herald, and a beer-league hockey enthusiast.

Read more reviewed by Sheldon Birnie.

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Updated on Saturday, October 24, 2015 at 9:02 AM CDT: Formatting.

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