Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Book Review: The Best Game You Can Name

McClelland & Stewart
September 2005
312 pages

My first interaction with Dave Bidini occurred during a summer in Vancouver some fourteen or fifteen years ago. I was watching Much Music, and the most captivating video appeared on the screen. Back then, Much Music actually showed music videos by The Payola$, rather than just engaging in the practice, but I digress. The song was called “Aliens (Christmas 1988)” and the band was The Rheostatics. I was fifteen, maybe sixteen at the time, and three things stood out to me about that song: the word “tits” in the lyrics, the wax statue of Neil Young in the video, and the catchy “whoo hoo hoo hoo, hoo hoo hoo hoo” refrain. My dad, of course, already had the Rheostatics album Melville (he lightly laughed at me when I asked the question, as if the answer were the most obvious thing in the world), and so I spent an entire summer listening to that song, over and over. Being the age that I was, I don’t think I even bothered listening to another track on the album.

For those not in the know, Dave Bidini is a guitarist in said Rheostatics, as well as the author of a fleet of non-fiction titles. He is probably best known for his book The Tropic of Hockey, and the CBC documentary that accompanied it. He has also written a book about baseball entitled Baseballissimo, along with some books about the experience of being in a rock band. My good friend Colin Mitzel encouraged me to read The Tropic of Hockey some years ago, but I could never get through it. It was interesting, but not riveting. I put it down after reading a few chapters, and never picked it up again. Truth be told, I probably decided to read a George R.R. Martin novel for the twelfth time instead. I am not sure whether that speaks volumes about the Bidini book, or volumes about me.

For the past several weeks, I have been crazy-nuts about sports. I mean, I am usually crazy about sports. I love sports. But lately I have been ridiculously obsessive about watching sports, playing sports, reading about sports, and as this blog can attest, writing about sports. No amount is too much. As such, when I found myself in the Ottawa airport two weeks ago looking for something to read on the airplane, I gravitated to the Sports section. I passed a hefty display of Warren Kinsella’s new book along the way, which caught me off-guard (it appears to have had the same effect on Warren), as well as a pretty solid selection of books for an airport store. I mean, how many bookstores in any city have an entire section dedicated to Canadian fiction, let alone one in a place where most customers are looking to find the new Nora Roberts or Tom Clancy novel?

Perusing the Sports section, I stumbled upon The Best Game You Can Name. I hadn’t seen it in any other Ottawa bookstore, and believe me I had hit them all up looking for a good sports book. I loved the cover art, with its Red Army overtures and the bold use of Bidini as a tabletop hockey player. The name of the book also appealed. Anyone living north of the 49th will get the reference, but to those uninitiated cretins living somewhere, you know, down there, it is a line from Stompin’ Tom Connor’s anthem--basically Canada’s unofficial second National anthem-- “The Hockey Song.” The price of the book was steep, $34.99 plus GST, plus PST (God I love Alberta). I was starving though, and the description of the book was intriguing. For many years, I have wondered why Canadians seem unable to write as passionately about their religion as Americans do about theirs (baseball). Most hockey books are about teams and players, facts and figures, along with some entertaining stories. More historical than poetical, is how I would describe it, especially compared to the baseball writings of Roger Angell, Roger Kahn, David Halberstam, or even Albertan W.P. Kinsella. Bidini’s book, at first glance, appeared to be taking a stab at the type of hockey book that I always felt was missing: a book that not only showed the history of the game, but also its glory, beauty and majesty. Its intrinsic value, as it were.

Having finished the book, I am happy to report that The Best Game You Can Name does not fail to deliver in this regard. The book, through its exploration of Bidini’s time on the ice with his men’s team, the Morningstars, and the trials and tales of an army of ex-players, coaches and managers, is a highly personal account of what the game of hockey means to people. Bidini’s writing is extraordinary. His writing highlights at the same time a deep, lustful knowledge of the game as well as an ability to convey it in a seemingly effortless manner. This comes through whether he is referring to the puck as a “timbit” or in describing spectators in the stands as characters from a Daniel Clowes graphic novel.

On the Rheostatics web page, you can find a PDF copy of Chapter 6 of TBGYCN, entitled “Hoser’s Promenade.” It is one of the best chapters in the book. In it, Bidini and former players discuss the connection between hockey, art and music. The Honourable Senator Frank Mahovlich talks about his love of painting, and writer Eric Zweig talks about the relationship between Albert Einstein and Hall of Famer Frank Fredrickson. The Einstein story is brief, and left me dying for more. I couldn’t find anything more on the relationship between the two men, but Fredrickson’s short biography on the Hockey Hall of Fame page speaks volumes about his life. I hope that somewhere out there someone is writing a full biography on this man.

For those looking for an inside scoop on the game, its great characters and teams, there is plenty of fascinating information to be had. There is a lot of locker room talk in the book, and one section on penises that left me literally crying tears of joy in my bed. The stories about the Russians and their coaches were highly informative, and gave me great insight into how thoughtfully and intelligently the game can, and should, be approached. It becomes clear after reading this book that former Jets manager Mike Smith is an angry man, and blames the town of Winnipeg for his failures as a hockey executive. And there is a snippet about how the Oilers of the 80’s used to play three on three shinny after an hour and a half of full practice that reinforces the mythology of that great team and their innocent, childlike devotion to the game.

There are some failings in The Best Game You Can Name, but they are so tiny as to be almost not worthy of attention. There is a certain elevation of violence and fighting in the game that I at least found upsetting in the post Steve Moore world. And there is a stronger leaning towards hockey games, players and teams from the seventies than there is for hockey played in the past twenty years, which also meant more of a focus on eastern teams. I had the strange feeling throughout reading the book that Bidini’s favorite player of all time has to be either Darryl Sittler or Davie Keon. All of these cases, however, reflect Bidini’s time with the game, which have occurred at somewhat different points in history than my own. As it is his book, and his story, I can’t begrudge him for this. Sure I would have liked to hear more stories about the Triple Crown line and Tony McKegney, but a man can’t have everything.

Hockey has been out of my life for a long time. Even before the lockout and ensuing gong show that saw the cancellation of the NHL season and the failure to reward the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1919, my love of the game had been dwindling. Neutral zone traps, escalating salaries and living in a small market city that, although it has kept its team (barely), has lost almost every single one of its marquee players since Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, will do that to a person. I haven’t even played the game I grew up with--the game almost all Canadians play for a good chunk of their lives, whether it be in winter or summer, in skates or runners, on ice or tarmac--in over five years. For much longer than I care to remember, hockey has not been a game to me, but rather an example of a world gone wrong. It has not been the simple, beautiful game I lovingly embraced as a child, but a business more concerned with supporting the bottom line than filling out a scoring line. For the past seventeen years of my life, hockey has been, in my mind, a trumpeting of commerce over art, stagnation over innovation, sleaze over innocence, and the mundane over the sublime. Hell, I haven’t even bought a hockey video game in over two years. Now that is saying something.

With The Best Game You Can Name, Bidini has reinvigorated my zeal and passion for the game of hockey. The timing is right, of course, as the NHL lockout has just ended and long disappointed (and frankly, bored) fans are dying for quality “product”. But where Bidini is successful is in eliminating all of the peripheral crap, the material aspects of modern sport, and reminding the reader that at its very core, hockey is just a gathering of individuals playing a game of sticks, skates, and pucks. Hockey is about people having fun, whether they are at the professional or amateur level. It is about the camaraderie of a locker room, the pursuit of excellence on a sheet of ice, and an enjoyment of the simple, fleeting moments of human existence. Hockey is a spirtitual exercise, and The Best Game You Can Name has helped me regain my faith. It is a book that has made me want to flip on Hockey Night In Canada once again. It has made me want to lace up the old Bauers, and hear the “fffttt fffttt fffttt” of steel on snow. And it has made me give response, like a singer in a gospel choir, to the call of preacher/poet Al Purdy: “And how do players feel about it/This combination of ballet and murder?” It makes me feel alive, poet. Hockey makes me feel alive. And EH-men to that.


At 7:54 AM, Blogger br. t. said...

Excellent review Andy, excellent. As far as Tropic of Hockey read the piece about hockey in Romania, I think it's the last chapter, it's killer and it may cause you to reconsider the book.


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