It’s still hockey’s off-season for a few weeks longer, but that gives us ample time to enjoy the sport in any number of ways.
For this column, we’ll explore five phenomenal hockey books for fans to read in what’s left of the summer:
The Game, by Ken Dryden
No list of hockey books worth your while would be complete without a nod to one of the greatest minds the sport has ever seen. First published in 1983, The Game immediately was recognized as a masterpiece, and it has withstood the test of time to remain one of the best books about the sport ever published.
Dryden’s skill with language and its powers of persuasion has allowed him to intermittently weigh in on the evolution of the game, but if you’re looking to give a new fan – or an old one, who can remember when Dryden starred in net for the Montreal Canadiens – a treat, you should be looking to put a copy of The Game in their hands. You needn’t be a goalie aficionado nor a Canadiens supporter to recognize what Dryden has accomplished with his first major public writing: he offers a window into the pressures professional players grapple with, the intersection of public and private life for athletes, and the insights only a first-rate hockey mind can provide. Dryden is now 74 years old and continues to publish compelling material about the sport, but nothing tops his original collection of memories and thoughts on the game. If you haven’t checked The Game out yet, make a point to do so. Your mind will be rewarded for it.
Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey, by Russ Conway
Even if you’re not a hardcore fan of hockey journalism, you have to sit back in awe of Conway’s work exposing former NHL Players’ Association boss Eagleson as a fraud and criminal who dined out on the trusting nature of players and lined his own pockets with their hard-earned monies. Conway, who passed away in 2019, first delved into the subject in 1991 with a series of articles that appeared in the Massachusetts-based Eagle-Tribune and which demonstrated the numerous underhanded ways of Eagleson, a self-promoting, conscienceless bagman who looted the pensions and paydays of players around the league. Eagleson forked over money to his friends when he pulled the strings of player-league relations, but those friends were few, and the victims of his crimes were many, including superstar defenseman Bobby Orr.
As a result of Conway’s investigation of the NHLPA’s business practices under Eagleson, the Federal Bureau of Investigation looked into the matter and Eagleson wound up facing more than 30 charges, including embezzlement, racketeering and fraud. Meanwhile, in Eagleson’s home country of Canada, he was charged with six counts of fraud, and eventually served one-and-a-half years in prison and was disbarred as a lawyer and shamed out of the sport for good. Conway’s Game Misconduct book, which was first published in 1995, followed his nomination for a Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting. It should open all eyes of fans and NHL observers of the shameful labor history between players and owners, and inform readers as to why they should always be skeptical of that continuing relationship.
Tropic Of Hockey: My Search for the Game in Unlikely Places, by Dave Bidini
You won’t find many bigger fans of the sport than Bidini, a Toronto native and member of the terrific musical group The Rheostatics. And in this book – one of many Bidini has written about the game – he travels to exotic locales including northern China, Transylvania, and intersperses thoughts on the game back home in Canada.
Since Tropic of Hockey was published in the year 2000, Bidini has gone on to write other books that are worth your while – a quick google search will help you in locating them – and he also has started a West-Toronto community newspaper that gives voice and a platform to many who haven’t had that luxury. But Bidini’s love for hockey clearly has shaped his world, and his ability to take off, seemingly at a moment’s notice, to pursue engaging stories on the evolution of the sport, is a talent he should be proud of. Once you’re lured in by his writing style, you’ll be determined to follow up by reading everything he has to say about the game.
The Hockey Sweater, by Roch Carrier
First published as a French-language short story in 1979, The Hockey Sweater was quickly translated to English – and to great success – and was adapted into a 10-minute short film (called simply, “The Sweater”) that was named best-animated film by the British Film Awards. Its simple, yet hugely relatable story of a young boy and his emotional attachment to a Montreal Canadiens jersey, permeated Canada’s national identity, to the point where a line from the story was placed on a Canadian five-dollar banknote.
The book also was carried into space by Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk in a 2009 mission and has been adapted into a musical piece by the Toronto Symphony, the Calgary Philharmonic, and Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestras in 2012. But it’s that first book, and that 10-minute animated story, that still has a large spot in Canada’s national identity. You don’t have to be Canadian or a Montreal fan to enjoy it, though. You just need to have an interest in the game to see what this arts package speaks to. It will be around, and important, long after current generations of hockey fans are gone.
Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds, by Jack Falla
This study on the social and cultural impact of outdoor hockey rinks – the ones that annually appear behind homes or on lakes – is a breathtaking work by Falla, the former Sports Illustrated writer and Boston University professor who died far too young at age 64 in 2008. Falla skillfully takes his memories and experiences playing the game in his neighbourhood and in nature, and leaves the reader wanting more.
Before he died, Falla had amassed a slew of tremendous hockey material, including his long history of covering the NHL for SI and his five books on the sport. He was also a tremendously generous adviser to young hockey reporters, and some of us who got to learn from him still feel fortunate to have known him. But you can still see and feel his vibrant spirit in his books, and after you read one of them, you’ll want to read them all.