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Damien Cox shows off his box of The Last Good Year on his Twitter feed (@DamoSpin)
While time has not healed the wound completely for Toronto Maple Leaf fans, who can still rant with the best of them over the non-call high stick by Wayne Gretzky of the Los Angeles Kings on Doug Gilmour during the 1993 Stanley Cup semi-finals, the passage of time allowed for a better book by Damien Cox. It's called The Last Good Year: Seven Games That Ended an Era and looks specifically at that series.
At the time, Cox was a hockey writer for the Toronto Star, so was there for the games, and knew all the players and hockey people. It allowed him to revisit the past.
“There are things that we can talk about now, in a better way, than we could at the time. Perspective, experience, things that happened, things you learn, all that kind of stuff,” he said over the phone. “To me, going down and talking to Bruce McNall in Los Angeles 25 years after it all happened, after he'd been to prison and back, really helps you understand in a way better way what was actually going on behind the scenes in L.A., and in Toronto—and in Toronto, the stuff that was going on with the business of the game, which, again, was another level of this whole story. So the passage of time becomes a really helpful thing because I think it gives you a lot of access to to a lot of elements of the story that you wouldn't otherwise have access to.”
Those old connections came in handy, with prominent players in new positions, like Rob Blake as general manager of the Kings and Kelly Hrudey on television. “I think the relationship writers and the players was different in those days, and you had more of a connection,” he said. “So it was really like resuming the conversation with a lot of these guys as opposed to doing an interview.”
It's as comprehensive a book as you can get, really only missing the full summaries of the games themselves for the stats junkies. Cox didn't have old notebooks to refer to, but did look back through his Star stories. “When I went back and looked at the columns, they would twig my memory and make me think of different things. Some of them are very vivid from that series. Particularly Game 6 is a really, really vivid memory for me,” he said. “But I'm not one of those people who can just recall everything, so I needed to go back.”
Besides the interviews with dozens of players and executives, Cox sat down to re-watch “every minute of every game, and every shift, and cataloguing exactly what happened, because I find that memory can be a tricky thing; what you think happened isn't exactly what happened. And often what's reported at the time isn't exactly what happened, because you faced deadlines and you're going with your impressions. That was as much help to me as anything, was getting back and watching the games over and over.”
The games weren't as easy to find as you might think; eventually a friend at Sportsnet tracked down the series in its entirety. “They're kind of in bits and pieces a bit, but it's all there. I think that adds to the book too, because some of them have commercials, some of the commentary is of a certain time. So really to watch them with Bob Cole calling the games and Harry Neale doing the analysis and stuff like that, that really helped me.”
Cox, who still writes a column for the Star twice a week, and co-hosts Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet 590 The FAN, has been thinking about a book on the series for years. It's his fourth hockey book, following telling the stories of the 1967 The Maple Leafs, Martin Brodeur and Alex Ovechkin.
The Last Good Year, published by Viking Canada, is broken into seven sections—“seven strong characters” in Cox's words, and features an in-depth look into a subject (Marty McSorley, Doug Gilmour, McNall, Bill Berg, Hrudey, Gretzky and referee Kerry Fraser), along with details of the games themselves. Plus there is a lot of background on the financial issues that both teams were dealing with—McNall's shady empire which was about to collapse, and Steve Stavro's attempts to take over the Leafs and Maple Leaf Gardens.
There are characters who have died, like Peter Zezel and Pat Burns, and others, like Dave Ellett, who didn't want to revisit painful memories. But by and large, Cox was thrilled with everyone's enthusiasm. “Guys were really excited to talk about it. That part caught me a few times, like how interested guys were to talk about the story again and tell their version of the story.”
Cox resisted the urge to put himself in the story, having learned from sports journalism legends Jim Proudfoot and Milt Dunnell to keep “I” out of columns. “It was a bit of a battle between me and the publisher, because he really wanted me to give more of himself and put more of myself in,” said Cox. “I was really conscious, really conscious, of not wanting to be a grumpy old guy, the get off my lawn guy, who's looking back saying, 'It used to be great then, it's shit now.' So I didn't want to put myself into it, and I felt that putting some distance between myself and the narrative allowed the story to kind of tell itself. And you know, it's such a great story, it does tell itself. I put a little bit of myself into the prologue and that's about it.”
He did, however, have to put himself into the audio version of The Last Good Year. “I did the voiceover of the audio book, which is going to come out the same day. That allowed me to actually tell a story like a storyteller in a lot of ways. Part of it, you don't write it in that way, so part of it is tricky, but that was an interesting exercise to voice it. Really, at the end of the day, that's what we do—we tell stories.”
BIG MEDIA, BIG MONEY, BIG DEAL
Part hockey book, part business book, David Shoalts' Hockey Fight in Canada: The Big Media Faceoff over the NHL is all readable. He was the right man for the job, given his years of experience covering sports at the Globe & Mail newspaper.
He takes the reader behind the scenes of the record 2013 deal that saw the NHL partner up with Rogers for a massive 12-year deal, where Rogers acts as the “gatekeeper” and dishes out hockey across all platforms. Of course, the book doesn't just focus on the winner, but the also-rans, too: Bell Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Shoalts is confident that the book will find a market. “I think this book is interesting to any hockey fan who watches Hockey Night on a regular basis, which I thing is pretty much every hockey fan. Because this show involves all those personalities they see,” Shoalts told me in person at an event at the Toronto Public Library. “The other thing that's intriguing to me, anyway, is all the behind-the-scenes kicking and gouging that went on in the boardroom—that can get pretty dirty too. It's not just on the ice where things can get heated.”
For every Don Cherry, Ron McLean and George Stroumboulopoulos that are widely known, there are dozens of business types introduced to the readers, from broadcast executives to CEOs. You need a scorecard to keep track of the characters. “I noted in the book that broadcast executives move around like players. It's like a little village, they've all worked with each other at some point,” said Shoalts.
He got tons of people on the record including heavyweights such as Keith Pelley, Scott Moore, Phil King, and John Collins. But there are always a few that escape a hard-working journalist. For Shoalts, he didn't get NHL honcho Gary Bettman nor Bell Canada CEO George Cope. “George Cope is a fairly important figure who did some things that he didn't want to talk about obviously,” said Shoalts.
For as much as it is about Rogers and the new deal, the book is also a bit of a history lesson on Hockey Night in Canada which Shoalts called “an institution in this country.” CBC ended up basically being hosed by Rogers, who made strong demands if the public broadcaster wanted to continue to air hockey. It all comes down to money.
“Why CBC panicked and rolled over for Rogers on this deal is that if they lost Hockey Night and all the playoffs, they would have to replace—and this was a big issue for them—they would have to replace that programming, and the cost of original programming, like a drama, is prohibitive.” How much? His estimate is that a one-hour drama costs about $250,000 to produce, but ad revenue at best would be $150,000, so filling three or six hours every Saturday night in the winter is one thing, but in the spring, when the playoffs are on, it's an important ratings period that helps stations set rates for ads. No hockey, no ratings, and a spiralling down of ad rates. “The effect on their ratings would have been catastrophic in the spring.”
CBC and Rogers quietly upped their deal, with no real information having been made public, in summer 2017, a contract that takes them to around 2024. “Nobody would talk about this deal much, but my general impression is it's still not great for the CBC, but it's better than the current one, where the CBC at least gets the streaming rights, so they can show rebroadcasts of games on their website, or they can stream games, so they've come up with a couple of apps since then. Presumably, they get some revenue out of that,” said Shoalts. “But they are still paying the freight for all the technical staff, all the salaries, and there's still free office space, free studio space.”
A big part of the deal was “under-reported” at the outset, said Shoalts. It's the importance of TVA Sports and its attempt to claim market share away from RDS in Quebec. “Both John Collins from the NHL and Keith Pelley from Rogers have said that this deal would never have happened if it wasn't for [TVA owner] Quebecor, because the money they provided for the French-language rights really cut the deal down from $5.2 billion to $3.7 (billion), and that was crucial, because that way Pelley sold that to the Rogers board and the Rogers family, and could say to them, 'Well, you're not really going to pay $5.2 billion, you're going to pay $3.7.' And he said later, 'That's the only way I was able to sell it.'”
Of note, the deal is in Canadian dollars. “This is a rare mistake by Gary Bettman. The NHL usually does all of its business in U.S. dollars, most of the teams are in the U.S. The players, even those here in Toronto, are paid in U.S. dollars. That's a condition of doing business. But Gary did not insist that the Rogers contract be done in U.S. dollars, he left it, and he's never really explained why. It's not the kind of mistake he usually makes.”
In 2013, the Canadian dollar was only a touch under the U.S. dollar, by a few cents; today, it's trading at about 80 cents on the dollar. “From the time of the signing in November 2013, through the next couple of years, they lost, by my estimation, I think it's mentioned in the book, somewhere around, I think, $70 million bucks, a 17 per cent haircut they took.”
Hockey Fight in Canada is out now, from Douglas & McIntyre.
David Shoalts signs a copy of Hockey Fight in Canada. Photo by Quinn Oliver
GRAPES READY FOR FALL
Picking up the latest book from Don Cherry is a little like revisiting an old high school pal. You know the stories that will inevitably come up, and it's the new stuff that catches you off-guard but makes the trip worthwhile. Such is the deal with Don Cherry’s Hockey Greats and More, just released from Doubleday Canada. There are tales of life in the minor leagues, coaching the Bruins and the Rockies, and apparently this fella named Orr was a pretty decent player, eh? Grapes uses a name to base a chapter around, but it's a pretty loose title. A chapter on Phil Esposito goes back to his appearance on Don Cherry's Grapevine but also talks about his brother, Tony, and NHL expansion, since Phil weaved his magic to bring the Tampa Bay Lightning into the league. The stuff I enjoyed the most though was all non-hockey, including quite a bit on baseball—and I know Cherry loves baseball, as he wrote the foreword for a book I worked on years ago, 2005's The Northern Game: Baseball the Canadian Way written by Toronto Sun baseball guy (now retired) Bob Elliott. And, for the hoser in you, if you don't choke up when Cherry talks about his relationship with the late, great Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip, then you need to turn in your Canadian passport.
FRYCER, NOW IN ENGLISH
Back in September 2017, I wrote about a new book, “Muj divoký hokejový život,” written by former Toronto Maple Leaf Miroslav Frycer and Lubos Brabec. At the time, Brabec expressed hope to one day see an English-language version of the book first published in the Czech Republic. That day has arrived. In English, it's called My Wild Hockey Life and it can be found on Amazon.
“We had a solid success by Czech standards, with more than 2,000 copies sold,” wrote Brabec to me in an email. He did make a point of saying that Frycer was not an especially well-known name in the Czech Republic, at least by casual fans. Since Frycer left in the 1980s, while the Soviet Union still backed the Czechoslovakian government, it was actually forbidden to mention Frycer's name in the media, as well as others who had escaped, like the Stastny brothers. “After the fall of Communism in 1989, he spent just few seasons in Czech hockey and henceforward lived mostly abroad, especially in Italy and Germany. That is why the Czech publishers did not have an interest in the book, so I released it myself.”
Miroslav Frycer with the Czech version of his autobiography. Photo courtesy Lubos Brabec
“Czech readers probably appreciated that Miro spoke openly about his life. For other athletes who had defected, emigration is still kind of a trauma and they does not like remembering it,” explained Brabec. “Miro wrote in the book in detail about his escape to Canada. He talked openly about his career in the NHL too, about his successes and hiccups. Last but not least, Miro told me without embarrassment the kind of things most people are reluctant to open their hearts about, such as a week spent in a Toronto prison due to DUI or about his serious problems with alcohol in later years that resulted in liver transplant.” Frycer is currently the head coach of the Znojmo Eagles in the Austrian League (EBEL).
As with the Czech version, Brabec has gone the self-publishing route; the one time he did approach Canadian publisher, he said “they rejected it almost immediately.” Key to the English version is the well-respected translator Andrew Oakland. Should you be able to read in both Czech and English, Brabec warned there are some differences: “About 90 percent of the book remained the same; I only shortened some passages relating to the Czechoslovak league and things that would be of interest to readers in Canada and the USA.”
Mark Rosenman and Howie Karpin announced that their Before 94: The Story of the 1978-79 New York Ranger, will be released on January 10, 2019! Rosenman wrote on Facebook that it's a “Great date as Rangers take on the New York Islanders that night! The Ranger-Islander Semi Final is such a big part of the book!”
Kevin Shea's book The Hall: Celebrating Hockey's Heritage, Heroes And Home made its way into the hands of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; he's pictured here with David Lametti, the Member of Parliament from LaSalle-Emard-Verdun.
PM Justin Trudeau sharing stories about the Hockey Hall of Fame with David Lametti, the Member of Parliament from LaSalle-Emard-Verdun.
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