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Curtis Joseph and Kirstie McLellan Day
Kirstie McLellan Day wants to set the record straight. She may top the bestseller lists in Canada on a regular basis with her hockey books, but she does not consider herself a hockey writer.
“I write stories set in hockey,” she told me recently over the phone. “I know I write hockey books and that's what I'm known for, but my number one is writing a person's story.”
To whit—up next is a big left turn for McLellan Day, who Maclean's Magazine called Canada's “Ice Queen” and the Globe and Mail named her “Hockey’s Leading Muse.”
After reaching the top with books with Wayne Gretzky, Ron MacLean, Kelly Hrudey, Bob Probert, Theo Fleury, and 2018's book, Cujo, with Curtis Joseph, she's following in the footsteps of her favourite writer of all-time, Truman Capote, and working on a crime novel.
“I'm writing my first detective mystery, and it's about an ex-NFL player who stumbles onto, he sort of leaves the game in disgrace and he stumbles onto a detective story, he's trying to find his best friend's son, who's gone missing,” she revealed. “I'm really excited about that. Almost done. It's taken a year to write. As soon as I was done Cujo's book, I started on it, and kind of put the non-fiction writing aside while I wanted to finish it.”
But back to hockey, er, stories set in hockey, beginning with her own story.
Kirstie McLellan was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, and at the University of Regina, she studied drama. After moving to Alberta, she was primarily involved in covering entertainment drama, rather than performing. Among her many gigs: columnist for the Calgary Herald; private detective; investigative journalist; television host; producer and CEO of Pyramid Productions Television, which produced Inside Entertainment for Global TV and Inside Movies for Movie Central; writing biographies for A&E Biography Channel in New York.
Her first books were not hockey-related, and laid out a great foundation for future success, including a major faux pas.
After No Remorse: A Father's Murderous Rage in September 2001 about the Calgary Dolejs murders, came Under the Mat: Inside Wrestling's Greatest Family where McLellan worked with Diana Hart, daughter of famed wrestling patriarch Stu Hart, who had been married to WWF star Davey Boy Smith. Published by Fenn in 2001, not long after her brother Owen Hart fell from the rafters and died during a live pay-per-view event in May 1999, it contained enough information that upset various people—most notably Owen's widow Martha—that it was pulled from shelves. It turned out that the book had never really been pored over by lawyers.
McLellan Day sees it as a learning experience, and is still friends with Diana Hart, who has moved into writing romance novels set in the world of pro wrestling. “I loved working with her. I guess, I've moved on to work with other companies like Harper Collins and Penguin-Random House, and their professionalism,” considered McLellan Day. “What they taught me is that when you write a book, you have to be very careful to make sure that you have proper legal representation and that is that it is vetted properly.”
So writing is very much a team effort nowadays for her. “When I work, I work with a team. I write and I have a wonderful researcher and I have an assistant helping me do that as well, helping me research as well. But I also have a hockey fact-checker. I just have a whole team of people helping me clear photos. You just can't do it alone.”
That goes for the hockey subject too, where it's just important to get to know Donna Hrudey and Cari MacLean as it is their husbands.
Joseph's book, a revealing look at a fractured family life growing up north of Toronto and somehow having the community rally behind his obvious skills to get him to the National Hockey League, only happened because of his wife.
The Josephs—Curtis and his second wife, Stephanie—were at a Wayne Gretzky Fantasy Camp, where McLellan Day came by for the dinner. Curtis begged off, feeling unwell, and Stephanie and Kirstie became fast friends. “I ended up talking for hours and hours to his wife, Stephanie. She was so interested in him sharing his story, and we started talking and we connected and we clicked, and I just thought the world of her. And the next thing you know, we were writing a book together.”
Cujo tells lots of good tales from his 18 years in the NHL (Blues, Oilers, Maple Leafs, Red Wings, Coyotes and Flames), playing for Canada internationally, and lots more. What it isn't is particularly controversial. At one point, he lights into coach Mike Keenan whom he played for in St. Louis, but then Keenan is redeemed and praised when they were back together in Calgary.
According to his co-author, that's just “Curtis' personality.”
“I like to say that I work like an FBI profiler at Quantico, I put myself in their heads and write from their point of view and their perspectives, so it really has nothing to do with me or my experience when you're reading these books, it's the person I'm working with and their experience,” she said.
The homework done behind the scenes may not be evident. “Curtis doesn't have anyone in his life that doesn't still love and respect him and think highly of him, so I was able to reach back,” said McLellan Day, explaining that she'll often talk to anywhere between 50 and 100 other people for a project. “I go through absolutely everyone, I talk with absolutely everyone that the person I'm working with has touched in their lives, anyone important. You have to, to write good stories."
Which brings us back to the wives.
“When you work with anyone, if they're happily, healthily married, they're a team. So I like to consider, when somebody's married and you're working on his story, you absolutely want to meet his teammate,” she said. “Often a partner, a wife, remembers stories that will twig memories for the player.”
Dani Probert, though, gets a whole different level of appreciation.
“Dani Probert made Bob's book happen, if it weren't for Dani Probert, Bob wouldn't have a book, and she remains a dear friend. She's my hero,” confessed McLellan Day, who had started working with the noted pugilist on his life story before his unexpected death in 2010. “Here she was, a young widow. I went, I flew down to Bob's funeral and I said, 'It's okay, Dani, we'll get the contract, I'll make this happen, don't worry about it.' And she said, 'Kirstie, you've already done the interviews with Bob. He wanted his story told his way, so I'm going to make that happen for him.' And she did.”
Along the way, during her journey as a writer, McLellan Day grew. “I would say what builds from one book to the other is my, I guess I feel I become, I try to become a better writer with every experience, just like we all do. I guess it's like sports in a way that the more you practice the better you play.”
Success helps too. Fleury's book, Playing With Fire, brutally honest and revealing, is fundamentally different than the two books with MacLean (Cornered with Hockey Night in Canada and Hockey Towns). But Gretzky's book, 99: Stories of the Game, the #1 bestselling non-fiction book in Canada in 2016, doesn't come to McLellan Day without doing the books others prior to it.
“That's true. Working with Wayne was a breeze because he is so knowledgeable about hockey and he has stories at his fingertips. But you know, I'm really lucky—I have to say Theron, Ron MacLean, Wayne, Curtis, Kelly Hrudey, Bob Probert, every person I work with has to have a remarkable memory, because you can't write with people who can't remember their story.” (For the record, she's still game to do the Marty McSorley book, announced for the fall of 2014, but it's in McSorley's hands to set it all in motion, finally.)
On a personal level, McLellan Day is pleased by the question, “How has your hockey knowledge increased?”
“That's a good question. Nobody's ever asked me that, Greg. But absolutely! I find myself now, I'll go out with friends or whatever, I end up gravitating more towards the guys in hockey season, because everybody's talking hockey, and they'll be talking, say, 'The way Carey Price stopped that goal the other day,' and I'll say, 'Yeah, it was kind of like Ed Belfour back in ...' and I'll name a date, or Curtis or Kelly Hrudey. I'm able to relate a lot of yesterday's games with what's happening today. It's just entertaining and fun to talk with people who enjoy hockey like that, and who want to talk hockey. And honestly, before I started doing this, I mean, my daughter was a goalie, an NCAA Div. 1 goalie, but I didn't know hockey like this, I only knew hockey as a mom, or as a fan. Now, I know hockey I would say, hmm, as a historian.”
For more on Kirstie McLellan Day visit her website: https://kirstiemclellanday.com
Kirstie McLellan Day Book Covers
TODD DENAULT'S TOP PICKS
For the second year in a row Greg has asked me to submit a list of hockey books that have been published over the last couple of months with an eye towards the ever important Christmas book market.
By my count there were 40 different hockey titles published in the last couple of months (not including paperback editions and reprinted “updates” of previously released titles). Now to be truthful I haven’t gotten around to reading all 40 of them, which is why this list has been trimmed to 15 different books. That doesn’t necessarily make those 15 the best hockey books of the season; it just means that I’ve read them.
So without further ado …
Ya Wanna Go? – by Paul Stewart
The colorful life story of a man of many seeming contradictions. A rough childhood spent on the tough streets of Boston who went on to graduate from both the esteemed Groton School and then University of Pennsylvania, Stewart’s hockey career saw him carve out a niche as an enforcer before embarking as a respected hard-nosed referee. An incredibly honest read of a unique life, both off and on the ice.
Broph: On and Off the Ice With John Brophy, One of Hockey's Most Colorful Characters – by Gregg Inkpen
Speaking of unique, there has never been anyone in hockey quite like John Brophy. A larger than life character, Gregg Inkpen weaves together all the stories, some based on fact, more based on legend to create a most enjoyable biography.
Bobby: My Story in Pictures – by Bobby Orr
Without a doubt one of the most beautiful books of the season. A compliment to Orr’s autobiography, published a few years back, the sheer amount and beauty of the photo’s in this book make it an essential addition to any hockey book collection.
The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL: The World's Most Beautiful Sport, the World's Most Ridiculous League – by Sean McIndoe
A book that looks at the history of the NHL, through the unique lens of Sean McIndoe (a.k.a. Down Goes Brown), which means that you get the “non-sanitized” version of the league’s history. A well-written and funny book, you only wish it were a little bit longer.
Bower: A Legendary Life – by Dan Robson
The life story of arguably the most beloved player in Toronto Maple Leafs history the prolific Robson’s manages to sprinkle some new and previously unheard tales into Bower’s familiar story. A reminder that even a year removed from his passing, how much we all miss Johnny Bower.
From Rinks to Regiments: Hockey Hall-of-Famers and the Great War - by Alan Livingstone MacLeod
A timely release that coincides with the centennial anniversary of the end of the Great War MacLeod’s book celebrates 32 veterans of the First World War who went on to gain enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame. A collection of remarkable stories of a group of most remarkable men.
The Last Good Year: Seven Games That Ended an Era – by Damien Cox
The Toronto Star hockey scribe takes us back 25 years to the 1993 Campbell Conference playoff series between the Los Angeles Kings and Toronto Maple Leafs. Told through the stories of seven players (and one owner) Cox takes a deep dive into one of the most legendary post-season series in recent playoff history.
Epic Confrontation: Canada vs. Russian on Ice: The Greatest Sports Drama of All-Time – by Greg Franke
Franke brings his expertise, especially from the Russian side, to what he calls “the greatest rivalry in sports history.” Taking the long view beyond the 1972 Summit Series Franke shines the spotlight on some of the lesser chronicled parts of this spirited rivalry dating all the way back to the first-ever visit of a Soviet team to Canada in 1957.
My Wild Hockey Life: Defection, 1980s with the Maple Leafs and Surviving a Liver Transplant - by Miro Frycer and Lubos Brabec
To be read in tandem with the John Brophy biography, Frycer looks back at a life, part wild, part crazy, and most entertaining. A must read for Maple Leafs fan of the 1980, Frycer’s story is a tale of survival … and a new life.
Hockey Card Stories 2: 59 More True Tales from Your Favourite Players – by Ken Reid
Reid, mainly known for his nightly gig behind the desk on Sportsnet Central, returns to the book world with a sequel to his 2014 best-seller, with 59 new stories spanning the 1960s and right up to the Hockey Card Boom of the 1990s, and featuring stories from greats like Guy Lafleur, Eric Lindros & Wayne Gretzky alongside those of Bob McGill, Lou Franceschetti, Harold Snepsts, & Brent Gretzky.
The '60s: Goaltending's Greatest Generation – by Tom Adrahtas
Adrahtas, author of the definitive Glenn Hall biography, returns to the nets with a renewed look at Hall and his famous contemporaries. As opposed to having a chapter devoted to a bio of a different netminder, the author presents the story in the form of a timeline. We get to see familiar names like Hall, Sawchuk, Bower, Plante and Worsley pop up with goalies like Parent, Cheevers, Crozier, etc … who would eventually emerge as the successors of the aforementioned greats. A most enjoyable look at the golden age of goaltending.
The Hall: Celebrating Hockey's Heritage, Heroes and Home – by Kevin Shea
For the ever prolific Shea, this is book number 13, and it celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Part written history, part photographic experience, this is a visually stunning book, capped off by for the first time ever in print, by artist-drawn portraits of all of the Honoured Members from 1945-2017.
Block That Shot: The Bob Chrystal Story - by Ty Dilello and Bob Chrystal
Much has been written about the “stars” of the “Original Six” but very little about those who played in the shadow of such legends as Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and Rocket Richard. Block That Shot goes a long way toward remedying this oversight. In this engaging memoir (written with Ty Dilello), Chrystal, a veteran of 132 career NHL games with the New York Rangers shares his own personal hockey journey from the Memorial Cup to the Calder Cup and all points in between
Too Many Men on the Ice: The 1978–1979 Boston Bruins and the Most Famous Penalty in Hockey History - by John G. Robertson
A chronicle of the 1978-79 Boston Bruins season, which came to a stunning conclusion in one of the most memorable games ever played, Robertson takes a deep dive into one of the greatest teams to never win the Stanley Cup. Last year we were gifted with George Grimm’s history of the late 1960s and early 1970s New York Rangers, another great team that fell just short of winning the Cup, hopefully this particular trend of telling the story of these “so close” teams continues.
Bob Goldham Outside the Goal Crease – by Jim Amodeo
A long overdue biography at one of the game’s forgotten stars from yesteryear, Amodeo shines the spotlight on a five-time Cup winner, a pioneering defensive defenseman, and in retirement an important part of Hockey Night in Canada. Hopefully, this book helps spark a much-needed trend of publishing much needed biographies of many of the game’s long-time overlooked stars.
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