LOS ANGELES — Every hockey fan knows that the weeks immediately following the July 1 unrestricted free agent signing frenzy is a painfully dull, slow time in terms of news about their favorite National Hockey League team, or even general news related to the sport.
Indeed, barring any extraordinary circumstances, things are horribly slow for hockey addicts for about seven weeks from early July until the first week of September when the NHL and their teams, along with the hockey media throughout North America, starts to gear up for training camps to open.
So yes hockey fans, we are smack dab in the middle of that dreaded lull and with the only significant NHL-related news being the new ownership of the Phoenix Coyotes—yes, I can hear you all yawning as I write this—it is time to look elsewhere for some good, interesting reading material for the hockey fan.
A book I can wholeheartedly recommend is Growing Up Hockey: The Life and Times of Everyone Who Ever Loved The Game, by Brian Kennedy, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English at Pasadena City College and a freelance hockey writer who covers the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks for Inside Hockey.
And before you ask, no, my endorsement of this book has nothing to do with the fact that Kennedy is a colleague of mine who has sat next to me in the Staples Center press box the last few seasons as we’ve covered the Los Angeles Kings. Indeed, I have read the book. I enjoyed it thoroughly and recommend it to any hockey fan.
But Growing Up Hockey is not your typical hockey book, so if you buy it hoping to read about the glory days of the NHL, about the Original Six NHL teams, or about the legendary players who have graced NHL ice over the years, you will be disappointed.
Instead, Kennedy looks at the game in an entirely different light—from the perspective of someone who grew up with the game from early childhood and was immersed in it for the rest of his life.
Kennedy, who was born in Montreal and, as you might expect, was a big fan of the vaunted Montreal Canadiens, was inspired to write the book by his own experiences, both as a player in youth and amateur leagues, as well as just being a fan.
“I wrote the book in a kind of a frenzy of love for the Stanley Cup,” said Kennedy. “I sat down during the playoffs one year on a Saturday and I wrote about how I once smuggled a television from downstairs to my bedroom so I could watch the playoffs. I know it was when Glenn Hall was playing for the St. Louis Blues around 1970.”
“So I sat down one afternoon and I wrote that story,” added Kennedy. “The next morning, I thought, ‘I’ve got another story or two,’ and I wrote that and then I wrote the next one. Then I started keeping a list and then I said ‘every day, I’m going to write.’ Then I started watching the word count grow on the word processor. 20,000 words. 25,000.”
The stories did not stop there. But who cares about the stories of a small-time hockey player who never made it to the NHL, or any professional level league?
“Why would anyone want to read my stories? The hook was that these are the stories of a hockey every-man,” Kennedy explained. “What readers have told me is, ‘this reminded me of the time when…’ and that’s the whole point.”
To be sure, the book takes the reader on a trip down memory lane where they vividly revisit their own hockey memories, no matter if they played the game at any level or were just a fan.
“I had a friend read the book and he said, ‘you know when you were talking about you, your Dad and your new coach sitting in your living room in one of those early chapters? I could just see the carpet on the living room floor,’” said Kennedy.
“I thought, ‘that house we lived in had hardwood floors,’ added Kennedy. “So I went back and checked and sure enough, there was no carpet in the book. So if someone could read the book, see their own life—and he’s seeing his own living room—if he can imagine that so vividly, then maybe I have stories people will want to read.”
Another interesting aspect of Growing Up Hockey is that it gives hockey fans in the United States a better understanding of what it is to be a Canadian-born hockey fan.
As most hockey fans are aware, hockey is still a niche sport in the United States, even though the game has a significant number of hardcore fans south of the Canadian border. But no matter how rabid they might be, U.S.-born hockey fans will likely never share the same deep love of the game that Canadians have.
After all, people are surrounded by the game in Canada. Media coverage is far more pervasive and intense north of the border. Indeed, hockey is part of Canadian culture and identity.
“It’s deep in the culture,” Kennedy stressed. “I’ve done some academic work on this, on hockey and Canadian identity. There’s lots of scholarly articles. There’s a conference I’ve been to twice. There’s a deep literature about the game.”
“In that respect, it’s kind of comparable to baseball in the United States,” Kennedy elaborated. “But [hockey is] also deep in the history [in Canada]. It’s at the center of the culture in many, many ways, almost in every way you could think of.”
Kennedy’s view of the game, as a Canadian, is vastly different from that of US-born fans.
“I don’t know how much people here [in the US] revere the history of the game, the history of the Stanley Cup,” said Kennedy. I think certainly many do and, of course, you can’t take anything away from someone who’s been a Los Angeles Kings fan for thirty or forty years or a Chicago Blackhawks fan from the old days. But there’s just something about the long history of this game. If you understand what’s happened in the past, when you watch a game today, we’re not just watching a particular bunch of kids play hockey. We’re watching every player who’s ever played the game.”
“In the playoffs, every little thing matters,” added Kennedy. “The final result doesn’t matter to me because they’re not playing just for this year’s Stanley Cup. What’s more important to me is that they’re playing for the fact that in 1,000 years, people are still going to know that they won in a certain year.”
Kennedy also looks at how the game has changed over the years, using his experience as a youth and amateur player. One way is by looking at one aspect of the game that few ever think about: equipment.
“It was a different era,” Kennedy said about his youth hockey days. “It wasn’t like now where every kid has to have brand new equipment every year. There wasn’t a Play It Again Sports, but there was…I think the arena had used equipment in the pro shop. Later, when I moved to Peterborough, there was an independent sports store where they bought and sold skates. You could trade in your old skates for a new pair and they would sell the used pair or you just bought a used pair.”
“Back then, the equipment wasn’t as sophisticated,” Kennedy emphasized. “It was a big deal to get a curved stick and I talk about that in the book. I really wanted one. That was really important to me. But even if you could bring the amount we paid for that stick into 2008 dollars, it would be $25.00. Maybe $30.00, something like that. But it wasn’t like now with the graphite and the aluminum. It was a wooden stick with fiberglass on the blade and it was $8.99.”
“There wasn’t the pressure to have the best equipment, nor was there the level of equipment available now. We’re talking about the Seventies here.”
Fast forward almost forty years and yes, times certainly change.
“My nephew is six years old and he has an amazing set of hockey equipment,” said Kennedy. “But he’s not spoiled. It’s just what they have now. They just have more earlier. It’s a major shift in the generations.”
“In Gordie Howe’s era, it was Sears catalog shin pads,” added Kennedy. “Now every kid has all the brand new stuff. That’s three generations and what you’re seeing in the NHL, these kids now—they came up like that with all the new, great stuff.”
“In my generation…you look at Los Angeles Kings defenseman Sean O’Donnell. If you look in the Kings dressing room at his [ragged and obviously very old] shoulder pads, he’s probably been wearing those for fifteen years. But there’s something to that in terms of his character.”
More evidence of how much hockey is part of life in Canada that Growing Up Hockey examines comes from the legendary 1972 Summit Series, which pit Canada against the Red Army team from what was then the Soviet Union.
At the time, Canadians thought they were invincible when it came to their sport.
“Canada was going to win every game, 10-0,” said Kennedy. “Everybody knew that. A Montreal newspaper columnist promised to eat his column as a salad if [Canada didn’t win the series]. True story. There was just no question about it. That was going to be what happened.”
“These Communists with their bad equipment who didn’t know the game were going to come in here, play a little bit and [Canada] was going to whip up on them and that was going to be the end of it.”
“In the first game, I think it was 7-4 or 7-3 [in favor of the Soviet Union]…it was in Montreal,” Kennedy explained. “Phil Esposito scored right off the opening face-off and then things went downhill from there, so by the time you got to the final game, the series was 4-3 [Canada leading the series] with Russia leading the deciding game 5-3 going into the third period.”
Indeed, it was a friendly series with eight games, rather than seven. But in Canada, having the series end in a tie would have been as bad as losing it.
Canada came from behind in the third period to win the final game, 6-5.
“It’s hard to know, but it seems to me because things were going badly for Canada and the national identity was really at stake that it was such a huge thing for everyone in Canada,” said Kennedy. “I remember as a child in school…for the games that were played in the afternoon, we were taken to the gymnasium at school and we watched the games. It was the most important things that had happened in our lifetimes.”
For those of us in the United States, can you imagine school children being taken out of their classes to watch the World Series or an international baseball tournament featuring a team from the United States against a team from another country?
Not likely at all and that is the difference.
After all that, Growing Up Hockey is definitely not a dry, academic look at hockey. Rather, it is very entertaining, funny at times, heartwarming—it might even make you shed a tear. It is a fantastic read.
But wait…there’s more coming…
Indeed, Kennedy has another book coming this fall that was inspired by his work on Growing Up Hockey. The new book, Living The Hockey Dream, tells more of his own stories, but also tells the stories of some current and former NHL players.
“The book will be something like Growing Up Hockey,” said Kennedy. “About thirty current and former NHL guys will be featured. Some other stories of friends that I know and more of my own stories.”
“All these people keep telling me their stories,” added Kennedy. “I have more of my own stories and people keep asking if I have more. What I’ve done is approach some current and former NHL players, including some of the greats. Hockey and family will be one section, Hockey hardware will be another, looking at everything from trophies to false teeth. Growing older in the game, hockey and friendship, and more.”
Some of the names in the book should be familiar. They include Bob Berry, Mel Bridgeman, Bobby Clarke, Marcel Dionne, Lorne Henning, Mark Howe, Mick McGeough, Jim Pappin, Rogie Vachon and a bunch of others.
But since that book will not be available until sometime in the fall, here is the information on Growing Up Hockey to help you find it at your favorite book store:
Kennedy, Brian. Growing Up Hockey: The Life and Times of Everyone Who Ever Loved The Game. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Folklore Publishing, 2007. ISBN (10-digit): 1-894864-65-4. ISBN (13-digit): 978-1-894864-65-7.
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