MONTEREY PARK, CA — Every summer, hockey fans suffer from withdrawal symptoms while their game goes on a long, painful hiatus.
Indeed, once the Stanley Cup Final has been completed and a champion crowned, all that’s left is the annual National Hockey League Draft, usually one week later, followed by the NHL Awards one week after that.
The final off-season events that pique the interest of hockey fans are the July 1 unrestricted free agent signing frenzy, followed shortly thereafter by team development camps for their young prospects.
That usually takes us into the second week of July, maybe the third week. But after that, zilch. Nada. Nothing. There’s a virtual black hole from that point, when there’s almost nothing to read, see, or hear in the hockey world until rookie and training camps begin in early September.
I refer to that long, painfully boring time for hockey fans as The Dreaded Lull, a time when hockey fans are desperate for just about anything hockey-related to satisfy their need for something…anything to keep them going.
But when there’s no hockey news and when watching replays of past games becomes unsatisfying (that happens very, very quickly), a great way to relieve some of the pain is to read a good hockey book. One that I can highly recommend is Facing Wayne Gretzky: Players Recall The Greatest Hockey Player Who Ever Lived, published in October 2014, by Brian Kennedy, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of English at Pasadena City College who is also a writer covering the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks for Inside Hockey.
Before going any further, in the spirit of full disclosure, Kennedy is a colleague who has sat next to me in the Bob Miller Press Box at Staples Center for the past ten seasons while covering the Kings. Despite that, this article is an unfettered, objective (as much as humanly possible) review.
When Kennedy told me that he was working on a book about Gretzky, I did not tell him this, but my first thought was “oh no…not another Gretzky book.”
To illustrate, on Amazon.com alone, I counted over 40 books about Gretzky. Many aren’t worth reading. A much smaller number are must-reads for hockey fans, and are highly recommended for just about any sports fan.
But Kennedy’s book stands alone among Gretzky books because his is the first to take such an in-depth look at The Great One through the eyes of those who faced him.
“The ‘facing’ metaphor forced me to do some research into the specifics of how each guy faced Gretzky—games they had been in, and then, asking those questions,” Kennedy explained. “That prompted them to think of things they wouldn’t have thought of that are specific details about his career—his on-ice career—that I’m convinced would be lost if I hadn’t written this book. For a lot of that stuff, guys would be surprised that I asked about it because they hadn’t thought about it, or they had forgotten about it.”
“It would’ve been easy to ask these guys, ‘what made Gretzky great,’ but then they would’ve given me clichés,” Kennedy elaborated. “I had to find something about times when they played against him, and ask, ‘the time that Gretzky did this to you,’ or ‘the time that you played against Gretzky in this playoff series, tell me about what happened.’”
“If there’s a secret to this book, that’s what it is. It’s not just another Gretzky bio. I feel like I’ve contributed to the oral history of hockey, in a way.”
By looking at Gretzky through the eyes of those who faced him, Kennedy was able to capture details about The Great One’s wizardry on the ice in a unique, captivating and enlightening way. Examples include information he learned about the stick Gretzky used, his deceptive and deadly accurate shot, and his unique ability to beat defenders.
“There was little stuff about the stick that he used—the lie of the stick, the length, the way he took his shot, the fact that a slap shot by Wayne Gretzky might be four or five different things,” said Kennedy. “He could vary the shot. He had a way of taking an off-speed slap shot. He could look one way and shoot another. For example, he could be looking low, on the short side, but he put it up, over the opposite shoulder. He could really manipulate the puck.”
“The way he moved his body—the cliché is that he saw the game a certain way—he always saw everybody on the ice,” added Kennedy. “There were ways he moved where you thought you had him, but he would always do something else. He was analytical and super-competitive. He was never mean—he never tried to embarrass someone. But he just kept trying to score. It never ended.”
Kennedy also shined a spotlight on the genius of Wayne Gretzky, sharing one player story after another.
“One of the goalies told me that Gretzky was coming up ice on him, and he kept thinking, ‘why isn’t he looking at me? Why isn’t he looking at the net? He’s looking behind me. He must be seeing some pretty girl in the crowd,’” Kennedy recalled.
“What he later realized was that Gretzky was looking behind him, using the glass behind him as a mirror to see who his trailing forwards were,” Kennedy added. “Who thinks of stuff like that? No one else has ever thought the game like that. The level of intelligence—he was a genius, and it’s easy to say that. But these guys gave me specific details as to why.”
“If you think about a guy who was born to do one thing—they say [race car driver] Dale Earnhardt could see the air at Daytona. He could see the movement of air, which wasn’t literally true, but he knew how to feel the air going over the car. That’s the thing he was born to do. For Gretzky, it was to be a master with a hockey puck.”
Gretzky’s one-of-a-kind ability and genius extended off the ice, as well, and that goes way beyond his role in expanding the NHL’s reach into non-traditional hockey markets such as Anaheim, Phoenix, Dallas, Florida, Carolina, and the like.
“I talked to a bunch of guys about Gretzky the person,” Kennedy noted. “Some of his Team Canada teammates. [Kings television color commentator] Jim Fox told me a great off-ice story. [Retired Kings head athletic trainer] Pete Demers told me some good stories about Gretzky off the ice.”
“I also asked some guys, off the record, about Gretzky off the ice,” Kennedy added. “Not one guy could tell me anything [negative]. They would say that there honestly wasn’t anything. He really is that genuine and generous off the ice. There wasn’t a bad off-ice Gretzky. He was a generous man who did everything he could to promote the game.”
“Beyond that, what stuck out for me, because I was talking to guys whose lives depended on what was going on in hockey, I really got the feeling—not just the stuff we always say, that Gretzky made hockey popular in Los Angeles, or that he popularized the game in so many non-traditional hockey markets. It was the way he created the impression of the game. These guys understood that what Gretzky did was going to change their lives, too, because it would make hockey richer for everyone.”
As unique as the book is, it is not without some minor flaws. In fact, readers might find the book to be a bit redundant. But that comes with the territory. Given the subject matter, it was unavoidable.
“There’s only so much you can say, and I tried to move past the obvious as quickly as I could,” Kennedy noted. “But there aren’t 1,000 different questions to ask, so I would say that the book isn’t redundant. Rather, it moves back to the same themes for a lot of the people interviewed because they shared similar experiences when facing Gretzky. I tried to tease out as many details as I could, but the fact is that there’s a core of knowledge about Gretzky that is shared by everyone who faced him.”
“It was only about halfway through when I realized the kind of detail I was capturing, and the trick of it was to get them all to not say the same thing, or not to have them all give me the summary version, because everyone has the same summary: ‘Gretzky did the buttonhook at the blue line, Gretzky went behind the net,’ and that’s fine. You need to say that, but fifty people don’t need to say that,” Kennedy added.
A real flaw is that the book lacks interviews with some key people in Gretzky’s career, such as Edmonton Oilers teammates and opponents Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Kevin Lowe, and Mark Messier, along with Glen Sather, who coached Gretzky and coached against him.
Other notables not included are Kings center Marcel Dionne, who won his last NHL scoring title in 1979-80 before Gretzky took over and went on to win seven straight Art Ross Trophies as the NHL’s scoring leader, and Toronto Maple Leafs forwards Doug Gilmour and Wendell Clark, who faced Gretzky in the epic 1993 Campbell Conference Finals.
Kennedy chalked that up to being unable to find many of the people he would’ve liked to have interviewed.
“There are guys I would’ve liked to get, but I just couldn’t find,” he lamented. “Then again, there are guys I did talk to whom you wouldn’t think about who had vivid, incredible memories, so there’s a bit of a compromise there.”
“A couple of people didn’t want to participate, and a few just didn’t have time,” he added. “But most people in hockey are very generous with their time. Cam Neely—how could a guy be busier than the President of the Boston Bruins? But he called me from his office, and we spent half an hour on the phone one day.”
“There’s another fifty people I would’ve loved to have interviewed for this book. But this is at the word limit. I actually turned in a book that was longer than what they wanted, but they cut it to 75,000 words.”
But even with a bit of necessary redundancy and even without having interviews with some key players in Gretzky’s career, Facing Wayne Gretzky really scores a hat trick, in terms of covering The Great One’s career and unique impact on the game, and it does so in a way that no other book has.
“A guy who reviewed the book for The Hockey News said that I really hit almost every highlight of Gretzky’s career,” Kennedy noted. “1993—Game 7 against Toronto—someone who was on the ice with him is in the book. The night he scored his 50th goal in 39 games—I interviewed the goalie [he scored on]. Those are just a couple of examples. I covered a lot of the big checkmarks in his career.”
An even better review came from The Great One himself.
“To Brian,” Gretzky wrote in a copy of the book that he read and signed before sending it to Kennedy. “Loved reading your book! Great job.”
Although Gretzky did not go into specifics, one might guess that he approved of the fact that Kennedy covered so many different aspects of Gretzky’s career, and his impact, both on the ice and off.
“The scope of the book is what I’m most proud of, and everything is from first-hand interviews, nothing from second-hand sources, like newspapers or television,” Kennedy added. “What I want readers to know is that there’s a lot of stuff in this little book. Lots of different aspects and angles.”
“There’s something here for everybody. Those who like the technical aspects can see detail that, I’m convinced, would be lost to time. Those who remember the era will see the particular high points of that time. Fans of Gretzky the hockey player, fans of Gretzky the person—there’s something for almost everybody.”
Kennedy, Brian. Facing Wayne Gretzky: Players Recall The Greatest Hockey Player Who Ever Lived. New York: Sports Publishing, 2014. ISBN (hardcover): 978-1-61321-708-5. ISBN (E-book): 978-1-61321-731-3.
Available in hardcover and electronic versions at Amazon.com, Apple’s iBooks Store (E-book only), Barnes and Noble, and other book retailers.
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