September 22, 2007

Hockey Book Reviews: Oldtimers

I wasn't just pleasantly surprised by the book Oldtimers: On the Road with the Legendary Heroes of Hockey. I was blown away by it.

I had always dismissed "Oldtimers" whenever I saw it on the bookshelves. The book covers the Oldtimers Hockey Challenge tour, as they travel across Canada and Alaska. I have seen the tour firsthand, both on the ice and off it, and I wasn't sure I wanted any deeper knowledge.

I've witnessed the hard drinking, prank playing ways of their life, and quite frankly found it sad. Here were players I grew up idolizing. I'd go to the game to honor them for who they were, to remember them, to remember my youth. But then I'd see who they have become: middle-aged hangers-on who are desperately trying recapture their youth.

Even sadder was the plight of some of the older legends. These players tour to raise monies for local charities, but also as a form of income. Its kind of sad that legends like Johnny Bower travel to the tiniest of towns in the coldness of winter to hock autographs.

Not all of the players are in it for the money. Some of the more recent retirees, the Russ Courtnalls, Bob Rouses and Gary Nylunds played in the big money era. Though they weren't at the top of the pay scale, they certainly did not need the puny appearance fees. Were they just desperately hanging on to the game they loved, the only life they knew?

So why were they there? Why were well-off Hall of Famers like Lanny McDonald and Marcel Dionne, or independently wealthy hockey players turned businessmen like Tiger Williams or Paul Reinhart there?

So I originally didn't even give this book a chance. I've seen books like this before, where the author glamorizes the drinking and endlessly rollicking hockey lifestyle I have no interest in, and the sob stories of these players problems. I'd much rather read something else, I thought.

I made that decision even though I knew Gary Mason was the author. Being based in British Columbia I've had the great fortune to enjoy Mason's insightful sports columns with the Vancouver Sun before he moved to the Globe and Mail in 2005 as the BC Affairs columnist. Mason is a masterful storyteller and is effortless to read.

Mason travels with team, and at times even plays, with 3 questions in mind: Why do these players put themselves through this?; why do we fans buy into these oldtimers tours as much as we do?; and how has hockey life changed over the years, particularly with the big dollars now at stake?

Mason does spend a lot of time experiencing and reporting about the drinking, the party and the pranking, and is guilty of at times glamorizing it. He does so not only because it is a huge aspect of this tour, but to show the reader that this is hockey life, like it or not. Mason demonstrates just how this lifestyle brings this group of individuals into a team in a hurry. While I still find it a bit sad that 45-50 year olds like Tiger Williams stay up until 5am drinking only to get up by 9 to catch the next flight or bus, Mason ties it all together to provide a fascinating look into what life in the National Hockey League was for these guys.

Mason also delves into the careers and lives of many of the legends. Most of the stories have some aspect of sorrow in it, differentiating the men on the ice from the men off of it. There's Gary Nylund's regret, Marcel Dionne's bitterness, Wayne Babych's injuries, Reggie Leach's drinking, Peter and Anton Stastny's brave defection. Mason masterfully uses the this literary formula to make the reader feel for the player, but usually does not overdo it.

This book is a great peak into the life of a National Hockey League employee. Along the way, we also learn a bit about life in remote Canada and Alaska and a lot about several former players. It also provides a look into ourselves and our country. It's fascinating, usually entertaining, and always insightful, perhaps too much so for us hero worshipers.

Mason's writing captivated me instantly and when I had no choice but to put the book down, I found myself making time to pick it back up. While the book flows nicely and quickly, Mason also divides each each chapter succinctly which makes the book equally enjoyable even if just read in passages.

Don't make the same mistake I did. Don't pass this book by again.

Overall Book Rating: 4/5 All Star


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