May 29, 2009

Squaw Valley Gold by Seamus O'Coughlin

It's the end of a long work week. You decide to reward yourself by going to a fancy restaurant, thumb through the menu and find your favorite meal. You have unknowingly been salivating for this delicious dish for some time now. You know exactly what you want - the tastes, the smells, the surroundings. Your cravings and expectations are growing as you wait.

A number of bites into that long awaited meal you realize what you have is very, very good, but not really what you were expecting. It is great, but not quite what you really wanted.

This is kind of how I felt after picking up Seamus O'Coughlin's book Squaw Valley Gold: American Hockey's Olympic Odyssey.

Buy The Book: - Chapters -

It is wonderful book, featuring exhaustive research. I learned an amazing amount of American and Olympic hockey history by reading it, and have referred back to it as a trustworthy text I keep near my work station.

But it just wasn't what I was expecting.

I was expecting a book all about the 1960 American gold medal hockey team, the original miracle men on ice. As a rabid fan of international hockey history, I wanted to learn all about a team and an Olympic games I knew very little about.

My expectations were admittedly sky-high before cracking the spine of the 1960 book, as I so thoroughly enjoyed Wayne Coffey's The Boys of Winter, a wonderful book about the 1980 USA Olympic team, and even Tom and Jerry Caraciolli's Striking Silver about the 1972 USA Olympic team.

So perhaps it is my own fault I was expecting more. But everything I read about the book on the internet promos and even the back cover of the book itself suggested this book was going to be nearly 300 pages about the Squaw Valley Olympics and the 1960 gold medal winning USA hockey team.

The first chapter continued to lead me on, completely reeling me in with a brilliant opening. The author goes all the way back to the 1940s when brash socialite named Alex Cushing hobbled into the snowy wilderness of Squaw Valley. The author brilliantly paints Cushing as a bit of a bumbling visionary, but a visionary none the less. Big dreams are set into motion just as I lean back into my easy chair, perfectly satisfied to stay up into the wee hours of the night and devour this promising book.

Then out of nowhere, the Cushing story and for all intents and purposes the Squaw Valley story is dropped for several chapters. The author back tracks to earlier times, thoroughly exploring American hockey history itself.

It is truly amazingly detailed, almost superfluous research by the author, and a real learning experience for even a hardened historian like myself. But I found myself disillusioned. Though many of the stories and characters the author accounts for in the next several chapters are historically intertwined with the Squaw Valley Olympics and the American hockey team that won gold, I did not want any of that at the time. It was an unexpected turn when what I really wanted was to continue on with Cushing's story, the planning of the games and the building of and the principles of the hockey team.

After labouring through all the details, I finally picked up the story I wanted several chapters later. The story I was looking for was in the final 80 or so pages of the book. Was that all excessive background work, or did I really not understand the purpose of the project?

You see, O'Coughlin's book is not so much about America's 1960 Olympic hockey team, but more about American hockey history, specifically at the international level, up until the conclusion of the 1960 games, with that team playing a starring role. I had no hint of that when I sat down to read it, ready to satisfy my misled and unrealistic expectations.

Upon realizing this I tried to go back and read the book again, so I could review it from that angle. The exhaustive research still impressed me, though it can read quite heavy and at times. The author is a researcher at heart, and a writer second. I sometimes got lost in all the facts and did not immediately see how all these stories tied together, if at all.

Still, I learned tons, with the book taking up permanent residence near my work station along side my most referred to volumes. A good couple of dozen pages dog eared because there is no index, which is a real sin considering the encyclopedic nature of this book.

If you're expecting Seamus O'Coughlin's book Squaw Valley Gold to be strictly about the 1960 United States hockey team, you would be mistaken. Instead what you get is a whole lot more. That is both great and disillusioning all at the same time.


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