June 14, 2010

Interview With Michael McKinley

I had the great pleasure to interview Michael McKinley, who I consider to be one of the most fantastic hockey writers out there. His 2002 release Putting A Roof On Winter is one of my favorite books of all time.

It also became the inspiration for the CBC documentary Hockey: A People's History in 2006. The DVD box set release was accompanied with a lavishly illustrated companion book.

The book was released in paperback in 2009, complete with new material.

I had a chance to ask Mr. McKinley about the Hockey: A People's History project.

HBR: How did you get involved in the fantastic Hockey: A People's History project?

MM: I wrote a book called Putting a Roof on Winter that tells the story of hockey from the first indoor game in Montreal on March 3, 1875 up until the 1972 Summit Series. CBC TV read it, and wanted to build a TV series—in a similar style to Ken Burns’ Baseball, though with dramatic recreations of games in HD –so asked me if I’d like to write the book accompanying the ten hour TV series. It took me a nanosecond to say yes.

HBR:  How much of Putting A Roof On Winter.was morphed into the People's History project?

MM: Quite a bit. The initial joke that the great Mark Starowicz, head of docs at CBC, made to me was to ask if I was simply going to change a few verbs in Putting a Roof on Winter for the new book. However, I had the pleasure of working with the producers and researchers on each of the ten TV episodes for People’s History, and so it was like having a research staff of forty people. I could suddenly be in a dozen archives at the same time, and doing a dozen phone interviews and so on. I also sent the TV guys a lot of the research I did for Winter. It was a great working experience, unlikely to be repeated!

HBR: What do you hope the project brings to the readers and viewers?

MM: We tried out best to tell viewers and readers a great story about some pretty epic characters, and show those who think that sport is somehow divorced from society that quite the opposite is true. Sport is, in many ways, the binding agent for society, crossing lines of class and race and religion and politics to bring us together in the love of a game.

HBR: What has the project given you personally and professionally?

MM: I learned so much about people and their accomplishments that I had not known much of before. And I also used some of the material that we couldn’t use in the TV series to write a novel. It’s called The Penalty Killing, and is a crime novel about a former great player names Martin Carter who suffered a nasty head injury, couldn’t play anymore, and was given a job by his team, the New York St. Patricks. When we meet him, he gets framed for a murder, and has to solve it to save his life. It’s the first book in a Martin Carter series, and anyone interested can read the first chapter at my website www.michaelmckinley.com or buy it via the usual suspects.

HBR: Who are some of your favorite personalities in the game over the years?

MM: James Creighton, who staged the first indoor hockey game in Montreal on March 3, 1875 is one of the major ones, as is Cyclone Taylor, and the Patrick Brothers, as well as Senator Michael O’Brien and his son Ambrose, who wound up founding the National Hockey Association (the league that led to the NHL) and creating the Montreal Canadiens. I love the early history of the game because these guys were actually inventing the sport.

HBR: James Creighton, Lester & Frank Patrick, Rocket Richard, Foster Hewitt, Bobby Orr, Anatoli Tarasov, Wayne Gretzky - Is there one person who has had a more profound impact on the history of hockey than anyone else?

MM: James Creighton. Without him, there is nothing. He stages the world’s first indoor hockey game, imports equipment and rules from his native Halifax, then goes on to refine the game while a law student at McGill. He moves to Ottawa to clerk for the Senate, and winds up playing on the Rideau Rebels. Two of his teammates are the Stanley brothers, whose father lives in Rideau Hall as Canada’s Governor General, Lord Stanley of Preston, who gives hockey the greatest trophy in sports. We don’t know for certain, but it cannot be an accident that the guy who establishes indoor hockey is also connected to the Stanley Cup. Shockingly, James Creighton is not a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and until recently, didn’t even have a headstone on his gravesite. If he’d been an American, he’d have his own postage stamp and a monument in Washington.

HBR: Who is the most influential person in the development of the women's game?

MM: I think it’s a team—the Preston Rivulettes. They were a group of friends who played baseball together and decided they may as well keep playing in winter, so took up hockey. From 1930 to 1939, they won ten championship titles in both Ontario and Quebec, as well as six national champion titles, tying games just three times and losing only twice-- in 350 games. Their two losses came after a long train ride west in March, 1932, when, ‘flu ridden, they took on the Edmonton Rustlers for the first Dominion Women’s Hockey Championship title. The Rivulettes continued their domination of women’s hockey up to the beginning of WW II, and were about to embark on a European tour when war cancelled their plans, which was appropriate in an ironic way because no one could stop them on the ice. The Rivulettes got national coverage and huge crowds watched them play (though they got very little money—their coach had to mortgage his house to finance their trip to a tournament) but they put women’s hockey very much in focus in the national mind. The war and subsequent rise of the nuclear family put women’s hockey into retrograde, but the 1960s saw a renaissance, and people still pointed to the Rivulettes as the defining standard of excellence in women’s hockey.

HBR: What do you think about the perceived Americanization over the years? Why are Canadians so defensive about losing their game? Why is hockey so important to Canadians?

MM: I now live in New York City, but I’m still Canadian and feel the pain of those who think an NHL team would be better served in Winnipeg than in Phoenix. However, it’s salutary to remember that the fledgling NHL knew in the 1920s that it had to expand to the USA in order to survive as a league. So teams were born in Boston, New York and Chicago, and great hockey traditions were continued—the USA also gave the world the first pro hockey league in 1904 –and the game was played widely here in schools, colleges, and athletic clubs. I think Canadians feel that since we gave birth to the game in Montreal on March 3, 1875, it is thus our birthright to excel at it, always. Yet the beauty of hockey is that it’s a portable thing, and we should be proud that we have given the world such a wonderful game, and that people want to play it. That’s a cause for celebration, not defensiveness. And it should only serve to make us better.

HBR: Since 1972, do you think Canadians have gotten any better at sharing hockey supremacy with the world?

MM: I think we’ve become more resigned to having to share it, as the world has proven to be excellent students of the game, and so, the more the (for the most part) merrier. We long ago gave up a claim on the Stanley Cup.

HBR: How important is the 1972 Summit Series to the Canadian national identity? Has 1972's impact grown or changed over the years?

MM: The 1972 Series was a defining moment in Canadian history, and in many ways, a template for international hockey series to follow. We showed uncharacteristic hubris in underestimating the Russians, who then played the kind of hockey Canadians used to play (the Russians learned the game from the Czechs, who learned it from Mike Buckna, son of Czech immigrants who left his home in Trail, B.C. to see the old country and wound up coaching the Czech national team). We had to rethink, regroup, and come out playing smarter and harder (and if you’re Bobby Clarke, like it was life or death). The drama was epic in scope, it came right down to the last period of the last game, and when we won, it was a national catharsis. Canadian virtues of hard work and resilience and courage and do-or-die had won the day, though we won more than that insofar as the series opened up North America to foreign players, especially from the USSR, and they came over and taught us to play again the game that we had long ago taught them.

HBR: Do you think we will ever see NHL teams based in Europe, or a European league eclipse the NHL as the top league in the world?

MM: I think we might see teams in London and Paris and maybe Berlin, but Moscow is a little too far. However, if China takes off in hockey as they’re currently trying to do, you never know. The NHL could have a few international divisions, and a pretty amazing playoff series. Once they take care of their, ahem, business in Phoenix and Miami and Atlanta.

HBR: Do you think the NHL will return teams to Canada any time soon? Why are they so hesitant to do so?

MM: I think that the Board of Governors bought into Gary Bettman’s vision to “grow the game” into the Sunbelt of the USA, and don’t see that growth as a failure. Anaheim, Tampa, Carolina, have all won the Stanley Cup. However, to close down shop in Phoenix or Atlanta to move to Canada might be seen as a retreat, rather than a rebirth. I think if you give fans good teams in committed cities the game will grow and prosper. Interesting to see that here in the USA Versus TV, which broadcasts NHL games during the year saw a pretty nice rise in viewers, and something like 5 million people tuned in to NBC for a finals game between Chicago and Phildalephia.

HBR: In your newest chapter to the book, you bring up the hockey blogosphere. What are some of your favorite blogs?

MM: I like lots of stuff on Kukla’s Korner—Patrick Hoffman is great, and I really miss Alanah McGinley at Canucks and Beyond, who bid the blog goodbye to become a mother, of all things! I really like Josh Brewster at hockeytalkbiz—knows his stuff – and of course, I’m a fan of your sites, especially hockeybookreviews.

HBR: I always ask this question of authors - What is your favorite hockey book of all time?

MM: Ken Dryden’s The Game.

HBR: What's next for Michael McKinley?

MM: I’m just finishing the second novel in the Martin Carter series. It’s tentatively titled A Drowning in the Desert, and will be out next year.

I wanted to thank Mr. McKinley for taking the time for answering these questions. You can buy the Hockey: A People's History DVD box set or the newly updated companion paperback book courtesy of Amazon.ca.

You can also look for his first novel, The Penalty Killing, released in March.


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