Saturday, June 14, 2008

Beach books...the Habs version

Since we can't watch hockey right now (unless you're one of those REALLY obsessed people who keep Habs' games on video to review through the summer...and no, I'm not one, unless you count the Rangers' comeback game, but that's for posterity, not for obsessing purposes) we might as well read about it. There are tons of great hockey books out there, and it seems as though the Habs are one of the most popular subjects among them. So, if you're looking for some good Habs-lit, here are a few of my favourites that might tide you over until September.

10. Strength Down Centre: The Jean Beliveau Story, by Hugh Hood. This is a great bio of Beliveau written in 1971, just as Le Gros Bill was wrapping up his stellar career. It's a fascinating look at the great man before he became the revered, grandfatherly figure we know today. In this book, he's still a superstar in his own mind and that of the author. There's one particularly memorable chapter in which Hood goes on the ice one-on-one with Beliveau, and asks him to explain the thinking and mechanics behind his instincts. He asks Big Jean to explain how he skates, and what he's thinking about on a breakaway. This alone is worth finding this book.

9. My Life in Hockey, by Jean Beliveau. Still with Beliveau, this one is written decades after he retired, and is more reflective and analytical than the Hood book. It's also Beliveau's opportunity to pay tribute to the greats with whom he played and who were his opponents during his twenty years in the NHL. I found there was a lot of detail about the hockey games he played and not so much about the man himself. But it's a gentlemanly read and worth a look.

8. Firewagon Hockey: The Story of the Montreal Canadiens, by Andy O'Brien. This is an oldie (written in 1967) but a goodie. It's a look at the history of the team through the eyes of a veteran sports editor of the era. O'Brien had the advantage of having access to great players and the observers of earlier years who'd passed away before later chroniclers could speak with them. His account of the Habs' history is less tinged with the scent of mystery and legend than others. It's more matter-of-fact, but no less dramatic for all that. What's neat about reading it is knowing what came after, and the glories O'Brien had yet to experience.

7. Robinson For the Defence, by Larry Robinson. This is one of my favourite Habs' bios because Robinson wasn't just an all-time great, but he was one of the holdovers from the seventies dynasty years who linked my of the ' the team's great history. I saw Robinson play, so his book has special meaning for me. It's also a great read about the behind-the-scenes part of the dynasty years, and has a particularly poignant view of the '86 Cup win from one of the de facto leaders of that team. As an aside, there's also a neat book involving Robinson that was published in 1980 called "Robinson On Defence," which is a study of the right way to play defence according to Robinson. I think every Habs' defenceman should have to read it.

6. Hockey, Heroes and Me, by Red Fisher. I loved this one. Fisher started covering the Habs on the night of the Richard Riot in 1955, and he's still at it. He's seen a lot, and some of his best stories are recorded here. His "initiation" as part of the team is hilarious and his complicated relationship with Toe Blake is both funny and extremely touching. Fisher is a crotchety but engaging writer, and he knows the Habs better than anyone else.

5. The Hockey Sweater, by Roch Carrier. This needs little explanation, I'm sure. The National Film Board depiction of the story was probably part of your childhood. (It's on Youtube, by the way.) But, if by some chance you missed it, it's the story of a young Quebec boy who worshipped Maurice Richard and whose mother accidentally ordered a Leafs sweater for him after he'd outgrown his Habs one. It's a short story, but a great one, and it's actually included in a nice collection by Carrier called "The Hockey Sweater and Other Stories." Whether it's a walk down memory lane, or a first-time read, it's a great addition to the Habs' fan's library.

4. The Habs, by Dick Irvin. The veteran Habs' broadcaster had the unique view of having followed the team as a small boy when his father coached in Montreal. He not only knows the stories, he knows the people behind them. That gives him a great insight into what really happened in some of the team's more famous events. This is a particularly worthwhile read because Irvin interviewed dozens of players, coaches, managers and opponents of the team and allows them to tell the history, from about 1940 until 1980, in their own words. There are valuable bits of history in this book that you won't find elsewhere.

3. Lions in Winter, by Chris Goyens and Allan Turowetz. Another Habs' history, but this one was written shortly after the 1986 Cup win, and is particularly upbeat about the team's chances of returning to power after the drought of the early '80s. The authors' style is conversational and involving, and their research well done. This is one of the first Habs' histories I ever read, and it's definitely a good one.

2. Our Life With the Rocket: The Maurice Richard Story, by Roch Carrier. This is a beautiful book, which interweaves the story of Richard with that of Quebec youth of his era. It's told in a mix of present tense and first-person points of view, which is captivating in its immediacy, and is tinged with the author's own deep feelings about Richard, both as a person and as a symbol. This one is a magical read.

1. The Game, by Ken Dryden. This has been called the best hockey book ever written. It's been called one of the top sports books written about any sport. It's been called dry and difficult to read. What I found in it was the personal chronicle of a team better than any before or since, and of a time rife with political strife and a shifting society in which the Canadiens were one of the few constants. I found Steve Shutt and Doug Risebrough and Scotty Bowman and Bob Gainey, and I felt like I knew them when I finished. Dryden not only tells his own story here, he tells the story of his team in a way no one else either could or would. The service he does himself in recording his memories is a small fraction of the service he does us...the hockey fans who lived outside their world, or who came along years after. He lets us know them. And he shows us how there are universal truths in hockey and in sport generally. This book is funny, poignant, dramatic, instructive, personal, wistful and insightful. I've read it many times and it will always be one of my favourites, ever written, on any topic.

So, if you're looking for a good read for the summer, any of those are great choices. If you've already read them all, as some of you probably have, I'll continue the list tomorrow, with some of the best non-Habs hockey reads I've encountered. Happy reading!


tc said...

May I also recommend ...

The Montreal Canadiens by Claude Mouton

There are two version, one in 1981, the second in 1988. Mouton is best remembered as the Habs public address announcer. The first large format book about the Canadiens, contains a statistical and numerical history in the appendix.

The John Kordic Story by Mark Zwolinski

One of the saddest chapters in recent Habs history. The all too quick, and tragic life of for a brief time, the best fighter in the NHL. A story of how addiction can take over one's life.

Howie Morenz: Hockey's Future Superstar by Dean Robinson

Hard to find biography of the Habs first superstar.

Doug: The Doug Harvey Story by William Brown & I Stole This From a Hockey Card by Chris Robinson

Two books about the greatest of all Habs defenseman. The first is a great biography while the second is a personal tale of addiction. Both worth checking out.

Playing the Shots at Both Ends by Murray Dryden

Book written in 1972 by Ken Dryden's father is an excellent story of a fathers pride in both of his sons accomplishments.

They Call Me Gump by Lorne Worsley

Written in the mid-70's by the Gumper. A funny book that helps showcase one of the great characters in team history. Of course, Gump pulls no punches.

The Flying Frenchmen by Maurice Richard and Stan Fishler

This book is split in two halves. The first half is a Rocket autobiography while the second half is a history of a team. Written in 1970, this book features the Rocket and Fishler lamenting the end of the Habs dynasty. Some end, six cups in the next nine years.

Les Canadiens by Andy O'Brien

An update of Firewagon Hockey published after the Habs 1971 Cup win. Still for me, the best look at the magical 1971 playoffs. Also check out O'Brien's biographies on Maurice Richard and Jacques Plante.

The Last Hurrah by Stephen Cole

An excellent look at the 1966/67 NHL season features an emphasis on the Habs and the Leafs. Very good first hand interviews of various players make this book a highlight.

Canadiens Captains by Mike Ulmer

Nine biographical portraits of those who carried the "c" with the Canadiens. The chapters on Toe Blake and Doug Harvey are must reading.

Boom-Boom: The Life & Times of Bernard Geoffrion by Bernard Geoffrion & Stan Fishler

The Boomers autobiography is a fun tale of a hockey life in Montreal, New York, and Atlanta. At each point the Boomer's voice and opinions make the book a good read.

Thunder & Lightning; The John Ferguson Story

Written in the mid-eighties, Fergie's book is a no holds barred look at his career as a player and general manager.

Other books to check out .... Frank Selke "Behind the Cheering," Mike Leonetti's "Cold War" & "Canadiens Legends," Douglas Hunter's biography on Scotty Bowman, Brian MacFarlane's "The Habs," and Geoffrey W. Kent's "Here Come the Vees," a history of the Nova Scotia Voyageurs.


J.T. said...

Thanks for the titles! I went with the ten I thought were the best reads and my personal favourites, but as you point out, there are so many Habs books out there, you could spend all summer reading them. I've encountered many of the ones you suggest, but I'd never heard of the Murray Dryden book. Great tip!

NailaJ said...

The John Kordic story is one of my all time favourite books.
As is Understanding Ken.