Our Christmas tree went up on Sunday. It being only November 30th, I'm sure we broke some sort of seasonal protocol that will result in my sweeping up roughly 16 pounds of pine needles over the next four weeks and having a brown, skeletal tree by Boxing Day.
My Leafs ornament (a gift from my parents circa 1983) usually gets pride of place front and centre in the tree, but somehow this year it lost the prime tree real estate to more child-focused decorations.
My boy is three and has a little too much in common with Jarko Rutu. He delights in picking fights with my daughter yet runs away at the first sign of physical conflict, he whines a lot and he has a terrible habit of smiling and making faces after he's done something especially egregious. As long as Santa brings something with wheels, it will be a fine Christmas for him.
My daughter is five and can't decide on what she wants from Santa. In a somewhat refreshing approach, instead of asking for anything and everything, she's trying to focus in on the single, perfect gift. This year, she's also shown a real awareness and interest in gifts for others (a first) and she's been asking my wife and I what we want for Christmas.
Traditionally, Christmas gifts from the kids have been firmly entrenched in the paste, glitter and construction paper industries. And even though I've become completely addicted to the Toronto Public Library (I currently have five books out and 15 on order) there's something rewarding about finding a good book under the tree on the 25th, retreating to a quiet spot and disappearing into a great read.
With that love of books in mind and with just 23 days until Christmas (and 20 until Hanukkah) I thought I'd assemble a list of 13 (15 really, but who's counting) of my favourite sports related books that you can either pick up for the sports fan in your life or put on your own gift list...
13. Offside: The Battle for Control of Maple Leafs Gardens - Theresa Tedesco
Not to keep bringing up the Leafs' ugly past, but this is the quintessential book for understanding the mess that was the late 80s, early 90s Leafs and the seeds for what would become MLSE.
Financial Post reporter Tedesco wrote this illuminating book about the ugliness that emerged after Ballard's death and the financial fight for the Leafs that followed. There's a heavy emphasis here on accounting, law and the sports business side of things, but there's just enough good stuff to give anyone who reads it more reason to question what might have been had Stavro not stood in Fletcher's way (like Gretzky playing for the Leafs for instance).
Check availability here.
12. Fantasyland - Sam Walker
Like sports? Do you participate in fantasy drafts? Ever wonder what would happen if you took a year off your job just to manage your fantasy sports team? Maybe take your wife on holidays to catch a little winter ball down in the Dominican. How about a set of media credentials that gave you full access to the atheletes you drafted and the coaches who actually manage them? And to top it off, why not hire hiring a NASA scientist to crunch your stats for you and build predictive models.
If you think this sounds good, Sam Walker's Fantasyland is for you - a very fun read by a Wall Street Journal sports reporter who did all of that and more as part of Tout Wars, a baseball pool just for sports analysts and sports writers.
Check for availability here.
11.Great Hockey Masks and The Art of the Hockey Mask - Michael Cutler
This one is a bit unfair as I don't own either of these and I have been on the lookout for them for years. Each thin (16 to 22 pages) book offers a series of beautiful, simple, four colour plates of the goalie masks of the late 70s and early 80s. This book was on near permanent loan from my grade school library and I spent hours (maybe days, weeks and months) tracing these masks and colouring them in or coming up with my own designs. Just getting lost in the basic, paper-cut painting style.
I can only presume the publisher (Tundra) did very small print runs as these often retail for $60 to $100+ a copy and it's next to impossible to find scans or even images from these books on-line. Even the Toronto Public Library only has a single copy in their reference collection.
If ever a book needs to be re-published, this is the one. If you know anyone with a fascination for goalie masks, especially if they were born in the late 60s/early 70s this book would be an awesome addition under the tree (and if anyone owns a copy, please email me!)
Check for availability (good luck with that) here.
10. Lights Went Out / Future Greats - Gare Joyce
Future Greats and Heartbreaks is the type of book I wish was written every year, a detailed look at the NHL draft class and the execs who will them.
In part one, Joyce gets to sit in on meetings with the Columbus Blue Jackets scouts and team management, including taking part in prospect interviews, the player combine, and is privy to the official team draft list for the 2006 draft.
Part two features detailed game-by-game notes from junior games and tournaments around the world as Joyce moves through the world of scouting.
Part three tracks the actual draft and many of the players who Joyce has met, interviewed and followed on the ice are chosen by NHL teams. Had this been published a year or two earlier, no one would have been scratching their heads as Esposito fell through the rankings like a stone down a well.
As the Leafs continue with their re-build this is an excellent and very timely read for all those Leaf fans who are dreaming of a lottery pick this summer.
Future Greats can be found here and When the Lights Went Out can be found here.
9. Ball Four - Jim Bouton
The famous tell-all diary from Bouton's 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros. The only sports book to make the New York Public Library's Best Books of the 21st Century, Bouton was black balled from baseball for writing this book (want to know about your favourite New York Yankee's voyeurism habits? Pick up a copy).
Prime reading for anyone who wants an up close look at the inner life of professional athletes. Bull Durham, one of my favourite movies, owes a big debt to this book. Great stuff from the man that also brought us Big League Chew.
8. Sittler - Darryl Sittler
Published in 1991, this book came out before the Leafs began to restore the team, the brand and the franchise's relationship with its alumni. It's a shocking look at just how badly Harold Ballard ran the team and how badly Leaf players were treated.
The amazing thing, and a testament to Sittler's character, is how unaffected he seems by this. Clearly, he's longing for the Leafs to recognize his contributions and for the organization to treat him the way that the Flyers do (when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Flyers send gifts; no reps from the Leafs bother to attend, even though the ceremony takes place just three subway stops from Maple Leafs Garden) but he's not embittered.
The book offers a very candid look at Sittler's relationships with former Leafs Lanny MacDonald, Roger Neilson, Harold Ballard, Jim Gregory and Punch Imlach. It's an enlightening read - especially for fans who might be too young to remember just how bad things once were. Here's Sittler describing an incident in 1974 when he tried to confirm if his contract included a no-trade clause:
We moved the conversation across the hall to Harold Ballard's office where The Boss was sitting behind his desk.
"What's wrong?" he growled. Ballard always anticipated the "best case" scenario.
I spoke up. "I thought I had a no-trade contract, I believe I do, and Jim Gregory is telling me I don't."
"Whattayamean a no-trade contract," he boomed. "Dontcha have any confidence in your own ability?"
"I've got all the confidence in the world in my own abilities Harold. But if the Boston Bruins offered Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito for me, I'm sure you'd make the deal."
He wasn't going to be mollified by common sense, and you could almost see the delicious thoughts of Orr and Esposito in blue and white scrolling across his forehead, like the electronic newsboards they have outside buildings to bring the latest news bulletins to passerby. Those thougths danced right out, exit stage left, when he had an agonizing thought of what he might have to pay these guys.
Harold was nothing if he wasn't practical. He turned back to me.
"Ya might think I'm whistling Dixie here, but it would take both of those guys to move you outta here."
"Yeah, you're right," I countered.
"I know," he smiled.
"I do think you're whistling Dixie."
His face changed for a second or two, the look of a kid with cookie jar right up to the elbow. Figuring quite rightly that I didn't mean too much disrespect, and not anxious to have a blow-up in his office over the issue, he got up and came around the desk.
Harold put one arm around my shoulder. Buddy to buddy. Blood brothers who share the same uniform. Together forever.
"Brian, we wouldn't trade you for love or money."
He thought I was Spinner Spencer.
Jim Gregory, always quick on his feet, jumped right in to rescue The Boss.
"Harold, it's Darryl!"
7. Tropic of Hockey - Dave Bidini
A travelog of sorts with Bidini going around the world to play hockey with the locals and get a better understanding of how various nations and cultures have adopted and adapted hockey. From northern China to a shopping mall in Hong Kong; from Israel and Dubai to the Czech Republic, it's fascinating to see how unifying the game of hockey can be (and how cheap stickwork can be found in the game no matter where or when you play it).
6. The Rocket, the Flower, the Hammer and Me - Doug Beardsley (editor)
A long out of print collection of some great hockey writing from Paul Quarrington, W.P. Kinsella, Morley Callaghan, Hugh Maclennan, and others. This is the book Wendel Clark was reading in that late 80s literacy commercial so you know it has to be good...
Check availability here.
5. The Last Season - Roy MacGregor
While I'm not a regular reader of MacGregor's reportage or columns, I have to say this is a damn fine novel.
The story of Felix Batterinksi, a rural kid of Polish heritage from Northern Ontario, it tracks his time from junior through to his ascendancy playing for the cup as a goon with Shero's Broad Street Bullies of the 70s and his eventual decline that finds him playing out the string as a player-coach in Finland.
The material on Batterinksi's junior days and early coaches has stayed with me some 15 years after first reading the book. I'm glad to see it was picked up and re-published by Penguin as it really deserves an audience.
I looked up, startled by the accent. He was so clearly a Canadian sportswriter that he could have formed the mould: thick glasses over nervous eyes, balding, a too-eager-to-please smile, cheap clothes in need of a press and coordination, the kind of body that should say nothing but goes on forever about jogging and tennis and all those other bullshit words they invent to replace ability. The body of true athlete speaks for itself. When a true athlete says "tennis", he means the same thing as if he'd used the word "beer"- something social rather than beneficial.
4. America's Game - Michael MacCambridge
I briefly wrote a blurb about this great book about six weeks ago. It's one of the best, if not the best book I've read on the marriage of business, marketing and sports.
Following the NFL from it's pre-war days through to the modern era, the bulk of the book emphasizes the innovations that Pete Rozelle brought to the game which are legion. From creating consistent logos, to licensing just about every product; from the creation of NFL films to the way the media were wined and dined, this book shows how the NFL has really set, and continually raised, the bar compared to the other professional sports leagues.
Even if you're not a football fan (I'm a casual one at best) there are so many amazing factoids in here that it will provide you with near endless cocktail party chatter for the holiday season.
Check availability here.
3. Moneyball - Michael Lewis
A fantastic look at finding efficiencies and value in any system, in this case Major League Baseball. Even though it's a baseball book, there is much to consider here, especailly as the Leafs attempt to re-tool under Brian Burke.
(Full disclosure: I am a total Michael Lewis fan-boy and would gladly read the phone book if he wrote it. Other great magazine pieces by Lewis include his defense of Moneyball in Sports Illustrated; an interesting piece on coaching innovations in college football; an amazing piece on Hurricane Katrina; and a stunning bit on the recent economic meltdown.)
Check availability here.
2. Salvage King, Ya - Mark Anthony Jarman
The story of a marginal defenceman at the end of his career, sliding between the A and the NHL. His former agent has embezzled most of his money, he's divorced, newly engaged and having an affair with a waitress. There is a kineticism and depth to Jarman's writing that has brought me back to it time and time again.
Laced with fantastic pop culture references and seeded with tiny perfectly crafted anecodtes featuring the likes of Messier, Chris Nilan, Gretzky, like this one:
Upstairs I knock on the hotel door and Normie Ullman answers naked. He's still in good shape, but I don't really care to see Normie Ullman naked. Normie also played for the old WHA Oilers. Curly is after puck bunnies and Dino is chasing anything. Yvan Cournoyer is tanned and grinning and chasing anything. No wonder they call him the Roadrunner. Maybe he's cashing his cheque from that big Zellers ad we did. They're fighting with fire extinguishers. Their ex-model wives are thousands of miles to the east. There are days it seems that all hockey men are pervs or nuts or stickmen. I'm sure several are normal but there's not a lot of evidence. You're away from home a lot, in decent shape, and for a brief while you possess money and youth. You try to rid yourself of both.
When I lay stunned and stunted in her old fashioned bed, the fingers of my hand unwrapping from the iron rail (the pail ceilings of post-sex, and her art, terrifying Inuit prints on her walls), when I saw manic Waitress X placing a long slip or soft bra on her cinnamon skin, when I saw her distracted at her dresser, readying her public self for the late afternoon tables of businessmen, for the glum screaming oilmen seeking attitude adjustment, well I confess I desired thing to stop at that stage -- not nude and not dressed, on the cusp, the edge, the two of us with tons of time and no particular place to go.
Check Salvage King, Ya availability here.
1. The Game - Ken Dryden
I would argue that this is the single greatest book ever written about hockey and is a must read for all hockey fans. When I pulled out my 1983 paperback edition (Totem press?) to write up this little blurb, I ended up spending an hour or so re-reading the book. Totally engrossed by the locker room banter, most of my morning dissolved away.
Following Dryden through the 1979 season, the book goes way beyond a simple year-in-the-life of a player format, providing substantial insights into the game, the men he played with, the demands of professional sport and the life of a professional athlete.
One of the things I love about this book, and the thing that brings me back time and time again, is the remarkable job Dryden has done in capturing the camaraderie and humour amongst the players.
Here's Dryden at the end of the book, his final Cup won, contemplating what it might mean to retire:
A few years ago, I called Dickie Moore to arrange an interview for a friend. Moore had been a fine player for the Canadiens in the 1950s, and after retiring with knee injuries (later, he returned briefly with the Leafs and Blues), had built a successful equipment rental company in Montreal. It happened that I called on the first anniversary of his son's death in a car accident. It had been a tough day was all Moore said. More for me than for him, he changed the subject. He asked me how I was, how the team was doing; then he turned reflective. He spoke of "the game." Sometimes excitedly, sometimes with longing, but always it was "the game." Not a game of his time, or mine, something he knew we shared. It sounded almost spell-like the way he put it. I had always thought of it as a phrase interchangeable with "hockey," "baseball," or any sport. But when Moore said it, I knew it wasn't. "The game" was different, something that belongs only to those who play it, a code, a phrase that anyone who has played a sport, any sport, understands. It's a common heritage of parents and backyayrds, teammates, friends, winning, losing, dressing rooms, road trips, coaches, fans, money, celebrity - a life, so long as you live it. Now as I sit here, slouched back, mellow, when I hear others talk of "the game" I know what Moore meant. It is hockey that I'm leaving behind. It's "the game" that I'll miss.