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Wednesday, 26 February 2014

TBC: The Game Of Our Lives

NHL is finally back after the Olympic break, and it feels good to know that after watching some of the best hockey the world has to offer, we'll be treated to the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs in about a month when the hardest trophy to win in sports is awarded. Some would say that today's book review would have been more appropriate after the Canada-USA match for both the men and the women, but it will happen today nonetheless. Teebz's Book Club is proud to have reviewed The Game of Our Lives, written by Peter Gzowski and published by McClelland and Stewart. Mr. Gzowski's look into the 1980-81 Edmonton Oilers team is a fascinating examination of a team that was growing into its dynasty led by its young stars in Gretzky, Coffey, Messier, Anderson, Lowe, and Kurri. While Mr. Gzowski's work in Canada is highly-regarded, this book might be one of the best examinations of a hockey team and its stars ever produced.

As stated above, Mr. Gzowski lived a full life as one of Canada's premiere interviewers. Born in Toronto on July 13, 1934, Mr. Gzowski studied at the University of Toronto, but never graduated from the institution despite receiving multiple honourary degreees later in his life. He made waves when he was named as the editor of MacLean's magazine at the young age of 28 after having written for the publication. Mr. Gzowski would move to The Toronto Star in the 1960s where he would serve as editor of The Star Weekly until it was sold in 1968. He moved into radio in 1969, joining CBC for Radio Free Friday. In 1971, he was named as host of CBC radio's This Country in the Morning. In 1976, he jumped to television, hosting 90 Minutes Live on CBC as well, but returned to his radio roots in 1982 to take over his former program once more, now named Morningside. Through it all, Mr. Gzowski continued to write, penning 18 books through his lifetime. Mr. Gzowski last acted as Chancellor of Trent University from 1999 to 2002 when he passed away on January 24 after a battle with emphysema caused by smoking. He was just 67 when he passed on.

What struck me in reading The Game of Our Lives was how Mr. Gzowski wrote. He writes like he's a caring grandfather who speaks with passion and a twinkle in his eye about his subject. He's articulate, he's descriptive, and he engages the reader in the story by asking questions you or I would ask. He's very in-tune with his audience, and Mr. Gzowski's writing style will keep readers' attentions as they follow the story of the 1980-81 Edmonton Oilers.

The Oilers themselves are very engaging, and seem to enjoy this new-found celebrity status they seem to have acquired when a writer offered to follow them and document their progress for a season. GM Glen Sather is prominently featured as he runs the day-to-day operations of the club while trying to figure out how the Oilers, who start out slowly in '80-81, can find their stride. The players, including Gretzky, are referred to often by their youth, but Mr. Gzowski shows the inner workings of this team as the book progresses. Owner Peter Pocklington always seems to be larger-than-life in The Game of Our Lives, but never out of reach when Mr. Gzowski needs a comment or team-centric advice.

Perhaps more than anything, Mr. Gzowski details the growth of Wayne Gretzky's game from wunderkind in his first season with the club to emerging superstar to the greatest scorer in 1980-81. Gretzky, who seemingly was the darling of Edmonton after bursting onto the NHL scene in 1979-80, is shown to be humble with his fame. He does a lot of work with the companies to which he has signed his name, and really seems to enjoy being one of the guys within the team rather than the highly-paid, high-scoring superstar that some believe he is. There is a human side to both Wayne Gretzky and his teammates that Mr. Gzowski really emphasizes in The Game of Our Lives that make the players seem far more like you or I than professional athletes. He especially takes a liking to Andy Moog, it seems, for the goaltender resembled Mr. Gzowski with his baby fat and non-lean body than he did the rest of the Oilers.

There are some fascinating tales in the book, including a section on how Gretzky seems to slow the game down with his mind, looking multiple steps ahead of what was unfolding in front of him like an expert chess player would. It's an entirely fascinating look at how exceptional athletes slow the game down in their mind, but I'm not going to post an entire chapter here. However, a passage that stuck out to me was about what would be termed a hazing ritual now.
Almost every year there are stories about a shaving gone wrong. In the 1980-81 season, a Winnipeg rookie was so badly razor-burned that his legs turned black and blue and couldn't walk. Occasionally, someone has the hair on his head removed, or parts of it. But mostly the area of concentration is the loins, and mostly the attitude involved is one of brotherhood and sport - as it is, for example for the University of Toronto fraternity that still jovially welcomes new members by imprinting its insignia into their arms with a branding iron.
While none of that would even be allowed today, it just goes to show how much the world of sports and hockey has changed over the thirty years. Could you imagine being branded with your school's insignia? Yikes!

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Game of Our Lives immensely as it was an excellent study on the Oilers as they matured throughout a season filled with difficulty and highlights. While Mr. Gzowski used a number of parallels to his own life as he grew up on the frozen ponds of Ontario, and really shows through a number of interviews with some of the greatest men to play the game - Howe, Hull, Gretzky, Beliveau - that having fun is still the bets way to play the game. Because of Mr. Gzowski's excellent writing, the examination of he did of the Oilers, and the presentation of the story in the book, The Game of Our Lives undoubtedly receives the Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval!

This book speaks volumes about the game in Canada, and it really should be on the bookshelf of every hockey fan. Find it at your local bookstore or check it out at your local library. You will not be disappointed with Mr. Gzowski's The Game of Our Lives!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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