Saturday, 4 July 2009

TBC: As The Puck Turns

Teebz's Book Club returns today with some summer reading material that you may enjoy. I know I did. Today, TBC is proud to bring to you a story of life in hockey, life surrounding hockey, and life after hockey in Brian Conacher's As The Puck Turns, published by Wiley. Mr. Conacher puts his career in hockey on paper in this book, and brings to light a lot of the untold stories around certain situations in hockey folklore. From his time with the Maple Leafs to his work in international hockey to managing and running a variety of minor-pro teams, Mr. Conacher's life has taken him all over the country, and brought a myriad of stories to light. These small, overlooked details are one of the best parts of the book, and As The Puck Turns really deserves a look if you enjoy hockey history and stories.

First, a little about the author. Brian Kennedy Conacher, on the right, is the son of NHL legend and athlete extraordinaire Lionel Conacher. Brian Conacher played for Team Canada at the 1964 Winter Olympics before joining the Toronto Maple Leafs for the 1967-68 and 1968-69 seasons. He won a Stanley Cup with the Leafs in 1967, but wasn't kept in Toronto. He was sent to the minors, and eventually was signed by the Detroit Red Wings. He retired shortly into that season, and instead moved on to broadcasting, working with CBC Sports and Foster Hewitt for the 1972 Summit Series. Conacher would go on to coach a number of minor-league teams before becoming the General Manager of the WHA's Indianapolis Racers and, later, the Edmonton Oilers. He also managed a number of arenas, including Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton and Copps Coliseum in Hamilton. Even when Mr. Conacher was out of hockey, he wasn't far away from it.

While this autobiography of Conacher's life is richly detailed, it seems like a shame that the recollection of events starts in 1967 after winning the Stanley Cup with the Maple Leafs. I would have loved to hear about growing up in the Conacher family, with his dad, two of his uncles, and two cousins all playing in the NHL at one point or another. It would have also been very interesting to hear about his time under Father Bauer with the Canadian National Team, but that part is also omitted. While I'm not complaining about what is included, omitting these portions of his life, and downplaying others, is disappointing. However, this is truly the only negative that I can say about Mr. Conacher's book.

Mr. Conacher clearly has a passion for international hockey, and was involved in some way or another for nearly 40 years with Hockey Canada. He shows some disappointment with the Nationals withdrawing from international play over a dispute with the IOC and IIHF regarding professional players. However, this door opened a new one, and we get to see the 1972 Summit Series from a perspective of a former player and broadcaster. And Mr. Conacher's telling of the games is incredible. He doesn't beat the drum for Canada in his descriptions. Instead, he tells the story of Canada-vs-USSR as an objective third-party for the most part.

Later on, he speaks of his time as a player in the upstart WHA before moving on to his time running the Clinton Comets in the Eastern Hockey League. With the EHL struggling, the league became the North American Hockey League, and Clinton Comets became the Mohawk Valley Comets. Conacher spares no detail when describing the operations of the team - ticket sales, bus routes, players, community involvement, and the circus of the NAHL are all described with as much detail as possible.

Conacher explains how the NAHL becomes the league that inspired the movie Slap Shot, starring Paul Newman, is based on. Bill Goldthorpe, a goon in the NAHL, is the basis for the character Ogie Oglethorpe, and the Carlson brothers became the Hanson brothers in the movie. Goldthorpe, a Syracuse Blazer, was feared throughout the league due to his apparent love of fighting, and the Johnstown Jets' trio of brothers - Steve, Jack, and Jeff, aka the Carlsons - were just as insane with their intimidation tactics. The chapter entitled "Hollywood Comes to the Mohawk Valley" might be the best in the book with all the information that Conacher spills about the movie and how the NAHL played a huge part in helping it get to the silver screen. It might be the best reason to pick up the book, even if the rest of the history doesn't interest you.

After getting through the NAHL, Conacher goes on to speak about his time managing the Indianapolis Racers, and provides his thoughts on the WHA as a whole. The information that Conacher tells in those chapters really shows how the WHA was a league built on pillars of sand. Conacher would manage the Racers to respectability, and move on to manage the Edmonton Oilers before their jump to the NHL. After encountering a power struggle in Edmonton between himself and Glen Sather, he ends up managing Northlands Coliseum, now called Rexall Place. After successfully managing that arena, he is offered the job of managing Copps Coliseum in Hamilton. And soon after, he was knee-deep in managing Maple Leaf Gardens, watching the gong show known as the Maple Leafs from the sidelines.

What I really enjoyed about Mr. Conacher's writing was all the small details that get overlooked. Mr. Conacher, it seems, remembers everything, and that makes for a really good story. For example, Mr. Conacher recounts a story with the Comets' bus after the filming of Slap Shot that, if you've seen the movie, you can recall vividly:

"Later that summer, I got a call from our bus company saying that the 101 Beauty had been returned that night and that I might want to come over and look at it. One of the luggage doors had been badly damaged. It looked like someone had taken a large can opener and punched holes in it. I made several futile efforts to contact Universal Pictures, to ask them to pay for the repairs. I realized that the $6,000 I had received was all-inclusive. (When Slap Shot came into theatres in 1977, I finally found out the luggage door had been damaged by one of the players in yet another absurd hockey scene.)"
If you wanted a book that delves deep into hockey history while pulling no punches, Brian Conacher's As The Puck Turns is the book you want to pick up. His writing style is like listening to an old broadcaster paint a picture of life riding the buses, but he doesn't apologize for his beliefs or his values that he feels were important to him throughout his hockey-related careers. Because of this style, the book flows nicely along Mr. Conacher's timeline, and, as stated above, his attention to detail in all situations brings real feeling to the stories. Brian Conacher's As The Puck Turns is entirely worthy of the Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval, and I encourage everyone to pick up his book.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

No comments: