Tuesday, 25 January 2011

TBC: Hockey Trailblazers

Hockey has had a number of interesting players that have done some amazing things in their careers. From Wayne Gretzky's amazing scoring records to Martin Brodeur's records between the pipes, there have always been players that have been a notch above everyone else in terms of their talents. There have been a few players who have walked a path that no one else has during their times in the NHL, and that's the focus of Hockey Trailblazers, a new book written by Nicole Mortillaro and published by Scholastic. Hockey Trailblazers looks at five players who changed the way the game is played for many people across the world because of their heritages or gender, eventually making it to the NHL through their hard work and determination. These five people are definitely trailblazers in terms of who they are.

Nicole Mortillaro is an accomplished author, having published a number of books such as Something to Prove: The Story of Hockey Tough Guy Bobby Clarke and Jarome Iginla: How the NHL's First Black Captain Gives Back. When she's not writing books about hockey, weather, and the planet Saturn, you can find Miss Mortillaro working as the Associate Editor at Scholastic Canada. Miss Mortillaro works and lives in Toronto with her daughter, Sara.

Hockey Trailblazers looks at the paths carved by five players: Willie O'Ree, George Armstrong, Manon Rhéaume, Bobby Clarke, and Larry Kwong. Each one of these players has a significant story about their path to the NHL, and each player left a lasting legacy that many children have followed when it comes to their dreams of playing in the NHL. Miss Mortillaro does an excellent job at pointing out how each of these players were important not only for their contributions, but also for their ability to break down barriers that some people would have considered impossible to overcome.

If you follow hockey, or at least been keeping up with some of the events over the last few years, you should have a good idea of who Willie O'Ree is. O'Ree is best known for being the first black man to play professionally in the NHL. O'Ree broke into the league as a call-up for an injured player on the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens. O'Ree's NHL career didn't last very long - just 45 games with the Bruins over two seasons, the last being 1961 - but he would be the only black man to suit up for an NHL team until Mike Marson played for the Washington Capitals in 1974. Miss Mortillaro does an excellent job in telling O'Ree's story, and has some very good quotes from the NHL legend in her first profile.

The next player she covers is George Armstrong. Armstrong played 21 seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and was captain for eleven of those seasons. While this quite an achievement in itself, what made Armstrong's legacy even more impressive is that he paved the way for Native Canadian and Native American kids to look at professional hockey as a potential job! Armstrong was of Irish and Algonquin heritage, and his background led to his nickname of "Chief". Armstrong's captaincy remains the longest tenure of any captain in the Maple Leafs' history. Miss Mortillaro's work in this chapter is outstanding as she really highlights the importance of Armstrong's legacy in leading other Aboriginal players into following their dreams.

Miss Mortillaro profiles another trailblazer in the third section as she looks at someone who more recently made headlines. Manon Rhéaume's introduction to the NHL seemed more like a circus than an opportunity, but Rhéaume's breakthrough into an NHL preseason game has opened doors for other great female players to test their talents out in professional men's hockey. Miss Mortillaro includes all of the barriers that Manon Rhéaume knocked down: becoming the first girl to play in Quebec's International Pee Wee Hockey Tournament, becoming the first female in the QMJHL in joining the Trois-Rivière Draveurs, and becoming the first woman to play in an NHL game with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Miss Mortillaro's look at Rhéaume's career shows that she certainly opened doors for other women to play in professional hockey.

The fourth person profiled by Miss Mortillaro in Hockey Trailblazers doesn't seem like he should be included. Bobby Clarke's legacy in the NHL is quite well-known as he was the captain of the Broad Street Bullies, but his background is not that special. Where Clarke's legacy is seen is with his medical condition as Clarke is a Type-1, insulin-dependent diabetic. Diabetes can be a very difficult condition to balance with the demands and rigors of an NHL career, but Clarke showed many diabetics that they are only limited by their own abilities in controlling the disease. Clarke's ability on the ice opened many doors for players who may suffer from any disease, and he proved that he doesn't have to be held back by anything. Miss Mortillaro illustrates this point well in the chapter on Bobby Clarke.

The last player may have the shortest appearance in the NHL, but Miss Mortillaro shows that Larry Kwong's legacy has not been forgotten. Kwong was born in Vernon, BC to Chinese immigrants in the early-1920s. Growing up in BC meant that the young Eng Kai Geong - Larry's given Chinese name - got to see a lot of hockey, and began playing the game as a result. On March 13, 1948, after having been signed by the New York Rangers in 1946, Larry Kwong got the call-up to the Rangers as they faced the Montreal Canadiens that night. Kwong only saw the ice briefly in the third period, but he became the first player of Chinese descent to play in the NHL! Kwong played many more seasons across the globe, but this short moment in time with the Rangers was all he saw in the NHL. Miss Mortillaro shows the hardships that Larry Kwong faced as he played the game of hockey, but refused to be discouraged by anyone's discrimination towards him.

I really like Hockey Trailblazers due to the fact that Miss Mortillaro shows that not everything in the NHL has to be about statistics. These five players showed determination in becoming NHL players despite being different than the majority of players around them, but not one of them ever gave up. In addition to these five players, Miss Mortillaro gives a number of other examples of players who faced uphill battles to achieve their dreams, and these individual stories in addition to the five players profiled should show that the only person that can hold someone back from one's dream is one's self.

This is an excellent lesson for children today, and I really think Miss Mortillaro has done a great service for the youth of today in Hockey Trailblazers. In youth hockey today, we see all sorts of kids of both genders from various backgrounds playing the game of hockey, and Hockey Trailblazers shows that it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from when you're pursuing a dream. Because of this message, Hockey Trailblazers certainly deserves the Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval for showing that nothing should hold anyone back from following one's dreams. I highly recommend Miss Mortillaro's 61-page book for everyone as it is an excellent read!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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