The Big 50: Detroit Red Wings

My first thought when I saw longtime Red Wings beat writer Helene St. James’ new book, “The Big 50: Detroit Red Wings” was, “Oh, great, another one of these books.”

I’ve admitted in the past that I have a hard time with Red Wings history books because, in the world of Wikipedia and social media and blogs and so many outlets for storytelling, it’s hard for a physical book – with its long lead time – to have anything new.  When we’ve heard all the stories, the book has to find a new angle to grab us.

To make matters worse, on its face, “The Big 50: Detroit Red Wings” is built a lot like 2014’s “100 Things Red Wings Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die” by Kevin Allen and Bob Duff.  It’s a collection of independent stories, each focusing on a different topic, without a narrative thread to follow aside from everything being about the Red Wings.  The two books even have the same image – a replica version of Henrik Zetterberg‘s home jersey – on their covers.

With that in mind I wasn’t expecting much and ended up happily surprised.

Many of the chapters, specifically early chapters on Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman, and Mike Ilitch, are surprisingly in-depth.  The Ilitch chapter, notably, includes a sidebar on often-overlooked Marian Ilitch.  This is repeated in a later chapter on James E. and Bruce Norris, where the sidebar covers the short reign of Marguerite Norris.

While certainly not a scathing commentary, St. James doesn’t shy from touching on some of the negatives of the Red Wings’ history.  The chapter on Bob Probert, for example, focuses as much on his off-ice issues as his on-ice successes.  With Probert it’s hard to separate the two but it can be – and has been – done, and St. James doesn’t take that out.  These books have the tendency to lean towards “fluff” but this one doesn’t, with the Probert chapter a particularly painful read.

Additionally, while the Red Wings organization has a tendency to ignore Larry Aurie and his retired sweater number 6, St. James includes it in a sidebar in the chapter about the team’s retired numbers.  As someone who thinks #6 should be in the Little Caesars Arena rafters, I think she could have taken that further, but just mentioning it at all is more than usually happens.

The book’s format does prove difficult from time to time, as it leads to a lot of repetition.  The story of the Russian Five, for example, is told in their own chapter, chapters on individual members, the chapter on the Red Wings’ playoff streak, Scotty Bowman‘s chapter, and the chapter on the 1989 Draft.  Somewhat humorous, to me, is that despite all of that repetition, there is no reference to the short-lived Russian Five II featuring Dmitri Mironov (though Mironov himself gets a mention in Tomas Holmstrom‘s chapter, with Mironov’s acquisition being the catalyst for Holmstrom’s early-career jersey number change).

There were also two editing errors that jumped out at me, taking me out of the story.  At one point, Anaheim goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere is referred to simply as “Sebastien Giguere” while the 2016 Stadium Series game in Denver is referred to as the Winter Classic.  Those things happen in publishing but seeing them made me laugh.

My original thought did hold in one part: There’s no getting away from comparing this book to Allen and Duff’s.  In my opinion, this one is the better of the two.

“The Big 50: Detroit Red Wings” by Helene St. James will be available from Triumph Books on October 13, 2020.

On Nicklas Lidstrom: The Pursuit of Perfection

Four years after being released in Sweden, Nicklas Lidstrom‘s biography is getting a bit of a makeover and an English release. Originally titled Lidstrom: Captain Fantastic, the update carries the name Nicklas Lidstrom: The Pursuit of Perfection.

Disclaimer: Not being Swedish-speaking, I never read the original. As such, I can’t speak to how much the actual content changed between the Swedish and English releases. While the increased page count (roughly 200 in the original compared to 278 [plus some pages of photos] in the new edition) would imply significant new content, it could also be due to a formatting change or the addition of an appendix including Lidstrom’s stats and records. The new book’s final chapter does reference events that occurred after the original’s release, so at least some of the content is new.

I’ve stated in the past that I like biographies that give a different view to the stories we already know. In the Internet Age, with events reported on from seemingly every angle in real-time, that gets harder and harder to do. Lidstrom’s biography is no different on that front. This being a second release makes it even more difficult, as the chapter discussing his injury during the 2009 Western Conference Finals might have been shocking had it not been revealed four years ago.

What makes Lidstrom’s biography unique is what made Lidstrom himself unique: consistency. Every chapter carries the same thread forward, showing how Lidstrom worked like a machine at every level of his career.

A chapter about his youth playing days? Here’s a quote from a coach describing how he was different even then. His rookie year in the NHL? Here’s Brad McCrimmon saying virtually the same thing. His international career? Here’s Peter Forsberg. His NHL breakout? Wayne Gretzky. His ascension to the captaincy? Steve Yzerman. The end of his career? Drew Doughty.

At every level of his career it would appear that the biggest names on the stage recognized just how unique Lidstrom was. Reading those players gushing over Lidstrom is a big part of what makes this book fun.

My personal favorite story from the book would be the one that’s also the most painful to me as a fan, as Lidstrom describes how much it hurt to lose Game Seven of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals. To see that it still haunts Lidstrom shows his humanity as a contrast to the machine-like performance he’s so famous for.

One final note: The book’s cover carries a bit of a lie.

I read that as “Nicklas Lidstrom with Gunnar Nordstrom and Bob Duff.” An autobiography with help from a couple professional writers. Which would be acceptable; I don’t think anyone would have been surprised if Lidstrom had narrated his story and allowed the writers to shape it as necessary.

The problem the book is in the third person. I don’t know how much was written by Nordstrom and how much came from Duff but – aside from the photo captions – it would appear none of it was written by Lidstrom himself. As such, it’s not so much “with” Nordstrom and Duff as it is “by” them. That might be a small thing but I do think it’s worth noting.

Nicklas Lidstrom: The Pursuit of Perfection is scheduled for release next week, on October 1, 2019.

Reviewing Gordie: The Legend of Mr. Hockey

I was recently asked to review the Detroit Free Press’ Gordie: The Legend of Mr. Hockey.  Due out in a couple weeks, the book is a collection of stories about Gordie Howe‘s career and a celebration of his life.

I say “a collection of stories” because it’s not a single, chronological narrative.  It doesn’t read like a standard biography.

Starting with an obituary by Mitch Albom and coverage of Howe’s visitation at Joe Louis Arena and his funeral, it moves on to a brief biography of his playing years in the context of his recent death.

These aren’t new or exciting stories.  If you were paying any attention last June, you’ve already read some version of them.  They are a fitting tribute, however, and a beautiful read.

From there it’s on – somewhat jarringly – to the debate about Howe’s controversially stem-cell treatment in 2014.  Then to anecdotes about Howe from the Freep’s writers and Howe’s contemporaries, and quotes from Howe himself.

The book closes with excerpts from Mark Howe‘s book, Gordie Howe‘s Son, and from the 1999 Free Press book, Century of Champions, before a look at Howe’s single-shift appearance with the International Hockey League’s Detroit Vipers and a recap of his career statistics.

The knock on this is that it’s structured like a coffee table book but it’s a paperback, with the result something more like a Sports Illustrated collector’s edition.

Of course, like those SI issues, collectors of Red Wings memorabilia will want this on their bookshelves.

As I said, you won’t find anything new here.  My favorite part was the Mark Howe piece, which was just an excerpt from another book.  These aren’t new stories but the value is having them collected in one place.

Gordie: The Legend of Mr. Hockey, will be available on September 1.

On Dr. Jack Finley’s Hockeytown Doc

I was recently asked to take a look at Dr. John Finley’s new book, Hockeytown Doc – A Half-Century of Red Wings Stories from Howe to Yzerman.  By coincidence, the request came on the heels of posting my thoughts on Tal Pinchevsky’s Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL – The Untold Story of Hockey’s Great Escapes.  I’m not looking to get into the business of book reviews but with no NHL games, I’m already reading more.

Over at Winging it in Motown, J.J. posted his thoughts on Friday but I’ve deliberately not read what he wrote, so our opinions may have some overlap.

Dr. Finley has assembled 23 chapters of anecdotes and personal thoughts formed over fifty years on the Red Wings’ medical staff.  His viewpoint from three rows behind the bench and inside the dressing room is unique.

It’s that perspective that makes the book worthwhile.  Some of these stories are things we’ve heard before.  His chapter on the Russian Five, for example, has a lot of overlap with Breakaway.  However, there were parts of those familiar stories that were new, things that only he could tell.

My personal favorite chapter was “Spring Fling,” in which he tells stories of the team party he and his family hosted every year.  A party so appreciated that, as Dr. Finley says, Bob Probert once asked to be invited back even if he was traded away from the Wings.

Another thing that struck me was how similarly former Red Wings’ czar Jack Adams and current team Vice President Jimmy Devellano were described.  This probably shouldn’t be a surprise, given Adams’ attempts at union-busting and Devellano’s recent “cattle” comment but it wasn’t until reading Dr. Finley’s words that the idea really clicked for me.

I do have some nit-picks about the book.  As a collection of 23 relatively-independent chapters, there’s a decent amount of repetition.  The roles of certain people are described multiple times, for example.  We’re told that Original Six-era dressing rooms were made up of “benches above which were hooks” several times.  Additionally, I caught at least one mistake in a player’s name, with Kris Draper being called Chris Draper.

As I said, those are nit-picks, the only things I could find wrong in an otherwise well-crafted piece of storytelling.

If you missed Dr. Finley’s signing at Hockeytown Authentics on Saturday, he has two more appearances scheduled in the coming weeks.  On October 14 he’ll be at the Kroger in Bloomfield Hills and on October 28 he’ll be at the Kroger in Troy.

On Tal Pinchevsky’s Breakaway

A couple weeks ago, Justin Bourne of The Backhand Shelf posted his recommendation of Tal Pinchevsky’s new book, Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL – The Untold Story of Hockey’s Great Escapes.  Having finished it last weekend, I’m finally getting around to posting my thoughts.

I’ll admit, I was a little underwhelmed, though I think that has to do with having heard parts of the stories before.  Growing up a Red Wings fan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it’s easy to have already heard (at least parts of ) the defection stories of Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, or Petr Klima.  The story of how European players were contantly tested and were percieved as too soft for the NHL was the story of the Russian Five era Red Wings.

I would have liked to know more about Konstantinov’s defection, in particular.  How do you go about bribing a doctor to give a cancer diagnosis in a collapsing Soviet Union?  Of course, with Konstantinov unavailable as an interview, that story becomes much harder to tell.

Negatives aside, there were a few things that really stuck with me from each of the stories.

With the early defections – Vaclav Nedomansky, the Stastnys, Klima – it’s amazing just how much the representatives of the North American teams had no idea what they were doing.  It really was a case of just flying over to Europe with a bag of cash and then figuring it all out on the fly.

The flip side of that is just remarkable: These players were willing to leave their homes with no plan, just a goal.  With that in mind, it’s not a surprise how often the hold up for a player was finding a way to get his significant other to North America as well.  You can’t just leave everything behind.

It shouldn’t be a shock (though I say that only after having read the stories) that some defectors aren’t willing to talk about their entire experience.  To them, it was something they had to do, not something they want to share.

Also surprising was just how isolated some of the early defectors were once they made it to North America.  Yeah, we heard a lot about Fedorov when he came over, but the thing to remember was that some of his relative success adapting came from what the Red Wings learned when Klima came over.

We’re talking about people who may not have spoken the language, may not have seen a supermarket, may never have had a checkbook or a credit card.  It’s one thing to adapt on the ice, it’s another thing entirely to change your way of life.

It’s incredible what some of these trailblazers were able to accomplish and what it took for them to do it. The NHL we know today would not exist without their efforts.