Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Hockey books

Don Gillmor in the new issue of The Walrus opines on the literary representation of our national game:

Hockey is our mythic game, as almost every hockey book states somewhere. It sings in our blood. Yet, unlike boxing or baseball, it has not produced a mythic literature.

There is great hockey writing, but much of it is in the short form. Mordecai Richler, Roy MacGregor (who has also written a novel and several books on hockey), Rick Salutin, and others have all written wonderfully about the game. . . Parts of the game are wonderfully captured, but the whole is seldom embraced, and epic treatment gives way to mere commentary. There are hundreds of books, many of them good, but only a few have entered the public imagination, have translated the game — its grandeur and meanness and poetry — into something lasting.

Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater is undeniably a classic. I read Roy MacGregor's The Last Season and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's proof of the depth of material that exists in a player's character, the drama of his career.

I can't say I've read many books about sports. I've never particularly enjoyed sports, as participant or spectator. I wouldn't ordinarily choose to read about them — fiction or nonfiction.

Over the years I've learned to appreciate hockey (I'm a hopeless cause for ever understanding baseball). I understand the rules. There's a simplicity and elegance to the game (though not always played elegantly). I'm familiar with its history, its highlights, its dynamics. I think I get it.

I'm in no position to compare the literary legacies of hockey and baseball. That said, the opening pages of Don DeLillo's Underworld are among the most compelling words written in English in the last century. And it's about baseball — the 1951 Giants–Dodgers pennant game.

"That’s the thing about baseball, Cotter. You do what they did before you. That’s the connection you make. There’s a whole long line. A man takes his kid to a game and thirty years later this is what they talk about when the poor old mutt’s wasting away in the hospital."

Hockey-inspired literature doesn't even come close. As Gillmor writes:

Books on hockey are often about innocence, that is, a time in the writer's childhood when the game represented something; or they are about decline, i.e., the present. Mordecai Richler wrote about both in his 1980 essay "The Fall of the Montreal Canadiens," which measured the thrilling days of BĂ©liveau and "Boom Boom" Geoffrion against the failure and dullness of the 1980 version of the team and his own waning interest in hockey. Nostalgia, despite its inherent distortions, has always been a necessary commodity in hockey literature because of the game's endless slide. Our own era (whatever that era is) is fractured and listless, but you should have seen it way back when.

Maybe that's the difference: Baseball knows it's a great game. Hockey, like the nation it symbolizes, looks backward, floundering for a sense of self.


Greg said...

Baseball stories almost all deal with the past history as well: the glory days of the sport. I'd say this is mostly because in modern America baseball is often no longer seen as our "national sport." This feeling is often attributed to the overpaying of players and the fact that sports like basketball and football are much more fast paced.

I've been enjoying your blog since reading a comment of yours at SC&A a few days ago.

Isabella K said...

I wonder what other sports, internationally, have inspired literature. Nick Hornby writing on football (soccer) is one example. Then there's a body of work to do with the tradition of bullfighting.

I don't know whether basketball and football have any literature to speak of. Maybe in part because they have yet to live their glory days; maybe you have to have that past to hearken back to.

Or maybe the "greatness" of the literature is directly proportional to the slowness of the game, as it allows for a full maturation of thought on the subject. Which may be why the hockey books are somewhere in the middle.