About the Author

Al Strachan

Al Strachan is a journalist and former columnist for the Toronto SunThe Globe and Mail, and The Montreal Gazette. He was a regular commentator on Hockey Night in Canada and The Score, and The Satellite Hot Stove. Strachan has been writing about hockey and hanging out with NHL players, coaches, general managers, and owners for thirty years. He is a member of the media section of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Connect with him on Twitter @Winsford99.

Books by this Author
99

99

Gretzky: His Game, His Story
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged : sports, hockey
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Go to the Net

Go to the Net

Eight Goals That Changed the Game
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
tagged : hockey
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Excerpt

Introduction

It has often been said that baseball must be a wonderful game to withstand the people who run it.

That’s true not only of baseball.

Hockey, too, is a great game–a lot greater than baseball, in my opinion. And it has travelled a much tougher road than baseball when it comes to withstanding the impact of those who have directed its course.

Like most Canadians, I grew up with an inherent love of hockey. One of my fondest early memories is scoring on a breakaway for King Edward VII Public School in a game we won 1—0.

I try not to remember with the same degree of clarity that the only reason I got the breakaway was that I was so far behind the play that there was no one within thirty feet of me. And that the only reason I scored was that I fell as I approached the crease, took a wild swipe at the puck while sliding on my stomach, and somehow batted it past a goaltender who was too confused (or possibly amused) by this unorthodox approach to make the save.

In Windsor, Ontario, in those days, you were either a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadiens. Even though Detroit was right across the river, the Red Wings were generally viewed as the Evil Empire because they had the right to prevent the Windsor CBC-TV outlet from showing games the rest of the country was watching – and they exercised that right with disgusting regularity.

We were Detroit Tigers fans. We were Detroit Lions fans. But never the Detroit Red Wings.

I switched allegiances on a regular basis, rooting for whichever of the two Canadian-based teams was having a better season at the time. If the Leafs played the Canadiens in the playoffs, my choice that year would be determined by some long-forgotten whim.

As a hockey writer, I followed basically the same principle, but with a slight alteration: now I admired not just the best Canadian team, but the best NHL team.

Over the years, I’ve been accused of being a flack for almost every team in hockey – well, not every team. Only the good ones – a fact that puts the lie to the beliefs of thousands of readers who, upon seeing some criticism in print of their own favourite team, fire off nasty letters accusing me of taking this stance because I live in Toronto and am therefore in the pocket of the Leafs.

Suffice it to say, that isn’t a view that would receive a lot of support from the Maple Leafs themselves. As I said, my soft spot is for NHL teams that do well.

At the time I undertook to write this book, no NHL team was doing well. The owners had locked out the players at midnight, September 15, 2004, and there was to be no major-league hockey for the foreseeable future.

Nothing could have had a more profound effect upon the society in which I exist.
The hockey world is like a village, a small community of two thousand or so people in which, to varying degrees, everyone knows everyone else.

A tragedy that affects one member affects everyone. Consider how many hockey people from all over the continent turn out for a funeral for one of their number.

The common thread, the defining characteristic, in this “village” is not the location in which one lives – quite the contrary – but the avocation one holds.

At the core are the players. They are the elite tradesmen. Without them the lifeblood of the village would dry up. The NHL governors would be the landed gentry, the ones who own the means of livelihood. Their managers would be those same people who do that job in hockey – the general managers, coaches and assistant coaches.

The media? Well, they’re the village gossips, the ones who spread the news about who is doing what to whom, and how often.

But if you’re going to make the analogy work, you have to accept the premise that there are two types of hockey media people/gossips.

There are those who cover a number of sports, whose knowledge of hockey ranges from abysmal to acceptable and who are basically visitors. They are comparable to migrant labourers who merely visit the village when their job demands it.

The other type of media person is the specialist whose life revolves around hockey and who rarely gets involved with any other sport. These are the hometown experts. Some would say they’re idiots savant, capable of rambling on about the minutiae of the game for hours – even days, weeks, months and years – on end, but incapable of intelligent discourse on any other subject. That may or may not be true. Certainly some of them come perilously close to fitting that description. But for better or worse, this is the group to which I belong.

When you’re in this group, you’re a genuine resident of the village. You may not be accepted as an insider by everyone, but you are certainly “one of us.”

You are recognized and called by name. Like any village resident, you have your detractors and your confidants. You are part of alliances that evolve and devolve over the years. You share with the other residents the inherent details of life on this planet as they relate to each other – births and deaths, illnesses and recoveries, marriages and divorces, joy and sorrow.

The hockey village isn’t just a place to live. It is your life. You can never get away from it.

Other people go home in the evening and watch television. If you do get home at all in the evening–if you’re not in an arena covering a game – you watch hockey from cities across the continent.

Other people go out amongst society and discuss a variety of subjects. You go out and face the hockey questions of the day. In the autumn, people want to know about their favourite team’s chances. In the winter, it’s the issue of the moment – a suspension, a firing, a slump or a hot streak. In the spring, the impending playoffs are the subject du jour, as well as the cornucopia of potential trades before the deadline. In the summer, it’s the playoffs themselves, followed closely by the draft and the free agents.

Rarely do those you meet in the larger world want to talk to you about the things normal people use as a basis for discourse–recent movies, current events, the weather or the latest political scandal. They want to talk hockey.

Underlying it all is the implicit assumption that if you write about sports for a living, you’re mentally incapable of discussing anything else. Either that, or they’re simply not interested.

As a result, the inclination of those within the hockey community to rely on each other becomes even more pronounced. You tend to restrict your circle of associates to people of like interests – the other residents of the village. You have friends in every major city in North America, as long as that city has a hockey team.

Your closest friends are people to whom the phrase “Thank God It’s Friday” has not the slightest relevance. Saturday and Sunday are working days like all the rest. There will be days off, but not generally on a weekend.

All of which is to say that when hockey is your life, not your pastime, and the owners decide to shut down your sport – as they did in 2004 – you know how the people of Morrisburg, Ontario, felt when they learned that the government had decided to flood their town in order to create the St. Lawrence Seaway.

This is hockey’s darkest hour, and unfortunately, there’s no reason to put any faith in the adage that the darkest hour is just before dawn.

Hockey has had its ebbs and flows, its peaks and valleys. Like the other sports, it has evolved over the years, and a cursory study of natural history would indicate that the course of evolution is not a steady one. There are periods of rapid progress and periods of slow, gradual development. And periods of stagnation.

We don’t know what the game will be like when it comes back after this latest trauma, but we do know where it has been. At the moment, by virtue of stirring victories in both the 2004 World Cup and the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, not to mention other recent triumphs in junior hockey, women’s hockey and the world championships, Canada is the reigning hockey power in the world.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Hot Stove

The Untold Stories of the Original Hockey Insiders
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover
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Over the Line

Over the Line

Wrist Shots, Slap Shots, and Five-Minute Majors
edition:Paperback
tagged : hockey, sports
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Excerpt

It is almost inaccurate to say that I started covering hockey in 1973. The game that I wrote about in that year bears no resemblance to the game called hockey in 2011.
 
Here are twenty quick facts about hockey in 1973 that are not true about hockey in 2011:
 
1. All sticks were made of wood.
2. Helmets were optional and rare. There was even a goalie – Andy Brown of the Pittsburgh Penguins – who played without a mask.
3. All two-line passes were illegal.
4. There was no advertising on the rink boards or on the ice surface.
5. Most teams were coached by one man with no
6. The crease was rectangular.
7. Bench-clearing brawls were commonplace.
8. Players wore tube skates.
9. Teams were not allowed to call time out.
10. There were sixteen teams in the National Hockey League.
11. There was no instigator rule.
12. There were no European players in the league.
13. Overtime did not exist during the regular season.
14. Shootouts did not exist.
15. There was no video replay.
16. Most games were not televised.
17. The goaltender could play the puck anywhere in his half of the rink.
18. Players’ pads were soft.
19. The Stanley Cup was always awarded in early May. In 1973, the ceremony took place on May 10.
20. The game was officiated by one referee, not two. Those are just some of the tangible differences that are obvious to anyone who has been watching throughout the last four decades, even to those who do not understand the nuances of hockey.
 
There are many others. And there are also many more subtle changes that have significantly affected the way the game is played today.
 
In 1973, a winger skated up and down his wing. Because the NHL had been exposed to Soviet hockey only a year earlier, during the Summit Series, there was no European influence. There was none of the swirling, wideopen game that every team plays today. And while those wingers were dutifully skating up and down their wings, they were often checking their opposite number, who just as dutifully stayed on his wing. The checking, such as it was, was implemented by skating alongside the opponent.
 
Today, wingers and centres skate backwards to do much of their checking. A player breaking out of his own end can look up and see six opponents facing him. That would never have happened in 1973.
 
If a more physical approach were required, you would bump your opponent into the boards. Although there was the occasional exception, it’s safe to say that for the most part, you bodychecked a player in an attempt to get the puck.
Today, you bodycheck him to take him out of the play. It’s called finishing the check, and it’s all but mandatory.
 
The concept was initiated by Mike Keenan, who wanted to make opponents leery of being in possession of the puck. In theory, they’d get rid of the puck as soon as possible, even if it was dangerous to do so, and their timidity would give Keenan’s boys an opportunity to capitalize.
 
The problem is that the practice of finishing the check has become so widespread that it has resulted in a host of players who don’t really care whether there’s a puck on the ice. They just want to go out and finish their checks.
 
When a scoring chance developed in 1973, the shooter looked for an open area of the net and aimed for it. Today, as often as not, there is no open area of the net to see. The goalies have mountains of padding, and their skating ability is so vastly superior to that of their 1973 counterparts that they can come out and cut the angle without worrying that they’ll be trapped.
 
You didn’t have to shoot high to score in 1973. When I once goaded Ken Dryden by announcing that the scouting report on him said he could be beaten by low, hard shots to the stick side, he responded with a sigh and a statement that was perfectly true in those days: “Al, every goalie can be beaten by low, hard shots to the stick side.”
 
Today, goalies drop into the butterfly position at the first hint of a shot and thereby cover the lower fourteen inches of the net. Low, hard shots to the stick side rarely go in.
 
There were no butterfly goalies in 1973. Far from it. The legendary coach Eddie Shore insisted that his goalies remain standing. He was so adamant on this point that in practice, he was known to tie one end of a rope to his goalie’s neck and the other end to the crossbar. Shore was involved in hockey until 1976, and even though he was no longer coaching, his approach to the game was widely followed.
 
The players’ regimen in 1973 was totally different as well. Training camp lived up to its name. It was for training. Players relaxed all summer or “worked” for beer companies – often by playing softball at a brewery sponsored event. When they came to camp, they did so to lose excess weight (if you’re playing beer-league softball, you don’t drink milk after the game) and to get in shape for the coming season.
 
A common refrain from coaches in the early part of the seventy-eight-game season used to be, “We’re not in shape yet.”
 
You never hear that any more. Players today do not get out of shape. They might cut down their workout load for two or three weeks, but by August, they’re back in the rink, getting ready for the upcoming eighty-two game season. They also have team trainers and personal trainers.
 
The 1973 trainer carried equipment bags, sharpened skates, and kept the stick rack full.
 
Today’s trainer is qualified to make a number of medical decisions and is an integral part of the players’ conditioning. After games, he or the team masseur – another position that did not exist in 1973 – can work on players while they’re on their charter flights.
 
In 1973, a team might have had a charter during the playoffs, but the rest of the time, it travelled on commercial flights the morning after the game.
 
Today, visiting teams are usually on the way to the airport forty-five minutes after the game. At the time of day when the 1973 team would have been on the bus to the airport, still in the city where it had played the previous night, today’s team is getting up for breakfast in the destination city or at home.

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Don Cherry's Hockey Stories and Stuff
Excerpt

Toughest Guy
People always ask me who’s the toughest guy I ever played with or played against. When you spend your career in the minors, there are a lot of them. Connie “Mad Dog” Madigan. Sandy “Stone Face” Hucul and Bill “The Destroyer” Shvetz. I’ll talk about those guys later.

But I think the nastiest guy I ever saw was Larry “The Rock” Zeidel. He was from Montreal and I played with him in my second year in Hershey. I don’t know how he got to our club, but he got to our club and he was my partner, and I knew there was going to be problems. He said that when we set up behind the net, when he’s in one corner and I’m in the other and he’s got the puck, that we should holler plays like football. We should holler “X” or “Y” or “Z.”

I’m thinking, “Oh boy, this guy is really something.”

I remember when we were on the road and we got new gloves and Obie O’Brien, our captain, went to see a doctor in Cleveland, and while Obie was in there, all of a sudden, the bottles started to bounce all around in the doctor’s office. Larry was out in the waiting room and he was punchin’ the walls. He said, “Hey, we gotta break these gloves in.”

Eddie Shore
Eddie Shore, “The Edmonton Express” because he had played in Edmonton even though he was from Saskatchewan, was a mean, nasty guy who could take pain and he loved to dish it out. I think the more you hurt him, the better he liked it. And I know he liked to hurt the other guy.

He used to come out on the ice with a cape, if you can believe it. He thought he was Superman. He was a Saskatchewan boy and he started out as a bronco buster. He didn’t start skatin’ until it was kinda late, but once he took to it, look out!

He had more injuries, and was he tough! He played with stitches in his leg and when they broke open, he just kept on playin’. There was blood all over the place. One game, he had a broken jaw and a broken nose, lost some of his teeth and kept on playin’.

One practice, he almost lost his ear and the doctor wanted to cut it off. Eddie said, “There’s no way you're cuttin’ it off,” and he went and found a doctor who would work on it, and believe it or not, he didn’t take any painkillers or needles or anything.

He even put the needle where he wanted it and told the guy how to sew him up right. He knew everything. He really did. Even how to be a surgeon. He had everything down pat.
* * *

Shore thought he was a chiropractor, doctor, rocket scientist, everything. If you ever thought you had a headache or a cold or anythin’, he always thought it came from your neck, if you can believe it.

He did it to me once. He had monstrous hands for a little guy, and he’d grab your neck. He’d twist your neck and try to crack your neck. He’d holler, “Relax! Relax!”

How can you relax when he’s tryin’ to break your neck?

So we’re all in the dressing room waitin’ to go out one time, and some guy makes the mistake of saying he didn’t feel well, so Eddie goes and grabs the guy’s head and starts twistin’ it this way, twistin’ it that way, twistin’ it this way.

There was a guy named Dennis Olsen who really had a dry sense of humour and we’re all quiet, sittin’ there, and out of the blue sky, Dennis looks at Eddie and he says, “Eddie, can I ask you a question?”

Eddie just glares at him and says, “Yes.”

And Dennis says, “Did one of those ever come off in your hands?”

Eddie was not amused.

Brian Williams
It was January 4, 1987, and I get a call that I was supposed to go down to the CBC and help Brian Williams with the World Junior Championship. It wasn’t Hockey Night in Canada calling, it was CBC.

Well, I didn’t really want to go. I just didn’t feel like it.

The fact is, I had a hangover to start with. Besides, the NFL playoffs were on and I figure who the heck is going to be watching the CBC when the NFL playoffs are on?

Also, it was kinda dicey whether Canada would win, but if they won this game and the next game, they’d win the gold.

So the game’s going along pretty good and Canada’s winning, and it’s near the end of the first period. All of a sudden, I look up and all the Russians come on the ice. Well, everybody knows why the Russians come on the ice. They had no chance of winning the gold. Canada had a good chance.

The Russians watched to see if they were gonna get beat, and they were. The coach sent everybody on.

Well, the Canadian coach was Bert Templeton, and what’s he gonna do? Pat Burns was the assistant coach. What’s he gonna do? Are they gonna hold their guys there while twenty guys beat up six? So out they go.

It’s the first time in my life – and I’ve been through hockey for a million games – that I’ve seen every guy goin’ at it. I understand the Canadian trainer punched out their trainer. Even the backup goalies were goin’ at it.

And if you remember, they couldn’t stop it. The referees just skated off the ice.

Then they turned off the lights.

Brendan Shanahan told me after, “You should have seen what we were doin’ while the lights were out.”

So they finally get broke up and Brian Williams, who’s the host of the CBC show, comes on and says, “It’s a black mark. These boys have to learn that they can not be hoodlums.” And he’s goin’ on like that.

I understand that one of the team executives went in and gave it to them in the dressing room after, and the kids were crying. And I have to say that the three guys who were doin’ the broadcast and the colour didn’t stick up for them, either.

So I says, “What the hell? I’ve been on television long enough, I guess,” so I’m gonna go down swingin’.

So Brian’s goin’ on about it bein’ a black mark and a disgrace and I turned to him and said, “Look, if you don’t send those kids on the ice, what are you gonna do? Are you gonna let twenty Russians beat up six Canadians?”

I went on like that. I thought I was finished, ’cause you’re not supposed to say that kids should be sent out to beat up other kids and stuff like that. The CBC was a little touchy at the time.

When we went away for a break, I said, “Brian, if you say about these kids one more time that it’s a black mark against them – you say it one more time – and I’m gonna grab you right on television.”

He knew I was serious, so he moved his seat.

Mike Milbury
I see Mike Milbury on television on TSN. I see him on NBC. I see him on the Bruins’ TV broadcast. He has become Mr. Hockey on television in the States and now with CBC.

I wonder if he knows how close he came to not being involved in hockey, at least with the Boston Bruins.

In Rochester, when I was unemployed, I coached a high school hockey team. It was in Pittsford. Pittsford is a very rich little suburb on the outskirts of Rochester. They have a lot of money and I was unemployed, so I coached the high school. But I never got paid for it. Bob Clark, a lawyer and one-time part owner of the Rochester Americans, who was a good friend of mine who lived there, asked me if I’d coach the high school team, so I did.

While I was there, I had a young defenceman by the name of John Hoff, and he went on to play in the Ivy League at Colgate. He came back one summer, and I was coachin’ Boston by then. He was tellin’ me about playing at Colgate and said, “Boy, there’s a guy there you should get a look at. He’s a big, tough defenceman. He’s not bad. His name is Mike Milbury.”

Well, I forgot all about it.

The NHL teams always have a meeting in the summer and they go over who’s comin’ to training camp. We had about sixty guys comin’, and for some reason, I said to the head scout, John Carlton, “John, isn't there a guy who plays around here, plays for a college like Colgate or Cornell or somethin’? Mulberry or somethin’?”

“Mulberry?” he says. “I don’t know any Mulberrys. Oh, you mean Mike Milbury! Yeah, he’s not bad.”

“Okay,” says I, “put him down. Add him to the end of the list. We’ll give him a chance anyhow.”

So he was about the sixty-first. That’s how close he came to not comin’ to the Bruins.

Harry Sinden
One time we were flyin’ back from Atlanta. Harry wouldn’t get us a charter, so we had to get up at five in the morning and fly back, and we couldn’t land in Boston because there was a snowstorm. We had to fly on to Hartford and land there.

I’m often asked, “What was the scariest plane trip you’ve ever taken?”

Well, there has been a lot. I told you the story about the one into Chicago when we circled in the plane over Lake Michigan trying to get into Chicago O’Hare.

But I think the very worst was this one.

I’ll tell you, you couldn’t believe the snowstorm. You couldn’t see anythin’. We were bouncin’ all over and we were sittin’ at the back.

We really thought this was the biscuit. Some of the guys were really nervous. We thought we were gonna have it right there.

I said, “Well, guys, if we go down, we go down in first spot.”

There was a pause, and then Milbury said from the back, “Yeah, and with a game in hand.”

Everybody broke up at that one.

We finally landed in Hartford. We had to go and get cars, believe it or not. This is the National Hockey League and they didn’t have a bus waitin’ for us. We had to rent cars, take our equipment in the cars, get back and play the Canadiens, who had been in their beds while we were playin’ in Atlanta. That story is comin’ up.

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