Monday, November 19, 2007

Book Review: As the Puck Turns by Brian Conacher

As the Puck TurnsGiving up stability for a life of diverse experience has its advantages. The greatest benefit is probably the realization that moving on is never a bad idea. Work hard, stay positive and take on challenges with a smile and you're almost guaranteed to carve out a decent existence wherever you go. The episodic nature of your life provides the motivation to keep moving, knowing that another chapter will bring the seminal moments, numerous friendships and fresh outlook that staying in the same place never could.

Brian Conacher lived a colourful and varied life in hockey, observing some of the greatest moments in the game's history over the past 50 years. Player, coach, manager and commentator were all roles he occupied at various times.  While he was never one of the best, most influential or longest serving in any of those capacities, he was still present during some of the most historic and memorable hockey moments of the last half century. He details those experiences in his autobiography As the Puck Turns: A Personal Journey Through the World of Hockey.

Conacher was a fringe player on the roster of the last Toronto Maple Leafs team that won the Stanley Cup in 1967. He picks up the narrative of his life after the '67 Cup win. Following that memorable season, Conacher joined the NHL Players Association at its inception, which brought him the disfavour of Leafs' coach and general manager Punch Imlach. He was subsequently cut loose and then signed with the Detroit Red Wings where he closed out his NHL career shortly thereafter.

Fresh out of the game and with experience playing on the Canadian National squad before his NHL days, Conacher was asked to participate in the broadcast of the World Hockey Championships in Sweden and he readily accepted. He bounced around after that point, going back to play with the National team, then taking on a full time broadcasting career, then attempting a short-lived comeback with the Red Wings.

Conacher would continue to play in the minor leagues for a number of seasons and would also pen his first book, which detailed the state of affairs of hockey in Canada. This earns him the enmity of NHL management and, together with joining the player's association, sets the template for the rest of Conacher's life and the remainder of the book.

Never afraid to question the status quo or stand up for his belief in how the game should be played, this resulted in some natural conflict along the way. Conacher wasn't one of hockey's good 'ol boys willing to become a yes-man to whomever may have advanced his post-playing career. Still, his persistence, love of the game and just plain good timing saw him as a close observer of some of the more interesting and exciting hockey dramas of the past five decades.

Conacher is asked to add colour commentary to Foster Hewitt's play-by-play of the 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series and he happily goes along for the ride. The game by game descriptions and the slowly changing mood of the series and public as detailed by Conacher provides the first real in-depth section of the book and it's a great beginning.

He laments the only real blemish on the series, which was the slash by Bobby Clarke onto the ankle of Soviet player Valery Kharlamov. Conacher's distaste for the violence and thuggery of the game becomes a running theme throughout the book.

Conacher has aspirations of coaching and managing in the game and pursues his dream with the Mohawk Valley Comets in the fledgling North American Hockey League. What follows is a lengthy section that is rammed full of the kind of anecdotes hockey fans will love. The trials and tribulations of trying to ice a competitive team and keep the organization financially solvent (Conacher was both coach and GM during his first two seasons with the Comets) provide for some interesting situations and characters.

He confronts the state of professional hockey in the 1970's with the creation of the World Hockey Association (WHA), NHL expansion and the resulting pressure for more players able to play in the top leagues. The increasing violence and goon tactics were a natural offshoot of the demand for more bodies and the fact that not all of them could be of the highly skilled type.

He loathes what takes place many a night as his team travels around the eastern U.S. and Canada visiting opposing teams and being faced with intimidation and violence on the ice. The sad part for him is that in many instances it results in winning hockey for the teams who chose such tactics. He resists going down the same path and in part it costs his team any real success.

Ironically, Paul Newman and the crew for the movie Slap Shot come to town to shoot scenes for the Hollywood film. A movie that exaggerates, ridicules and to some degree glorifies the very aspect of the game Conacher dislikes, his team and others in the league take part and serve as extras. There are some interesting details about the inspiration behind many of the scenes and the not so fictional players as well as observations on the side-show aspect of a Hollywood movie being shot in a small town.

Never one to stay in a situation beyond a point where he wasn't being challenged and also wanting to chase his dream of being a general manager in the big leagues, Conacher makes his next move to the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA. Taking over the GM duties of the Racers, whom the Comets had been affiliated with, Conacher enters the madhouse that is the WHA. Maverick owners, franchises going bankrupt and relocating and a league that is the bane of the NHL, all ratchets the intrigue up another notch.

Conacher realizes the Racers are in deep financial difficulty, butts heads with head coach Jacques Demers and sees the league poised on the brink of dissolution. A handful of teams are doing well compared to the others and so he jumps at the chance to take on the role of general manager with the Edmonton Oilers, one of the clubs expected to make it to the NHL if a merger ever goes ahead. Under the dual ownership of Nelson Skalbania and Peter Pocklington, Conacher is brought in by Skalbania.

In another surprise move that typifies the WHA, Skalbania sells his interest in the Oilers to Pocklington and buys a controlling share in the Racers, the club that Conacher has just left. With Skalbania gone, Conacher knows the gig is almost up and also realizes his dreams of ever being a real player in the world of pro hockey management are almost over. It's almost fitting that Conacher left the Racers before Gretzky briefly came on board and then finally bows out of the Oilers organization before the Great One signs on to make history in Edmonton.

In another instance of fortuitous timing, just as Conacher thinks he will move away from the game for good, he is offered a job as marketing manager at Northlands Coliseum, where the Oilers played their home games (and still do, though the arena has since been re-named.) While now on the periphery more than ever, the final section of the book chronicles Conacher's career managing NHL arenas in Edmonton, Hamilton (just as Copps Coliseum is being completed) and then at the fabled Maple Leaf Gardens.

Still in a situation to observe many of the great hockey dramas of the 1980's and 90's unfold, in many ways these accounts are some of the most interesting of the book. The stories surrounding his time at Maple Leaf Gardens will be especially intriguing to many.

The wealth generated by the Maple Leafs creates a palpable greed that flows through and affects every subsequent layer of the organization. Conacher details the litany of union affiliations whose members worked in the Gardens and the unique position they were in to squeeze concessions from the then owners and management who were loath to ever let a work stoppage prevent a game from going ahead.

Ticket sellers on the take, the outdated and inferior Gardens and the fortunes of the Leafs both on and off the ice are some of the topics covered during one of his final and most memorable jobs in the hockey world.

Throughout his life in hockey, Brian Conacher encountered a wide range of people, both well-known and obscure. He lets us know who he respected and formed lasting friendships with. He also gives the reader a reasonable indication of who he thought less of, though without ever descending into insults or attacks.

An autobiography is obviously one person's version of events and Conacheer seems willing in most cases to not pass judgment too harshly on various individuals. The accuracy of his rendering is given credibility by the fact that he questions and criticizes himself almost as much as others. He accepts that he doesn't quite have the ruthless nature to make it as a GM and even admits to advising Skalbania against signing Wayne Gretzky (after Skalbania bought the Indianapolis Racers and maintained contact with Conacher.)

The writing style here goes beyond the average hockey book. While never too deep or weighted down by lengthy sentences, there are more observations, related topics and extrapolating than many of the slim hockey volumes out there that come across as rush jobs. A decent length that you can sink your bashed up teeth into, I nonetheless almost always wish there was more when reading books about hockey.

If there is any criticism, perhaps there could have been some more cultural flavouring of the times as Conacher takes the reader through the various decades. But after all, it is a hockey book, and anything beyond the sport may have been seen as superfluous by many.

Conacher quite possibly uses more exclamation points than are seen in any other book of this length, but by the end it's part of his positive personality that you've seen come through in the pages.

Surprisingly, he doesn't devote a chapter to the 1967 Stanley Cup winning season with the Leafs. Perhaps because he didn't play a significant role on the team (though he contributed five points during the playoffs) or maybe because the amount of information already out there would make another account seem redundant.

While never a superstar or influential manager, Brian Conacher was a journeyman participant and observer of the game of hockey like few others. His adherence to a particular outlook and his own personal honour code riled some and possibly limited how far he went beyond his playing days. But it also resulted in wide-ranging experiences from within and on the margins. That tendency for not always going with the flow lends itself to an interesting narrative and natural conflict. Together with the number of stops Conacher made along the way, fans of the game have the opportunity to read a unique perspective on the past 50 years of hockey in Canada.

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