Thursday, November 1, 2007

Book Review: King of Russia by Dave King with Eric Duhatschek

Dave KingLiving and working in a foreign country for an extended period of time opens your eyes to new ways of doing things. But more importantly, it shines the clear light of observation and comparison on your own culture. The experience is fraught with contradictions.

You may be granted a kind of unearned respect and admiration simply because of where you come from and the Hollywood fueled set of myths and half-truths about western countries that exist everywhere in the world. You will be resented by others for the same reasons. You'll feel like a minor celebrity on occasion and an outsider much of the time.

Dave King was a celebrity in a foreign land in the real sense of the word as he became the first Canadian to coach a team in the Russian Super League. King spent one season behind the bench of Mettalurg Magnitogorsk and writes about his experience in King of Russia: A Year in the Russian Super League.

With some of the top Russian talent in the league at the time, including Evgeni Malkin, who has since moved on to play with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL, King offers up a first-person account written in the journal entry style.

While there are no great underlying themes or in-depth observations here, what you will find is a running narrative of King's reflections both on and off the ice as he guides his team to a record breaking season. Detailing his adjustment to life in a different culture and hockey environment, this book provides a good glimpse inside the emerging Super League. Outside of the NHL, the top Russian pro league boasts some of the best talent, most crazed fans and wealthiest clubs willing to throw around millions to develop and keep players.

In some of the promo material for King's account, I've read a quote regarding one of his earliest meetings with team officials (which also appears in the book), and reference to the team "bag man" who carries around a suitcase full of money to pay expenses and sort out any problems. It seems di rigeur in the past few years for all accounts of an outsider's life in Russia to latch on to some of that maverick, wild-west intrigue that the country has become synonymous with in the post-Soviet era.

However, King of Russia really isn't that kind of book. Simply for the fact that King is in the drab and polluted mid-sized city of Magnitogorsk for one reason and that is to win hockey games. Nor does he lead the kind of off-ice life that would result in rubbing shoulders with any real dodgy characters of the kind who provide such great fodder.

By his own admission, he's a pretty straight-laced individual. When not coaching hockey he really only occupies himself with two pastimes. Jogging and eating pizza. Seriously. Though there are still a fair number of characters who pop up throughout and various questionable ways of conducting business are hinted at, the real focus is the hockey and the simple discoveries of living in a new country. While including many amusing anecdotes, the language and style of writing King uses to describe his Russian adventure leaves a bit to be desired at times.

There is no standard procedure regarding how a ghost writer goes about taking the words of his subject and hammering them into readable prose. Perhaps some do extensive interviews. Others may require a rough draft from the primary author before they go over the manuscript, fine-tuning it and adding depth. Depending on the writing skill of the individual who is seeking the help of the more experienced author, the labour involved could be extensive or minimal.

It's not much of a stretch to say that Duhatschek was probably only involved in this project in a clean-up role (the "with" before his name on the cover of the book is also a giveaway.) The "Hat" is one of the best hockey writers in the business. Together with his extensive hockey knowledge, what sets his work apart is his turn of phrase and the absence of cliches.

However, in some parts of this book, stock phrases and sayings are in abundance. They are unavoidable to some degree in both speaking and writing. But in my opinion, there should be at least some attempt to purge the bulk of them from any ready-to-be-published work.

There are stretches of the book where bland and pedestrian observations are served up at a furious pace. "...he was just so good," "He's amazing," “Man, is he tough,” and "He's a real character guy," are just some of the opinions we are enlightened with.

After a hundred pages or so of anyone's writing, tendencies and patterns naturally appear. This can help to create expectations and increase that sense that you're really getting to know the author, especially in a first person, non-fiction book like this. Other times, it can make your eyes glaze over.

For example, King regularly uses "so"; that school-boy phrasing that is popular when trying to emphasize. In one page and-a-half span, he writes, "so proud," "so serious," "so excited" and "so interesting."

For some readers this may be a positive aspect of the book. It lends a conversational feel to the writing and probably is an indication of how King talks with people. Throughout the most interesting passages it works to good effect. Those most intriguing and engaging sections are when he writes about the Super League and the culture of hockey in Russia.

A handful of teams in Russia's top professional league spend at a rate close to NHL clubs, though King dispels the notion that there is anywhere near the type of funds available for most, nor do the revenue possibilities exist like in the North American game.

Some of the inexplicable holdover traditions from the Soviet era provide him with plenty to shake his head at as the season progresses. The constant struggle to keep top players like Evgeni Malkin from leaving for the NHL after teams have invested countless years and efforts in making them the athletes they are, is another interesting topic.

King and his wife Linda live in a simply furnished apartment within walking distance of the arena where the team practices and plays. His observations of life in the neighbourhood where he lives and in other parts of the country he travels to for games, add a nice touch to the book. He makes no bones about the fact that he has no desire to "go native," and the extent of many of his reflections on the ways of Russians is that they aren't quite up to western standards in many regards.

The perceived inanities of different cultures ring true. The catch-all answer to queries about bizarre and illogical practices is "This is Russia." Substitute "Russia" with any other country and that tired response sums up the frustration of trying to adapt in a place where people can't or don't always want to fully embrace newcomers.

Some other good "sub-plots" run throughout the book including his run-ins with the wacked out team pharmacologist and the stray dogs that he and his wife take care of.

My main criticism of this book is that it could have gone much further in terms of the descriptions and observations provided. King meets a player from the 1972 Canada/Soviet summit series in the street and it rates only a few sentences. His team plays Canada in the Spengler Cup final and, while the tournament garners a few pages, there is little on the championship game itself. Many players, such as Malkin, are mentioned on numerous occasions but you don't feel at the end that you really have a good grasp of who they are.

However, these types of criticisms are mainly due to my own expectations. The style of writing does grow on you and the cumulative effect of a multitude of brief musings also has its appeal.

King really hits his stride when discussing his coaching philosophy, his relationship with his players and how the team grows together and overcomes struggles as the season progresses. It's also a perfect backdrop for looking at the Russian system and style of coaching in comparison to how the game is played and taught in Canada.

I'm not sure if King planned to write the book regardless of the success he had in Russia, but things couldn't have worked out much better in terms of providing a good story-line.

The narrative peaks right at the appropriate time as Magnitogorsk enter the playoffs and make a strong run. The excitement builds up with detailed and well recounted games that latch onto key elements that swung the momentum either way (and I'm guessing Duhatschek worked overtime in helping out on these sections.)

As a counter to the lack of "character development" (even though it's non-fiction) King seems to excel at describing the strengths and weaknesses of various players on the ice.

This is a pretty entertaining read as far as it goes. I just wish it had gone a bit deeper and offered more insight. One thing it definitely left me with was a desire to learn more about the Super League. An easily accessible writing style makes this book appropriate for readers of different ages. While it may be on the light side for some, it still provides an interesting look inside the world of Russian hockey that many fans will appreciate.

3 comments:

  1. Hi Ken. Thanks for bringing the book to readers' attention. Did you ever read Phil Esposito's book, "Thunder and Lightning"? It's pretty great.

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  2. No, I haven't read Esposito's book yet but have heard good things about it. The Code is also another hockey book on my list.

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  3. [...] vous ai déjà parlé du livre -excellent- King of Russia relatant l’expérience de Dave King en tant qu’entraîneur-chef d’une équipe [...]

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