The Crazy Game: How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond
By Clint Malarchuk with Dan Robson
HarperCollins, 260 pages, $32.99
Mr. Hockey: My Story
By Gordie Howe
Viking, 242 pages, $32
All The Way: My Life on Ice
By Jordin Tootoo with Stephen Brunt
Viking, 224 pages, $32.95
Canadian publishers hatch as many books about the national pastime as there are ponds from Sheet Harbour to Pickle Lake, at least – more than one could reasonably read and also hold down a steady job.
There are unassailable standard bearers in the canon of hockey literature, among them Searching for Bobby Orr (Stephen Brunt), The Game of Our Lives (Peter Gzowski), The Home Team (Roy MacGregor), The Game (Ken Dryden), that have made things difficult for those of us who've also tried, yet have given us something to aim at.
The natural assumption is that hockey is so popular, any book on the subject will succeed. That's why so many come out, and so many are awful. On all matters relating to hockey, Canadians are frenzied and educated. Something they feel is this Romantic and Epic and Part of Us can't easily be spun. Many hockey books are too narrow, the product of obsessive writers who cover the sport for a living and find Every. Little. Thing. So. Interesting. Or they reclaim familiar subjects long ago made threadbare by over-examination. (Surely, even for us, there is such a thing as too much hockey.)
There are several ways to tell a hockey story and all involve grabbing emotion, history, hope, disappointment or an icon by the throat, ideally all at once.
It helps if the story is fresh, topical, interpreted cinematically, says something about our nation and who we are, or is so beautifully composed that the joy comes simply from reading. Barring that, rugged confessional, well written, works nicely. In a world where so much in sport that happens away from the field of play is stage-managed artifice, rugged confessional can be as good it gets.
This season brings three player-focused books – each on three distinct athletes – that attempt to explain and explore either sprawling or emotionally complex subjects.
Mr. Hockey: My Story by Gordie Howe is out 68 years after his NHL debut and attempts to be the definitive account of the legend's career. All The Way by Jordin Tootoo with Stephen Brunt, and The Crazy Game by Clint Malarchuk with Dan Robson, are gut-churning stories that look back and lean forward.
Howe's story is well known. (He has written, with help from his wife and son, two previous books and is the subject of a number of others). His recently deteriorating health suggests that Mr. Hockey will be his final take on life and an immense sport-defining career. In examining his Depression-era upbringing and mining Howe's rich family life, the story is a satisfying trip through Canadiana and does a lovely job of explaining the ways Howe's life off the ice shaped his life on it. Fans of the player or merely the history of the game (and if you respect one, you respect the other) won't be disappointed by this attempt to be epic, and tell the small stories in a big way.
The hockey lives of Jordin Tootoo and Clint Malarchuk aren't romantic in this way. They are muscular and disturbing, and this makes them, particularly as long narratives unspooled over years, quite satisfying.
Everyone knows Tootoo. From Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, he is the only Inuit to play in the NHL, making the Nashville Predators out of training camp in 2003. Shortly after he was drafted, when Jordin was 19, his older brother, a junior hockey player, committed suicide. The title of the book comes from a phrase Terrance used in his suicide note, urging Jordin to do all he could to make the NHL. But making the NHL did not make Jordin's life easy. He loved to party, and abused alcohol to cope with his brother's death, the impoverished, troubled environment he grew up in, and his newfound attention.
The narrative alternates between the voices of Tootoo and Brunt. Tootoo's is brutal and abrasive, but so is the subject matter. Brunt's gentler prose opens each chapter, softening the coarseness and offering important context in a refined way. The transitions are effective.
It's a tough book to read. Tootoo's childhood in Rankin Inlet, his alcoholic parents, his brother's suicide, that he partied much of his NHL career away, churns in an unburdened, uncomfortable gallop. The story is brawny and nothing is sugar-coated, but he's no dumb jock.
Tootoo says he's been sober since completing a league-mandated rehab program in December, 2010. Interesting are his thoughts on fighting and how he has evolved over the seasons, how removing alcohol from his life and dealing with his anger has changed – but not eliminated – his role as a tough guy.
The book is unusual. Most athletes wait until their careers are done and confessionals are rare. (See Mr. Hockey.) It's fair to say Tootoo, after eight seasons in Nashville and two diminishing ones in the Red Wings organization, is challenged to keep his current spot with the New Jersey Devils. He is much closer to the end of his hockey career than the middle.
The Crazy Game follows more the athlete pattern. Malarchuk's playing career ended 22 years ago, and he hits bedrock with this story. He worked the crease for 11 seasons for the Quebec Nordiques, Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres, a good-at-times, but never great, goalie. Then, on March 22, 1989, as he puts it, "I woke up famous. Not NHL-famous, but CNN-news-cycle famous."
In what may be the most horrifying public sports injury ever suffered, an opponent's errant skate slashed Malarchuk's throat and he nearly died on the Sabres home ice. His recounting of the accident, only about two pages of the book, is almost impossible to read closely. It's obvious he's still shaken by what happened. But there's much more to his story.
Malarchuk has suffered from anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder since he was a child, and all were exacerbated by the accident. He drank too much and burned through three marriages. The book opens with him putting a gun to his chin and pulling the trigger in front of the woman who is still his fourth wife.
Robson, who writes for Sportsnet Magazine, has constructed a compelling narrative that is somber but never dips into self-pity. There's a lot of self-awareness among this raw and tortured subject matter.
Malarchuk is open about how difficult the process was, and it is a satisfying reveal. He was the Calgary Flames goaltending coach as he was working on the book, nearing the end. Reliving his past brought back his depression and he drank to self-medicate. With help from Flames GM Brian Burke and the NHL substance abuse program, Malarchuk returned to rehab and has been sober since.
The Crazy Game leaves you feeling that nearly bleeding out on the ice in the middle of a hockey game is the least traumatizing thing that's happened in his life. Malarchuk's expansive confessions around mental health may have been terrible for him, but it will only be a good thing for the rest of us.
In the end, as with everything, the most reward comes with the deepest reveal, the one that leaves you a little breathless, a little shaken, and leaning forward, thanks to looking back.
Shawna Richer is Sports Editor of The Globe and Mail.