Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Review: Eddie Shore and That Old Time Hockey

"Nearly all of Shore’s gleaming white teeth were store-bought, the originals having been ejected from his mouth, and his nose, despite having been broken countless times, was straight. Shore had light hazel eyes that crinkled when he laughed, and when he spoke, his voice was disarmingly soft, lowering almost to a whisper. “Oh,” he once confided quietly of how he had kept his nose in line, “if you grab it quick just after it is busted and fit the edges together, it will grow as good as new. I always set my own nose. I twist it around until I feel the edges grit and then put a plaster across it to hold it flush.
Anyone queasy yet?

No? Good.

Because if you want to read about the original era of NHL hockey and its heroes like Eddie Shore, then you will need a high tolerance for brutality, at least half as high as the players tolerance for the pain and suffering they endured during the barnstorming days of the best hockey league in the world.

Eddie Shore was undoubtedly the biggest name to emerge from that time, and his name is still used as a synonym for “tough hockey”. They called Shore the “Edmonton Express” from his days with the Edmonton Eskimos in the Western Canadian Hockey League, but he made his fame in the NHL with the Boston Bruins between the years of 1926 and 1940, winning two Stanley Cups and four Hart Trophies as league MVP. The NHL did not create an award for best defenceman until the 1950’s, but it’s safe to say Shore would have won his share as well.

C. Michael Hiam’s 2010 book “Eddie Shore and That Old Time Hockey” is as good a portrait of that era as you can get your hands on, simply because Hiam doesn’t just track the great defenceman Shore’s life as most traditional biographies do, but rather spends a considerable amount of time on the other great personalities of that age, like rivals Frank “King” Clancy of Ottawa, Howie Morenz of Montreal (whom Shore himself thought was the best hockey player in the world) and of course the ill-fated Ace Bailey of Toronto, whom Shore would catastrophically injure in one of the most notorious episodes of on-ice violence in NHL history.

We meet Bruins teammates like the vicious Sprague Cleghorn, whom Hiam calls “the master of the clenched fist coming out of nowhere…the skate to the groin, the elbow to the head, the stick across the face…over the head…the butt end in the ribs.”

We meet mercurial owners and managers like Maple Leafs legend Conn Smythe who was inspired by a nameless sergeant in the First World War who was brave enough to put a fellow wounded soldier out of his misery with a bullet to the head on the battlefield. “I always admired that sergeant…for doing what had to be done.” Smythe would take that mentality and apply it to his career in the NHL, although he always had a soft spot for the rival Bruins’ Shore, even when Shore nearly killed one of his best players, Ace Bailey.

Of course, the Bailey incident is a major section in this book because it comes to define not only the violent nature of the sport at that time, but also the conflicted character of Shore, who at heart was a loner and whose hobby was playing the saxophone rather badly in his time off from scoring goals and terrorizing opponents.

In a game in Boston between the Bruins and the Leafs on December 12, 1933, Shore was hit by the Leafs Red Horner and slid into the boards in a daze. When he collected himself, the first Leaf player he saw was Bailey and Shore hit him hard, sending Bailey to the ice where his helmet-less head bounced sickeningly off the ice. Bailey went into convulsions and nearly died on several different occasions in the hospital before making a miraculous recovery that shocked even his doctors (although he would never play hockey again). Shore, who also got sucker punched by Horner after the hit and knocked unconscious, had to take his family into hiding while Bailey clung to life in the coming weeks. Shore expressed deep remorse for what happened while the media and fans decried the incident as just the latest in a league that fostered senseless violence (sound familiar NHL fans?). Shore quickly became a pariah.

Yet the league, and Shore, survived the crisis and there is a famous picture of Bailey and Shore shaking hands together prior to a benefit game for Bailey in Toronto, which would come to be known as the first All-Star game, a tradition that continues to this day.

Hiam covers this incident in great detail and it becomes the highlight of the book as he shares both the agony of the Bailey family and the sorrow that Shore felt for years afterward. It is the counterpunch to the somewhat lighthearted shenanigans that Hiam covers in the first part of the book. The sticks over the heads and the knockout fights seem brutal enough, but they also have a comic book quality to them because all those players, most notably Shore, would keep playing through incredible injuries that are hard to believe. The Bailey incident quickly puts that into perspective and a serious tone begins to emerge that wasn’t there before.

If there is one criticism I have with Hiam’s meticulously researched book, it is that he tends to spend too much time on the minutia of individual games. Some Stanley Cup matches seem to be described in almost a play-by-play manner and it slows the book down sometimes, when I suspect most readers are more interested in the off-ice moments that Hiam relays so well.

But that is a minor quibble. The stories and anecdotes you will remember from this book are worth a few small patches of dry reading.

The last quarter of the book deals with Shore’s post-playing career as the skinflint owner of the minor league Springfield Indians, where he did everything from park cars, paint the walls, trade players and suit up for the team himself. This is the Eddie Shore that people like Don Cherry and Brian Kilrea talk about all the time, having served under his iron rule for years while they chased the NHL dream in the minors.

Shore was a tyrant and specialized in treating his own player’s serious injuries with a form of Marquis de Sade inspired chiropractic techniques that often left the player in worse shape than when he went on to the cold metal table in the training room.

This part of the book is so funny and cruel that you end up wishing Hiam had written another 25 pages on it.

Overall, a fascinating read. Give it to your friend who is constantly going on about how violent the NHL is today. I suspect they will change their tune rather quickly once Hiam is done dispensing anecdotes like this quote from hockey legend Frank Patrick at the time of the Bailey injury:
“Cecil Blanchard of the Wanderers was the first to be cut down. I remember the blood just spouted out of his head when he was crashed deliberately by a stick. It was not a tap. The stick was brought down like a butcher swinging a cleaver. Then Alf Smith skated the width of the ice and cold-bloodedly carved down Hod Stuart. This wasn’t an accident. It was done deliberately. Stuart was knocked senseless on the ice. He was bleeding unconscious. If such a thing happened in hockey today the offender would be at once ruled out for life – and still critics talk of murderous hockey and all such rot. They haven’t seen anything.”
You can get this book at all the usual places. If local to Ottawa, try supporting a smaller independent book store that could really use your business. Here's a few from Ottawa Start.


Michael Hiam said...

Hi Jeremy,

A detailed, thoughtful, and fair appraisal for which I am appreciative. Unlike some other reviewers (who will go unnamed) it is evident that you actually READ my book before writing your review. Keep up the good work.

Michael Hiam

Jeremy Milks said...

Thanks Michael,

Had a lot of fun reading that book and lent it to a friend to read as well. I'll be looking forward to seeing what you do next.

All the best,