Saturday, February 04, 2012

Feel the Darkness

Gare Joyce wrote an article about the Canadiens' struggles for Sportsnet not too long ago. It made a lot of people unhappy. Some for some legitimate reasons (historical errors), some for less legitimate reasons (oh god someone said something bad about a team I like). I enjoyed the article. For all its faults, it was interesting. I haven't read much by Joyce over the years, but what I've read has been thoughtful, the work of someone who thinks about hockey and its meaning beyond "the sport makes me feel good about my country/my city/my team/me."

That alone puts him in rare air. There's a lack of good hockey writing compared to other sports -- without trying I can find a mess of good stuff about basketball, a sport I don't really care about, but lasting hockey work? There's "The Game," Jason Cohen's "Zamboni Rodeo," Kent Russell's sporadic work at N+1. That's about it for real high-quality stuff. There isn't much coming out regularly in the way of good hockey writing -- the Guardian's soccer section has more fine writing in one week than the general hockey media manages in a year. The Classical's great on just about every sport, but its limited hockey coverage thus far has been of the "anthropological study of this mysterious 'hockey on ice'" stripe. Maybe it's difficult to write well about hockey? Maybe good writers aren't drawn to hockey?

So back to Joyce. The article was interesting, thoughtful; I was glad I read it even though I don't care a lot about the Canadiens beyond finding their fans pretty entertaining (seriously, Leaf fans: be less like Leaf fans and more like Hab fans). It was interesting enough that I clicked straight over to Amazon and bought the least-outrageously-priced copy of "When the Lights Went Out."



The book centers on the "Punch-up in Piestany," the bench-clearing brawl between the Soviet and Canadian juniors that ended with both teams booted from the tournament (costing the Canadians a shot at the gold medal, though it was a pretty remote shot). After the 1972 Summit Series and the 1980 Olympics, I'd guess the P-UIP is one of the most famous international matches (at least for North American audiences). It certainly seems to be the source of considerable jingoism.

Thankfully, Joyce mostly avoids that. He's sympathetic to both sides, and gives Russian voices heavy play. He pushes the "robotic Soviet" myth out of the way early (and I think he gets through the whole book without referring to Russians as "enigmatic" -- GREAT JOB! Now follow suit, everyone else on planet earth). Alex Mogilny is the most interesting person in the book (alas, with perhaps the least to say about the Piestany game).

The players on both teams, however talented, were still just kids, and they've got Joyce's sympathy. The Canadian teens were largely abandoned by the power structure that was supposed to be supporting them, and Joyce does a fantastic job showing just how strange and confusing this was for the kids.

There are a couple oddities, things that aren't expanded upon: at one point then-IIHF President Gunther Sabetzki is described as being anti-Canadian, but the only supporting evidence given is that he refused to put maple syrup on his pancakes (by that standard, I may be guilty of a hate crime since I don't drink Molson). Sabetzki and a few other international officials are faceless villains, looking for an excuse to toss the Canadians out -- their side isn't given much weight. It would have helped. (though it would have also been difficult -- Sabetzki died several years before this book came out.)

Still, though: this is a really good book. It shies away from hokey, this-is-our-game self-congratulation. Instead it's honest, thoughtful writing, reassuring me that the world of hockey literature doesn't have to be a wasteland.

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