Niagara Gazette

December 8, 2013

SINGER: The recollection of hockey icons

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A long-running Sabres coach, whose tenure coincided with the span of many young fans’ lives here, made a triumphant return earlier this fall at the helm of the Dallas Stars, receiving an ovation.

That notwithstanding, Mr. Ruff’s autobiography would probably not be a splendid read. My feeling is that people who are great in their disciplines are those whose memoirs, even when co-written, are most worth picking up.

And that’s absolutely true of the hockey realm. Of course for a long time there was heated debate on the greatest ever, which is hard to judge, given that eras are so different in this, as in any pro sport.

But two names that once floated regularly to the top were Wayne Gretzky, and from an earlier period, Gordie Howe, the latter lasting on ice almost as long as Methuselah. Predictably, the “Great One’s” memoir (“Gretzky: An Autobiography”) is a fine read all the way.

As for Howe, aficionados ought to scare up a long, marvelously full family production called “And... Howe!” —because Gordie was not only a great hockey player, but a wonderful family man; and his late wife Colleen, and pro alumni sons, Mark and Marty, contribute greatly to recollections here.

Odd perhaps, given that on ice Howe was as brutal as he was sweet at home. Why brutal? Not out of sadism, but because to survive when less than 200 in the world made Original Six teams and were as expendable as bottle caps, you had to out-crazy your opponent, as he put it! Gordie’s elbows were legendary, and when I saw him play as a young ‘un, I wondered how a guy who looked ponderous out there could have the puck so frequently nailed to his stick. One reason was that he inflicted stitches like a surgeon, and even in the case of a pesky young Mikita, a one-punch KO (behind the net and while play was still going!) to gain both respect and ice room.

One neophyte Howe clobbered in the mouth (for no apparent reason), making blood flow like an open hydrant, was Phil Esposito; but unlike others, Espo slashed Howe right back, and Gordie later told him that this was his way of trying to “own” guys for the duration of their careers. If a rookie stood up to him, he’d fare better.

And Espo was always his own man, gaining the esteem of Bobby Hull when he broke in with the Hawks; then enrolled by Bruins’ coach Harry Sinden to dump in goal after goal from the slot, working with an incomparable group of dedicated players, en route to two Stanley Cups in Beantown. Espo’s autobiography is fascinating, but its off-ice content will be too salty for young readers!

Which is also true of a more recent offering by Jeremy Roenick (“J. R.”) — one I loved through the Keenan era in Chicago, Iron Mike being the hated and loved coach who made Roenick into both goal-scorer and toughie. I liked it less after that, as Roenick migrated from one team to another and never had another leader like Keenan (who won a Stanley Cup with New York in 1994 and now coaches in Russia).

I was fortunate to watch from a vertiginous seat, as Roenick burst all over the Aud ice circa 1990 against the Sabres. You could already denote something special in this kid of 20 or so, who became an instant star, admired even by basketball’s Charles Barkley. Did he also party? Yes, he and Espo led the league in that department as well, before predictable eras of recovery ensued.

Did all these greats get along well with each other? Not invariably. In J.R.’s case, while he (and Espo) lauded Gretzky’s way of seeing the ice and playing almost like an extra-terrestrial, Roenick did not at all take to the Great One’s coaching near the end of his career in Phoenix.

I guess we should just be glad for the individuality and greatness these people demonstrated as players. It certainly made good raw material for memoirs — but what of Bobby Orr’s just-published autobiography? That one requires an entire piece of its own!

B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.