Hello and welcome to the first installment of Fear the Fin’s Summer Book Club.
Summer is a great time to relax with a good book, so for the next few months, the Fear the Fin staff will be reviewing our favorite books about hockey. Well, they aren’t all going to be strictly about hockey, but we promise they will be books that are about sports and well worth reading. But most will be about hockey. Also, “reviewing” might be a bit strong; we will be writing about our favorite hockey books, and we hope you will join us in discussing them.
Here is our tentative schedule:
June 1: The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL by Sean McIndoe. (I swear I am getting to it)
June 15: In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity by Eric Anderson
June 22: A Canadian Saturday Night: Hockey and the Culture of a Country by Andrew Podnieks
June 29: Take Your Eye Off the Puck by Greg Wyshynski
July 6: Behind the Bench by Craig Custance
July 13: This Team Is Ruining My Life (But I Love Them) by Steve “Dangle” Glynn
July 27: The Russian Five by Keith Gave
August 10: This Is Your Brain on Sports by Wertheim and Sommers
As you can see, we have have some open dates left. If you want to see your favorite hockey book featured, let us know, and we will do our best to work it into the schedule. Or, better yet, write it up yourself as a Fan Post, and it may get featured on our front page!
Let’s get to this week’s book: The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL: The World’s Most Beautiful Sport, The World’s Most Ridiculous League (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2018) by Sean McIndoe, aka Down Goes Brown.
I have been a fan of the great game of hockey for as long as I can remember. And I have also spent a large chunk of my life studying history. So the nexus of hockey and history is right in my wheelhouse. When I read this book, I knew I wanted to write about it. In fact, it is entirely fair to say that entire Book Club project was inspired by The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL.
So what is this book all about? In McIndoe’s words:
“No matter how long you’ve been a hockey fan, you’ve known the sinking feeling that maybe, just maybe, some of the people in charge here don’t always know what they’re doing. And at some point, you’ve probably wondered: Was it always like this?
The short answer is yes.
As for the longer answer, that’s this book.”
(McIndoe, Sean. The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL (p. 1). Random House of Canada. Kindle Edition.)
“The idea here is to trace the history of the NHL from its earliest days as a four-team organization (that almost immediately shrank to three when an arena fire left one team homeless) to its current iteration as a multibillion-dollar monstrosity. We’ll look at the story from a fan’s perspective—from yours and mine—and cover the best, the worst and (especially) the downright odd. This book is about the moments that brought you out of your seat, but also the ones that left you just shaking your head. Because Lord knows, the NHL has given us plenty of both. (p. 2)”
The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL is broken up into 25 chapters, some of which cover a full decade, while others are focused on a single season (Chapter 16, “The Greatest Season Ever”), or even a single event (Chapter 12, “The Trade”). These chapters cover the standard history fare that one expects to find in a history book: the formation of the league, its early years, the Original Six era, expansion and so on. It will be no surprise to those familiar to McIndoe’s writing that the bulk of this book focuses on the league from 1980 onward. As somebody who grew up watching hockey in that era, I greatly appreciate that focus.
There have been many books written about the history of hockey and the NHL, so what makes McIndoe’s work unique? If you haven’t picked up on it from the quotes above (well, and the title itself), what differentiates this book from other history books is that while the latter tend to be deferential to the powers that be (or were), The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL exposes, and revels in, all of the amazingly unbelievable things that have happened in the league’s history. Following each chapter is a short “Strange But True” section, in which McIndoe tells a story that is, well, strange but true. These little vignettes are my favorite part of the book.
For instance, did you know that Pittsburgh Penguins coach Red Kelly once “handed out earmuffs in assorted colours to his players and encouraged them to wear them on the bench in an effort to muffle any unpleasant rink noise.” (p. 58)? How about the fact that Purina (the dog food company) tried to move the St. Louis Blues to Saskatoon, SK, and sat out the 1983 draft because they weren’t allowed to do so? Or, my personal favorite, that Edmonton Oilers’ owner Peter Pocklington and Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard once almost traded teams? Seriously: “The Oilers (as in, all of them) would head to Toronto, with the Maple Leafs (again, every one of them) going to Edmonton. The owners would swap cities as well” (p. 114).
The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL is as informative as it is funny. McIndoe honors the league’s history on the ice, while simultaneously skewering its off absurdity. This book is as informative as it is funny, and it is essential reading for any hockey fan with an interest in history.
If you have read this book, what did you think? What was your favorite Strange But True story?
We’ll wrap up our first installment of Book Club with with some bonus content. McIndoe graciously answered a few questions about his book and NHL history for us:
East Bay Ry: There are a lot of great stories in your book, some bordering on unbelievable. In researching and writing this, was there anything that made you think “no way that actually happened” when you first learned about it?
Down Goes Brown: Oh man, there were so many. I’d say that was probably my first reaction to most of the “strange but true” pieces. I’d known some of this stuff before I sat down to write the book, but some of the stories just leave you shaking your head. Ballard and Pocklington agreeing to swap teams, players being forced to officiate their own game, Ace Bailey’s armed father trying to hunt down Eddie Shore for revenge, Cleveland being awarded the seventh team in the Original Six era, the ear muff game… it just goes on and on. This league has always been so strange.
EBR: The Sharks joined the NHL in 1991, in the NHL’s 75th season (loved those NHL 75 patches from that year), which means that the Sharks and their fans missed out on the majority the league’s history. Should we be jealous that they don’t have a longer, richer history to celebrate? Or thankful that, by the time they entered the league, things weren’t quite so wild and unpredictable as they had been in the previous decades?
DGB: Well, full credit to the Sharks, because they’ve packed plenty of history into those 28 years. But yeah, the longer the history, the better. You want to be able to at least get a big bite out of the John Ziegler era, where bizarre things would happen and then the league couldn’t do anything because the president had disappeared and nobody could find him.
EBR: Is there one fact or story that you wish all hockey fans knew?
DGB: I don’t think enough fans know about the NHL’s color barrier. Not just Willie O’Ree, who’s finally getting the recognition he’s long deserved, although that’s a big part of the story. But O’Ree broke the barrier in 1958, and the league didn’t get its second black player until Mike Marson in 1974. The barrier was basically put back up for well over a decade. Marson’s name should be far better known than it is.
EBR: Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for further reading for those of us who enjoyed your book?
DGB: I list a bunch of books in the acknowledgments section, but a few I could mention would be Jonathon Gatehouse’s book on Gary Bettman, and the D’Arcy Jenish history book. And if you’re on twitter, make sure you’re following people like @Dave_Stubbs, @MikeCommito and @NHLhistorygirl.