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Sports Illustrated has put together the definitive book about the sport of ice hockey, drawing on its article archives and its photo library. This is a marvelous book, with huge, gorgeous color photographs. If you are a hockey fan, this tome is a valuable edition to your library. It also makes a great gift.
The book is best when it draws on its vintage files of the hockey greats. The best of the book, in this fan's opinion, are the stories and photos that covered the golden age of the NHL, immediately after World War II, when the NHL consisted of only six teams.
The minuscule number of teams (Montreal Canadians, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Black Hawks and the New York Rangers) meant that only the cream of the crop in hockey made the big leagues. All the big boys are here: Maurice (the Rocket) Richard, Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and the Esposito brothers; also the acrobatic goalies of that era, including Jacques Plante, Terry Sawchuk and Glen Hall.
Those were the days when the goalies didn't wear facemasks. The book includes a spectacular photo of Jacques Plant that appeared on the SI cover of Feb. 17, 1958 (unlike the cover photo in the magazine, the photo in the book is uncropped). The photo shows Plante peering out of his goal with his chin almost on the ice as he prepares for an assault by the New York Rangers. The tense-ness of the moment not only shows on Plante's face, but also on the faces of the fans in the stands behind the Montreal goal.
The book also includes the hilarious story written by George Plimpton when he played 15 minutes of an exhibition game in the Boston Bruins goal. Plimpton later published a book on that experience, but the original magazine article reprinted here will leave anyone squirming with laughter as the Big Bad Bruins set up the hapless writer - who played in the goal by while skating on his ankles.
One of the highlights is the famous photograph of Bobby Orr, stretched out horizontally three feet off the ice after scoring the wining goal in the 1970 championship game that gave the Bruins their first NHL Stanley Cup in 29 years (disclosure: the writer covered that game for UPI and interviewed Orr in the locker room after the game. Earlier this year, I ran into Orr and he signed a copy of the photo with the inscription, "Thanks for covering this game"). The account of how the photographer shot that amazing photo is also included.
Of course, the story of the 1980 Olympic Gold Medal won by the Americans is here, but for once the SI editors missed a chance to tell the complete story of American Olympic hockey: in the 50's, 60's 70's and 80's Olympic hockey was played by amateurs, no pros, and it was hockey at his finest. Dave Christian was on the 1980 team - and he was the son of Billy Christian and the nephew of Roger Christian who were two of the stars of the 1960 team that also won the gold medal in a fairy tale manner. And, of course, Herb Brooks the coach of the 1980 team was the last player cut from the 1960 team (further disclosure: the writer played on the 1965 U.S. National Team that included both Billy and Roger Christian, as well as Brooks).
There is also the touching story of Travis Roy, the young hockey star from Maine, who was permanently paralyzed in the opening seconds of his first game for Boston University in 1995.
If there is a weakness to the book it is the lack of documentation on the earliest days of hockey in Canada. Howie Morenz and the great goaltender Georges Vezina are mentioned, of course, but the focus of the SI book is on modern day hockey. This hockey fan wished there were more of those grainy photographs of the earliest players wearing their skimpy uniforms. There is too much lore from that era that is missing in this otherwise excellent book.
The book also seems a bit disjointed. When we do get photos from the earliest days, they are interspersed with photos of modern-day hockey. It can be confusing.
But overall, this is a fabulous book that documents the wonderful sport of ice hockey - the national sport of Canada, and a sport that has spread throughout the United States and Europe and more recently in Asia. If you love hockey, you're going to love this book.