Monday, June 30, 2014

Phanatic Book Review: Gordie Howe's Son

"I'm not going to thank you for being my line mate for six years and I'm not going to thank you for elbowing the guy who may have taken a dirty shot at me. I'm not going to thank you for being the greatest hockey player ever. 

"I want to thank you for being the husband, father and grandfather you are. You are the role model that led my life. I'm so proud to call you my dad."


Mark Howe's stirring final words in his Hockey Hall of Fame speech from November, 2011 to his father, none other than Gordie "Mr. Hockey" Howe, still resonate.

Many have stated that the younger Howe's belated induction was a direct result of his father's overwhelming on-ice greatness, and former Flyers beat writer Jay Greenberg attempted to chronicle Mark's journey to the summit of his profession while trying to carve out a name for himself, with a book released last Fall.

It's an engaging read from start to finish, if nothing else than for the fact that we finally get to see the life of a man content throughout his career to lead by his play and not by his voice laid out by Howe himself. It's a relief, really, to read thoughts given the proper time to digest and coalesce, given how uncomfortable a public speaker Howe seemed during his Hall induction and his subsequent jersey retirement ceremony by the Flyers in March of 2012.

Whether you're a Flyers fan sick of hearing all the stories of the good old days from relatives or a student of the franchise and the sport mining the pages for some new nuggets of wisdom and anecdotes, this book is well worth your time.

What is most intriguing in revelations of the father-son dynamic over the decades, was that the elder Howe never really took to life in hockey beyond donning the uniform -- both in Detroit and Hartford -- and endured painful splits with both clubs that never really did anything but set him up as a figurehead, while the younger Howe continued to carve out a successful post-playing career as a respected scout for the Red Wings. Nonetheless, it never caused any friction between the two, which could have made for a juicier, more salacious subject.

Included are never-before-published pictures of the Howes throughout the years, as well as a toned-down but still fairly graphic account of another way the family made history: the 1981 incident where Mark's hind quarters were pierced by the metal protrudance that used to anchor the old-style nets in a goalmouth collision with Islanders forward John Tonelli. Even tough old Gordie had a unique reaction -- one more fatherly than his typical gruff on-ice demeanor -- to that freak injury.

In the wake of the potentially life-altering accident, the current free-standing net design was created. To know that Gordie is now 86 and in need of greater care, brings extra poignancy to that story and others contained within between father and son, both on and off the ice. 

Since it's an overview of Mark's hockey life from beginning to end, don't get caught into thinking the section on his 10 years with the Philadelphia Flyers gets a glossy treatment. There's a section close to the end which describes the end of Howe's days here and his return to Detroit for the final three years as a player, as well as an excellent description of the differences between how the Wings and Flyers operate, from Howe in his current role as a scout. 

There's also excellent insight surrounding the still-forgotten 1972 Team USA hockey Silver medal winners from Sapporo, bits about the craziness that surrounded the World Hockey Association, and some unexpected personal anecdotes that add extra dimensions to a man many of us were used to seeing only from behind glass partitions or on television.

Here's the problem, and if you've ever encountered an author who alludes to and quotes his or her work through multiple releases, it's a big one:

Greenberg undertook a massive research project in the mid-90s, going through years' worth of archives from before the Flyers set skate on NHL ice, as well as his own personal writing with the Daily News, and came up with nothing less than the definitive history of the franchise through its years anchored on Pattison Avenue in Full Spectrum. This is a book which I have praised and referenced and quoted from on multiple occasions across several sites, and which I will not hesitate to call a master work. 

If you bought or were gifted this tome, either in its original white hardcover version or its updated black-jacket edition which included the 1997 run to the Cup Finals, you've read through the three main sections covering the decade of the 1980s, including the chapter called "Close Enough to Cry," which tracks the Mike Keenan years that include two Stanley Cup Finals losses to Edmonton and Pelle Lindbergh's death. Two other chapters, entitled "Long Pants and Long Faces," and "No One Monkey Stops the Show," also feature Howe as a primary mover.

Howe spent 10 years in a Flyers uniform, from 1982 to 1992, and was the club's best defenseman, injured or healthy, during that period. You'd think a good chunk of what he had to say in this new offering might be different from anything else previously published, but it's little more than some uncensored conversations and vignettes featuring Keenan and his players of the era.

Unfortunately, a significant portion of Howe's "recollections" came almost verbatim from the above-mentioned work. If Howe wasn't directly providing his perspective, certain phrases and sentences were lifted to further the narrative, and if not done wholly, those quotes were clipped and left in as portions of sentences. At some points, it appeared that Howe wasn't even speaking for himself, merely repeating what Greenberg wrote 18 years ago as if he were providing fresh insight.

It seems a bit disingenuous, but I bet Howe has no idea and Greenberg is betting you either hadn't bought his earlier work or if so, didn't pay attention closely. This is not what I expected from a man I grew up reading and who has been elected to the Hall of Fame as a writer, but I can understand how tedious it might be to construct a new narrative when you've done so much to formulate the definitive one.

If none of that bothers you, then you're still in for a rich re-telling of the second renaissance of Flyers hockey. 

The latter stages of the book deal with things we all have to face as we grow older: the care of elderly parents, and the particular pain when one or both suffers a decline due to failing health. Mrs. Hockey, Colleen Howe, passed away in 2009 after a decade-long battle with Pick's Disease -- something which rattled the foundations of the game's first family like nothing before. For anyone who ever met Mark or saw him working away quietly in the upper tier of the Wells Fargo Center press box, his reserved demeanor never hinted at the private toll it took on him.

The end result is, picking up this book will make even casual Flyers fans more knowledgeable about certain dynamics inherent in the path players take to the top of their profession and how that process affects and informs their personal and professional lives. When viewed through the prism of the NHL's first all-time icon and his equally-talented son, who now share enshrinement in Toronto, you're in for a solid read that is steeped in, but doesn't overdo, its emotional core.
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