Wednesday, March 21, 2007

When the Lights Went Out
A Q&A with author Gare Joyce

A few of you may be familiar with veteran sportswriter Gare Joyce, author of When the Lights Went Out, and a recent addition to the hockey blogosphere.

I had the chance to run a few questions by him recently after finishing his latest book on the 1987 world junior hockey tournament brawl, and the results are as follows:


Q What was the main impetus behind writing the book? Piestany isn't something that comes up often in current hockey conversations, given the tournament was in its infancy in terms of a national sensation at the time, and only a few of the players went on to NHL fame. Were you worried about reaching a wide audience with a book about a 20-year-old game? Was there one book or article that perhaps provided some inspiration?

A TSN did one of their lists a few years back of the most memorable games between Canada and the Soviets or, more recently, the Russians. Game Eight of the Summit Series was No. 1 of course and Mario finishing off Gretzky's pass in Hamilton in '87 was runner-up. But Piestany was either third or fourth on the list, which seems pretty fair. And I'm sure that if you made up a list of most memorable games from the under-20s, Piestany would be at the top — and there'd be a helluva drop-off when you get around to naming No. 2.

If you watched that game at the time — which I did — you were caught between the belief that Canada could win by five goals and the foreboding that the game was out of control. Only when I sat down with a video of the game last year did I realize just how brutally physical (and almost comically dirty) it was. Theoren Fleury said it was by far the dirtiest game he ever played in — and when you figure that he played in the last instalments of the 80s-era Flames-Oliers match-ups, that's saying something.

I'd say more than a few NHLers went on to fame — on the Canadian side you had Shanahan and Fleury and Mike Keane leading the way; on the Soviet roster Mogilny and Fedorov and Konstantinov stand out. I think if you looked at, say, the rosters of the Canadian and Russian teams that played in Halifax a few years back, you'd actually see that more players from that bad '87 Soviet team made the grade in the NHL than will come off the '02 Russian team (Ovechkin notwithstanding).

The key to me wasn't numbers of players who went on the NHL but their significance — beyond simple statistics and Stanley Cups. Shanahan went from a popular player with a great sense of humour to a leader in the movement to fix a game that had been dragged down to a crawl. Fleury wasn't the most troubled player of his era — Fogarty and Kordic among others would be up ahead of him — but he was surely the most gifted troubled player. Mogilny was the first player to jump the wall, which in retrospect took amazing courage — almost recklessness — to do at age 20. He and Fedorov might have been the biggest enigmas of the 90s — a guy scoring over 70 goals, the other winning a Hart Trophy, and yet there was always a notion that they could have been even better if they were more passionate about the game. In the rear view mirror, I suppose that we didn't give them enough credit for how seriously they took the game (more so on Fedorov's part).

For me, a pretty good measure of the potential audience was the views of the fight on YouTube — not up in the millions but a steady churn of thousands over a month or so. I figured I could count on forty- and fifty-something hockey fans who watched the game to have an interest in the book.

(Youtube shows 111,000 views of this clip but I think there's more than one clip of the fight on the site. There's also a clip of Shanahan and Luke Richardson — two teammates on this Canadian team — fighting each other in the pros only a few years back.)

As far as an inspiration for the book, this will sound weird but I was inspired by a book called Sons of Mississippi.

It's the history behind a photograph that appeared in Life Magazine — and it evolves into a meditation on racism in the early '60s American South. I wanted to use the Piestany game as a springboard to get at all the significant developments in the game in the late 80s and 90s, including but not limited to:
  • the arrival of players from Eastern Europe
  • the elimination of bench-clearing brawls
  • the emergence of the world junior tournament as a highlight of the hockey season
  • the flowering of Don Cherry as a full-throated voice not just in hockey but in the national culture

Q
Pierre Turgeon certainly gets a rough ride in the book. Isn't is a little bit of a strange situation to have players who had cups of coffee in the NHL questioning a 1,327-point scorer's worth? (I'm thinking of Everett Sanipass here)

A Not at all. Throughout his career — and especially in Montreal — he was questioned by hundreds of sportswriters who never played the game and hundreds of thousands of fans who never even bought a ticket. I think the most telling criticisms actually issued not from his teammates on the Canadian team in Piestany, but from folks who were footing his bill in the NHL. In fact, what Sanipass and [Stephane] Roy and others said about Turgeon in Piestany foreshadowed the criticisms Turgeon faced in the NHL.


Q Who was the most difficult player and/or figure to track down all these years later? Were you surprised by how many managed to stay in hockey, or at how many had moved on?

A
I would have liked to have found more players on the Soviet side. I tracked down practically everybody on the Canadian side, except for Dave Latta, Chris Joseph and Yvon Corriveau. The ref, Hans Ronning, was the hardest "get" and maybe the most indispensable ... he deserves the largest share of the blame for the game getting out of control and ending in controversy.

I was amazed that the Dave McLlwains and Jimmy Waites — guys who sank off the NHL radar in the 90s — were still playing in Europe years later nearing the age of 40. I suspect McLlwain in particular will play well past the age of 40. And it wouldn't surprise me if Mike Keane, Stanley Cup rings and all, will be back next fall for a third season with the Manitoba Moose.

The easiest thing for us on the sidelines is to suggest that a player should retire ... the toughest thing is for one of those guys, even someone who was never remotely a star, to let go of what he's done all his life.


Q What was the most difficult interview to do? And did you encounter a lot of reluctance from many of the participants?

A Turgeon, probably, was difficult and yet he wasn't reluctant at all. Maybe he presumed that others would stick to the what-goes-on-in-the-room-stays-in-the-room approach. He was pretty candid about how his career — for all the numbers — hadn't turned out the way he wanted. Fact is, he never won a championship at any level.

But even more difficult was [Canadian head coach] Bert Templeton's widow, Sandy. Bert was a piece of work — for any who ever dealt with him, that's just understood. A textbook hard-ass. Yet Sandy is a God-fearing woman who loved him to pieces, and I think she was genuinely hurt when people said bad things about her late husband. I had to convince that I wasn't out to throw Bert under the bus — the CAHA did that back in '87. I thought the book could clear his name and rep — at least as far as Piestany went.

Pat Burns was also difficult — if not for him, for me. He was in the throes of his recovery from cancer. I had a health issue of my own a while back. So we talked a bit about mortality and all ... I felt like a wet noodle when I started asking about Piestany. "You wanna know about our practises or our hotel in Czechoslovakia after I just told you I came out of chemo?" Burns didn't say that but I expected him to and wouldn't have blamed him.


Q Can you offer any more details about your next book?

A It will come out in the fall for Random House. The working title is Future Greats and Heartbreaks and it's about the 2007 NHL draft through the eyes of NHL scouts. A combination of a hockey travelogue (Sweden for u-20s, Finland for u-18s, Vancouver for the Mem Cup, from Swift Current to Rimouski and everything in between) and memoir.



My thanks to Gare for being a good sport. When the Lights Went Out ended up being an excellent history in the world junior tournament for a relatively young guy like me, and it was helped by Joyce's uniquely personal approach to the material.

I've often complained about the dearth of quality hockey writing in bookstores, but that's certainly going to change if Joyce is going to be cranking great reads out at this pace.

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6 Comments:

At 12:28 PM, March 21, 2007, Blogger Doogie said...

I got this book for Christmas, and found it quite enjoyable. Having been too young to follow the criticism of Turgeon as Habs captain, this certainly explained a lot. More to the point, though, it dramatically changed my perception of brawling in hockey. I mean, I won't complain when a line brawl breaks out, but bench brawls...I dunno, I can't really see much point unless the shit has already hit the fan and it's only going to get worse (i.e. double-teaming and the ref's nowhere in sight).

And it is saying something that this was the dirtiest game Fleury's ever seen. I remember Jim Peplinski's line in the Sun recently about no one getting killed at those old Battles of Alberta, but not for lack of effort. When Gare started listing the penalties that he saw just in the opening minute, my jaw dropped. Sounded like something from the 1920s NHL.

 
At 5:22 PM, March 21, 2007, Blogger b. cheng said...

I've seen this book mentioned on this blog and others before, really want to get my hands on a copy, but it seems I may have to wait for my next trip to Canada to do that.

 
At 5:26 PM, March 21, 2007, Blogger James Mirtle said...

It's listed at Amazon and Chapters; I'm pretty sure you could order it in Bangladesh if you wanted to.

 
At 2:58 AM, March 22, 2007, Blogger sager said...

Read it over the holidays. Great stuff. Gare nailed it and James nailed the interview even more!

 
At 10:14 AM, March 22, 2007, Blogger Julian said...

Gare's blog is great, and it sounds like his next book is going to be really interesting as well. And probably even more interesting as time goes by.

 
At 7:47 PM, April 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Anyone knows where to get a dvd/video of this game please e-mail me at SteveJanes704@hotmail.com

 

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