When I first opened my copy of “Golden Oldies: Stories of Hockey’s Heroes” and glanced at the table of contents, I was a bit confused. I wasn’t sure why author Brian McFarlane selected such an oddly diverse group of subjects for his new book. McFarlane, who has written over 80 books, is hockey’s foremost historian and a former Hockey Night in Canada host. So it seems silly for me to question his choice of subjects.
Then again, most anthology books are tied around a particular era or subject. It’s hard to find a common theme between Sprague Cleghorn, Clint Malarchuk, Eddie Shack, Bob Johnson and the 18 others featured in the book.
After two chapters, the connection became clear. All of these former players and coaches have great stories to tell.
Much of “Golden Oldies” is in the subject’s own unedited words. McFarlane only steps in as needed to clarify or offer historical context.
Some chapters contain materiel from rare or not-often seen articles. For example, Sprague Cleghorn’s chapter has an extensive first–person essay from a long-defunct newspaper, circa 1930. McFarlane himself is unsure what paper it is from, as he only has the clipping. Cleghorn recaps his career, from his amateur days as a 19-year old playing for the New York Wanderers with his brother Odie, to his professional days in the NHA and the NHL. It’s a fascinating read — one that could have been lost forever if McFarlane hadn’t shared it here.
Most of the book has stories told by the players to McFarlane, again with him interjecting only as necessary. In a somber chapter, Mike Robitaille talks about the anger, frustration and despair over his career-ending injury and subsequent legal battle with the Vancouver Canucks. (He also reminisces about what it was like to see his own hockey card for the first time.) In a more upbeat chapter, former WHA star Andre Lacroix brags about how he didn’t have an agent, and negotiated all of his own pro hockey contracts. Lacroix’s tale is laugh-out-loud funny, as he got the best of every team he ever played for in an era where players made little and had almost no control over their careers.
As a tribute to one of hockey’s all-time greats, “Golden Oldies” starts with a eulogy to the late Jean Beliveau. In it, McFarlane talks about playing against Beliveau in a junior hockey game — a game that led to McFarlane’s decision to forget pro hockey and go to college instead. Perhaps unintentional, but this serves as an origin story of sorts for hockey’s premier scribe.
Yet as stated before, in “Golden Oldies,” McFarlane is less of an author and more of a curator, guiding us through a gallery of some of hockey’s best-known gems and long-hidden treasures.
Excerpts that epitomize “Golden Oldies”: Since there are numerous subjects in “Golden Oldies,” one excerpt wouldn’t do this book justice. Here are three. The first is about Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe:
When Pierre Larouche played against Howe one night, he approached him during warm-up. “Gordie, you’ve always been my hero. Can I have your stick after the game?”
Gordie said, “Sure, kid.”
“Well, in the third period he chopped me for about six stitches in the head,” recalls Pierre. “And while I was still reeling, he said, “Hey, kid, that stick is going to mean a whole lot more to you now.”
And you know, he was right.
Hockey coach Frank Carlin takes credit for inventing a game-changing hockey strategy:
…I was the first coach to pull a goalkeeper out. I was too young to realize that someday it would be a big thing. I did it in a junior game. The press thought nothing of it, and it was just passed off. We lost the game anyway…I kept trying to get people interested in that strategy, but nobody was interested….I was still too young to realize that someday it might be a good thing.
Clint Malarchuk has a flashback of his traumatic injury from 1989:
And then I saw the Richard Zednik injury on TV [in 2008]. Richard was with the Panthers, playing against my old team, the Sabres, when he was cut across the throat by a teammate’s skate blade. Blood everywhere on the ice. I saw it happen, and I just shuddered. It made a huge impact on me. Huge.
That lead to a total meltdown, a nervous breakdown. Everything came back to me, everything came to a head. I could no longer function, although I tried to.
I was never a big drinker, but I soon became one.
What I like about “Golden Oldies”: McFarlane’s choice to use the subject’s unvarnished words gives this book a real stream-of-consciousness feel. He also dug deep to find some great stories that have seldom been heard before.
What I don’t like about “Golden Oldies”: Know any kids? Ask them if they want to read about King Clancy. While I enjoyed practically every page of this book, it might be hard for some readers to relate to players who skated 60, 75, even 100 years ago. But this book isn’t for them.
Fans who want to deepen their knowledge of hockey need to read “Golden Oldies.” There is nary a dull moment, and even well-read hockey fans will learn something. Most will learn a lot.