Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Battle of Alberta

Continuing with these "bad books", I recently read a non-fiction doozie called The Battle of Alberta, written by Edmonton journalist Mark Spector. Having grown up in Calgary, the battle between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s, has always been close to my heart and I had been looking forward to this one since it came out in December. It would be a chance to relive the excitement of hockey in Alberta, in the 1980s.

I had been expecting a deeply researched book offering a behind-the-scenes look at one of hockey's great rivalries. Instead, this was only a collection of present day interviews with players reminiscing about events that took place 30 years ago.

The problem is that nobody can accurately remember things that happend 30 years ago. In the afterword of this book, Spector even concedes the players had a lot of their facts wrong; who scored that big goal, who was in that fight, and even in a few instances, who that playoff opponent was. But he never corrects them, and instead tries to omit the incorrectly remembered details, thus leaving us with a bland, innaccurate account of a few hockey games from long ago.

It also lacks any kind of flow, jumping from 1985 in one chapter, to 1992 in the next, and then back to 1983 in the third. This even happened within chapters, with one parahraph talking of an Edmonton-Calgary game in 1983, and the next talking of a playoff game between the Rangers and Devils in 1994. It seems the publisher might have saved a few bucks by not using an editor (which would also explain the many, many typos.)

There were also problems with content. Because the book does not offer a chronological account of the rivalry, and is based almost entirely on interviews, Spector only covers things that happened to people he was actually able to interview. For this reason, Neil Sheehy is mentioned in almost every chapter, while Joe Nieuwendyk is mentioned once, and only in passing. Joe Nieuwendyk! Same for Al MacInnis (who played more Battle of Alberta games in the 1980s and 1990s than anybody else), Jarri Kurri, Mike Vernon, Esa Tikkanen, Joe Mullen, and Doug Gilmour. You simply can't have a well researched book about the Battle of Alberta, and almost pretend that Al MacInnis and Joe Nieuwendyk didn't exist.

It wasn't just players who were overlooked, also goals, games and playoff series. There is an entire chapter devoted to one fight between Stu Grimson and Dave Brown, yet only a couple of pages about an entire playoff series. Obviously Grimson and Brown had a lot of time to talk to Spector.

Because it is almost impossible to remember things that happened 30 years ago with any accuracy, most of the insight provided by these players can readily be found in other books, or on youtube. It sort of reminds me of how people don't actaully remember that vacation 30 years ago, but rather they remember the photos they took of said vacation. Which means we, the readers, don't really learn anything we didn't already know.

To top it all off, the author throws in a lot of commentary about how the game was so much better back in his day. Before long, it only reads as an angry old man complaining about how everything was better when he was young, and the players were tougher and better, and blah blah blah. And he usually presents this thesis with that staple of quality writing, the sarcastic rhetorical question. "A nine goal game, with four fights, compared to today's boring game, who would want that?!"

Between fuzzy recollections, a tendancy to jump from one topic to another, and bitterness toward things changing, this book ended up reading as if it had been dictated by Grandpa Simpson. "Gimme five bees for a quarter we'd the important part was that I had an onion on my belt, which was the fashion at the time. And here's what's wrong with Bart's generation."