Saturday, 10 August 2013

Review: "The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory" by D'Arcy Jenish

I was recently harried/bullied/shamed into reading D'Arcy Jenish's "The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory" by an acquaintance.  Not that I had anything against the book offhand, I was vaguely aware of its publication but just felt that I knew the history of my favourite hockey team pretty thoroughly, and could more profitably invest the time reading a multitude of other books.  I mean, I can rattle off the broad strokes:

The creation of the team.  The Maroon-Canadiens rivalry.  Howie Morenz and Aurèle Joliat.  The Morenz funeral at centre ice of the Forum.  The lean years.  Maurice Richard's early-career injury years.  The Rocket blasts off.  50 in 50.  The Richard Riot.  "I opened the vault and told him: 'Here you go Jean, help yourself'".  The 5 Stanley Cups in a row.  The Henri Richard-Cournoyer interregnum.  Jean Béliveau being relieved by Frank Mahovlich.  Ken Dryden beats the Bruins, wins the Conn Smythe.  Guy Lafleur takes off the helmet and scores 50.  4 more Cups.  The Bowman, Lemaire, Dryden defections.  The Irving Grundman years.  Then Serge Savard, Patrick Roy, and two more Cups.  Then the Sack of Rome.

That's it, ain't it?  Except I can imagine some wiseacres telling me to hold on a minute, how can you ignore Doug Harvey?  Jacques Plante?  Boom Boom?  What about Newsy?  You can't gloss over the contributions of Chris Nilan, John Ferguson, Émile Bouchard, without them the scorers wouldn't have been able to do their thing, they'll object.  And who can forget Odie and Sprague Cleghorn?  And that's precisely the issue.  It's such a rich history with its various epochs that there are a lot of details to fill in.

I thought I knew pretty much all I needed to know, but I wasn't as strong on a lot of facts and details as I could be, and it was helpful to buzz through this very readable, well-researched book.  The first few chapters contain the most thorough and richly-detailed account I've ever read of the creation of the NHA, which morphed into the NHL, of how the Canadiens came to existence, of the social conditions which prevailed in Montréal at the time, its economy and layout.  There are some amusing and oddly familiar passages detailing how owners fought and tried to outbid each other for talented players, all the while trying to sign them to restrictive contracts, and trying to rig the system to prevent player movement.  

So as the pages flew by and the story reached the more familiar, well-trodden ground of the Maurice Richard years, I was quite happy to keep reading, even though I'd made a decision beforehand that I'd skim over stuff I already knew or found repetitive, or that I'd even put the book down if I felt so inclined.  There was no need to, there was enough new material and interesting detail, obtained either through interviews or from numerous newspaper archives to regale this reader.  The use of material from defunct papers like "La Patrie" and "The Montreal Herald" for example is well-received, and gives lots of flavour to the history.

Author D'Arcy Jenish is a skillful writer, having a few books to his credit already, including "The Stanley Cup: A Hundred Years of Hockey at its Best", and having served as a senior contributor to Maclean's, when Maclean's was still Maclean's and Canada's answer to Time Magazine, not the histrionic right-wing rag that it has sadly become.  Mr. Jenish is a self-professed lifelong fan of the Canadiens, and does the material justice, treating it with affection but probity.

So as the storyline became more and more familiar to this reader, with no surprises as to what a season or a player's career held, it still engrossed and enlightened and coloured in some minutia.  The author confirms some of the circumstances surrounding some controversial player moves, such as Claude Lemieux and Pierre Turgeon and Chris Chelios and Rod Langway among many others.  He gives an insider account of the decline of Guy Lafleur's career, and how he was ultimately the author of his own misfortune, and not the victim of shadowy forces beyond his control.  He gives an unflinching account of the reign of Irving Grundman and Réjean Houle, and the roles Sam Pollock, Scotty Bowman and Jean Beliveau played in the former's hire, and the almost criminal responsibility Ronald Corey holds for leading the latter to slaughter. 

The only fly in the ointment is the very hopeful final passage describing how Bob Gainey now has the organization well in hand and steered in the right direction, and rattles off the long list of talented prospects that will ensure the success of the team as 2009 approaches.  It is a bit of a clunker with five years of hindsight, but is not enough to undo all the good work the author has done to that point.

This history is intended and rewarding for any reader who is a fan of or interested in the Montréal Canadiens.  The novice will find an authoritative introduction to the subject, and the initiated fans will enjoy the manner in which the familiar subject matter is presented, yet still learn lots.  It is therefore highly recommended, and should be easy to find at any public library in Canada at least.

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