Sunday, 20 July 2014

Review: "Tales of a First-Round Nothing" by Terry Ryan

I approached reading the memoirs of Terry Ryan, titled "Tales of a First-Round Nothing: My Life as an NHL Footnote", with eager anticipation.  I heard about it through the book tour the author did prior to the release, and I looked forward to an illuminating read, shining a spotlight on the fallow period in the Canadiens history after the '93 Stanley Cup, the dismissal of Serge Savard and Jacques Demers, and the inauguration of Réjean Houle and Mario Tremblay as the team's General Manager and Head Coach respectively.  I also expected some insight on the way the Canadiens supported the players they chose in the draft, and how they were coached in the minors.

Unfortunately, very few of the questions I had were answered, and the read was a disappointment, almost a slog to complete.  There are many fundamental problems with it, first and foremost that Terry Ryan is not a talented writer, and not given to introspection beyond the general, 'it is what it is' and 'I take full responsibility' platitudes.

The author starts his tale in 1991, when his family moved from Newfoundland to Quesnel, B.C. so that he could be eligible for the WHL draft, his father feeling that was the right junior league for him.  Mr. Ryan is fourteen years old but already a six-footer and 180 lbs., and plays Junior A hockey with and against players up to 21 years old.  From there he takes us to his stint with the Tri-Cities Americans, being drafted by the Canadiens, his years playing in the AHL in Fredericton under coach Michel Therrien, his trade demand, which he calls "one of the most ridiculous decisions I've ever made", and various stops with other clubs in progressively lower circuits: the ECHL, then senior hockey.

One frustrating aspect of the book is how the author hop-scotches from one season to another, or from one month to another, for reasons that are hard to discern.  It's not the expected use of foreshadowing and flashback, but rather a disjointed tale where one tangent follows another and lacks a unifying thread.  The reader who is used to sports biographies, and is accustomed to the rhythm they normally utilize, will be thrown.  Instead of going from one season to the off-season to the next season, with things like stats and awards earned, and progress in different areas and his personal life used to show the arc of his career, the author skips and jumps and backtracks in an incoherent fashion, and leads you to wonder fifty pages further on: "Wait, what happened eventually to that coach (teammate, opponent, season, team, objective set) that he was prattling on about?"  Frequently there is no resolution, just other matters raised, which themselves won't be resolved either.

Another issue, and it's a big one, is that the material in the book is often awkward, if not downright puerile and inappropriate.  Mr. Ryan must be a great guy to have a beer or two at the pub with, he seems full of tales to tell, some no doubt of the 'tall' variety.  The thing is, he might be a good story-teller in person, maybe he'd be great on the lecture circuit, or as a sports-talk radio host, but in print his stories fall flat, approaching the level of Abraham Simpson's 'onion-on-the-belt' yarns.

One story describes how their rink lost power during an ice-storm, and they had to clear out of the arena in their skates, but found that they could skate in the parking lot, everything having been coated by freezing rain.  Mr. Ryan and a couple of teammates did that for a while, got bored and decided to pile into his car and drive around, wouldn't you know it, with their skates on!  So around town they drive, really slow, fishtailing a bit, still in their full gear, until they realize they should probably head back, but stop beforehand at a drive-through to get coffee for the boys.  Once they get back, the practice has started again.  Boy was the coach ever mad!

And that's the kind of highjinks that are detailed in the book, 'you had to be there' stuff.  And, disappointingly, there are a couple of anecdotes that feel like they belong in Penthouse Forum, rather than a book about hockey.  I couldn't help but think about how Jim Bouton in "Ball Four" told a lot of stories about extra-curricular activities between players and groupies and airline hostesses, but always with a suitable reserve, that told you all you need to know without naming names or getting into juvenilia.

The most disappointing part for me is that an anecdote he told during the book tour, about meeting a Canadiens scout in an elevator the night before the draft, isn't contained in the book.  The most crucial stuff I wanted to read, about how the Canadiens scouted him (or didn't scout him), about the Mr. Magoo who ran the team, about how the actual draft day went for him, is glossed over and I was left with more questions than answers.  So we don't find out more about how that scout talked to him but believed he was Shane Doan the whole time, by reading the book.

I later figured out that it was when answering questions from competent journalists that these issues are raised and discussed, not in his book.  They got to the heart of the matter by probing with good questions, instead of letting Mr. Ryan ramble on.  And this to me crystallized that what the author would have needed is a good editor.  Not a proof-reader, but an actual editor, who would have read his book as a first draft, given him copious notes and constructive criticism, and got him to work on his second draft, with a lot of running commentary, and encouragement to delve into detail here, skip over this stuff there, tie all these loose ends everywhere, etc.

Terry Ryan in his many adventures does end up befriending some big names in the showbiz and hockey world, notably Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo, Ron McLean of Hockey Night in Canada, and NHL'er and PEI native Brad Richards.  He currently works on the TV show "The Republic of Doyle."  My suspicion is that this book actually didn't get edited, that it was self-published, and therein lies the great weakness.  His friends may have opened doors, helped with the financing of the book, helped him obtain grants, if I am to trust the many 'arts councils' who are credited at the beginning of the book.

I'm not saying that Terry Ryan is a dummy.  He obtained his B.A. in English literature after his playing career wound down.  He's engaging, and tells his story with candor, even if he's oblique about the reasons why he 'busted', which is the main interest of most who will read this book I would wager.

Why he made a trade demand, after two seasons in the AHL in Fredericton, is unclear.  He does talk about friction with his coach Michel Therrien, but spends so much time re-iterating that he does not have any ill-will for him, and wishes him all the best in his current stint as Canadiens head coach, that it turns into a snow-job.  Aside from one anecdote about how he'd smoke on the team bus, and another when the coach told him he could make or break him, send him down to the IHL, there is no meat on the bone.  And so he does confess repeatedly that his trade demand was unwise, but he doesn't even enumerate the reasons he felt that way at the time.  We're left wanting much more, like an audience going to see Wolfmother in concert but not getting to hear "The Joker and the Thief".

Another consideration is that we never read about how he trained during the season and in the off-season.  He only mentions fitness twice during the book, once when he mentions that he worked on his cardio a lot before the season, and another when he says that he came into a training camp in the "best shape of my life".  Seeing as all the anecdotes about getting drunk and having beers with teammates are recounted, we get a sense as to the dedication he showed to his career.  Terry Ryan must have been a great teammate to have, with the laughs and high-jinks, but it probably came at the expense of his own success as a player.

One final, sad issue which is glossed over is how he started one season as a Canadien but didn't play much, and got sent back down to the WHL to finish out the season.  Startlingly, he explains that he shouldn't have played that season, since he was concussed when he got sent down.  Again though, there is no narrative, no explanation of how and when this happened, and whether he talked to doctors or coaches, all of that is skipped over.

As readers and fans we're trying to figure out why Mr. Ryan didn't pan out, and one of the big reasons must have been these concussions that he glosses over.  From being fourteen years old and fighting with nearly grown men in Junior A, to playing the role of the guy who won't back down from anyone, even heavyweights in the WHL, AHL and even the NHL, Terry Ryan prided himself on his toughness, taking on all comers, and giving everything he had.

This is where you wish that the Canadiens had had a player development staff like they currently have with Martin Lapointe and the recently-departed Patrice Brisebois.  You wish that the Habs had had a guy who could have taken Terry aside and told him that he shouldn't waste his time fighting CHL goons, but rather work on his hockey skills, develop his scoring and defensive play.  And you hope that that message is going out to the Michael McCarrons and the Brett Lernouts and the Connor Crips, that yeah, you stand up for your teammates, and yeah sometimes you have to drop the gloves, but not against the no-hopers who want to make a reputation at your expense in a nonsensical fight.

While there is a tale to tell, notably his work with disadvantaged Inuit youth, it isn't done adequately in this memoir, and I can't recommend this book to anyone.  At best, to those completists who will insist on reading the book for themselves, I'll urge you to read those sections you're really interested in, and skim or skip altogether those you're not.  You won't be missing out on anything.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry you didn't like it brutha - I understand your complaints but that ain't what I was going for. As I said, I wrote journals when I played and all the things I mentioned were important to ME. It isn't an autobiography - it's a selective memoir that may give one a sneak into the life of an average player on the brink. I didn't wanna get into all that draft combine stuff, or what I ate before games. In my mind that's overplayed and obvious, maybe questions for an interview as I tour the book. but, points well taken; it's not the book for you and I appreciate that. Like I said, it certainly isn't for everyone! Cheers