Friday, 16 January 2015

Review: "Ice Age: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Vancouver Canucks Team Ever", by Bruce Dowbiggin

Sports books can take many forms.  There are the lyrical elegies like Ken Dryden's "The Game" or Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer".  There are the snapshot, 'one season caught in amber' tales like John Feinstein's "A Season on the Brink" or H.G. Bissinger's "Friday Night Lights".  There are the tell-all riproaring tales like Jim Bouton's "Ball Four", or the thinly disguised novels that serve the same purpose like Dan Jenkins' "Semi-Tough".

For each of these seminal books though, there are a lot of average books or even shlock out there, normally in the form of biographies or team histories.  Usually these serve a specific clientele, are targeted at local fans, after a specific milestone or a championship.  So a Stanley Cup is bound to mean a few books of varying quality rushed into print to cash in on the event.

"Ice Age: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Vancouver Canucks Team Ever" by Bruce Dowbiggin is a little hard to understand thematically, since it doesn't quite fit into any of these categories.  The Mike Gillis era ended not with a bang, but an ouster.  There's no crowning achievement in the last chapter(s), but also, there's no illuminating look back through the lens of time, since the subject matter is so fresh.  Instead, it seems as if the author, who'd been following the team and more specifically its General Manager Mike Gillis, and missed out on being able to publish following a win in the 2011 Stanley Cup final, went to press with his manuscript this spring once the housecleaning in Vancouver appeared inevitable.

I heard of "Ice Storm" by accident, and was surprised that it didn't get much more hype in my neck of the woods, since the Vancouver Canucks hog the spotlight here on the West Coast, yet I never heard of it through a book launch or reading the local papers or through radio or TV coverage.  In any case, I was eager to learn more about the local team, the reasoning behind some of the decisions taken, to benefit from some background.

Mr. Dowbiggin is a respected journalist who has worked for the CBC and the Globe and Mail, and was one of the few Canadian reporters who collaborated with Russ Conway on his investigation and ultimate takedown of Alan Eagleson.  I've always enjoyed his thoughtful pieces on the world of sports, usually written, expressly, with a cynical outsider's view.

It's during his work on the Eagleson scandal that the author met Mike Gillis, a former NHL player and first-round pick of the Colorado Rockies who had a short career due in part to injuries.  Mr. Gillis, laudably, went to law school with the money he earned from a medical insurance settlement after breaking his leg at Bruins training camp.  Later, after being contacted by Russ Conway, he and his wife looked at his settlement documents and realized they'd been defrauded.  They sued Alan Eagleson and eventually were vindicated.

While finishing up law school, Mr. Gillis, with "no real plan to be an agent", started helping former teammate Geoff Courtnall with his contract, and then brother Russ Courtnall, then another player, and things snowballed.

Former teammates and law school classmates describe him as resolute, unshakable in his convictions, and direct, almost overly blunt sometimes.  He was also skeptical of the NHL and its owners and managers, and his personal experiences shaped his approach to the sport and business, in a way that is reminiscent of Billy Beane as described in Michael Lewis' "Moneyball".  In his case, Mike Gillis became a feared negotiator and player agent, before eventually being hired by the Aquilini family to lead the Vancouver Canucks.

While some view a player agent acting as a GM as a contradiction and a disaster waiting to happen, Mike Gillis sees the business as being all about player relationships now that the NHL is a salary-cap league, and believed that his skills as a negotiator and persuader were just as necessary in building a contender as those of a traditional 'hockey man'.

Sure enough, a cornerstone of the Mike Gillis régime was his ability to convince players to sign long-term deals at slightly lower-than-market rates.  He pitched the city, the organization, and the ability to win in a positive, first-class environment to attract and retain players while fitting them under the cap.

Also predictably, like his doppelganger Billy Beane, Mike Gillis thought outside the box in doing things differently, bucking the NHL system.  Much discussed in the press and in this book is the 'sleep consultants' that were employed to transform the Canucks punishing travel schedule, essentially ending the practice of flying home after games.  Instead, giving the players a more regular sleep schedule with a solid eight-hour window was prioritized, even at the financial cost of extra hotel room-nights.  There were shadowy psychological consultants with a dedicated room and equipment that reporters and outsiders were unable to enter.

The book also describes Mr. Gillis' belief in an offensive, uptempo, fan-friendly playing style, again playing against the current zeitgeist of toughness and truculence.  In terms of player personnel decisions, the Canucks also made some purposely unconventional decisions.  For example, they targeted for acquisition players who were unsigned out of the NCAA ranks, or who had slipped through the NHL draft once or twice out of the CHL, with the rationale that evaluating players at age eighteen is problematic enough, while more mature players are closer to their full potential and therefore easier to select.

Mr. Dowbiggin refers to the sum total of these forward thinking strategies as "Canucktivity" repeatedly, which he says was the buzzword used by staffers themselves, which is odd, since before picking up this book I had never, ever come across the word.

As described above, the loss to the Bruins in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 2011 robs the book of its 'natural' conclusion.  Instead of a culminating Stanley Cup, that Canucks season finished with a loss on home ice and a subsequent riot in the downtown core.  None of the future teams come close again, and Mr. Gillis is let go in the spring of 2014.

This brings the unpleasant part of the book, where Mr. Dowbiggin, perhaps trying to salvage the thesis he'd been building in the preceding chapters, pens a poisonous epilogue, deriding new hires Jim Benning and Willie Desjardins as career 'hockey men' of the type Mike Gillis stood apart from, and who are ridiculed in "Moneyball", the old-school scouts who marvel at prospects' bodies but fail to understand the value of players who get on base.  It lacks grace, and is in marked contrast to the reputations of Messrs. Benning and Desjardins who are not buffoons and possess little ego to skewer.

Ultimately, the close relationship between the author and his subject is the undoing of this book.  Unlike Rosie DiManno, who had a personal relationship with Pat Burns but was able to author an even-handed, illuminating biography, Mr. Dowbiggin defends Mr. Gillis to the end and goes down with the ship.

Another problem which I fear may have happened is that a lot of the strategies employed and decisions made by Mike Gillis are trade secrets, proprietary, or confidential, and the author is loath to breach these, which is understandable, but doesn't sate the reader's appetite.

For the reader who is a Canucks fan and a completist, "Ice Storm" might be an enjoyable read, but it's debatable that it works on its own.

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