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Words on Ice: A Collection of Hockey Prose    Editor Michael Kennedy order for
Words on Ice
by Michael Kennedy
Order:  USA  Can
Key Porter, 2003 (2003)
* * *   Reviewed by Andy Nulman

It's as sure a sign of fall as the turning of the leaves. Every year at this time, Canadian publishers inundate the marketplace with hockey books, capitalizing on the frenzy that sweeps the country as the NHL drops the puck on yet another season. And in publishing, as on the ice itself, the perennial favourites always seem to storm out of the gate loudly and unabashed - something new from Dick Irvin, a compendium of anecdotes from Brian McFarlane, a picture book or two, and yet another updated version of Ken Dryden's chestnut The Game.

But the parallel doesn't stop there. Despite all the hoopla from the big-budget boys, there is always one team, and one tome, that comes seemingly from nowhere to impress with its understated pedigree and roster. This season - well, on the bookshelves at least - that overachieving underdog is Words On Ice, a collection of hockey prose edited by Michael P.J. Kennedy.

Kennedy, a doctorate in Canadian Lit and freelance sportswriter, combines his experience and passions into a course in hockey literature that he teaches at the University of Saskatchewan; its required readings were the genesis of what was to become Words On Ice. The 22 selections are eclectic in their scope (from a profile on eccentric goaltending pioneer Jacques Plante to an Ojibwa-inspired open-ice fable), impressive in their star power (Gzowski, Richler, Carrier and Plimpton amongst others), and showcase all sides of the game (from glowing rhapsodies of shinny hockey to a no-nonsense academic treatise on violence in the NHL).

Like most meldings of individuals into a unit, not every selection is a winner. I could've lived without Hakkanen's Move, Justin Bryant's Scott Young-like tale of an envious enforcer trying to replicate his European teammate's grace, while Roch Carrier's The Sweater - oh classic it may be - just doesn't seem to fit properly without the hand-drawn pictures.

But this is nit-picking. Steven Shikaze's Hockey Dreams walks the fine line between heartwarming and heartbreaking, capturing the essence of a hockey parent. Rudy Thauberger's Goalie dives deep into the twisted psyche of those who play the position (and as one, believe me, I know it when I read it). Marsha Mildon's quasi-autobiographical Number 33 is a tender look at the game from a female perspective, while my ultimate favourite, Edo Van Belkom's Hockey's Night In Canada postulates the nightmarish outcome of our game had the Russians won that fateful '72 series.

As a genre, hockey literature has always been overshadowed by its baseball counterpart. Reviewers gush over Roger Kahn, David Halberstam and Roger Angell as if they were the offspring of W. Somerset Maughan and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; literary giants at play on the field of dreams as our authors seemingly slip and slide across a frozen pond in treadless rubber boots. The numbers are also dwarfing - lists close to 7,300 baseball books and only 1,900 about hockey (even Canuck-centric sports a more than 2:1 baseball to hockey ratio).

Thus, perhaps the greatest achievement of Words On Ice is still to come - inspiring a new generation of wordsmiths to spin more wondrous tales on our national obsession, casting a frosty chill over the boys of summer for a change.

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