Two Minutes for Reading so Good

Two Minutes for Reading so Good

Greg Oliver


Denis Gibbons, international man of hockey

Posted February 21, 2018

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Denis Gibbons with his book (Photo by Greg Oliver)
Denis Gibbons with his book (Photo by Greg Oliver)

Denis Gibbons has been to seven winter Olympic Games, but he's not in Pyeongchang at the moment, even though NBC asked him to come along. Instead, he's been emailing in contributions, details about players on the various international rosters in the wide-open hockey tournament. Staying home, with Burlington, Ontario, as his base, means that the 74-year-old writer doesn't have to deal with all the hassles of travelling for work and the stress that it encompasses. 

Instead, he's out promoting his book, a project 20 years in the planning stages, full of a lifetime of experiences in hockey.

It's called Hockey: My Door to Europe, a self-published project a step-up from the usual, with its sharp collection of photos, solid paper, and choice of hard or softcover editions. It's 240 pages and a little over 70,000 well-crafted words.

In the end, Gibbons chose to have the massive Manitoba printing company, Friesen Press, put together his book. 

“I actually had meetings with two publishers and talked to about five more on the phone looking for someone who would give me an advance. But I had no luck. Six of the seven were Canadian and the other American,” said Gibbons. “The Canadians all said they didn’t think about mostly about European hockey would sell in Canada. Therefore I decided to self-publish.”

The world is richer both from Gibbons' contributions to international hockey literature through the years, and now through what is essentially a memoir, one that bounces around like a puck on a big ice surface.

“I kept a diary on most of my international trips, which includes seven Winter Olympics hockey tournaments, four World Championships, five World Junior Championships, two KHL All-Star Games and two sports study tours,” said Gibbons. “At each event I cleaned the table of press handouts before I left and stored all this, along with scoresheets, in my garage. My garage, for some time, was also full of boxes of copies of the Russian newspaper Sovietsky Sport. Before the internet arrived, I used to drive to Toronto every Saturday morning and purchase a week’s worth (in Russian, of course) at the Troyka Book Store on College St. I studied Russian in the evening at McMaster. I also kept clippings of all the freelance stories I did for The Hockey News, the Star, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Sun, the National Post.”

Gibbons also has a small collection of international hockey memorabilia which includes pins, souvenir game programs, photos, hockey sticks and other goodies, which helped spur his memory banks.

Concentrating on the book began in March 2014, after he returned from the Sochi Olympics (dog-tired from the work, which is part of the reason he stayed home from South Korea). The project changed along the way. 

“When I started out, I was going to organize the chapters by category, namely – Olympics, World Championships, minor hockey excursions to Europe with Burlington teams,” he explained. “But I changed my mind and decided to do it in chronological order according to the dates of my trips abroad. Therefore, the first chapter focuses on my first visit to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1974 on a three-week study tour with Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero as one of my classmates. Shero had just won his first Stanley Cup two weeks earlier. The book then continues with four youth hockey exchanges to Europe in the early 1980s, then follows by seven Olympics in order, winding up with a brief chapter on women’s hockey and a short preview of the Korea Olympics. In between, I have some Soviet hockey history and how hockey changed in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.”

There are scary incidents in the book, like being detained by the Czechoslovak secret police in 1983, being at the 1986 World Championships in Moscow when the explosion took place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and personal health scares, like during a trip to Russia where 20 passengers took ill, passing out after violent convulsions, and his triple bypass surgery that forced him to miss the 2006 Games in Turin. World events are one thing, but Gibbons was around for key hockey moments too, such as the defection of Soviet hockey star Alexander Mogilny following the 1989 World Championships in Stockholm.

For all the writing that Gibbons has done along the way, this is the first book that is solely his own; in the past, he was one of 14 writers on the beastly reference book, Kings of the Ice: A History of World Hockey from 2002, and contributed research to many other books, including Ken Dryden's Home Game and Lawrence Martin's The Red Machine: The Soviet Quest to Dominate Canada's Game.

He's been out there promoting Hockey: My Door to Europe, as is extremely necessary with any self-published project. He's done signings in bookstores, and one in Toronto at The SPORT Gallery in the posh Distillery District. 

The big job is getting it out to hockey fans. “The initial reception has been very positive, but it has come from family members and personal friends, many of whom don’t even follow international hockey but are interested to read the book because they know me,” he chuckled. 

The Hockey News, with which he has a long history, ran a full page excerpt from the book with a photo, and he's been featured in the Burlington, Ontario, newspaper (where he was once editor) and local cable television station. 

Will there book about all his experiences in North America to compliment his European adventures?

“There will be no book on the NHL or professional hockey in Canada. If there is another book, at all, it might be how much the local team meant to the spirit of small towns in Ontario, with a lot of anecdotes,” Gibbons said. “The intermediate team in Acton, my hometown, won the OHA championship in 1938-39. The sub-goalie’s name was Frank Holmes. When the Second World War started, he signed up with the army and, unfortunately, lost an eye when he accidentally stepped on a land mine in France. But he had a wonderful sense of humour. When he came home after the war and retired from hockey, he still used to attend local games. When he came to the ticket window, he would ask the vendor, ‘Can I get in for half-price?’ ‘Why should I let you in for half-price,’ the vendor would say. ‘Well, I’m only going to watch half the game!’ replied Frank, who by that time had been given the nickname ‘Twitter’.”

With stories like that at your disposal, Denis, start on the next one please. 

Hockey: My Door to Europe can be ordered through the Friesen Press Bookstore at https://books.friesenpress.com/store or you can email Denis directly at dgibbons@cogeco.ca for details. The hardcover is $32 and the softcover is $25. A select few bookstores have copies as well.

  Lace Up

AND YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ABOUT SKATES!

The book, Lace Up: A History of Skates in Canada, may have passed by you in a blur, like a speed skater zooming by. But it's worth checking out for sure. 

Going in, I wasn't sure what to expect. What I got was incredibly detailed insight into how skates developed through the years, and the fundamental differences between skates for hockey, figure skating, and the variations of speed skating ... and barrel jumping and marathon skating to boot.

It's also a neat look into the collection of skates owned by Jean-Marie Leduc. He's the expert here, and some of the most interesting parts, for me, was when he was called upon to describe how certain skates made their way into his personal archives. So it's insight into the mind of a collector too. Plus, he has been involved in speed skating in Canada and abroad for decades, so knows that discipline in depth, and his grandfather once designed and made skates.

To get the book out there, via Heritage House, Leduc teamed with writer/historian Sean Graham and brought along Julie Léger, a professional researcher, to manage the database of his collection—that should give you a good idea how much he has!

Graham shared details on the hard work that went into the book: “For the first few months, the key task was cataloguing the skates. Pretty well every Saturday I would head over to the Leducs and we had an assembly line of sorts. Mrs. Leduc would unwrap/untie the skates, I would take photos of each pair, Mr. Leduc would attach a number tag, and Mrs. Leduc would re-pack them. Each session would be between three and four hours and I would say we averaged getting through 40-50 pairs. In between those sessions, Mr. Leduc would write down all the information he had on each pair—these would be hand written as he does not have a computer. I would take those notes and type them up. Once we had gone through all the skates, I turned all that information over to Julie, who built the database that we used while we were writing.

“Once everything was catalogued, I interviewed Mr. Leduc not only about the skates, but also his experiences in skating. All of the stories and anecdotes included in the book came from these sessions. This was another few months of heading over in the summer and in total I think we had 25-30 hours of recordings. I created transcripts of those and, paired with the database, went to work creating an outline. We agreed early on that the chapters should be thematic, so once I had all the information, it was pretty straightforward.”

Graham wrote the first draft, and it bounced between him in Boston at the time, Léger in St. Catharines, ON, and Leduc in Ottawa. “Ultimately Mr. Leduc had the final say on the manuscript,” Graham confirmed.

The photos in the book are important, and you'll find yourself going back to the referenced image in the text, but I honestly wishes there was a way to click on the picture to see a bigger version, and be able to rotate it, see the kinks and nicks, feel the history. 

Heritage House had its designer put the book together, said Graham. “We did the photographs of the individual skates on our end and worked on getting the proper licences for the archival images, but the actual layout was their designer. We saw it and had a couple suggestions, but we were under a really tight timeline at the end and turned that over to them. We were all really pleased with how it turned out and I think it looks great. I understand what you're saying about the images being a little small in places, but overall the three of us were thrilled with how it turned out.”

Coming in at 144 pages, it's not that long, but is choc full of details and neat stories about things we often take for granted, like skate sharpening or who the patron saint of skating is (St. Lidwina). On occasion, you'll wish there was more info about individuals, like Jackson Haines, who was the father of figure skating, or Louis Rubenstein, who was a champion before establishing Skate Canada. And how about barrel jumper Gilles Leclerc? He leaped over 18 barrels; let's see Connor McDavid try that!

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As always, I welcome your suggestions, notes, and feedback on other books and authors to feature here. You can email me at goliver845@gmail.com and you can follow me on Twitter @gregmep. For info on my own books, see OliverBooks.ca