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Steve Currier (Photo: Greg Oliver)
Steve Currier might just have the best story for starting a book project ever.
It begins with being a youngster in Cornwall, Ontario, and deeply into hockey. He would run across references to defunct NHL teams and became curious, especially about the California Golden Seals.
“One day, I just decided to ask the NHL for information what this team was about, I had no idea what they were. I was just a kid, maybe 10 or 11 or so, whenever I discovered who they were,” recalled Currier. “What happened was I wrote to the NHL and I asked them kind of naively, I said, 'Could you send me some information about all the defunct teams in the NHL?' Someone in the kindness of their heart sent me an entire Seals media guide, all photocopied, from 1975-76. It was really that that got me started in researching the Seals because I had in front of me pretty much all of the information I wanted. It had all the statistics, it had all the names of the players that had played for the Seals. It really got me off on the right track. So that was the first step, and gradually it just kind of developed from there.”
It was a marathon not a sprint. “It took me almost forever to write this book. I started when I was about 12, when I got the media guide, and I started very, very, very slowly, and I just finished it about two years ago when I signed my contract with University of Nebraska Press.”
The result is The California Golden Seals: a Tale of White Skates and Red Ink, and One of the NHL’s Most Outlandish Teams, a big book at 496 pages, with tons of photos including some gems from personal collections.
Like the project itself, Currier did his homework before landing his book deal. “I went through my library at home and I just looked at every publisher that was out there, and I just wrote them letters, I wrote letters to every single one to see which one would have interest,” said Currier. “There were a couple that did, and University of Nebraska is the one that offered me a deal first so I went with them.”
The Seals joined the NHL during the great 1967 expansion, and were initially based in San Francisco, in the poorly-suited for hockey Cow Palace. A move across the bay to Oakland hurt the team, as did ownership issues. In 1976, the Seals became the Cleveland Barons for two seasons before folding, with much of the talent getting absorbed by the Minnesota North Stars.
To get the story, Currier sought out players, such as Lyle Carter, Ted Hampson, Joey Johnston, Marshall Johnston, Wayne King, Larry Lund, Dennis Maruk, Howie Menard, Morris Mott, Larry Patey, Tim Ryan, the late Frank Selke Jr., Len Shapiro, Gary Simmons, Joe Starkey, and Tom Thurlby. The Seals Booster Club was a help too, as well as various other NHL players and broadcasters.
Naturally, Currier has an unfulfilled wish list. “There were a lot of good players that I wanted to contact and I couldn't, like Gilles Meloche was one that I was really hoping to meet,” said Currier. “He was probably the franchise's best player. I was never able to get caught up with him. Another one I wanted to meet was Dave Hrechkosy, and I actually did contact him but unfortunately whenever I did, he had terminal brain cancer at the time—this was very, very near the end of his life and he wasn't able to actually recall any of his stories on the phone, so I actually never did speak to him. It was his wife that told me he wasn't able to recall his memories.”
Many of the stories of the chase, producing the book, and other goodies can be found at the extensive website that Currier runs, http://goldensealshockey.com. He started it in 2016, and maintains it when the 38-year-old Ottawa native can squeeze in time as an academic director at a school.
This is Currier's first book and he did his first event on Monday, October 23, 2017, a California Golden Seals night organized by Dr. Gene Willis at St. Michael's College in Toronto, with former players Wayne King, Joey Johnston, Marv Edwards and Reggie Leach on hand. He was able to share his thoughts on the team, whether it could have survived had circumstances been different—such as drafting Guy Lafleur or Marcel Dionne.
Like with traded draft picks or poor selections, Currier has a big 'What If?' in his life too, thinking back to when he got that package from some kind soul in the NHL office. “I always say that if they'd sent me a media guide on the Atlanta Flames, for example, I probably would have written a book about them. It was just fate that they put the Seals in my lap.”
ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF LEAFS IN OH SO MANY WORDS
At the other end of the spectrum than Currier is veteran writer Eric Zweig, with a ton of hockey books to his name, including fiction and children's books. His latest is called The Toronto Maple Leafs: The Complete Oral History and its publication is a good example of how one project can lead to another.
While at a party, Zweig approached Michael Melgaard, the new editor at Dundurn Press, about his idea of an Art Ross biography, which came out in 2015. At the time of the meeting, Melgaard had suggested another idea.
“He told me he had an idea for a book he thought I would be interested in,” recalled Zweig. “I was already familiar with previous oral histories of the Beatles, Saturday Night Live (which were the example he showed me), as well as Dick Irvin’s oral history of the Montreal Canadiens, and thought it would be a fun project. It WAS fun, but it was also a lot of work!”
The concept is exactly as described—the entire history of the Toronto Maple Leaf hockey team, all 100 years, is told through quotes, anecdotes and newspaper descriptions.
Think of it as putting together a jigsaw puzzle, said Zweig, researching, citing and using so many quotes from so many sources. “I’ve also told a few people it seemed more like assembling a documentary film than actually writing a book,” he said. “I had become very disciplined over about 10 years of working on my Art Ross bio of saving newspaper clippings organized by date and filed season by season ... and so, basically, just did the same thing for the Maple Leafs. I also borrowed pretty much every single book about the Toronto Maple Leafs that was in the huge hockey book collection of my friend Stephen Smith, the author of Puckstruck. Going through those books, and many of my own, was even more time consuming than the newspapers! I typed up notes directly from the page. At first, I tried to arrange all of them chronologically too, or group them all by themes, but soon gave up on that. I just kept all the notes of each book by title in its own file, but at least, on my computer, if I entered 'Bill Barilko' for example, I’d be able to find every book in which I noted something about Barilko.” (That's Barilko on the cover, by the way.)
One hundred years is a lot of research, and the original manuscript came in around 170,000 words, and was whittled down to just over 140,000. Some hard choices had to be made about what to include and what not to, said Zweig. “One thing I worried about leaving out—I don’t want people to think I’m whitewashing team history—was the sexual abuse scandal. But, really, this was a history of the team on the ice, and that just seemed like too much of a diversion, and too difficult a subject to cover off with just a few quick quotes. I thought it might look like I wasn’t taking it seriously enough as an issue, and decided it was better to just leave it out.”
There are plenty of books already about the Leafs, especially autobiographies from the likes of Punch Imlach, Harold Ballard, Darryl Sittler, Tiger Williams, Lanny McDonald, Wendel Clark, Johnny Bower, Bobby Baun, Billy Harris, Carl Brewer, Eddie Shack, Danny Lewicki – the list does go on; plus there are the biographies on the likes of Conn Smythe and Bill Barilko, as well as coffee table photo books, fact books, yearbooks, and so much more. And that doesn't include the just-released books by Doug Gilmour and a look at Maple Leaf Gardens board member J.P. Bickell.
Asked to consider where the holes are in the Leafs book world, Zweig gave it some thought: “If money and sales (and time!) were no object, I would LOVE to do a complete biography of Hap Day. I knew he’d been a St. Pat, an original Leaf, a captain a coach and the general manager but I still didn’t realize how important he was to the history of the Leafs. Though people eventually tired of his defense-first approach, I think he was way ahead of his time with that, and would fit in perfectly with, for example, Mike Babcock today. And then Conn Smythe (who probably gets more acclaim in team history than he deserves in many ways) more or less cuts him loose to clear the way for his son Stafford Smythe to take over the team when Day probably should have been promoted to president.
“I’d also love to do a biography of Busher Jackson. He was a huge star in his day (the 1930s), loved by everyone, probably too generous with the money he was making at the time ... and then his personal life sort of comes crashing down around him. A tragic tale, really.”
For more on the book and on Eric, including his fascinating regular blog posts, head to http://ericzweig.com/
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