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With some deft stick-handling, three new releases come together through one man, Dan Robson—though it’s not initially evident.
The first released was Fred Sasakamoose’s memoir, Call Me Indian: From the Trauma of Residential School to Becoming the NHL’s First Treaty Indigenous Player. Robson provided a blurb after reading an early version of the book, co-written with Meg Masters.
Then came Crossroads: My Story of Tragedy and Resilience as a Humboldt Bronco, by Kaleb Dahlgren. Robson’s name isn’t on the cover of this one, but it’s very much his work, as he ghostwrote it after hours talking to Dahlgren and his family.
But Robson’s current focus is his own just-released book, Measuring Up: A Memoir of Fathers and Sons. Since it was arriving on shelves as Crossroads was already on the bestseller list—a conflict he knew was coming—he chose to keep his name off Dahlgren’s book.
Having read the two hockey books myself, there are some amazing parallels, on and off the ice.
Robson concurs. “You’ve got obviously got the Saskatchewan roots in both of them,” he said. “You see a lot of the same towns coming up, and the same sentiments about small town hockey and what it means to different communities. And then obviously, there’s the parallel of overcoming tragedy—in both cases, very different tragedy, very different obstacles to overcome. But still, there’s that sense of resilience and an ability to persevere, despite facing such horrific circumstances.”
As I made my notes reading Call Me Indian and then Crossroads, I found “harrowing” was a word I wrote each time. Sasakamoose may have passed away in November 2020, but his story will live on. Life was simple growing up, but then he was ripped away from his family and sent to a residential school. “They had destroyed some part of us,” he writes of the school. The horrors he experienced there are countered by a discovery of hockey. He briefly made the NHL, and played in the minors for years, well off the NHL’s radar.
Dahlgren’s story is far better known, for tragic reasons. On April 6, 2018, the Humboldt Broncos team bus was struck by a semi-trailer truck near Armley, Saskatchewan, killing 16, with 13 survivors. Going into the book, you know what’s coming, its inevitability. It’s the leading up to the crash and the aftermath that are new, at once painful and inspiring.
“I’m happy that there’s a lot of great hockey books, obviously, but I think both these books would appeal to people who aren’t necessarily hardcore hockey fans,” said Robson. “They definitely would appeal to those people, people that love the game, but I think they kind of focus on some very grim real-life reality and there’s also inspirational aspects to how people move through those. Also, I think there’s a greater meaning of hockey and what hockey can mean for people and for communities.”
Call Me Indian gets the little details right. The Cree language is used throughout, making one pause and reflect, enhancing an already thought-provoking book. Sasakamoose himself was okay with the use of the word “Indian.” An excerpt:
“It’s how I still describe myself. I refuse to think of the word itself as something negative. And that grew out of my experience in Moose Jaw. Sometime during my first three years there, I realized that the names people might shout from the stands said more about them than they did about me. If they called me an ‘Indian,’ I didn’t have to accept it as a slur.”
Sasakamoose leaves nothing out, detailing his difficult relationships, losses and victories, time in politics, his battles with alcohol. As Robson noted, it’s far from just a hockey book. The tragedy is that he is not around to celebrate its release and see the impact it will make for years to come.
Robson’s blurb: “A heart-wrenching story of survival in the face of injustice and tragedy. In his unflinching memoir, Fred Sasakamoose shares his journey from being a residential school Survivor to becoming the NHL’s first Indigenous player—on the arduous road to finding the peace and pride he was long refused. Canada’s pastime and the nation’s darkest sins collide in a beautifully told tale of resilience, passion, and ultimate triumph.”
Call Me Indian doesn’t getbogged down in the minutiae of hockey game stories much, and Robson recognized that the games themselves weren’t important to Crossroads either.
“We’re not dealing with games that are famous. The essence of what we’re reading about is the character, not the action on the ice,” he said. “Kaleb and I worked to get in some detail that tried to build some suspense and what it’s like to be at a Humboldt game and watch an overtime period, for example, and try and get some of that emotion into the text. But at the same time, these are really about everything that happens around the game more so than what happens specifically within the 60 minutes of the game.”
HarperCollins approached Robson about working with Dahlgren, who had moved to Toronto to attend York University. Robson, a Toronto-based writer for The Athletic, jumped on board, working on weekends on Crossroads, and then, once the pandemic forced Dahlgren back to Saskatoon, they used Zoom to communicate. “I’d write some chapters, when we got back together, he’d reviewed them with his parents. I’d make some changes, and add more chapters,” Robson explained of the process, which moved really quickly.
As powerful as the words are, it’s the blank pages that come after the accident, where Dahlgren has no memory of what happened, that really speak to the reader. “He is a very creative young man, which is actually really helpful for a writer to be working with. He talked about the blankness of those days and how confused he was when he woke up. And he said, ‘You know, I have this idea of these are blank pages,’” said Robson. They ran the idea by the publisher, and it was approved. “The blank pages really were needed to sort of create that separation, that gap in his memory.”
Dahlgren’s parents were also extensively interviewed. “I read everything that I could find on Humboldt and what was written. The book was kind of a secret, basically, so I had to be careful about who I was reaching out to,” said Robson. Dahlgren contacted all the families from the crash to let them know what was coming. Everyone was “very brave and helpful in recounting their very difficult experience,” Robson added.
In both Call Me Indian and Crossroads, the reader will find it difficult to keep their emotions in check. The unjust nature of the universe is questioned.
Robson found taking breaks during the week to work on other stories helped him with the sheer tragedy of the Broncos crash. “There’s really a specific period in the book that’s difficult,” he said. “But then I think after the tragedy itself, the accident or the crash and everything that follows, I was inspired. I found it more uplifting to have Kaleb telling me about his perspective on things—how he was pushing forward to rehabilitate and having viewed the gift of life that he fortunately left that crash with, but also the sense of guilt and obligation that followed in that so many of his friends and people he loved weren’t able to have that gift of life after. After getting through the dark parts, the very difficult stuff, it wasn’t too heavy to write because I think there’s such a uplifting message.”
That is in direct comparison to Measuring Up. Tanya Talaga, the bestselling author of Seven Fallen Feathers, wrote a blurb for that: “Dan Robson’s book is a heart-wrenching portrait of grief. Anyone who has lost a parent will recognize it, know it intimately as you roll through the stages and finally come to the realization that a parent’s ultimate gift to a child is showing them how to live.”
Measuring Up was a whole different animal for Robson.
“That took me the longest of any book I’ve written. I was working on it over several years, and I wrote several other books in the meantime,” said the author of books on Johnny Bower and Pat Quinn, among others. “But that was the central project that weighed on me, constantly trying to get this book done in a way that I felt conveyed what I wanted to say properly.”
It was tough writing about himself. “The challenge with that is, as a journalist and a writer, I have the separation of being sort of the lens to tell a story, but it’s always somebody else’s story. So I can have the conversations to get the information and to convey it in a way that reflects what someone like Kaleb would want to share. But when I’m doing it to myself, I mean, I’m sort of playing both roles in that. And it’s a difficult thing to do, adapt myself to open up in the way that I would ask someone like Kaleb to, for example.”
The bonus, sharing the story with others as Father’s Day approaches, has been worth it. “I definitely found that book challenging, and it was emotional, because it deals deeply with the gulf of grief I found myself in, in a very difficult time of my life. But at the same time, it’s cathartic. I mean, I’m a writer, this is how I process things and get emotion out and understand meaning behind difficult things. So for me to go through this process, and then write about it, in the end it was ultimately a very cathartic process and one I was very grateful to get the opportunity to do.”
Robson knows that both Call Me Indian and Crossroads will ultimately find larger audiences, and he’s fine with that. “There’s no name tied to this story so I wouldn’t expect it all of a sudden to go fly off the shelves, for example. Kaleb’s story is tied to a very infamous tragedy. And obviously, Fred lived a life of great renown; he wasn’t remembered the way that he should have been for a long time, but in recent years, he was. For me, I think I always had a level-headed expectation of where we’d wind up with this.”
The reward for all the hard work is a small pause on bigger projects, said Robson. “I’ve got to take a little bit of a break. Kaleb’s book came up unexpectedly last year. My focus really has been on just getting Measuring Up out,” he concluded. “I just need to take a bit of time to process things and let it all settle. I believe that there will be something in the future, just not at this moment. I’m going to take a season to relax a little bit.”
ANYONE FOR TENNIS?
Many moons ago, I toiled at SPORTClassic Books, and worked on a few tennis books, both as an editor and as the layout guy. In a short while, I learned a lot about the sport, and a highlight was working with the legendary Bud Collins on TOTAL Tennis.
So, when I saw the new book, Bustin’ Balls: World Team Tennis 1974-1978, Pro Sports, Pop Culture and Progressive Politics by Steven Blush, I had to have a look.
First off, this is a beautiful book, and while putting this brief write-up together, I learned it won the 2020 PubWest Design Silver Medal. Absolutely deserved. The contents are well written with some amazing artwork, in full-color on high-quality paper to boot.
In short, there can’t be much more out there about the history of World Team Tennis than what’s in Bustin’ Balls.
Now, you ask, what does this have to do with hockey?
Well, there’s a ton of connections to hockey, since so many of the mavericks that were involved in the World Hockey Association (WHA) were also involved with WTT. Most notably, of course, is Dennis Murphy, the former mayor of Buena Park, California, who also helped found the WHA, American Basketball Association and World Football League.
The only Canadian team was the Toronto-Buffalo Royals in WTT’s inaugural season in 1974. It was partly owned by John Bassett, who has all kinds of hockey connections.
IT’S AN HONOUR
Thank you to the executive at the Society for International Hockey Research for choosing me as the recipient of the 20201 Bill Fitsell President’s Award award, announced on May 15th. This column is part of the reason for the honour, and I have really enjoyed fitting it into my schedule here and there for the last few years. “Writers need love” is one of the phrases I live by, and it’s pretty sweet to get a little love back.
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