Two Minutes for Reading so Good

Getting to know Bob Chrystal

Two Minutes for Reading so Good

Greg Oliver


Getting to know Bob Chrystal

Posted September 25, 2018

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Ty Dilello and Bob Chrystal

It's an honour to be asked to provide a “blurb” for an about-to-be-released book. I've been thrilled with the people who have taken the time to help me through the years with them, particularly on my Father Bauer and the Great Experiment: The Genesis of Canadian Olympic Hockey, which had Roy MacGregor, Jiggs McDonald, Bob Nicholson, and Bruce Kidd provide a couple of sentences with their thoughts on it.

There are times I have had to say no, more than I would like, simply because of a conflict of interest or how it might interfere with a (small) payday when I was scheduled to review a book.

Sometimes it works out, though, as it did with Ty Dilello's brand-spanking-new self-published book  Block That Shot: The Bob Chrystal Story

Here's what I wrote, which sums it up pretty well: “By detailing the life of Bob Chrystal, a lesser known defenseman whose career could have gone differently, Ty Dilello has preserved a little bit more of hockey history, from the minors to the pros, and we are all richer for it.”

Dilello deserves a lot of credit for tackling a project like this, self-publishing it for both total control and to get the book out there quickly, and in the hands of people who know the 88-year-old Chrystal.

“He's basically the oldest player from Winnipeg that's living here and still alive that had more than a cup of coffee in the NHL and it seemed very early on that it was a story I was fascinated with and wanted to get out there in a book,” explained Dilello via email. 

Dilello initially went to Chrystal's home for an interview for a different project, but they ended up talking for four hours, and Dilello thought he should get cracking on a book. The writer visited with his subject a number of times. 

“He also brought out his scrapbooks that his dad had compiled from his hockey career and they were extremely helpful for the book. We must have combed through those scrapbooks for hours,” said Dilello. “His dad had worked on the railroad and would get all these newspapers from every town he was and would cut out anything with Bob's name in it and place it in the scrapbook. You'll see in the book with all the photos that it's like you're going through the scrapbooks yourself.”

It's the every day aspect of Chrystal that is part of his appeal, said Dilello. “I think that Bob's story sort of falls in line with a lot of the old hockey players from Winnipeg that I've been fortunate enough to talk to. Coming from very modest backgrounds and learning to play at the local rinks and playing their first organized hockey in the famous 'playground league'. It seems that everyone over the age of 70 that I've talked to had their start in that Playground League. Bob's incredibly humble and down-to-earth and that's basically been the case for everyone I've talked to from Winnipeg. That all being said, Chrystal's story is also quite unique. 

Chrystal, an expert shot-blocker, and hence the title of the book, played 132 total NHL games, all for the New York Rangers, but also played in the AHL and the Western Hockey League when it was ultra-competitive. Battles with coach Phil Watson hurt his chances with the Rangers. 

“I definitely think he could have played at least few more seasons in New York had it not been for Watson. He was one of the team's best skaters and was quite versatile, playing as a winger when asked so I think it's not too crazy to suggest he could have had a longer NHL career,” said Dilello. “In the years after New York, he was an All-Star practically every season in the WHL and considered one of the premier defensemen in that league.”

There's a lot of history within the pages. Chrystal is probably the only player in hockey history to have been coached by each of the famous New York Rangers "Bread Line" members from the 1920s and 1930s, playing for Bill Cook in Denver, Bun Cook in Cleveland, and Frank Boucher in New York.  

Dilello, a competitive curler, has 2015's Hockey Hotbeds and Golden Boys: The Top 50 Manitoba Hockey Players Of All Time from January 2018, on bookshelves now. He's pretty pleased to have turned around Chrystal's story quickly and efficiently. They all had an informal book launch at the home of the Chrystals on September 23. “I'm very happy I was able to tell Bob's story,” he concluded.

 

CHASING GRETZKY

At various functions over the last couple of years, I would ask Ken Reid about the progress of Hockey Card Stories 2, the sequel to his hit that came out in 2014. The first book was a lot of fun, and definitely struck a chord with those who collected through the years, like me. Most of the book was well in hand, but he was “chasing Gretzky.”

It turns out it was both worth the wait and appropriate that “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky ended up being the last interview, concluding the book. 

“The Gretzky chase was something else. I wanted him for my first book, I couldn't get him for my first book, but for the second one, I absolutely had to have Gretzky. I kind of wanted to end the book with the Gretzky interview,” Reid, a Toronto-based Sportsnet anchor, tells me over the phone. “It would finish the book off nicely, because when I was a kid, he was my ultimate chase, for my brother and I to find a Gretzky rookie.”

So the chase for a Gretzky rookie card, from the 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee set, and the interview are “intertwined.”

Reid spent a lot of time on the chase, calling in favours with friends and colleagues to get a copy of the first Hockey Card Stories in Gretzky's hands. Then the card company Upper Deck went to bat for Reid, and Gretzky phoned Reid from an Upper Deck appearance. 

Hockey Card Stories 2 cover

Hockey Card Stories 2 cover


“About a month before the book was due, he just called me up,” said Reid. “We had a great chat for about 15 minutes. He couldn't have been more generous with his time. When I got off the phone, I let out a big 'Whoo!' because it was a long chase to get him. I started this book about two and a half, three years ago, and it's one of those things where you'd like to get Wayne Gretzky right away, to take the stress off you. But it took awhile, but I got him.”

Gretzky scored big according to Reid. “He had great stories. He knew a ton about his rookie card, and he had a funny story about a friend of his back in Brantford who stocked up on his rookie card back in the early '80s, paid off well—you'll have to read the book to get the full story.”

Hockey Card Stories 2 is about far more than Gretzky, of course, though we do hear from his brother Brent Gretzky about his 1992-93 Upper Deck card. There are 57 other stories in the book. Reid loves 'em all, and every phone call to talk about a long-past hockey card resulted in a different tale. “Some guys don't know too much about them, but other guys really, really know the details of them.”

An example is Tony White, from a Washington Capitals team leaders card from 1976-77. White was no Gretzky, with 164 NHL games over five seasons. Reid tracked down the former Capital and North Star in British Columbia, where the Newfoundlander settled after his career ended. “He was just kind of, 'Why would you want to talk to me?'” chuckled Reid. “I basically said that it's the whole point to the book, so that people don't just flip past the common cards, that they know there's a story behind them. He was great. He told me a lot about the old Newfoundland Senior Hockey League, which I have a soft-spot for.”

 Hockey Card Stories 2 is out now, and there's a book launch at the Jason George, 100 Front St. E., in Toronto, on Tuesday, October 9, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

 

WORD ON THE STREET 

I was fortunate to be invited to Word on the Street in Halifax, for September 15, where I got to speak about my book, Father Bauer and the Great Experiment. It was nice that a few Society for International Hockey Research members came out for my talk. I've always enjoyed going to Word on the Street in Toronto, so it was cool to see how a different city handles the event. The Halifax Central Library is simply a stunning building, and on the Friday night there was a reception up on the roof-top patio, looking out on Halifax. Awesome. 

It was a sports-related talk, and I shared the stage with Michael Cosgrove, and his book Salt Of The Turf: A Season In Football's Far Corner. It's the story of the Citadel Phoenix high school team in Halifax, and its legendary coach Mike Tanner.

Greg Oliver and Michael Cosgrove at Word on the Street Halifax

Greg Oliver and Michael Cosgrove at Word on the Street Halifax

Hockey-related, local author Bretton Loney had a table set up promoting his self-published novel, The Last Hockey Player. The publicity blurb reads, “After society crumbles, walking alone in the Canadian winter tempts death in a hundred ways.” It's about more than just the game, obviously. Loney has written much short fiction, but this is his first novel; he wrote the non-fiction book, Rebel With A Cause: The Doc Nikaido Story, about the treatment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, through the lens of the rebellious doctor. For more, see www.brettonloney.com

The Last Hockey Player cover

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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