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Dan Robson, left, listens to John Bower Jr., at The SPORT Gallery in Toronto for the launch for Bower: A Legendary Life. Photo by Greg Oliver
We'll start off with a guarantee from Dan Robson, whose previous books have sold over 100,000 copies in Canada. His new book, Bower: A Legendary Life deserves a spot on a hockey fan's bookshelf even if they already own a copy of Johnny Bower's autobiography, The China Wall: The Timeless Legend of Johnny Bower, written with Bob Duff.
“While there is overlap by virtue of the subject, I guarantee that anyone who already read The China Wall will find a great deal of new information about Johnny's remarkable life in this biography,” promised Robson via email.
Duff was interviewed for Robson's book, out now from HarperCollins, and many journalists and historians (including this writer) shared their own files on Bower with the writer who spent many years at Sportsnet. With 93 years on Earth (a verified number now), there was lots of info on Bower to go through, some of it new to Robson.
“I learned a lot about Johnny that surprised me, actually. I was intrigued from the start by the stories he told about his last name—and that he never actually told the entire truth about that. There's an entire chapter dedicated to the various myths. I was surprised to learn that even his own family isn't clear on where the Bower name comes from. I was surprised to learn about his estranged brother, who also changed his name,” began Robson.
“And about his difficult relationship with his mother (whose maiden name most certainly was not Bower, as he told many people, including me). I was surprised to learn about his parents and their incredible story of overcoming the odds to make a life for themselves as immigrants in Canada. And I was intrigued by his military records, which I has exclusive access too, and which revealed so much about who he was at the time—from the lies he told to serve, to the debilitating arthritis in his hands that might have saved his life. I was amazed by the small details, like Johnny's time in Vernon, B.C. where he was one of the youngest in the military camp—but became a local star playing in a makeshift hockey league with the troops. (Also, he was there at the same time as Pierre Berton, which neither ever knew.) I could go on, but it'd be better if people read the book and found out for themselves.”
It takes a team to write a book like this, 352 pages put together in less than a year since Bower died. “There was so much content to go through. I would have been lost without the help of researcher Paul Patskou, who curated a good portion of that content for me,” said Robson, who shared a little of his work habits, honed through a biography on Pat Quinn, and autobiographies with Clint Malarchuk, Doug Gilmour and baseball's Buck Martinez.
“I organized the research through a program called Evernote, which I used for most of my projects. It allows me to divide the plethora of articles, clips, videos, interview transcriptions into chapters. From there, I'm able to keep all the details I need to craft each chapter—as well as easily search for information I might have missed. I outline extensively, but tend to waver from my plans if I feel the narrative requires it,” he explained. “Above all, I want a book to flow. I want it to be a natural reading experience for the audience. So I'm never a slave to my initial plan. Sometimes what I thought would be two chapters becomes one. And other times what I thought would be a chapter just becomes a brief aside in another one.”
Though greater Toronto is home, and the Bower family is mostly in town, Robson travelled for both research and was away to write it as well. One trip was to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where Ken Guedo of the Prince Albert Historical Society took him around town, so Robson could learn what it would have looked, smelled and sounded like back when Bower was there. “The Historical Society's archives helped me uncover specific details about Johnny's family life and provided deeper context through which I was able to better understand what shaped him into the legendary man he became,” he said. Another real gem was Johnny's sister Anne Batting, in Castlegar, B.C., who recently turned 100.
Much of the actual writing was done at a small glass table, in an uncomfortable chair, in a tiny condo right above the subway tracks—The “L”—in Chicago. “My wife was an investigative journalist at the Toronto Star when I started this book, in February 2018. She was about to embark on a journalism fellowship with the University of Chicago Booth school of business for a semester,” said Robson. “When I decided to take a leave from Sportsnet to write this book, we agreed that I'd head down to join her as soon as I was done teaching my winter course at Ryerson University. I spent two and a half months reporting the content of the book, while still I Toronto. Then I joined my wife in Chicago (with our dog Henry) and spent the next two months writing, pretty much non-stop.”
The lack of distractions was a help, he said. “It wasn't the most ideal situation, but it actually forced me to focus and get it done. Aside from my wife (who was in class) and my dog, I didn't really know anyone there. So, despite the very one-sided chats I often had with Henry the mini golden-doodle, I didn't have to deal with the kinds of distractions I face when I'm back home in Toronto.”
A book launch for Bower: A Legendary Life was held in at the end of October at The SPORT Gallery in Toronto's Distillery District. Just a day before the launch, Robson agreed to join The Athletic, the ever-expanding online sports news website. He is the senior writer and head of features with The Athletic Canada.
While he embarks on a new journey at The Athletic, Robson will continue working towards another book, this one called Measuring Up: On Fathers, Sons, and What It Takes to Build a Home.
“It's a book about the relationship between fathers and sons, and how we measure ourselves against the example laid out before us, even after its gone. Specifically, it's about me—a useless writer—trying to learn how to become a functional man of real utility, by attempting to learn how to use tools the way my father could when he was alive. He was a construction man. He died, suddenly, while I was writing the biography I wrote about Pat Quinn, a few years ago. This upcoming book is my attempt to grapple with and share something I've been dealing with ever since we lost him. I don't intend to take on any other projects until this one is done.”
Like The China Wall, and Bower: A Legendary Life, it will find a home on many a bookshelf too.
HONOURING HOCKEY'S WORLD WAR I SOLDIERS
While Johnny Bower served in the Second World War, the subject of Alan Livingstone MacLeod's new book is the First World War. It's called From Rinks to Regiments: Hockey Hall-of-Famers and the Great War.
It's a fascinating exploration of hockey's connections during the conflict, told through the stories of the men who played and served (and managed and refereed). There's enough detail on the military side of things to satisfy that side of the equation, and plenty of hockey for fans—and a whole lot for everyone to learn.
“The book wouldn't have had the pull I expect of it if the men treated weren't both great hockey players and WWI soldiers. I feel I've managed to strike a good balance,” MacLeod said via email.
The project has been in the works for some time. MacLeod writes in the book's preface that his interest in hockey history goes back to 1960 when he was 12 years old, and discovered the 'All-Time Greats' in the 1960-61 Topps hockey card set. “For the past ten years I have intensified efforts to learn more about hockey-war connections,” he said. “In the spring of 2012 I gave a presentation on the subject of the book to the Pacific Coast Branch, Western Front Association. It was very well received. I was encouraged to write a book on the subject. I needed to be pushed a bit but I finally did it.”
There was a good reason MacLeod didn't leap in right away, as he was waiting for some of the background material to become easier to access.
“I resisted getting down to the writing for a few years because I felt that for many of the players I didn't have enough material to tell worthy stories about the hall-of-famers as soldiers. Fortunately, LAC (Library & Archives Canada) has recently completed the task of digitizing soldiers' service records,” he explained. “Because of this happy turn of events I have been able to see every item in the service records of all 32 HHoF members treated in the book. That turned the trick: I found enough to tell compelling stories about the hockey players as soldiers.”
The result is a 192-page paperback from Heritage House Publishing that features the stories of players such as Percy LeSoeur, Hobey Baker, Duke Keats, Red Dutton and Ching Johnson, and battlefields from Ypres, to the Somme, Vimy, and Passchendaele. The stats from the publisher: “Four of these men were killed in action. Four were decorated for gallantry. Twenty-seven were volunteers, and five were conscripted under the Military Service Act of 1917. All have remarkable stories.”
Also remarkable are the photos, especially the men in uniform. That chase for MacLeod was particularly difficult. “The toughest part of the whole exercise was tracking down images of the men as soldiers. I have images-as-soldiers for only a relatively small number of the players. I wish I'd succeeded in finding more, but I'm certainly happy about the ones I managed to unearth and have included in the book.”
In a few cases, relatives of the players/soldiers were able to help out. “I definitely sought people out, most often without great success. But in two cases, the families were terrific. Frank Fredrickson's son 'Bud' Fredrickson and daughter-in-law Alix were wonderful. They gave me a great trove of items—Frank's own photos and negatives, letters, diaries, the passport he took to the 1920 Olympics, and much more. Only five of the images the Fredricksons gave me appear in the book; there are many more to be seen in another flickr set of mine, 'Frank Fredrickson'.
“Just as generous were Duke Keats' son, the late Gordon Keats, and Duke's granddaughter, Kerry Keats. The Keats collection includes images not just of Duke Keats but a number of other players and hall-of-famers as well. Several of these appear in the book.”
MacLeod, who earlier wrote Remembered in Bronze and Stone: Canada's Great War Memorial Statuary, did give some thought to the stories of the men who are not in the Hockey Hall of Fame. “I decided that it would be hall-of-famers who would elicit the greatest interest, and I wanted to keep the book to a manageable length, so I made a deliberate decision to limit the book's scope as I did,” he said.
Fortunately, on his flickr sets, 'Hockey & The Great War', MacLeod is able to spotlight others, such as Alexander “Patsy” Seguin who played with the Montreal Canadien and was killed in action, August 8, 1918, the first day of the war's “Last Hundred Days.” Another name, which lived on through a trophy, is Edward Lyman “Hick” Abbott; MacLeod said that Abbott “was a superb athlete in five sports who won an Allan Cup with the Regina Victorias in 1914. He was twice decorated for gallantry—Military Cross and Bar—before being killed in action, July 1918. The Abbott Cup, awarded to the champion Western Canada juniors from 1919 to 1999 was established in his honour.”
“Honour” is a good word to describe From Rinks to Regiments. You come away with a great appreciation for the sacrifices made by these men and an appreciation for MacLeod's efforts to preserve their combined military and hockey histories. Up next for MacLeod is a book that tells the stories of 22 men from a single Nova Scotia community who died in the war. “Alas, there isn't a trace of hockey in that book,” he warned.
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