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If you are a fan of the Edmonton Oilers, it's a pretty good bet that you either already have the beautiful new book, Grit and Glory: Celebrating 40 Years of the Edmonton Oilers, or are expecting to get it soon, perhaps via Santa Claus.
It's Lorna Schultz Nicholson's name on the cover as the author, but a book like this takes many teammates to make happen, especially as it is an official team publication.
Playing along with team history, if Schultz Nicholson is Wayne Gretzky, centring the winning project, then editor Justin Stoller was her Jari Kurri, there at her side for much of the journey.
“Every time I went to Toronto I would meet up with my editor for coffee or lunch and we would discuss what I had dug up, where I was going with the book, and also how I wanted it to be filled with stories,” said Schultz Nicholson via email. “That was such an important factor for me. I wanted it to be a book of stories as well as facts as well as memories for fans. We also talked overall look. He was brilliant with the overall look.”
About four years ago, Schultz Nicholson made the initial proposal for the book, which in retrospect, was “sparse and not totally fleshed out.” She got the go-ahead in February 2016 from Viking, the division of the giant Penguin Random House behind the 320-page treasure. Then it was on to the interview process, starting at the beginning, with Al Hamilton and the WHA days of the team (the book marks 40 years since the team joined the NHL in 1979, in case your math is spotty). Research included reading many previous Oilers-related books, such as Boys on the Bus, Oil Change and autobiographies, as well as watching tons of past games on video.
“The book really took on a life of its own once I started the research, and got immersed in the very beginnings, and that’s when I figured out how it should be laid out. I realized that needed to include the WHA days so I just started at the beginning and the key players who were involved. My first interview was Al Hamilton, and second was Glen Sather. I circled back on people, as the book progressed,” said Schultz Nicholson. “For instance, Glen Sather, I talked to a few times because at first I wanted his early, early days. Once I started, I went year by year.”
Complimenting those season by season stories of the action on and off the ice are some incredible phots, and some really neat sidebars—like the tale of the Bub Slug comic strip, flight woes, Stanley Cup celebrations, retirements of players and broadcasters, and other honours, such as number retirements and Hockey Hall of Fame inductions.
There “were always going to be sidebars and my editor and I talked about that from day one,” she said. “What to put in them morphed as the book went along. At first I had the idea of putting in quotes from fans but as I continued writing, I realized that might get a little repetitive. So, once I gathered the information it turned into a bit of a puzzle as to what should go in the sidebars.”
Other teammates were there to protect her, like Dave Semenko intimidating on the wing. One “hockey genius” copy editor “went through it and made notes, things for me to either expand on or reword, (typical copy edit) plus he made sure that all my stats were correct.”
Because Grit and Glory is an official publication, Schultz Nicholson worked doubled-shifts to make sure everything was on target, and it went past a few extra sets of eyes who had investments in the team along the way, emotionally and financially.
“I sent the book to two Oilers gurus, Bill Tuele and Bob Stauffer, and they read it for any mistakes. I gave all the EIG (Edmonton Investment Group) information to Cal Nichols, and I met with him quite a few times to go over those parts,” revealed the author. “[Current Oilers owner] Daryl Katz’s team of lawyers looked through all of the parts that involved him and his purchase of the team. Again it was important to get it right.”
To its credit, Grit and Glory does not come across like any sort of a white-washed company book-length press release, sticking only to team-approved narratives, and avoiding all controversy.
“There was little interference from the team. Everyone was accommodating and helpful and whenever I asked for contact information they were quick to give it to me,” revealed Schultz Nicholson. “They were amazing with every component of the book and didn’t tell me what I had to write. Kevin Lowe was an amazing contact for me and he was always available to answer my text messages.”
As for her husband, Chief Executive Officer & Vice Chair of Oilers Entertainment Group, Bob Nicholson, it wasn't so much him telling her what to write as Lorna teaching Bob a thing or two. “Believe it or not, I didn’t really talk to my husband at home. It was my project and I left him out of it,” she said. “Although sometimes, he would come home and I would say, 'Did you know?!' I think I gave him the Oilers history lesson.”
The “official” part, having the Oilers and its immense contact list on hand meant that Schultz Nicholson got to interview almost everyone she wanted, including Semenko, who died during her work on Grit and Glory in June 2017. “I was so lucky to have interviewed Dave Semenko. I spent hours with him and I laughed and laughed at his stories. He was such a fabulous interview,” she said. Aside from being able to stir Wild Bill Hunter from his grave, Schultz Nicholson figures the main name that escaped her was a former coach. “Even though he didn’t coach the team for a long time, I also think Ralph Krueger would have been a good interview.”
As good as the writing and research is, the backbone—the Grant Fuhr, if you will—of a book like this are the photographs
“The photos took weeks to go through. I was so lucky that Andy Devlin, the current Oilers photographer, took the time to go through photos with me. We went through every year and I selected photos, with his help,” explained Schultz Nicholson. “Sometimes I would say, 'Oh I love this one,' and then he would comment on lighting or shadows. Of course in the early years there weren’t as many but in the later years there were thousands and thousands. In those later years I had a list I had compiled of players and events to make the process a little quicker. But year by year we went through the photos.”
Devlin subsequently opened the vault. “Then… we got down to the old photos that were hidden in a storage room, and Andy brought a loop and I sat down and went through contact sheets. I was so excited to find a box of contact sheets for the 1979/80 season and then almost cried when I discovered there were NO negatives! Yup, not one negative from that first season. But back to the process. I would select the ones I thought might work from those older years, and Andy took them and got them developed for me.”
In Toronto, linemates Schultz Nicholson and Stoller went through the 1,000 or so photos she brought in, selecting the ones that were “1) for sure; 2) maybe; 3) no. From there the photos went to the art department and they picked through them as well. I really wanted a variety and I wanted photos that showed the players, the City of Edmonton, and historical Oilers moments.” A few more photos were licensed from Getty Images, and it was off to the art department for layout. “Picking the photos were such a fun part of the process, a lot of work, but fun because it is true that pictures tell a story. I knew that some stories would only be told through the photo.”
JOHN BROPHY GETS HIS DUE
A little like his subject matter, writer Gregg Inkpen is unapologetic and honest. His self-published book about tough guy turned coach John Brophy, entitled Broph: On and Off the Ice With John Brophy, One of Hockey's Most Colorful Characters, just went to press and Inkpen is straight-forward with his goals.
“I'm shameless. I want people to read it. I'm making just under $2/book so it's not about the money,” he said via email.
Since it came out through Amazon's KDP system (formerly known as Createspace), a little later than planned, just before American Thanksgiving at the end of November, Inkpen can keep track of sales in a way that writers with traditional publishers cannot.
“As of this moment I've sold about 330 books (that's just under three weeks of sales),” he revealed. “Kept the price low at $11.99 (US) ... Many have bought multiple copies to give as gifts at holiday time so that has worked out well.”
Back in April 2018, I previewed the project. Inkpen said that the process worked smoothly from his perspective, learning about “bleeds” and PDFs over a Word doc along the way.
He's pleased with who he did get to talk to, including past interviews with Brophy himself, teammates and players, but there's always a “What if?” Inkpen wishes he could have talked to former Leafs scout and GM Gerry McNamara, and the recently deceased Dan Maloney.
The family wasn't especially helpful, he added. “I did speak to his older brother, Tom, briefly around 2008. When I attempted to interview one of John's sister's, with his permission, I was met with resistance. I brought up the house fires and understandably she didn't want to talk about it and said I shouldn't write about that, only his hockey career. Well, it's a biography so I felt it needed to be covered. Besides, the two fires were published in their hometown paper when they happened so it was public knowledge so I didn't feel I was prying.”
Inkpen will be out there hustling the book. Besides social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, the local paper in Long Island near where Inkpen lives and where Brophy played has done a bit to promote Broph. He has reached out to other places where he coached, like Hampton, Virginia, and Toronto too.
“I also had business cards made with the book cover as the photo on the card. When I go to the Nassau Coliseum for an Islanders game or two (they're back for a few games), I'll strategically place them around the arena and maybe onto windshields of parked cars,” warned Inkpen.
I have been trying to work ahead a bit on this column, since I just fit it in where I can, and can say we're going to finish off 2018 with an interview with the bestselling Kirstie McLellan Day, about her book, Cujo, with Curtis Joseph, and all those other big winners through the years.
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