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Mark Hebscher and his documentary-turned-book
Sometimes two books arrive simultaneously that are remarkably similar in their approaches to their subjects. Pam Coburn's biography on her grandfather, Lionel Hitchman, and Mark Hebscher's biography on the first-ever Canadian Olympic gold medallist, George Orton—wait'll you learn his hockey connections—both take personal approaches to their stories, allowing the author a voice in the narrative.
And in both cases, Hitchman and Orton are shamefully under-appreciated for their contributions to sport.
THE GREATEST ATHLETE (YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF) Canada’s First Olympic Gold Medallist
Mark Hebscher is known to fans in Southern Ontario for his many years hosting TV sports recap shows, especially the pioneering Sportsline on Global TV with Jim Tatti, which ran for 25 years. He's interviewed thousands of sports figures, celebrities and politicians through the years, and continues to through a podcast (http://hebsyonsports.com), but what he had not done, until now, was write a book.
But he didn't set out to write one.
Challenged one night about who was the first Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal, he was stumped and set out to not only find out, but to celebrate the answer: George Orton at the 1900 Games in Paris, in the since-discontinued 2500 metre steeplechase; he'd won a bronze in the 400 metre hurdles less than an hour earlier that day.
A two-year odyssey began for Hebscher.
“The story I was going to tell was in documentary form. It was complete, a one-hour documentary,” he said over the phone. Since Orton died in 1958, it was tough to find visuals and people to talk about his accomplishments; fortunately, he had a granddaughter who could fill in a lot of the story.
But at some level, it just wasn't enough for the demanding Hebscher. “It was complete but I felt there was way more to tell. Then someone who saw the doc just said, 'Listen, you've got to write a book about this,'” he recalled. Hebscher thought about it, and when Dundurn Press said it would publish it, he embarked on a complementary project.
“I said, 'I've never written a book!' They said, 'It doesn't matter. You've just told a great story. Now, tell it in book form, the way you told it in visual form. It's your story, it's your journey of trying to find out about this guy,” recalled Hebscher. The result is a book where he's as much a part of the narrative as Orton, the tale of working on the documentary running alongside the runner.
“What happened along the way? Well, I made a movie. Well, what happened then? That's an interesting part. You're writing a book about someone, because you did a movie, so describe what happened.' ... That's easy to do, I went here, I went there, I stayed here, I spoke to this person, I got on this flight, I found this out along the way, I found that out along the way. When I interviewed the granddaughter in California, I got all kinds of great material. It was fantastic. Then in describing the whole way that I wanted to put the movie together, that's telling a story, that's telling the story of my journey to find out more about this guy. And I was looking for a gold medal, I was hoping to find his gold medal, and instead, really what happened is I found so much more. Because, at the beginning, all I knew was, he was the first gold medallist and I didn't know anything else. I didn't know about his disability, I didn't know about all the other accomplishments. I only knew what I read on Google.”
The world is richer for all that has been discovered in recent years on George Orton. For one, Orton was listed as an American in Olympic records since he ran for the University of Pennsylvania, the jingoistic nationalism not having permeated the Olympic Games much at that point. The credit for that find goes to famed Olympic writer and historian David Wallechinsky. “He was the one that discovered Orton, he was the one who discovered that Orton was from Canada in 1971, and said, 'We're got to change all of this now. We have to take those medals away from the U.S. and give them to Canada.' He was the one, him and his crew,” said Hebscher. “Can you imagine if that happened today? There'd be a big press conference. ... Then, they never even called his family, his granddaughter said, 'I never heard from them at all.' It took 20 years for the [Canadian] Olympic Hall of Fame to induct him. Really a shame, a real travesty, because they didn't know any better, They believed what they read. Why would they question Jim Coleman or why would they question Lou Marsh or any of these guys who'd written these articles years ago?”
In turn, Hebscher was able to point out to Wallechinsky's people that Orton was in all likelihood the first disabled athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. “See, that wasn't in the documentary. I didn't find that out until afterwards, and I was, 'Whoa,'” said Hebscher. Orton had actually been paralyzed as a child after falling out of a tree, and battled his way back, but the result was a “dead” arm. Orton hid the issue, making all his accomplishments all the more surprising.
Consider his impact on hockey in Philadelphia—he is deserving of the nickname “The Father of Philadelphia Hockey”—where he went to school and then worked for years. It was Orton who got Penn involved in college hockey, and was a star player despite his handicap, and years later, he coached the team. The 1897 Philadelphia Hockey League was his doing, and he got the Quaker City Hockey Club into the American Amateur Hockey League. He'd also played hockey at the University of Toronto, and was a proponent of 6-on-6 hockey when the game had been 7-on-7.
“Here's the thing, the book's been written, I'm learning more and more about his association with hockey, post-publication of the book,” said Hebscher. “For example, he was credited in one newspaper article that I saw starting the rivalry between Philadelphia and New York when it came to sports. It was hockey. Because when the American Amateur Hockey League began, it was only teams from New York. They had two or three indoor rinks, no one else had an indoor rink. So that history of rinks that I'm writing there, that's a key part of it, because there was way more competition in the U.S. than there was in Canada because of the proximity of the players to New York or Philadelphia or Washington/Baltimore. Whereas, Montreal to Toronto, back in those days, they couldn't just jump on the highway or whatever, a full-day trip. In New York, of course, you had rail systems, you could get from Philadelphia to New York in a couple of hours, that type of a thing, so it was much easier. But all the great hockey players in New York, most of them were Canadian, and they introduced the game. 'Here you go, this is our game. It's different than yours, but basic idea.'” Orton got the Quakers into the AAHL. “Even though they only lasted one year in the league, they had this rivalry thing—because New Yorkers never paid attention to Philadelphia, except if it was college football, if it was Penn versus Yale or something to that effect. Those were the origins of sports rivalries as well. College football and then hockey became pretty popular, and American teams were not allowed to compete for the Stanley Cup, they weren't allowed, so they played among each other, and they had some pretty good series.”
Orton wasn't just great at track and hockey either. He played soccer, cricket, was an early adopter of the new game of basketball in Philly, came up with the idea of putting numbers on the backs of jerseys to make it easier for fans in the stands, could speak nine languages, and so much more.
For all his accomplishments, Orton was very modest, said Hebscher. “He never talked about his accomplishments. Imagine sitting in front of your family, and asking, 'What did you do Grandpa?' He was like, 'Oh, I was a pretty fair runner, and I did calculus in my head.' Okay, so you believe him. Then you find out, years after he died, that he was a spectacular athlete, he was an incredible, influential force, and he never said a word about it to you.”
Fortunately, Hebscher has stepped into the void and filled in so many of the blanks with the 240-page The Greatest Athlete (YOU’VE Never Heard Of) Canada’s First Olympic Gold Medallist, with Ron MacLean providing the foreword.
Just don't expect that George Orton documentary. “I always envisioned the doc to be better than it is, and I couldn't put my face and my name on it, and my reputation, on something, and risk have someone go, 'Yeah, it's okay, but ... it wasn't that great of a story' or 'didn't move the needle for me.' I'd much rather do something where people go, 'Whoa, wow, I didn't know.' So I think a book covers that better. The documentary, you'll never see the documentary, I don't want it to be released, but I think there's elements of the documentary that eventually will make another movie, a doc, a better one, based on the book.”
HITCH: HOCKEY'S UNSUNG HERO
It's Pam Coburn's name on the cover of the biography on her grandfather, Lionel “Hitch” Hitchman, but it was very much a family project.
“I'm totally new to publishing, but it was a story that was really close to our hearts,” Coburn said in a phone interview. “There were a lot of pieces of Hitch's story out in the world, but some of it wasn't totally accurate, and he often was overshadowed by EddieShore. We wanted to make sure that his entire story was put into one place, so that it was there and it would live on, to truly shine a spotlight on his career in hockey.”
With her first book, Coburn succeeds, as it details Hitchman's early days around Toronto, his time as a police officer in Ottawa, and then as a defenceman with the Ottawa Senators, where he was a part of the team's 1923 Stanley Cup, and then, finally, the Boston Bruins, the team with which he is most associated. Hitch was a part of the B's first Stanley Cup, in 1929, a team he was captain of. When he retired in 1934, his #3 jersey was immediately retired by Boston.
Through all the years, all the successes, the Hitchman family kept tons of information on his hockey career, scrapbooks, photos, clippings. “Some of it was sent to the Library and Archives Canada back in the late '70s, but a lot of it was held back,” revealed Coburn. “I had all of that information to work from, including going down to Library and Archives Canada to make sure, to see what they had, and a lot of it is a replication of what we have at home too.”
She also joined the Society for International Hockey Research and mined its database, especially for amateur hockey details, and visited the Queen's University archives, in Kingston, Ontario, where the International Hockey Hall of Fame archives are located.
In short, Coburn had a wealth of material. “For me, the biggest issue was, what I was I going to put in and what was I going to keep out? To help me do that, I did do a timeline right from when the Hitchmans, even before the Hitchmans arrived in Canada, right through until after Hitch's death [in 1969]. From there, I just tried to pull the picture all together and pull the story together.”
A surprise discovery was that her grandfather had an older sister that she didn't know about. “Growing up in Ottawa, I knew Hitch as a child, and I knew his younger sister, who lived in Ottawa. Her daughter and I, we figure skated together, so we were quite close. But the older sister had died quite young,” she said. Hitch's other sister played hockey herself and tidbits of her own career provide a great look into women's hockey of the time.
A great resource was an uncle that Coburn didn't know too well previously, but given that he's turning 93 this year, he knew Hitch far better than she did. “He also said that Hitch had such an immense presence; when you were in the room with him, it was just something that was so alluring about him, but he didn't seek it out.”
Much of the very personal details, including Hitch's divorce, post-hockey life, and his battles with booze, were things the family knew through the years. “For us, that was old news, so it didn't disturb me going back and revisiting that. And my family was very open about it,” Coburn said. “My grandmother, she divorced him, I think, but on paper it probably looks the other way around, but they remained very good friends right up until the end. She was engaged to Carson Cooper, another player on the Boston Bruins, after that. But she was very big in the Boston group. And she always spoke very very highly [of him], I never heard a harsh word about him, in all the people that I spoke to.”
It was difficult, however, revisiting the hockey injuries he incurred. “I think what was the hardest to read was the number of concussions he received, starting from his very first playoff game in Montreal, where he was knocked out; then he was knocked out again the next year; he was knocked out the next year after that, and so forth. It was hard at first reading all of that, I'll be honest,” she said. “But in terms of his resiliency, I enjoyed reading about how he really was someone you could really count on, and he was a company player. He was there for the team all the time. And his personality, I think really does come through in the sense that he never was one to really seek out the limelight. He was a real players' player, I guess that's the best way to describe.”
Coburn knows her sports, having been Executive Director and CEO of Skate Canada for nearly a decade. The retelling of the hockey side of Hitch's life is terrific, but it's the personal side that will be a particular reward to readers.
The family's hope is that some key people read the book and really understand Lionel Hitchman's contributions to hockey. He is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame, despite a few campaigns on his behalf.
“I knew as a child growing that he was the captain of the Boston team, that he had won two Stanley Cups, that his sweater was retired back in February of 1934, and it was the first for Boston,” she said, continuing, “but what I didn't know, because if just go to NHL.com and look at his stats, you kind of go, 'Wow, why was he so special that he got his sweater retired?' and so forth. Then when you start drilling into his contributions for the regular seasons and the playoffs in particular, you can really see how this person, who on paper doesn't look remarkable, but his contribution in terms of being the clutch player, he was always there at the right moment, he was always pulling through at the last minute, it really started to shine a light for me, in terms of who he was as a hockey player.”
After all, she already knew him as a person.
Hitch: Hockey's Unsung Hero is a self-published effort, 366 pages, and is available at https://pamcoburn.com.
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