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A virtual publishing empire in and of himself, Andrew Podnieks needed a challenge. The result, after a lot of research, is one of his most unique books—and that's saying something, when there are more than 100 out there—The Greatest, Weirdest, Most Amazing NHL Debuts of All Time.
It started with Auston Matthews' debut, where he scored four goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Ottawa Senators. Podnieks began thinking about other great debuts in hockey, and was intrigued.
And a little miffed.
“That was special because a player always dreams about scoring a goal in his first game, and lots of players have done that, and maybe 50 or 60 have scored two goals in a game, and then three or four players have scored three, and he's really the only one to score four,” Podnieks said. “Of course, the NHL said, 'No, no, back in 1718, some guy scored four as well.' I kind of think that doesn't really count because they weren't really true NHL rookies the way Matthews was.”
Podnieks thought some more on it, and took on the challenge and committed himself to a massive task.
“I just thought of other records that might have been made in first games, but there's no place to find that information. That's what really got me hooked, because then in order to find more records and in order to be complete and thorough, the only way to do that is to make an Excel spreadsheet of every name who's ever played in the NHL, and find their first game date and then find the first game stats— and then look at all those stats as a whole and say, 'Okay, what stands out as unique or interesting or weird or funny or crazy or embarrassing?' There are great games and not-so-great games. It took a couple of years to do all of that. Sifting through the information took a long time. It just seemed that whenever I had whatever, 10 or 15 or 20 of big records, I kept on thinking about more and more records, and more detail, and more interesting stuff. I just turned into a book.”
Many, many books ago, in 2005, ECW Press published Podnieks' first book, Return to Glory: The Leafs from Imlach to Fletcher. In total, 12 different publishers have printed his work (check out http://andrewpodnieks.com for details), plus the International Ice Hockey Federation, for which he does the guide and record books. There are books for all age levels. He also has an exclusive deal to do books for Indigo in Canada. Many times, his books compete for space on bookshelves with his own books.
ECW Press got the pitch from Podnieks for The Greatest, Weirdest, Most Amazing NHL Debuts of All Time, which came out in October 2019. He figured it might be a little over 100 pages with lots of photos, but would up with a lot more. “It's pretty exhaustive as far as first game information goes,” understated Podnieks.
In all, more than 300 spectacular debuts, from 1917 to 2019, are detailed, along with some great photos from history. Some are so unique you have to read it to understand it, like the backup goalie who didn't play but did get penalty minutes from a bench-clearing brawl; to Podnieks, that's his debut, since he's on the scoresheet, but the NHL considers his debut days later when he took to the net.
“You also start to question some of the records,” furthered Podnieks. His example is Gus Bodnar scoring a goal 15 seconds from the start of his career, which was at the beginning of the game; yet Dave Christian scored a goal seven seconds into his first shift, “just that his first shift wasn't the first shift of the game. They're two kinds of records. The NHL acknowledges one and doesn't really consider the other one at all.”
To Podnieks, they are similar yet different records. “You can say, 'Fastest Goal From Start of a Game,' 'Fastest Goal From Start of a Career,' or something like that, or 'Start of Shift,' whatever, so you can have both in there because it's cool too. Dave Christian had the advantage when he had his first shift, there was a faceoff in the offensive end. Bodnar started at centre ice, so it takes a few more seconds. But it's still cool that seven seconds after a guy steps on the ice, he scores a goal.”
To complete the pieces, Podnieks headed to the newspapers of the past for quotes or anecdotes to use in the write-ups. “I'm sure that if everybody's who's in the book got a copy of the book, a lot of them wouldn't know they'd be in there, or wouldn't think that their first game was especially special,” he chuckled.
The Greatest, Weirdest, Most Amazing NHL Debuts of All Time makes a great gift, and an even greater conversation piece. “Did you know that ...”
MY PART IN THE GRIM REAPER'S BOOK
It's a surreal experience to be reading along in a hockey player's autobiography and then realizing that he's talking about … me.
Such was the case when I dove into Stu Grimson's The Grim Reaper: The Life and Career of a Reluctant Warrior.
Written with USA Today's Kevin Allen, it's exactly what you think it'll be for most of the book—a tough guy who didn't especially relish the fights on the ice, but filled a role and did it exceedingly well. That aspect could have been written in almost any of the books about fighters.
Where it stands out is how introspective and thoughtful it is, and not just about hockey. Grimson getting his law degree was interesting, but then his days working first as a player rep and then for the NHLPA itself was eye-opening. He's open and confessional at some points, and there are plenty of chuckles along the way too, with insight into players, coaches and management he dealt with (the rest of the hockey world will be jealous they weren't an original Mighty Duck when Disney owned the team).
But what does this have to do with Greg Oliver, you ask? And no, I'm not in the index, but I played a valuable part in Grimson's life. He was adopted, and post-hockey career, he decided to connect with his birth mother. She then told him about his birth father—a former CFL football player turned pro wrestler named Mike Webster.
Grimson began the search to find Webster, but his biological mother had lost track of him. “I was on my own to find him,” writes Grimson. “It didn't take long. Surfing the web, I stumbled upon a pro wrestling forum where two writers were discussing Webster's wrestling career. I entered the discussion and explained that I was trying to reach Webster. To my surprise, one of them supplied me with his phone number.”
That was me, my dual role of chronicler of hockey and pro wrestling rarely becoming so intertwined. (I did once break the news to former NHLer Ted Irvine that his son, Chris Jericho—the current AEW World champion—had signed a contract with the World Wrestling Federation.)
Left out of Grimson's story is that I first contacted Mike Webster to make sure it was okay to pass on his info. I didn't know Mike especially well, but I had introduced from the podium one year at a wrestling reunion, so we knew each other. Grimson actually emailed me a couple of times to see whether Mike had responded to me, until finally, I got this note from Stu in January 2011: “Thanks Greg. Mike reached out and we spoke today. Thanks for all your help with this.” Similarly, Mike Webster dropped me a simple note: “I’m in touch with Stu. Thanks.”
You are both very welcome.
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