Two Minutes for Reading so Good

Why the Korean women's Olympic team rules, and other top titles

Two Minutes for Reading so Good

Greg Oliver


Why the Korean women's Olympic team rules, and other top titles

Posted December 23, 2019

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A Team of Their Own Book Cover

The end of the year is a time for reflection, and here at “Two Minutes for Reading So Good,” we do it too, thinking about all the hockey books that came out in 2019, and which one made a difference. For me, the book I was most fascinated by and learned the most from was, beyond any doubt, Seth Berkman's A Team of Their Own: How an International Sisterhood Made Olympic History

Like Ken Dryden's book last year on Steve Montador and concussions, which was noted for its importance in helping to shape the dialogue about head injuries, I found A Team of Their Own to resonate in many of the same ways.

The story is about far more than hockey. There's the political intrigue of the two Koreas merging, at the last minute, for a unified Olympic team. There's the story of adoption, and those who grew up outside Korea learning about their roots. There are the challenges all women face in a male-dominated world. It's about a team coming together and seeing it through, and the changes it brought to a society.

Under a lesser writer, it could have been a mess. But Berkman is a true wordsmith, and has put everything together skillfully, melding hockey, politics, history, and disparate personalities from two completely different cultures. There's empathy, humour, frustration, joy, sadness, triumph, and, most of all, unwavering commitment from the players and the coaching staff. It is abundantly obvious that he put in the time and effort into building the trusting relationships needed for the story, in two languages to boot.

My caveat is that the title leaves a lot to be desired, since it doesn't tell you the important details—it's a book about the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and the united women's hockey team for South and North Korea, and about the “ringers” from Canada and the United States that were brought into the fold through their Korean heritage. Even the cover doesn't scream “hockey.”

Those were all topics I broached with Berkman (see https://sethberkman.com), who “permalances” for The New York Times. I came away from the phone conversation liking the book even more. Perhaps that's because Berkman, like some of the players he writes about, was adopted from South Korea as an infant, and grew up in New Jersey. This book is his journey too, even if doesn't speak Korean and purposefully kept himself out of the narrative.

Berkman has covered plenty of subjects through the years, including women's hockey. The book has its genesis in a Times story and grew from there. “I remember talking with my editor in late 2016. When we cover the Olympics, we're always looking ahead of time, trying to get the stories before they become big for the Olympics, and we just were talking about what South Korea was going to do with the 2018 Games coming up, and building hockey teams,” recalled Berkman. He first met the team in person in early 2017, in Minnesota, for a training camp.

“I was very intrigued and curious about them. I knew that there was something there that you don't get in many stories, just because the composition of the team was much different, and the backgrounds,” he said. “I didn't know it was a book then, but after that initial reporting trip, just the idea and their stories stuck with me for a while. Then it really came up in the summer of 2017, when I started to think, 'Maybe there's a book here to pursue.'” An email from coach Sarah Murray after that initial article ran made him take more notice.

Growing up in New Jersey, Berkman was a big hockey fan, and then “lapsed” around the early 2000s. In the last half-dozen years, he's gotten back into the sport. “I have covered a lot of women's hockey, so I'm probably actually more well-versed in that area than NHL stuff, as of right now.”

Those mainstream NHL hockey fans may not know about A Team of Their Own and that's a shame. There is some appreciation “from Asian-Americans, particularly the Korean community, but hockey in general, not so much,” said Berkman. “And I guess in a way, it's hard to target the NHL audience and the women's hockey audience in general is still relatively small. I do get some hits and attention there, but it's not on the level of a Ken Dryden book with Scotty Bowman.”

The Asian-American (and Asian-Canadian) aspect is one of the treats of the book. Berkman learned many things through the writing process.

“I'm Korean-American, I was born in Korea and I'm adopted, so I grew up the States basically since I was three months old. So I never knew much actually about Korean history and Korean culture, and I knew that important for this book to provide this background context for audiences who, just like me, didn't know much about Korea to begin with,” he admitted. The challenge, then, was “writing and researching at the same time.”

Did his own Korean heritage help?

“I think yes and no. Why I say that is, in terms of the import players, the Korean-Americans, the Korean-Canadians, I think it did help a lot, just because, for me personally, I could relate to them in a lot of ways, just their personalities, their own feelings about their Korean heritage. So when it did come time to talk about more deeper, more emotional topics, I was able to draw on my experiences, just for the way you can empathise with some of the feelings that the players were going through,” he said.

When it came to the South Korean players, there were far more hurdles. “I remember meeting the South Korean players for the first time, and I had heard that they all take English class in school, and at least 10 of the girls on the team were still teenagers, still in high school, kind of that age, and I went in thinking, 'Oh, I can just speak to them in English.' Then I would ask them long, elaborate detailed questions, and they would just shake their head and just say yes or no. Later on, someone told me that even though they study English, they're really shy in speaking it. I wasn't able to build the kind of rapport at first with them that I thought I would, just because of the language barrier.”

Time with the team helped. “Later on, I could get the sense and this feeling among them that it did mean more, or it meant a little something, at least to them, that I was of Korean background and Korean heritage.”

During the incredible upheaval of adding North Korean players to the unified team just weeks before the first game of the tournament, Berkman found himself better appreciated by the players, since it wasn't about politics to him—or them. “They knew I was coming from a different side, something more generally focused on, whether it be their South Korean heritage or just more about their own personal stories than focused on the North Korean side.”

There is also that constant in hockey, the different treatment women's hockey gets compared to men's hockey. The South Korean men's team in the Olympics brought in ringers, who didn't necessarily have Korean backgrounds, to supplement the squad, and they were all paid far more than their female counterparts. Post-Olympics, the Korean women's team takes a page from the U.S. women's team and makes a stand for better treatment. It's inspiring to be along for their journey of empowerment.

The Korean women's team became celebrities during the Olympics, so a version in Korean will be out some time in 2020, revealed Berkman.

Which brings us back to the title, A Team of Their Own: How an International Sisterhood Made Olympic History, and the cover images.

Berkman said that everyone involved went back and forth with ideas and concepts. “It was important to include the word Olympic, just so some people would have some frame of reference. I think there probably were candidates thrown around at some time that did include the word Korea or something related to Korea,” he said. “Even though the word Korea isn't in it, I think to compensate, having those photos of the players actually makes up for not have the actual word Korea in the title.”

“It's such a niche sport within Korea itself, and then on top that, it's a women's hockey team, and then a women's hockey team from a country that people don't think of as a power. I think after a while, putting the word Olympic in the subtitle was important just to have that frame of reference and people might remember, 'Oh yeah, in 2018, the Olympics were in South Korea,' and then hopefully people remember the unified aspect of it.”

In conclusion, I will put A Team of Their Own down as my favourite hockey book of the year. But there's no unity here, as you will see below, as it didn't cross Todd Denault's radar at all, and he has yet to read it.

Seth Berkman
Seth Berkman

 

TODD DENAULT'S TOP PICKS

 

In what is becoming an annual tradition for the third year in a row Greg has asked me to submit a list of hockey books that have been published over the last couple of months with an eye towards the ever important Christmas book market.

 

By my count there were “at least” 40 different hockey titles published since last year’s column (not including paperback editions and reprinted “updates” of previously released titles). Now to be truthful I haven’t gotten around to reading all of them, which is why this list has been trimmed to 20 different books. That doesn’t necessarily make these 20 the best hockey books of the season; it just means that I’ve read them.

 

So without further ado …

 

Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other by Ken Dryden

The most anticipated hockey book of the year. There is a lot to recommend this book and much has been already written about it … but all you need to know is this … if you want to get inside the mind of the most successful coach in hockey history and find out what he really “thinks” then run, and not walk to your nearest bookstore.

 

Number 4 Bobby Orr: A Chronicle of the Boston Bruins' Greatest Decade 1966-1976 Led by Their Legendary Superstar by Kevin Vantour & Keery Keene

For those of you, who can’t get enough of (perhaps) hockey’s greatest-ever player, this close to 400 page opus is perhaps the deepest statistical dive into Bobby Orr’s career with the Boston Bruins. Featuring detailed summaries broken down into seasons, and then into months, the narrative is enhanced with Orr’s game-by-game stats as well as contemporary photos, interviews and newspaper accounts. [More Orr and Rangers via self-published books]

 

Guardians of the Goal: A Comprehensive Guide to New York Rangers Goaltenders, from Hal Winkler to Ed Giacomin, Henrik Lundqvist, and All Those in Between by George Grimm

Throughout their nine-decade plus history, the New York Rangers have been blessed with some of the very best goaltenders to ever stand between the pipes. All told, 88 men from Canada, the United States, and Europe have toiled in front of the Rangers net at Madison Square Garden, from Dave Dryden (who played in one game) to Terry Sawchuk (who played in one season), to Henrik Lundqvist (who holds the franchise record for games played), George Grimm presents all 88 of their stories.

 

Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life by Eddie Olczyk with Perry Lefko

Say the name Eddie Olczyk and many remember a 16-year NHL career with the Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, and with the New York Rangers, with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 1994. Younger fans may recognize him as one of the games most recognized voices, as one of the top broadcasters in the game. After reading this you’ll also learn about Eddie Olczyk, cancer victim, cancer survivor, and ultimately cancer advocate.  [Eddie Olczyk's Beating the Odds not just a hockey book]

 

Hitch, Hockey's Unsung Hero: The Story of Boston Bruin Lionel Hitchman by Pam Coburn

Quick question: Name the first Boston Bruin to have his number retired, and only the second player ever in NHL history. If you didn’t know that Lionel Hitchman was the answer, then this book is for you. Distinguished sportswriter Elmer Ferguson called him the “greatest defensive” defenseman of his day. The NHL’s revered chief referee Cooper Smeaton ranked him ahead of his defense partner, Eddie Shore. Legendary manager of the Boston Bruins, Art Ross, wouldn’t sell him “at any price.” And yet he goes unrecognized by the Hockey Hall of Fame. Now his granddaughter goes a long way to rectifying this omission, with a loving, yet deeply researched book about one of hockey’s “lost legends.” [The unappreciated Lionel Hitchman and George Orton]

 

Most Valuable: How Sidney Crosby Became the Best Player in Hockey's Greatest Era and Changed the Game Forever by Gare Joyce

Fifteen years after his first book on “Sid the Kid,” Joyce returns with another look at Number 87, but this time, he examines the legacy. Arguing that the history of the game can be divided into two eras, before and after Crosby’s rookie season in 2005, the book also takes a hard look at all the changes, and not all of them for the better, that have shadowed Crosby throughout his NHL career.

 

Hockey: A Global History by Stephen Hardy & Andrew C. Holman

At 600 pages, and based on 25 years of research, Hardy and Holman present the history of the sport through an international lens. A very detailed and extensive study of hockey's evolution, structures, and culture and at the same time a unique one. 

 

The Real Ogie: the Life and Legend of Goldie Goldthorpe by Liam Maguire

Part myth, part legend, Bill Goldthorpe is unquestionably one of hockey’s most notorious characters. Now for the first time, here is the life story of the man who was the inspiration for the character of Ogie Oglethorpe, from the iconic movie Slap Shot … through six pro leagues and three senior leagues, all the while living a hockey life like no other. [Beers and books with Goldie and Liam]

 

Nicklas Lidstrom: The Pursuit of Perfection by Nicklas Lidstrom w/Gunnar Nordstrom & Bob Duff

The greatest defenseman of his generation, with four Stanley Cups, seven Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenseman, a Conn Smythe Trophy, 12 All-Star selections, and gold medals in both the Olympics and World Championships, all seemingly done effortlessly. Augmented by those who saw him on a day-to-day basis, teammates, coaches, executives, media members, etc, this book reveals the man behind the legend.

 

If These Walls Could Talk: Toronto Maple Leafs: Stories from the Toronto Maple Leafs Ice, Locker Room, and Press Box by Lance Hornby

Covering the Maple Leafs for the past 35 years as a beat writer for the Toronto Sun has provided Hornby with a bounty of stories surrounding “Canada’s Team.” For this his latest release, he dips into his notes about the Leafs 100 year-plus history and given us some of the best stories that we didn’t see on television or find on a scoresheet.

 

My Life by Teemu Selanne with Ari Mennander

An autobiography of one of hockey’s most popular players, this book is also crammed full of personal photos, but the book also reveals the maturation of its subject and reminds you just how good Teemu was and for how long.

 

No Days Off: My Life with Type 1 Diabetes and Journey to the NHL by Max Domi with Jim Lang

Rarely does a 24-year-old warrant an autobiography, but Max Domi is far from your ordinary 24-year-old hockey player. Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 12, this honest, and at times raw autobiography doesn’t pull any punches in detailing Domi’s struggles, adversity, and finally triumph to get where he is today. An absolutely essential read for any child diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

 

When It Mattered Most: The Forgotten Story of America’s First Stanley Cup, and the War to End All Wars by Kevin Ticen

Here is the story of the first American-based team to capture the Stanley Cup, but this book is much more than that. Not only telling the story of the Seattle Metropolitans but of the greater world at that time as the Great War raged overseas, and a timely book too, as Seattle gets ready to re-enter the NHL. [Exploring Seattle's rich hockey history]

 

The Greatest, Weirdest, Most Amazing NHL Debuts of All Time by Andrew Podnieks

The ever prolific Andrew Podnieks’ latest offering features more than 300 spectacular NHL first games, from 1917 to 2019, and gives equal time to the famous and forgotten, all taken from their memorable first night of NHL play. [Podnieks delivers a flurry of firsts]

 

Eddie Shack: Hockey’s Most Entertaining Stories by Eddie Shack and Ken Reid

Part coffee-table book, part memoir, this newest offering is the definitive version of “The Entertainer’s” story. Filled with memorabilia, photos, and stories from contemporaries, friends, and Shack himself, this is definitely one of the most entertaining books of the season. [On the Bench and Shack aim to put fun back in hockey books]

 

101 Fascinating Hockey Facts by Brian McFarlane

The history of hockey books cannot be written without the name Brian McFarlane, and this fall we’ve been graced with his latest effort, close to his 100th, which brings to life those stories that may have been lost to time and/or memory. In other words it’s exactly what you’ve come to expect from SIHR’s Honorary President.

 

Offiside: - A Memoir - Challenges Faced by Women in Hockey by Rhonda Taylor and Denbeigh Whitmarsh

Rhonda Leeman Taylor was one of the founders of organized women’s hockey in Canada in the 1980s. As the first salaried female employee working for the OWHA, Rhonda sat as chairwoman of the inaugural Women’s National Hockey Championships, directed the first Female Council (the main voice for girls’ hockey today), and was the first woman to ever sit on the CAHA (Hockey Canada) Board of Directors. This is her story, and although it was by no means a smooth one, in the end, it was a successful one that helped to pave the way for those that followed a similar path. [OFFSIDE fills in the 'gap' in women's hockey history]

 

The Greatest Collection: Legends and Lore Behind Hockey's Treasures by Dr. Jeffrey Griffith

In the latest offering showcasing the treasures found inside the collection of the Hockey Hall of Fame, not only spotlighting some of the Hall’s most popular holdings, but also some of their most obscure.

 

Before 94: The Story of the 1978-79 New York Rangers by Mark Rosenman and Howie Karpin

Continuing the tradition of books spotlighting a year in the life of a team is Rosenman and Karpin’s latest opus, and this time the focus is on the 1978-79 New York Rangers. Bolstered by first-hand accounts by many of those involved in the team’s surprise run to the Stanley Cup Finals that spring, this book takes a game by game look at the unforgettable year, while also sharing some of the best off-ice tales. [The overachieving 1978-79 Rangers get their due]

 

Canadien jusqu'au bout by Serge Savard with Philippe Cantin

The only French-language book on the list is Savard’s long awaited autobiography … as a player, he won 8 Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy, a Bill Masterton Trophy, was on Team Canada 1972 & 1976, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1986, his number 18 retired by the Montreal Canadiens in 2006, and named one of the NHL’s Top 100-ever players in 2017 … oh and two more Stanley Cups as a General Manager … and an extremely successful businessman off the ice … needless to say more than enough material for a compelling autobiography … all that’s missing is an English-language edition.

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Feedback

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