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The question briefly stumped Thomas J. Whalen, author of the recently-released Kooks and Degenerates on Ice: Bobby Orr, the Big Bad Bruins, and the Stanley Cup Championship That Transformed Hockey.
As a professor, do you approach doing a book differently than, say, somebody who’d worked at the Boston Globe for 20 years?
Whalen, you see, is an associate professor of social science at Boston University, and his social/political commentary has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Boston Globe, and Los Angeles Times, and he’s been on plenty of broadcast outlets, such as CNN, NPR and Reuters TV, to share his thoughts.
On the phone from the Boston area, he collected his thoughts, and replied.
“That’s an interesting question, because I’m kind of in a strange position because before I entered academia, I was a reporter, sports and regular news,” Whalen explained. “This gets me into trouble in academia because my style is kind of a hybrid, of kind of journalism and history. But you know, my point is, I think all academics should be writing for a broader audience.”
With Kooks and Degenerates on Ice, Whalen has walked that fine line. It never delves into dull academic treatise, and somehow feels heavier than many similar books.
Talking during the COVID-19 pandemic (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers just printed his book before shutdown), with big-leagues sports just starting up again, Whalen is an expect on sport in terms of the bigger picture.
“The whole idea of being a teacher or a professor is to educate the masses, right? You want to get your message out there. I think sports is a perfect thing to show the changes a society goes through socially, economically, politically, and it’s an underappreciated part of society that academia has too often ignored,” he said.
Therefore, before Kooks and Degenerates on Ice even gets going, Whalen puts everything in perspective, setting the scene for the 1969-70 NHL season as a part of what was happening in the world at the same time. It’s an approach that worked in his earlier sports books: Dynasty’s End: Bill Russell and the 1968-69 World Champion Boston Celtics (2003), When the Red Sox Ruled: Baseball’s First Dynasty, 1912-1918 (2011), and Spirit of ’67: The Cardiac Kids, El Birdos, and the World Series That Captivated American (2017).
“This completes the trilogy of the late ‘60s Boston sports teams and how the changing political, economic times also are reflected in the people who played the professional sports of the time,” he said. Up next, he’s writing pitches for a joint biography on Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, or focusing on the 1984 NBA Finals between the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers “that kind of made the modern NBA. ... Magic and Bird, they were like John the Baptists of Michael Jordan the Savior.”
In short, sports matter.
“In the entire course of human history, there’s three major forms of collective human activity that’s never really changed. There will always be politics, religion and even from the most primitive society, there’s always some form of organized sport. It’s really incredible,” he said. “So it’s part of the Big Three, and to ignore it, I think is to ignore what we are as human beings.”
Those human beings are the appeal of Kooks and Degenerates on Ice, the title of the book based upon a quote from backup goaltender Eddie Johnston referring to the cast of characters that included Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Gerry Cheevers. Derek Sanderson, Johnny Bucyk, Pie McKenzie and a host of other contributors to the 1970 Stanley Cup win. Most of the crazy stories have been told before, like Espo being stolen from a hospital bed, McKenzie borrowing a motorcycle and Sanderson’s lengthy list of transgressions, but accumulated together, the title seems more than appropriate.
The Big Bad Bruins have a special meaning to Whalen. “That was the first championship I remember. I was five years old at the time,” he said. “Ted Green lived in the neighborhood and he gave my father playoff tickets. It was big. We were all playing street hockey. The Bruins owned the town in a way that Tom Brady and the Patriots at the height of their dynasty could only hope to. This is at a time when they were building ice rinks left and right.”
It was also a time when the Bruins were only available on a UHF station, and would bring in higher ratings on game days than any of the network stations. “A rinky-dink station with a weak signal, but but despite all that, it still drew huge, huge ratings. The team, not only was it great on the ice, but it had colorful characters.”
There are a couple of original interviews, but, appropriate for an academic, much is taken from original sources. “I looked at it from an historian’s point of view. You always go to the primary sources. I thought this would tell a truer picture the time,” he said. “Too often when people reminisce, a lot of these athletes and politicians, and so forth, they’re human beings, they’re going to put themselves in the best possible light and their memories are a little less hazy, but you can’t argue with the record what they said at the time, at that particular moment in history. So, to me, I just felt this is the way to go.”
It is almost as if they tell the same same stories so often that they believe them.
“Politicians do the same thing. I’ve always thought, athletes and politicians, the similarities are uncanny. They probably don’t want to hear that, but it’s true,” Whalen said, “Always trust the primary sources. In many ways, journalists, they’re writing the first draft of history. What I was able to do in piecing all this together – and I also consulted their memoirs, and I crosschecked what’s real, what’s not – I think provides a much more accurate overall picture of what really happened and when, and that’s why I was heavy on the context.” (Whalen knows his politics too, as he has written Kennedy versus Lodge: The 1952 Massachusetts Senate Race. and A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage.)
Whalen does not dwell on the game-by-game details of the season.
“That was a deliberate choice,” he said. “Do readers really care about a February game between the Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings circa 1970? There are sports books out there that will do all season, every game and minutiae, but whenever I read these books, I just yawn.
“I had more in my mind David Halberstam and the Summer of ‘49. Basically capture some key games but really just talk about the games that mattered and if you do every single game or track the minutiae, you’ll lose your overall message, you’re gonna lose the reader. And with a team like the Big, Bad Bruins, my God, they were bristling with personalities.”
But back to that original tie-in of sports in the greater picture.
“I think I’ve written in a way that’s accessible – and that’s what every historian should strive for: accessibility to regular people.
And sometimes those people, the reader that praises your work, comes as a major surprise.
“I got a big endorsement from – guess who – [right-wing political commentator] Bill O’Reilly. He has a podcast now and he listed Kooks and Degenerates on Ice as one of the best books [for that month] .... and he personally asked for a copy from my publisher. ... given what I wrote in the book, it’s not exactly a conservative tome,” concluded Whalen.
Thomas J. Whalen
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