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Subheads matter. In the case of Al Strachan's new book, Hockey's Hot Stove, the subhead gives you plenty of warning of what's ahead: The Untold Stories of the Original Insiders.
After a little chit-chat over Zoom—Strachan was in Malta at the time, I'm in Toronto—I asked him directly, can a book be too insider? Was that a difficult line to walk?
“That was the intention of the book, and that's the nature of the beast,” he began. “I think when you're writing about something like that, people want to know what was going on behind the scenes. And when it's someone that they've seen, either a sports star, or movie star or a TV person—I won't call myself a star —but they want to know what was going on when they weren't in the public view. And you try and do that.”
For all the time that Strachan put into his stories and columns for the Toronto Sun, The Globe and Mail, and the Montreal Gazette, he became best known (and despised) for his time on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada during the second intermission on the Satellite Hot Stove.
Being an insider is who Al Strachan is.
“I've done it all my life, really, in my career, there are so many things that you hear and know about that you can't say. And so with this, you do say it, and so you're trying to strike that balance, yes, you want to tell people as much as you can about people and give them some insight about the things that they're curious about. But on the other hand, you can't betray too many confidences. You can't get the person mad at you or that defeats the whole purpose, and you won't be able to continue in the business.”
Satellite Hot Stove brought together other hockey insiders as host Ron MacLean let them talk about news of the day, rumours and gossip. While Don Cherry's Coach's Corner in the first intermission got much of the hype, the second intermission is where the hockey illumiati tuned in, as Scott Bowman says in one of the book's blurbs: “Watching Hot Stove was on every NHL coach’s to-do list in our time. In this book, Al Strachan shows why.”
Strachan was smart enough to not attempt and carry the whole book himself. Instead, he reached out to many of the people who were on camera on Satellite Hot Stove, and perhaps even more interesting, the people behind the scenes, from those challenged to powder Strachan's shiny head—and hands—to the board room, like John Shannon who came up with the idea, and his successor, Sherali Najak.
In the process of interviewing colleagues he thought he knew well, and others he did not know a lot about, Strachan ends up really fleshing out the story. “You talk to people and you find out the way that they were thinking, the way that they were seeing circumstances in which you were involved and only saw it from your own side.”
There were plenty of things he had forgotten. Fellow panelist Eric Duhatschek—who decided to quit his dayjob at the Calgary Herald while on air on Hot Stove—would remind Strachan of something outrageous he said on TV, or someone else would mention a terrible tie he wore, and it would all serve to trigger his memories as he was writing the book.
It is as much fun to hear from Mike Milbury or John Davidson, the greater insight often came from names you cannot look up in the SIHR hockey database, like Kathy Broderick, the “builder” of the show and the one who made it all work.
Noticeable by his absence, though, is Ron MacLean. Strachan, as is his wont, is frank about the omission. “I called him three times and left messages, and he wouldn't call back. I think there's a reason for that, because if he had called back, I would have asked him how much he had to do with my being fired, and I think it was a considerable amount. So that's my guess, I don't know for sure, but just the way things work. And so on three separate, well-spaced occasions, I left messages for Ron and asked him to give me a call.” (Similarly, Rick Westhead is left out, and Strachan takes a few shots at him in the book; “He was a Ron MacLean invitee, and Ron sort of set him up against me.”)
At its core, though, is the lamentable fact that a show like Satellite Hot Stove could not exist today. The world moves so much faster through social media. The players and management are so much more protected, and aren't pals with the writers and broadcasters in the same way as they were.
Strachan has plenty of memorable points to make about the new world, from CBC getting out of professional sports for the most part, to overprotective public relations staff with the teams. You could also read “memorable points” as “rants,” which makes it all the more entertaining.
“The world has changed. Unfortunately, I don't think it's better for the fan,” he began. “You cannot do the things that we used to do on the show. First of all, you can't talk about things the way we talked about them, because everybody is so politically correct these days. We just couldn't get away with a lot of the stuff that we said and implied.
“More importantly, the players have changed, I think probably partly because of the nature of technology, and probably because that's what Gary [Bettman] has been trying to do forever, is build a link or build a ridge rather, it's a wall, actually is what Gary was building ... between the players and the media. Gary has always wanted to control what appeared in the newspapers, and since the newspapers aren't as important as they used to be, it's even easier for him to do that. And they've actually done it in a rather surreptitious way lately, and that is, because newspapers have gone downhill and so many people are available, they've hired many of the best hockey writers to work for NHL Media. But the problem is that when you work for NHL Media, you'd better write what the NHL wants written. You're not going to be able to write the kind of stuff that we used to have on Hot Stove.
“And the technology too. Players used to go out with us. They'd go into the bars, and we'd drink and we'd talk about things. And now players don't go into bars, and it's largely because of cell phones.”
The players are better trained to be bland with the media, when they are allowed to talk at all; one-on-one interviews are rare.
There is a reason that, of his six previous books, 99: Gretzky: His Game, His Story is Strachan's favourite—he had access, which made for a unique book. During his playing days, Gretzky would call Strach for the latest gossip, or they'd have dinner when in town together or go golfing; Strachan was at the epic Gretzky wedding, and has played tennis on Gretzky's private court.
“There's a lot of stuff in that book that you would never ever get anywhere else,” he said. “[99 is] about as good of insight into a professional athlete as you're ever going to find anywhere, he said modestly.”
Those slings and arrows that Strachan is so well known for are used on himself often in Hockey's Hot Stove.
The book talk continues, as in Hockey's Hot Stove Strachan revealed that his previous tome, Why the Leafs Suck and How They Can Be Fixed, from 2009, was part of the reason he lost the gig on Hockey Night in Canada.
An old wound is re-opened.
“I guess I was a bit too naive, because I'd been in the newspaper business, and you were allowed to write pretty well what you wanted to write as long as it was accurate. And everything in the Leafs book was accurate, nobody ever said, 'Boy, this isn't right.' Especially in the earlier parts leading up, it was the history of the Leafs and what had happened over the years. And almost all of that stuff came from my columns. ... And all the dumb things that happened with Harold Ballard and the various coaches and even some of the really, really stupid things I didn't put in because they would have probably got in jail for some of them. But it was just the documentation,” Strachan started.
“Everybody forgot about the second part of the title, which is, 'and How They Can Be Fixed.' And you look at what [Brendan] Shanahan did, they did exactly what I said they needed to do. They spent a fortune on everything except players ... they did spend a fortune on players, but they were mandated as to how much they could spend. So they spent right at the limit on salaries. And then with everywhere else, spending on coaches, travels, scouting, all that sort of stuff, bringing in people to work, paying those people big money, even though some of them didn't deserve it, and using their other asset that they had more often than anybody in the league, which was cash.
“They did all those things but they still haven't gotten where they should have been. But they did follow what was in that book. But the problem was, of course, the general manager at the time, got excoriated in that book, that was the genius who announced that he was going to win a Stanley Cup in less time that it would normally take. And had he ever made the playoffs in his tenure, then he might have had a chance. But since he didn't, he didn't win any Stanley Cups. But he was instrumental I'm certain in getting my fired.”
In case you had forgotten, that Leafs general manager was Brian Burke, who, coincidentally, has his own book out now.
Will Strachan be seeking out a copy of Burke's Law: A Life in Hockey?
“I wouldn't mind reading it. If somebody buys it for me. I'm certainly not going to give him any money. Because I know Brian Burke and I know him very well, and the good stuff isn't going to be in there,” concluded Strachan, always an insider.
(And if you want more Al Strachan, my friends at the SportsLit podcast, Neil Acharya and Neate Sager, had him on as a guest. Check it out here.)
EMPIRE EXPANDS AT CHRISTMAS
One of my favourite headlines from the “Two Minutes for Reading so Good” archives is The modest empire of DeMarco’s “Small Saves” goaltender. With the publication of The Forgotten Goalie: A Small Saves Christmas Tale, James DeMarco's empire has grown a little more. The new, self-published children's book is available on Amazon. Here's the synopsis: “Small Saves, the little youth hockey goalie, is fascinated and inspired by a photograph hanging in the hockey rink of a goaltender from long ago. Sad that the picture hangs unnoticed the darkened corner of the rink, Small Saves sets forth to bring attention to the overlooked photo during the Christmas holiday season.”
LE MAGICIEN, EN FRANCAIS!
Back in May 2020, I spoke with Andre Lacroix for this column about his book, After the Second Snowfall: My life on and off the ice. Now comes the news that it is now available in French as well. It has a different cover, and is entitled, Après la Deuxième Tempête de Neige: Ma Vie sur la Glace Ma Vie Privée.
On November 27th, the list of the latest recipients of the Order of Canada were announced, and on the list is esteemed author, historian, broadcaster, and all around great guy, Brian McFarlane. With one great oversight fixed, will Peter Puck be next?
I did a lot of research into the Order of Canada for my book, Father Bauer and the Great Experiment, as he was one the initial group of individuals who received the honour in its first year of existence, 1967.
Congratulations to Brian and all the honourees!
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