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Kevin Shea with his books
In cooking terms, Kevin Shea’s latest book, Voices in Blue and White: Pride and Passion for the Maple Leafs, is leftovers. But it is so darn tasty that you wouldn’t know it, since he got out the nice china, polished the silverware, folded the napkins into hockey sticks, and added plenty of extra spice.
Readers dig into just under 500 interviews with players who wore the Toronto Maple Leafs uniform, and a few voices from the greater Leafs Nation.
Voices in Blue and White is a direct descendent of the 2016 book Shea wrote, Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club: Official Centennial Publication, 1917-2017, but really, it’s decades in the making.
Whether he was sitting down to chat with a legendary Leafs captain, or with an icon musical star, Shea liked to talk hockey. With the players, he’d always ask, What did it mean for you to wear the maple leaf on your chest?
“I had some great answers, and I thought, ‘Oh, this will be a great epilogue to that book,’” Shea said over the phone from his home outside of Toronto. Only a few of the anecdotes made the Official Centennial Publication. “At that point, I had 150 maybe 200 of these comments, some were quite lengthy, some were just a few sentences, but I had them all.”
What to do, he wondered? A magazine article? Another book?
To promote the Official Centennial Publication, Shea ran a Facebook group celebrating the Leafs, and shared some of the stories there along with a photo or two. He enjoyed the feedback, and thought further about making something more permanent.
“With the pandemic, I was able to reach out to a lot of former alumni, celebrities, whatever, to get their their answer to that same question I had been asking. When all was said and done, I had just shy of 500 and decided to turn it into a book,” he said.
Thus became Voices in Blue and White, the 18th book with Shea’s name on the cover since 1999, but the first he has self-published, promoted through his kevinsheahockey.com website.
“I thought all along I would do it on my own. It was just one of those things that kind of happened in a most fortuitous way,” said Shea. He relied on a few friends to edit the book and help with layout, he sourced the cover and back cover images from the Hockey Hall of Fame, and was off to the races. Dinner was served.
He’s not ashamed to say it was a learning curve from that point on. The book arrived earlier than expected, and he was crushed with orders just before Christmas, forcing him to spend oodles of time in line at the post office to mail the books. Then the first print run was gone, and it was hurry up and wait.
“You do realize, boy oh boy, you miss the machine, having a publisher there. Getting it into stores has been brutal. Of course, it’s the wrong time anyway, but it’s been really tough to try and crack that challenge. Having said that, just doing it on my own, I’ve been pretty pleased. I’m just finishing my third stage of printing,” he said.
“So it’s been a really interesting experiment. It’s been an experiment, no doubt about it.”
Well connected after so many years writing about hockey, working on occasion at the Hockey Hall of Fame, and running the Road Hockey to Conquer Cancer fundraisers, Shea has had opportunities to promote the book, and even that has been different than previous books. In many of those cases, a publicist helped arrange the interview, but he could never connect sales to an appearance. Now he can.
“Doing Bob Duff’s podcast, I got a couple more there and I did one for the University of Windsor, my alma mater, as well, and got five or six there,” he explained. “It’s been steady on my own, and you see these very slight, but you see these spikes whenever you do the interviews.”
Shea further explained, “The word hustle plays its role in doing self-published books.”
Since the interviews were collected over many years, Shea found himself wracking his brain to remember what he had on hand, especially when it came to entertainment world. From previous roles in radio and music promotion, Shea had met up with many notable figures. Hockey was a common language, and he’d use it as an icebreaker or as a part of the normal chit-chat as an interview winds down.
In the late 1980s when he worked at Warner Music, Shea found himself at Gordon Lightfoot’s home. He mentioned hockey, and ... “Well, damned if he didn’t light up. He didn’t really light up when we talked about music, because I think it’s old hat to him, but nobody was talking to him about hockey and he pulled out his collection of hockey cards and he had hockey cards from the 1950s that were beautifully encased in plastic and he had them in binders. He was so proud to show me and it was really, really cool.”
Leafs Nation is large, and Shea’s book includes John Candy, Mike Myers, Peter Mansbridge, Kurt Browning, Chris Hadfield, Anne Murray, Jim Cuddy and Rik Emmett alongside Leafs from all different eras.
While Darryl Sittler, George Armstrong and Ron Ellis’ stories are all in there, those are familiar tales to most Leafs fans. “Some of the best stories for me were guys who didn’t play that often,” said Shea. One favourite was the recently-deceased Kurt Walker, who was a football player as a kid until meeting Harold Ballard and King Clancy at a Boston Bruins game against the Leafs, and switched into hockey; Walker eventually found a role as a tough guy with the Leafs.
Russ Courtnall grew up a Leafs fan in Victoria, B.C., alongside his brother Jeff, watching Hockey Night in Canada—a common thread in many of the memories. Not long after his father’s death, Russ donned the Leafs jersey. The kicker, though, came after he was dealt to Montreal in the John Kordic trade. Shea picks up the story: “His very first day in the Montreal Canadiens dressing room, he’s about to pull the Canadians jersey over his head, and he looks up in the sky to his dad and says, ‘Dad, I’m really really sorry,’ and pulled a sweater on and continued his career from there. But again, a kid that was so proud to be a Toronto Maple Leaf because like so many of them it was generational.”
Voices in Blue and White is a template that will work for other teams too, and Shea noted that he has been contacted about other writers doing similar projects on the Quebec Nordiques and the Hartford Whalers. “Kudos to anybody who wants to do it,” he said.
There are a few upcoming projects coming from the always-busy Shea. One book is finished with retired goaltender Corey Hirsch. “To be candid, as much as it’s based in hockey, it really is a mental health book,” he said. “Corey’s career was for the most part derailed because of his mental health and his OCD and things of that sort.” It ties into similar books written by Shea on players with outside of hockey issues like Ron Ellis and Derek Sanderson. Shea is also doing a book with Matthew Barnaby book “just for fun” as they “found a bit of a friendship” through the Road Hockey to Conquer Cancer events.
Shea’s dream book, though, is still a work in progress, and lessons learned with Voices in Blue and White are invaluable.
“There’s one that I’ve always wanted to write, and it’s kind of my Tuesdays with Morrie, finding a relative who played with the Leafs in the 1940s, who I discovered late in life, very late in his life,” he said. “It was in the back of my mind when I did this one self-published, thinking that I might have to do that one self-published, so let me let me experiment with it now to find out what I can do. So if I can find a publisher, even better, I’ve got a great story, it’s just certainly a player from the 1940s is not going to have the marquee value that they’re looking for. But if the story is compelling enough, hopefully I can find one but if not, I’ll go the same route again.”
The passing of Frank Orr leaves a major hole in the hockey writing community. He was as iconic a figure as there could be. If you go look, you’ll see his hockey books on your bookshelf, and even if he didn’t write a book, maybe he helped. He certainly did help me when I reached out in 2013.
But I was touched by the words of SIHR member Todd Denault, who runs the Facebook Hockey Books group, on Orr, and with his permission, it is reprinted here:
Sometimes in life we have the opportunity to prepare ourselves in advance for “bad news.” And yet, when that “bad news” finally arrives, we somehow still find ourselves caught off-guard.
Today was such a day for me ...
Earlier this morning Frank Orr—an inspiration, a mentor, a sounding board, and above all, a friend— passed away at the age of 83.
Frank was not a person that could be described in a sentence or two, so I won’t do that ... no Frank was much more than that to those of us who knew him, both personally and professionally ... to us it’s pretty safe to say that Frank Orr was “one of a kind.”
First a little background ... starting in 1961 and for close to the next four decades Frank wrote for the Toronto Star, starting on the junior hockey beat with the Toronto Marlboros before graduating to the Toronto Maple Leafs/NHL beat at the dawn of the 1970s ... in addition to the Maple Leafs Frank covered the Summit Series, the World Juniors and pretty much any other sport you can name. And then there was his books ... Frank authored over 30 books related to sports and has contributed to over 60 additional titles (many of which are resting on the bookshelf beside me). In 1989 Frank was recognized the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the media category.
I first met Frank over a decade ago when I was researching my Jacques Plante book. To say that he was welcoming and encouraging of a “rookie” would be putting it mildly ... both he and his wife Shirley graciously invited me into their home time and time again over the years ... and to get to sit in Frank’s study, filled with the mementos gathered from a lifetime in sports, as well as his own personal library, while Frank told story after story, well it’s something that I will always treasure. There isn’t a single person involved in hockey (at least since the early 1950s) where he didn’t have a memorable, and always a funny experience to share. Through the past decade Frank has been so supportive and encouraging of all of my projects, he always had time for a phone call, an email, and or/a visit.
In remembering Frank, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Shirley, his wife of 57 years. Shirley enjoyed a professional life that was the equal, if not the superior of her husband. A registered nurse, Shirley found her calling in nursing education. Shirley began her teaching career at St. Joseph’s, then after her marriage to Frank in 1961, she became a teacher at The Wellesley Hospital Nursing School in Toronto for 14 years, in time becoming the chief of the teaching staff. When the Wellesley school closed, she taught at Ryerson University and Seneca College before creating the curriculum for one of the first college programs for paramedics at Centennial College. She was then named as director and lead teacher of the paramedic program, a post she held for ten years. She was chairperson of the Ontario Department of Health committee that set the examinations for paramedics for 12 years.
I’m not sure that I have ever met a couple more devoted to each other than Frank and Shirley. When I was first met Frank he was not in the best of health, but in large part thanks to Shirley’s efforts Frank was able, in time, to improve, and resume a normal type of life, which included a passion for reading detective books, which he was known to polish off at least four in a week.
As is sadly, too often the case, as Frank improved, Shirley began to decline, to the point that she had enter home care. And yet Frank’s devotion to her never wavered, on each day, without exception, he drove to the care home to spend the day with Shirley. As one can imagine, this took a tremendous toll on him as did Shirley’s passing in April 2019.
Around this time last year, Frank decided to sell his long-time home in Etobicoke, donate his hockey “collection” to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and move into a retirement residence in the Bloor Street West area of the city.
Once Frank was “settled in” I was going to head up to the city and visit him and we would talk over a lunch. Naturally I offered to pick him up but Frank insisted that he would meet me there. That was so Frank, who never liked having a “fuss” made over him. He was much more comfortable chronicling those in the public eye as opposed to being the “center of attention.” Sadly, thanks to COVID-19 that lunch never happened and I never saw Frank again.
I must confess that I’ve been pretty emotional today, and that those emotions are mixed. I’m sad for all of the obvious reasons, but happy ... happy that Frank and Shirley have “reunited” ...
Godspeed Frank ... you will be missed by all of those that ever had the privilege to know you and call you a friend ... including me.
Frank Orr (photo source unknown)
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