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The five best hockey books of 2017-18 are worth the read

Sports fans who enjoy spending time reading books, will want to add these five hockey books to their list of books to read.

By Sal Barry

With the NHL hockey season back in full swing, we take a look at five hockey books from the 2017-18 season that are well worth the read. And if you aren’t a hockey fan, don’t worry; these books will still appeal to anyone who loves reading about sports. 

1. Gratoony the Loony (ECW Press, paperback, 224 pages, $16.95 U.S./$19.95 Canada) by Gilles Gratton and Greg Oliver.

“Gratoony the Loony: The Wild, Unpredictable Life of Gilles Gratton,” explores the life and times of one of hockey’s most colorful characters. Despite having the talent to garner a six-figure contract – great money for a pro hockey player in the 1970s – and representing Canada in international tournaments, Gratton sought interesting and absurd excuses to get out of playing hockey. Some nights, he couldn’t play because of a bad horoscope. Other nights, Gratton’s war wounds – incurred during his “past life” as a soldier in the Spanish Inquisition – made it too painful for him to play. The list goes on.

Gratton’s memoir is funny in many places throughout, but not necessarily because it was intended to be. Rather, his devil-may-care attitude during the 1970s – a decade full of sex, drugs and booze for many pro athletes – led to numerous anecdotes that are entertaining to read about today. And while Gratton never goes out of his way to smear anyone, he isn’t afraid to speak his mind, either.

Quotes from Gratton’s friends, family and former teammates are interjected throughout, sprucing up the narrative and giving asides on what the erstwhile goalie is talking about. Some of the book is about Gratton’s older brother Norm, who played 201 games in the NHL. Later chapters detail Gratton’s post-career life and how he found the inner peace that eluded him for so long. Overall, “Gratoony the Loony” is an honest and many times humorous story of hockey’s most reluctant player.

2. Goon: Second Edition (McFarland Books, paperback, 228 pages, $19.95 U.S./Canada) by Doug Smith and Adam Frattasio.

“Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey” was first published in 2002. It was made into the 2012 movie “Goon,” starring Seann William Scott. That movie led to the 2017 sequel “Goon: Last of the Enforcers.” The popularity of the Goon movies caused the “Goon” book – not easy to find in the first place – to rocket in value, sometimes selling for upwards of $100.

Fortunately, Doug Smith – the “goon” in the story – and co-author Adam Frattasio decided to update and release a second edition of the book, now entitled “Goon: Memoir of a Minor League Hockey Enforcer.” Smith did not learn how to skate until he was 19 years old, but had trained as a boxer, so he got to live the unlikely dream of playing pro hockey as an enforcer.

Smith’s 28-game stint with the Carolina Thunderbirds of the East Coast Hockey League was the basis of the first Goon movie, but that’s only the beginning of his story. He also played senior professional hockey in New Brunswick, becoming a local hero, and then a “goon for hire,” playing now and then for teams in the ECHL, International Hockey League and American Hockey League. 

Smith explains what it is like to be an average guy playing pro hockey, even if he was only there because of his fists. He also gives a blow-by-blow account of every hockey fight he got into, including memorable bouts with tough guys who later made it to the NHL. Sometimes, Smith breaks his narrative to give background on minor league hockey and other subjects that casual fans might not know much about.

The second edition of “Goon” has new material about Smith’s life since the first edition was published, including his work as a hockey fight instructor who coached future NHL heavyweights Colton Orr and John Scott, and his involvement in the two Goon movies.

3. A Century of NHL Memories (Griffintown Media, hardcover, 160 pages, $49.95 Regular Edition/$149.95 Deluxe Edition) by Phil Pritchard with Jim Hynes.

“A Century of NHL Memories: Rare Photos from the Hockey Hall of Fame” looks at the National Hockey League over the past 100 years. Well, almost. There are no pictures in this book from 1917 to 1925, and the book is scant on photos prior to 1940, so calling it a century of memories might be stretching it a bit. What this book does offer is many great hockey photographs – some iconic, and some never printed elsewhere – from the Hockey Hall of Fame’s expansive archives.

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The large-format book has 130 photographs, both color and black-and-white, most from the early 1940s to the late 1990s. Each picture is thoroughly captioned about the players shown or the action taking place. Instead of relegating the photo credit in small print stuck in the margins, “A Century of NHL Memories” gives each photographer the recognition they deserve, with their names featured prominently on the page.

Inside the book are some famous photos of long-retired legends who most fans will remember seeing before, from Bill Mosienko holding up three pucks after his record-setting hat trick, to Bobby Clarke flashing his trademark toothless smile. Of course, more recent legends such as Wayne Gretzky are pictured too, as well as current stars like Sidney Crosby. Some of these pictures are recognizable, having appeared on magazine covers or on hockey cards. But many have not been published before, giving fans a chance to see something new.

“A Century of NHL Memories” is a fine book for those who love sports photography and/or hockey history, and it boasts a nice lineup of pictures of many players that are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It is available in both a standard hardcover edition and a limited, deluxe release that includes a special dust jacket, foil-stamping and a spot-varnish finish on the pictures. (Available online at NHLMemories100.ca)

4. Behind the Bench (Triumph Books, paperback, 256 pages, $16.95 U.S./$22.95 Canada) by Craig Custance.

What’s it like to be an NHL coach during the biggest game of his career? What decisions do these men make that changes the outcome of the game? What tactics do they use to motivate their players? Craig Custance, formerly with ESPN and currently with The Athletic, finds this out in “Behind the Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey’s Greatest Coaches.” He recounts how they got to the top of their profession – and what they did to succeed.

But these aren’t typical interviews. Custance sat down with each coach and watched their career-defining moment – usually a Stanley Cup-clinching game. Coaches share their off-the-cuff recollections of these games, giving us insight and details that we would not notice from the stands or a television broadcast.

Each coach’s backstory is also given; what they did to get to where they are today. Surprisingly, many of these men really open up and show a side not normally seen. For example, Ron Wilson has no problem sharing his disdain for forward Phil Kessel, who he coached with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Team USA at the Olympics. John Tortorella owns up to his most embarrassing moment, when he lost his cool and tried to storm the opposing team’s locker room to fight their coach. Ken Hitchcock believes he’d be dead if he wasn’t coaching. Custance also spoke with friends, colleagues and former players to get the bigger picture of each coach, what drives them, and how they succeed.

Connecting each chapter is a light narrative of Custance driving his wife and kids around North America in a used Winnebago over the summer, so that he can meet with the coaches for his book while also spending time with his family. “Behind the Bench” is a must-read book if you are interested in hockey’s best current group of coaches.

5. Game Change (Signal Books, hardcover, 368 pages, $27.95 U.S./$32.00 Canada) by Ken Dryden.

“Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey” is a difficult book to categorize. As the title implies, it is the story of former NHL defenseman Steve Montador, who died at age 35. The book also explains how concussions and head injuries affect the brain, and how the NHL has reached its current level of violence and physicality. But “Game Change” isn’t a traditional biography, a scientific article or a history lesson; like any great work, it is more than the sum of its parts.

“Game Change” is written by Ken Dryden, the Hall of Fame goalie who backstopped the Montreal Canadiens to six Stanley Cup Championships in the 1970s. He wrote several other books, including “The Game,” which is widely considered to be the best hockey book ever written. But “Game Change” may become the most important hockey book ever written, as it thoroughly discusses hockey’s concussion problem – illustrating it with Montador’s biography – and how to solve it. 

Montador’s family, friends, teammates and coaches spoke with Dryden, as did scientists who study the brain and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Former NHL players Marc Savard and Keith Primeau, whose respective careers ended due to concussions, also explain how life was a waking hell for many years due to post-concussion syndrome.

Dryden claims that the NHL is content with blaming drug abuse, depression, and even the victim, rather than its culture that is conducive for concussions. But Dryden doesn’t just pay lip service; he offers a practical solution that would greatly reduce head injuries in hockey.

Should NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman read “Game Change” and adapt Dryden’s strategy, then this book would succeed in making a change for the better. Dryden may be best remembered for his playing career, but his biggest contribution to hockey might ultimately be this book.

Sal Barry is a freelance contributor for Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at sjb@puckjunk.com or on Twitter @puckjunk.