31
Mar
15

A Sportswriter’s Notes: I Am Not Making This Up – A Strachan

I Am Not Making This Up: My Favourite Hockey Stories from a Career Covering the GameI Am Not Making This Up: My Favourite Hockey Stories from a Career Covering the Game by Al Strachan

For a long time, Al Strachan was one of Toronto’s biggest hockey columnists, writing first for The Globe and Mail and later at the Toronto Sun. He was a multi-platform guy, appearing regularly on The Score, doing radio hits and, most notably, on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada’s second intermission panel.

And almost at the same time, he just about vanished from everything all at the same time: his column wasn’t in the Sun any longer, he wasn’t on the radio and the CBC very publically kicked him off it’s panel (more on this in a second). The insider was now very much an outsider.

I wasn’t really much of a fan – when I younger, I was more of a Steve Simmons guy and later I gravitated towards blogs over columns – but a few years back I got a copy of Strachan’s hockey memoir I Am Not Making This Up as a gift and whenever I glanced at it, I thought about the guy and whatever happened to him. But I only just got around to reading it and I think I’ve got an idea now.

His book is a series of short chapters, each made of little, unconnected items. They’re short, often shorter than a newspaper column, and usually are some little tidbit or tale from his time as a hockey writer. Sometimes they’re media related: memories of using early fax machines in the Maple Leaf Gardens press box; going out for a night of drinks with the boys at Grumpy’s in Montreal after a game.

At others, they’re supposed to show the more personal side of famous people. There’s a story about how classy Wayne Gretzky is at signing autographs: he’ll even sign them for kids who shout “Gretzky sucks!” There’s another about Don Cherry being so popular he has to hide in hotel rooms just to have a beer in private.

But after a while, I noted a trend in his stories: they all have a foot in some rosy mysticism about the game and how it was better back in the old days, before all those Americans got their paws all over it. Gary Bettman in particular gets a lot of flak; in Strachan’s eyes, his sins range from overexpansion to a refusal to hit the bar for a pint.

Indeed, at times Strachan’s criticisms seem selfish, like he’s mad he’s doesn’t get to hang out with players anymore. Every so often, he’ll let a little word or tidbit drop about a lack of access or players being too professional to go out and drink with sportswriters. I suppose in the old days, he got to hang out with them a lot since his book is full of braggy tales about hanging with Gretzky, drinking with Wendel Clark or watching pranks in the Montreal Canadiens locker room.

At others, his criticisms seem like an old man who’s lost touch with the game and where it’s headed. Generally, he complains about the decline of fighting in hockey and uses examples from nearly 30 years earlier to prove a point: Gretzky was Gretzky because he had McSorley there to protect him, for example.

That one specific example is telling because it shows both his biases and his blind spots with regard to the game, how it’s played and where it’s headed. So it’s worth breaking it down and illumine I Am Not Making This Up’s shortcomings.

First off, Gretzky was and remains a generational talent: this was a guy who was shattering records even as a youngster, before he even could’ve needed an enforcer. But more to the point, he played in an era with a vastly inflated scoring rate. Teams scored a lot more in the 80s for a variety of reasons; advances in equipment, the old stand-up method of goaltending and, most importantly, a huge inflation of talent into the league, stretching goaltending to it’s weakest point ever.

Remember: Gretzky joined the NHL at the same time as four WHA franchises – and the NHL had previously expanded exponentially to compete with those same teams throughout the 70s. What had been a six-team league in 1967 was a 21-team league by 1981. Gretzky was able to score a lot of goals, but admittedly so did a lot of other players. Just not to the same degree.

You’ll notice nothing there about enforcers. Maybe they played a role in encouraging teams not to hurt Gretzky intentionally (a la Bobby Clarke in the Summit Series intentionally injuring the Soviet’s star forward), but it doesn’t help anybody score goals. And as teams are realizing, a slow-moving forward who can’t score and is defensive liability is a roster slot often better filled by a marginal player who brings something more than fists to the game.

But Strachan doesn’t take this logic. Instead he actually blames “leftists” for ruining hockey and making it “soft.” In his mind, hockey was better in the 70s when there were enforcers running around, bashing people. Had he written this book a couple years later, after reports about the link between concussions, CTE and the early deaths of enforcers like Derek Boogaard, one wonders if he would’ve changed his take.

My guess? Probably not. Throughout this book, Strachan repeatedly uses the same arguments to defend his outdated, reactionary views. Nowhere are they more prominent then when speaks of his firing from CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada.

First, he sets it up by throwing a female CBC executive under the bus. Her sins include everything from wanting more females in the workforce to letting talent walk to other networks, like when Chris Cuthbert left to work at TSN. While Strachan is busy blaming her general incompetence, he neglects to mention the NHL lockout: with no games for the CBC to broadcast, advertising revenue plummeted and the network lost money – which was the reason I remember hearing when he left the network. Funny now this angle never pops up, yet anyone remotely familiar with hockey around 2005 would ask the same basic question.

With a glaring omission like that, how are we supposed to treat the rest of the stories where it’s only Strachan’s word on what happened? Did Gretzky really verbally agree to deals with Toronto and Vancouver, only to have owners take them back at the last second? Does Lemieux really hate hockey?

Finally, there’s the end of his CBC tenure: he again blames management (and, curiously, Brian Burke) but never mentions how he wrote a book about the Leafs and used Hockey Night in Canada’s name without permission. Funny: not only do I remember that being the reason he was fired, I even remember little stickers getting put onto covers of that book to cover the offending passage!

Rating: 2/10. While Strachan is occasionally interesting, the further I got, the more I wondered how much of I Am Not Making This Up was at least misremembered. And by the end, I realized what happened to him: Strachan’s a relic of an earlier era of sportswriting and was left in the dust of the NHL passing him by.

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