Jim Prime knows sports. With a bevy of bestselling baseball books already under his belt, the Nova Scotia author goes north of the border for his latest effort, How Hockey Explains Canada. Co-written with Canadian hockey legend Paul Henderson, the brilliant, behind-the-scenes book explores our national passion for the game through hearts and minds of players, announcers, writers, coaches, and fans from coast-to-coast-to-coast. Recently, AE spoke with Prime about the all things hockey.
AE: What inspired you to put this book together?
JP: How Hockey Explains Canada was inspired by a very successful book from a few years ago entitled How Soccer Explains the World. I was asked by the publisher to take the theme and run with it, and they gave me free rein to do what I wanted. They wanted me to collaborate with a well-known hockey personality and asked who I'd like to work with. In a heartbeat I answered Paul Henderson. To me, Henderson and Jean Beliveau epitomize all that is good and great about our national game.
AE: What were some of the challenges and rewards involved?
JP: I decided that my approach to the theme would involve talking to as many hockey people as possible: coaches, players, owners, general managers, media people and fans. I conducted over 35 interviews, mostly via phone but some in person as well. There were logistical challenges, but it's amazing how the name Paul Henderson can get you through the door. Paul was able to put me in touch with many of his former teammates on both the Leafs and Team Canada. Henderson's Summit Series line mate Ron Ellis, who works for the Hall of Fame, opened countless other doors for me. The result was hours of taped interviews with hockey gods from the past and present. I was able to speak at length with legends like: Beliveau, Ellis, Daryl Sittler, Johnny Bower, Bobby Baun, Serge Savard, Bobby Clarke, Ken Dryden, Paul MacLean, and Tiger Williams to name just a few. I spoke with Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson about the unique challenges of operating a franchise in a marketplace like Quebec, where politics and language play such a role. I spoke with the fallen hockey god Alan Eagleson, once the most powerful man in hockey, about his rise and fall from the game. I heard the straight facts about the Summit Series and Don Cherry's firing from Team Canada coach and Bruins V-P Harry Sinden. I was able to delve into the cultural impact of hockey with hockey's media giants - including Ron MacLean, Howie Meeker, Ralph Mellanby, Jim McKenny, Dick Irvin Jr, and Brian Conacher. I spoke with a professor at the University of Montreal who teaches a course on the religion of the Canadiens.
AE: What was it like to work with Paul Henderson?
JP: Working with Henderson was such a pleasure. We talked almost daily on the phone and he was always ready with a story, an anecdote, an insight on today's game or just an encouraging word for me. It would be difficult to overstate my respect for this man. He's a humble hero who is facing serious health issues but is as positive and upbeat as anyone I know.
AE: What has the response been like so far?
JP: Thus far the response to the book has been extremely positive. We've received interview requests from virtually all major media organizations in Canada and some in the United States. Paul has appeared on Canada AM and other major national TV programs to talk about it. We have done interviews with most CBC radio affiliates across the country. Parts of the books have been excerpted in the Post Media chain of newspapers from Vancouver to Montreal. Sirius Radio has done two featured interviews as has Hockey Night in Canada radio. The fact that Prime Minister Harper contributed the foreword has gained a lot of attention for the book. Mr. Harper had some very frank comments about the state of the game and some things that needed to be done to make it even better. He specifically condemned the proliferation of 'head shots' that have sidelined some of the games best players, like Sid Crosby. He also gave his opinion on the birthplace of hockey - which I should add, differs from mine and Paul's and Ron Maclean's. Whatever your political leanings, I think it's great that the PM of our country is such a knowledgeable and passionate supporter of our national obsession. He's not a casual photo-op fan, he's a diehard fan. It was as relaxed and wide-ranging as sitting down with a fan at the local Tim Horton's.
AE: Has there been any discussion about bringing the book to the big screen in some capacity
JP: No, as far as I know there has been no discussion of bringing the book to the big screen in documentary form, but I think it would lend itself very well to such treatment. Make me an offer! It tells the story of hockey in a unique way, I think. It doesn't take itself too seriously and some of the historical and cultural connections are admittedly - and intentionally - far-fetched, but they do get you thinking. The truth is that the Richard Riots did play a role in jump starting the Quiet Revolution, for example. And the birth and growth of hockey does very much parallel the birth and growth of Canada. We grew up together. Did the Summit Series win us the Cold War - that may be in the far-fetched category, but it certainly reflected the tensions and mistrust that was so rampant at the time. Each chapter revolves around How Hockey Explains...and then we explore topics as diverse as Don Cherry, Two Solitudes, Toronto, Western Alienation, and dentistry. Our love/hate relationship with Toronto is nicely told though the history of the Leafs and their colourful history.
AE: Do you plan to tour the book?
JP: Most of the promotion of the book has been left to Paul (Henderson). He has such a high profile in this country and he's so respected for the way he conducts himself. He has not allowed fame to go to his head. He is very self-deprecating - and often very funny! He has thoughts on each and every issue involving our game - from fighting (which he thinks should be banned from the game) to women's hockey, which he likes. Actually the women's game prompted some great discussion in the book, with some people very supportive - like Bobby Clarke and Ken Dryden - and others very negative - like Howie Meeker and Tiger Williams.
AE: What is it about hockey that captures Canadian's imaginations?
JP: I asked many people why this simple game of ours has such a hold on our imagination. Why it has gone beyond the world of sport and entered our culture and our identity. it took a couple of Americans to explain it best, I think. Bill "Spaceman" Lee, formerly a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos had some great observations about coming to Montreal and entering a totally different world. He talks about going to a hockey game at the old Montreal Forum and just observing. He drew a wonderful comparison with the old Globe Theatre of Shakespearean times. The richer English sat down close to the ice and the poorer French higher up in the stands. They were the ones, he said, "who laughed at the tragedies and cried at the comedies" and "loved it when the mighty fell." The curator of the New England Sports Museum, Richard Johnson, was equally eloquent on the matter. Richard is an admitted Canada-phile and he claimed that Canada could have an alternate flag with a hockey puck on it and everyone in the world would know which country it stood for. "In a cold, hostile climate, you found community indoors during those two-thirds of the year when you needed to be out of the elements," he observed. Hockey is a refection of our history, our geography and our need to work together as a team. NHL teams today are a regular United Nations meeting. The Montreal Canadiens may no longer be the ' flying Frenchmen' but they do represent the new face of Canada - same with Toronto and all of the other Canadian franchises.
AE: Who's going to take the Stanley Cup this season?
JP: Personally, I'd like to see the Montreal Canadiens win the Cup. it would be great for hockey and great for Canada. I'm also glad to see the Maple Leafs return to respectability - even if it's only temporary.
AE: What's next for you? Are you already working on another project?
JP: I have a book coming out in the spring with Bill Nowlin on the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. It delves into all the ballpark's secrets; great photographs of every nook and cranny and a good mix of historical and current happenings there.