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- Published on Amazon.com
An objective review of this book from me is impossible. But a fair one, the book more than deserves. Late in the text, Ms. Richer gives a speech, or at least an anecdote, some advice she was given as she wrote this book, on objectivity in writing: "But objectivity ... is not necessarily a worthy goal. To be objective in the literal sense would be to remove all emotion from the coverage, and sportswriting at its best can only be worthwhile by embracing and exposing emotion and all the things that fuel it. Fairness ... is the tone you want to strive for." So I give Ms. Richer and her book a fair deal, but not an objective one, as I am emotionally attached to the subject matter.
I lived in Pittsburgh for over 30 years and am a die-hard Penguin fan. I know the entire cast of characters in this book, what they look and sound like, including the indefatigueable Tom McMillan, Penguins Vice President of Communication, who is a major player in the story. I can hear Mike Lange's voice calling out the plays, and Phil Bourque's commentary, on the air or not. I can picture the Igloo (the Pens' home arena) with snow on it, or the rolling hills of Upper St. Clair (Ryan Malone's home neighborhood). From Molinari to Mario, Sewickley to the Steelhead Grill, whether you are from Pittsburgh or not, you too will settle into this story as if you were hearing it from a friend in your own neighborhood.
Shawna Richer gained the enviable assignment of chronicling Sidney Crosby's first year in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins. This is a significant season for two reasons - Sidney Crosby is not just another hockey player, and this wasn't just the mere beginning of another hockey season. Crosby, a native of Nova Scotia, was the most anticipated rookie since 1984, when Mario Lemieux was taken first overall (also) by the Penguins, the same draft in which Crosby's father was selected. The NHL was also making a debut of sorts. After an owners' lockout of the players had cancelled the previous season in its entirety, the revamped league was back for business.
A new collective bargaining agreement had finally been reached by the owners and the player's union. The owners had conceded to revenue sharing which would allow small market teams to survive financially. The players conceded to a salary cap, which would allow owners to survive financially. The league would benefit from the parity that this arrangement breeds - all 32 teams able to compete with each other, year after year.
League executives restructured and reinforced the rule book during the unfortunate lull. Their intent was to free the game from the stifling "clutch and grab" style of defensive hockey and allow for a faster, more skilled, offensive game. Showcase the league's more talented players. Give the old fans something to cheer about, and try to lure new fans to the speed and grace of the game. As a player with "once-in-a-generation" ability, 18 year old Sidney Crosby would be shouldered with the mantle of the "new NHL". From the time before he was even drafted, Crosby had been labeled as "The Next One", and after a full lost season, the league looked to him to win fans, old and new, to the game. Even though he didn't ask for it, the youngster understands his role and carries it out with a gentle passion as fierce as the one he brings to the ice.
Ms. Richer tells the story well. The Pittsburgh Penguins, like most of the small market teams in the NHL, had been losing millions of dollars every year. Unable to pay premium salaries, one by one, their star players left or were traded. At the conclusion of the previous season, the Penguins had finished last overall. Under the new arrangements, the Penguins would be able to surround Crosby with veteran talent. And they did so, turning into a contender within a few weeks.
The league literally took off and the fast, exciting pace of the games silenced every pre-season criticism of the rule changes. Crosby's season took off too, but had several unimaginable bumps. His coach was fired in December. There was a slight but sustained backlash from some fans and players against Crosby. In one six day span, both of his linemates retired, and the team was put up for sale by the owner, Lemieux. The same Mario Lemieux who was 1984's once-in-a-generation rookie was now, not only the team's owner, but one of the retiring linemates.
Richer was there for everything and delivers each high and low in a straight, readable narrative. She quickly (p15) pays homage to Peter Gzowski's exemplary hockey book, The Game of Our Lives. (Anything written on the subject since 1981 should.) The Rookie is given a similar form by the author, announcing the time and venue of significant games, going through the Penguins roster with a short paragraph for each player, and weaving her experiences and inferences into the text.
The book falls short of the insider's look and analysis I expected from the subtitle (A Season With Sidney Crosby and the New NHL). It seems like Ms. Richer is barely below the surface of Crosby the individual, the Penguins as a team, the "new" league as a whole, and Canada's reaction to all of the above. I, however, do not know what is acceptable to print about the inner workings of an NHL locker room, so it remains to accept Ms. Richer's coverage and interpretation of events.
Even after the Penguins are disappointingly eliminated from playoff contention, Ms. Richer is able to keep the reader's interest with drama appropriate to the tale. How would Crosby handle playing on a loosing team? Would he be voted Rookie of the Year? Would he be able to achieve certain milestones like being named to the Canadian Olympic squad or reaching 80 points on the season? How would Sidney Crosby's first season and the "new" NHL turn out? You'll want to read this book to find out.