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Sports This Week: Stories told from hockey's past

Older stories are what Zweig is happiest writing about the sport.
Eric Zweig is a prolific author and his Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories is a recent release which has been catching attention with five weeks among the best sellers in Canada.

YORKTON - Regular readers will recall the name Eric Zweig from a Sports This Week article late in 2022 on his book Engraved in History - The Story of the Stanley Cup Champion Kenora Thistles.

Well, Zweig is a prolific author and his Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories is also a recent release which has been catching attention with five weeks among the best sellers in Canada.

Frankly that is not all that surprising. Where the book on the Kenora Thistles was historically interesting the market is clearly a limited one.

Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories by contrast is a book loaded with photos and filled with shorter tales of many of the greatest of the game from its earliest days. It is a great book for relaxed reading and was no doubt in many stockings and under a lot of trees through the recent holiday season as a great gift for hockey fans.

So how does Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories rate for its author.

“It was easier to write – I suppose it was more fun,” offered Zweig in a recent telephone interview.

Zweig added Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories looks great, which adds to the impact too.

“Firefly (Books) make books that look great,” he said, adding they generally do books “. . .  mostly driven by the photographs.

“This was supposed to be driven by stories.”

However, there are still plenty of photos that add to the book.

“That’s what Firefly does best. They make beautiful books,” he reiterated.

As for stories, Zweig said he has a penchant for the history of hockey, and the stories included are basically from the Wayne Gretzky era and older, many much, much older.

“It’s geared at an older, male audience,” he said.

As an example; “it’s the oldest major NHL record still on the books. Having lasted now for more than 100 years, it may never be broken. Then again, it seems to be just achievable enough to hold out the possibility at least of tying it. Imagine what would happen if someone ever does?” Zweig writes in the book.

“On January 31, 1920, Joe Malone scored seven goals to lead the Quebec Bulldogs past the Toronto St. Pats 10-6. What kind of attention would it generate today if Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews or any of the NHL’s other top snipers were to score seven goals in one game? Or break the record with eight!

“Given that one of the greatest players of his day set a record that has stood for over 100 years, you’d think it was probably a pretty big deal in his time too. But it wasn’t. Malone’s seven-goal game got little coverage in the newspapers.”

Older stories are what Zweig is happiest writing about the sport.

“I’ve never been able to explain why I have such an affection for the old stories,” he said.

As this writer is now into his sixth decade I have to say the stories resonate nicely for this reviewer.

From the Firefly Books page, “the Hockey Hall of Fame is full of the best to ever hit the ice. But the path to hockey greatness is not all jaw-dropping saves and game-winning goals. In Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories, hockey historian and writer Eric Zweig shares exciting tales and trivia even the most dedicated puck head might not know. This book is overflowing with behind the scenes yarns of some of history's greatest scoring sprees and winning seasons, as well as thrilling accounts of the off-ice curiosities, tragedies and heroics.

Just a few of the curious, bizarre or outrageous tales featured in this fully illustrated volume are:

* The 1976 plot to kidnap Guy Lafleur

* Extreme scoring outputs, like Darryl Sittler's 10-point performance and Frank McGee's 14-goal Stanley Cup outing

* The time Cy Denneny fell down a well

* The fastest hat tricks ever recorded by Bill Moisenko and Jean Beliveau

* Hockey Hall of Famers' skills in other sports, like Gordie Howe's workouts with the Detroit Tigers and Art Ross's prowess on the football field

* Tales of hockey players during WWI and WWII

* The origins of the greatest nicknames

Another example has Zweig writing, “born on October 31, 1887, Edward Cyril Lalonde was nicknamed “Newsy” after working on a Linotype print machine for newspapers in Cornwall and Woodstock, Ontario, when he was a teenager. He’d begun playing hockey and lacrosse in his hometown before 1903, and turned pro in hockey during the winter of 1906-07. He continued playing until 1927-28. It’s difficult to get precise numbers for him, but in approximately 340 regular-season games as a pro, he scored about 456 goals, adding 34 more in 32 playoff games. Remembered mainly for his time with the Montreal Canadiens from 1909 to 1922, Lalonde suited up in no fewer than nine leagues that were eligible (or attempted to challenge) for the Stanley Cup. He won scoring titles (either goals or points, or both) in the Ontario Professional Hockey League, the National Hockey Association twice, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, the NHL twice and the Western Canada Hockey League.

“But for all his hockey prowess, it was lacrosse that earned Lalonde his selection as the greatest player of the first half of the 20th century. It was the sport he most enjoyed.

“Lacrosse looks like a rough game, but it really isn’t,” said Lalonde in a 1963 interview. “I always preferred it over hockey because it’s played in the summer, out of doors where you get lots of fresh air. It’s healthier.”

“In a Canadian Press obituary after his death on November 21, 1970, it was said that Lalonde figured he’d earned $140,000 in his pro sports career. His biggest salary in hockey was reported as $4,500 but he had once earned $6,500 playing a 16-game summer season with the Vancouver Lacrosse Club.”

The book was one where the publisher approached Zweig, wanting a book rather quickly – with only months to write it. He said yes, hit the deadline then COVID caused the publication to be delayed from pre Christmas 2021 to fall in 2022.

While the delay was frustrating, Zweig likes the final product.

“I am happy with it,” adding it was an accomplishment just to hit the original deadline. “I didn’t think I could do it with the time frame they gave.”

Good sales help the view of course.

“It’s been a big success,” said Zweig, adding some of his books for youth have sold tons through Scholastic. “. . . The books I do for kids do way better than the books I do for adults.”

Zweig said it’s a case where less adults seem to read these days, but they still buy books for their children.

Still, Hockey Hall of Fame True Stories is his first book to be on the best seller list.

A quick look at the book you can see why. It is just right for a day off’s reading to relax and takes you back to what seemed a simpler time in hockey where personalities were bigger and the business side less important – when truth and legend became one for Zweig to now write about.

For one final taste of the tales in the book, we turn to one with a Saskatchewan connection.

“But long before he was a Stanley Cup, or even a Memorial Cup champion (Regina Pats, 1974), Clarke Gillies was a big, strong kid in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, playing junior hockey with the hometown Canucks as a 16-year-old during the winter of 1969-70 and playing baseball with his buddies in the summer,” writes Zweig.

“During the summer of 1970, the assistant farm director of the Houston Astros came to town. His name was Pat Gillick. Years later he would build the Toronto Blue Jays into World Series champions as part of a Hall of Fame career as a baseball executive. Gillick had spent the summers of 1956 to 1958 playing ball in Western Canada while pitching collegiately at the University of Southern California. “I knew there were a lot of good players there,” recalled Gillick for an article in the Houston Chronicle in 2020. “We were just looking for guys who were good athletes. Usually, good athletes are able to adapt to another sport.”

“A few years later, in 1973, the Astros would find Terry Puhl playing high school ball in Melville, Saskatchewan. In 1970 Gillick was impressed by Gillies at a one-day training camp and signed him to a contract. Gillies had never been on a plane before, flying to Covington, Virginia, to join the Covington Astros at the tail end of the 1970 Appalachian League season. Nervous and homesick, Gillies hit just .077 (1-for13 with 10 strikeouts) in five games as a catcher, outfielder and first baseman. He improved during the short summer season in 1971, hitting .239 in 35 games. Playing with future Islanders teammate Bob Bourne (of Kindersley, Saskatchewan) in 1972, Gillies hit .256 in 46 games.”

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