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Book Review: A Whole New Game

Review by Budd Bailey

The title of Neil Longley's book doesn't tell you much about what's inside. "A Whole New Game" could be about practically anything, and not just about sports.

However, the subtitle does a better of describing the context. "Economics, politics, and the transformation of the business of hockey in Canada" sounds like we're going to have some serious discussions about hockey on the pages, and indeed we do.

The author seems well qualified for such discussions. He's a retired professor at the management school of the University of Massachusetts, and has a PhD in economics from Washington State University. Longley also has done some writing about sports economics. Maybe the arrival of the Vegas Golden Knights inspired this Las Vegas resident to do some thinking about hockey in regard to Canada. 

So you'd expect something well done here, and the good Professor has come through with some unique and valuable information in his relatively short book.

There are five different essays of sorts here that cover some specific areas. Describing them briefly isn't too fair because of the scope of the writing, but it will have to do here. We have the story of how the Montreal Canadiens became just another team in the NHL. There's the matter of how French-Canadians are doing in hockey as a whole. The story of pro hockey in Alberta is examined, as its two NHL teams' success seem to mirror what the economy and politics of the province have done. There's a chapter on how the composition of National Hockey League rosters changed starting with the expansion of the NHL in 1967 and the existence of the World Hockey Association in the 1970s. Finally, there's the matter of junior hockey and how it used cheap labor and monopoly status to become a much bigger financial enterprise. 

This is all mixed together with the culture and politics of Canada at the time. The first two chapters obviously share some information because they are intertwined. The Canadiens have been a symbol of French Canada since the 1940s or so; Ken Dryden once pointed out that Maurice "Rocket" Richard was the first player of that group to become a super star and thus created a lot of pride in the community. The French speakers always have been in the minority in Canada, and the efforts by those people to have their voices heard have been a subplot in Canadian politics from time to time for a few decades.

The Canadiens went on to put together one of the greatest dynasty in sports in the years after World War II. They were helped by a system that allowed them to mine the best players Quebec had to offer. But when the universal draft was phased in during the 1960s, that pipeline eventually dried up. It was somewhat inevitable at that point that the Canadiens would become just another team at some point, and they essentially have been exactly that since 1980 or so. Longley also reveals how French-Canadian players have found more or a home in the United States than they do in other parts of Canada. 

The chapter on junior hockey in Canada might be the most infuriating. Way back when, NHL teams used to sponsor junior teams as a way to tie up future talent. But those sponsorships died off once the league went past six teams. But junior leagues now have a draft of talented 15-year-olds, forcing players to move hundreds of miles in some cases to play hockey at that level. What's more, they aren't really paid anything at all, even though Longley's research indicates that if they received half of the team's revenues (as NHL teams must give to players as part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement), they'd earn something like $100,000 each. As a group, it sure sounds as if the junior players need the equivalent of Marvin Miller to level the playing field. If college athletes can start getting paid indirectly, there must be room for changing the system in junior hockey.

And every so often, the book drops a very surprising bit of information. For example, Longley reveals that there were more Canadian-born players in the NHL in 1970 than there are today ... even though there were either 12 or 14 teams (depending on what time of the year you count) in the NHL then, and 32 now. 

Admittedly, this is not for every taste - even among sports readers. The writing leans to the academic rather than the popular style as you'd expect. There's a little duplication of facts along the way. The descriptions of regional politics in a particular era in Canada, while no doubt necessary, may leave some a little cold.

Still, "A Whole Other Game" makes some conclusions that are worthwhile and yet don't pop up in the morning newspaper. Longley is after bigger points, and he makes them quite well. Those looking for some wider perspective on hockey and Canada will find plenty of ponder here.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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