Book Review – Hockey Strong

When I sat down to meet Todd Smith, author of Hockey Strong (which you can purchase here), I had plenty of questions about his definition of “hockey strong.” His book focuses on the mental and physical toughness of hockey players as they fight through pain, injury, grief, sorrow and fear to play the game they love.

He spends time interviewing players from this age of hockey such as Zach Parise but also takes a look back to a more bruising time when the role of an enforcer, such as Dave Brown, wasn’t an antiquated team strategy but a necessity for the safety of the players. One of my first questions for the author was focused on what he thought “Hockey Strong” meant:

Its bigger than just hockey. You can be writer strong, you can be hourly worker strong. Its perseverance. That translates to everything, it’s a very blue collar thing. You’re gonna earn it, you have to earn everything.

This concept dominated a lot of our conversation. As a hockey fan first, but also a hockey writer, I was transfixed by the book’s dive into the annals of hockey lore. Going back and revisiting stories of the Detroit Red Wing’s “Grind Line” of Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Joe Kocur, or reading candid conversations between the author and his father, the head athletic trainer of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” United States men’s hockey team, sent chills through my body.

The details and sense of nostalgia felt from accounts of Patrice Bergeron fighting through unprecedented injuries during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, or reading into the long and arduous journey of lunch-bucket players like Shjon Podein fills a book that fully encapsulated what makes the sport of hockey great. Any individual with a passion for the game of hockey, and a reverence for those who sacrifice for their teammates, organization, alumni and fans has found a page-turner.

I was fully immersed in the minutia of the book, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but my conversation with Todd Smith taught me that the book had a wider reach than I had thought. I started the book with the assumption that it would be a hockey book. While it is a hockey book, Todd put it best:

I had experience writing about anxiety, about my dad and fatherhood, about being a completely dumbass husband…. The reason I have a book is because the subject matter is for hardcore hockey fans, the way it’s written is for non-hockey fans…. The minutia is in there for hockey fans and writers, but also the human elements are there. It’s a story that just happens to be about hockey.

More Than Hockey

This human element is most apparent to me in three stories in the book. I referred to one earlier where the author sits down with his father, Gary Smith, to discuss that 1980 USA Olympic team. Gary Smith tells his son, a story he’s told countless times, about Herb Brooks calling out Rob McClanahan during the first intermission of the opening game against Sweden.

I won’t recount the story as you can find it elsewhere, and in the book, but the part that ties this entire chapter together is the interaction between Todd and his dad. This piece and this book as a whole isn’t a factual retelling for the purpose of rehashing events. Smith dives deeper into the human psyche of how the sport is ingrained in the being of the players, and what that looks like. Gary Smith spends as much time talking about the actual events in 1980 as he discusses the drive and motivation behind the players and Brooks himself. The insight and view into the mind of a hockey player throughout this book is endlessly intriguing.

He’d walk by a player and say things like, ‘You’re playing worse and worse every day, and right now, you’re playing so bad it looks like the middle of next week.’ These comments were all by design though. One of the most critical aspects of Brooks’s success was that he was a master motivator.

Zach Parise, Minnesota Wild, Ryan Suter, NHL, Hockey
Zach Parise and Ryan Suter both lost their fathers in recent years, but honor them with their play on the ice. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

While telling his son a story he’s told him repeatedly in the past, Smith senior is working on the author’s aches and pains from playing beer-league hockey. Throughout the view into the 1980 USA locker room, there’s a visit to a father-son relationship, one that centers around hockey. This concept is one that is further explored during a chapter on Zach Parise.

Parise and his father, JP, always had hockey, and Smith talks to Parise and looks at this relationship, and its impact on Parise as his father died in the middle of the 2014-15 season. A truly moving portrait of familial relations and the pain that comes, not from the body-checks and fist-fights, but through the normal course of life.

Scars Outside and In

Smith also has a wonderful chapter that looks at Chris Nilan and his impact after he left the ice. Nilan’s story almost feels like a movie script, but that’s just a testament to the life he led. Hockey is a violent game by nature, and the injuries to Nilan’s body took their toll. He was able to save himself from going too far down the rabbit hole and ended up ditching addiction and fighting the mental struggles of a life after hockey and became an anti-bullying advocate. As a player who threw his body on the line for his teammates, he continues to fight to stand up for others, just in a different way.

As much as Smith details the human aspect of the players he looks at, there is plenty of hockey intrigue and substance to digest. Hockey Strong isn’t a book just detailing legendary fights, like when the Minnesota Wild squared off against the 1981 Boston Bruins and accumulated 392 penalty minutes or the epic team-wide pre-game bout in 1987 in Montreal that resulted in the NHL creating Rule 71, prohibiting players from leaving the bench to fight and limiting the number of players in warm-ups. No, this book isn’t just about that, but it includes it.

Hockey Strong isn’t a touchy-feely expose on the humanity of people, but it gives insight to the core of who a hockey player is. It isn’t a gory, freak-injury, horror story, but it does look at the passion and perseverance needed to get a mid-game root canal and continue playing or break a leg but still finish a shift.

Todd Smith set out to answer the question of why hockey players put themselves through pain and turmoil, grief and sorrow, fear and doubt, all to play a game. A great game yes, but he also focuses on the quiet moments at home having your father treat your plantar fascilitis or when Rich Peverley goes into cardiac arrest, is resuscitated and asks how much time is left in the period. When players separate shoulders, lose teeth, or get stitches but are out on the ice for their next shift, what drives them forward? Why submit your body and mind to this torment? Because you’re a hockey player.