There is no substitute for experience. This is especially true for a difficult sport like hockey, where the best education is in playing as often as you can.
But sometimes having a favorite hockey book can be a good start. There are many great or classic hockey books out there to meet every preference, including The Game, The Best of Down Goes Brown, The Boys of Winter, and anything by Roy McGregor or Jack Falla.
The book that most influenced me as a kid, and the book that taught me all the fundamentals of the game before I ever laced a skate, is called “Heroes of Pro Hockey,” written by the great Stan Fischler and published in 1971. “Heroes of Pro Hockey”, just one of Fischler’s 90 hockey books, features 140 pages of short biographical chapters on nine players: Bobby Orr, Jean Beliveau, Red Berenson, Phil Esposito, Maurice Richard, Ed Giacomin, Gordie Howe, Dave Keon, and Bobby Hull.
My copy has faired reasonably well considering I likely received it as a gift in 1977, and I probably read through it 300 times, conservatively. The binding has collapsed a bit, but that’s to be expected. Some of the things I learned from Fischler’s book included:
Hockey is the Superior Sport
Fischler wastes little time telling me what was expected of a hockey player, doing so in the no-nonsense introduction.
Play it with Heart
Referring to legendary Maple Leaf Dave Keon, Fischler quotes Jacques Plante:
“It’s not the size of the body, but the size of the heart that counts in this game.”
It’s a Tough Game
Respect Your Opponent
This sounded easier said than done. And few could do it with the grace of Jean Beliveau, who didn’t just respect his opponents, he was courteous to them and empathized with them. He could afford such magnanimous gestures since he was the very best centerman in the game. And he could adapt; after a couple seasons in Montreal it was clear he could score, but he had a reputation for being soft. So in his third season Beliveau began dropping the gloves, and often. His penalty minutes nearly tripled, from 58 to 143, but in true Beliveau form, his game didn’t suffer, registering what would amount to being the third highest point total of his 18-year career.
Fischler also relates a play in which Gordie Howe had a reasonable scoring chance but passed it up because whacking at the puck would have put goalie Gump Worsely’s (unmasked) face and head in serious jeopardy. Apocryphal? Who knows. It didn’t matter. The respect for the other guy is what mattered.
Go to the Net
Long before Barry Melrose coined the line, “go to the net, good things happen,” Phil Esposito was doing just that, and he was lighting up the league, setting scoring records in the late 1960s for the Boston Bruins that he would go on to break in 1971.
Heavily criticized for scoring too many so-called garbage goals, Fischler quotes Espo saying in his own defense:
“There’s no law keeping anyone out of the area just in front of the net, but try to stay there sometimes and see what happens.”
While nobody embodied modesty and humility the way that Jean Beliveau did–and Fischler provides plenty of examples–Beliveau wasn’t alone in that regard. For example, in 1971, after breaking Bobby Hull’s single-season goal scoring record of 58, Esposito paid tribute:
Teamwork Wins Games
The season in which Bobby Hull set the single-season scoring record with 58 goals, his team, the Chicago Black Hawks, finished in last place. What good were 58 goals if you weren’t winning? So the following season, Fischler writes, “coach Billy Reay insisted that Hull backcheck more diligently and pay more attention to his defensive assignments.” The result was just 38 goals for Hull, but the Black Hawks finished in first place, becoming the only team to that point ever to go from worst one season to first the next.
To Play You Must Persevere
Fischler paints almost all nine of his ‘heroes of pro hockey’ as players who at one time or another faced obstacles that should have been too great to overcome. Red Berenson joined the Montreal Canadiens preceded by plenty of hype as an All-American from the University of Michigan, yet his first five years in the NHL were a complete flop. Dave Keon was too small to be able to compete in the league, or so some thought. Members of the New York Rangers so badly bullied a 15 year-old Gordie Howe at training camp that he went home. When Bobby Orr arrived at his first Bruins training camp in 1966, he says,
“I was scared stiff. I didn’t know whether I could play in the NHL. And I was alone.”
In 1967 Red Berenson, playing for the St. Louis Blues, tied Syd Howe’s modern record for most goals in one game with six, with plenty of time in the third period to beat the record. Coach Scotty Bowman, ahead 6-0, tried to send Berenson back onto the ice to give him a shot at breaking the record but Berenson refused.
“I was getting tired. I didn’t want to miss a check and have Jacques [Plante] lose his shutout.”