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Caps gameday special: Best hockey stories ever

"...the players mixed like hornets--swift, padded, yellow, black, red, rushing, slashing, whirling over the ice. Above the rink the tobacco smoke lay like a cloud of flash powder, explosive."

That would be Mr. Saul Bellow, hockey writer.

The smoke is a dated reference, of course, but in his classic novel, Herzog, Bellow captured the crackling tension and the surges of near-ecstasy that can mark the best moments in hockey.

This week, as the Washington Capitals take on the Montreal Canadiens in first-round playoff action, it seems a good moment to ask: What's the best hockey writing of all time?

An anthology by Bryant Urstadt, "The Greatest Hockey Stories Ever Told," includes work by recognized greats such as William Faulkner, George Plimpton and Alec Wilkinson, but Urstadt is the first to concede that hockey and great writing do not necessarily belong in the same sentence. "There are no well-known poets of hockey, and very few readable novels about the sport," he writes in the forward to his book. "Come to think of it, I've only seen two hockey players carrying books." Urstadt has to stretch the definition to fill his book; he even includes part of the screenplay for the movie "Slap Shot."

The Faulkner piece turns out to be a Sports Illustrated stunt in which the editors asked the great man to come see his first hockey game and write about it.

It's a short piece, and not terribly different from your average sports ignoramus's take on hockey ("Where's the puck?"), except that it is written by a god of the language:

To the innocent, who had never seen it before, it seemed discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools. Then it would break, coalesce through a kind of kaleidoscopic whirl like a child's toy, into a pattern, a design almost beautiful, as if an inspired choreographer had drilled a willing and patient and hard-working troupe of dancers—a pattern, design which was trying to tell him something, say something to him urgent and important and true in that second before, already bulging with the motion and the speed, it began to disintegrate and dissolve.

But truly great sportswriting must go well beyond the anthropological musings of a random observer (the Plimpton piece in the book is his usual participatory stunt: he spent five minutes in a game as a Boston Bruin in 1977 and built a book around it.)

The best stories capture the game and its deeper meaning. The Post's Caps beat writer, Tarik El-Bashir, suggests this fine piece by Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber, about former NHL player Joe Juneau moving 800 miles north to devote himself to teaching hockey and the finer points of life to kids in the grim sub-arctic Nunavik region of northern Quebec.

But it's E.M. Swift's 1994 look back at the 1980 Olympic Miracle on Ice team that wins the prize. The Post's splendid Barry Svrluga recommends Swift on hockey as a sure shot, and it's hard to argue with that. This, like many of the best hockey pieces, is from the pages of Sports Illustrated, where Swift, who played hockey at Princeton, has long been one of the go-to writers for big events.


'If people want to think that performance was for our country, that's fine,'' says Mark Pavelich, the small, quiet forward who set up Eruzione's winning goal. ''But the truth of the matter is, it was just a hockey game. There was enough to worry about without worrying about Afghanistan or winning it for the pride and glory of the United States. We wanted to win it for ourselves.''

Not ourselves as in I, me, mine. Ourselves the team. Individually, they were fine, dedicated sportsmen. Some will have excellent pro hockey careers. Others will bust. But collectively they were a transcendent lot. For seven months they pushed each other on and pulled each other along, from rung to rung, until for two weeks in February they -- a bunch of unheralded amateurs -- became the best hockey team in the world. The best team. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts by a mile. And they were not just a team, they were a perfect reflection of how Americans wanted to perceive themselves. By gum, it's still in us! It was certainly still in them.

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By Marc Fisher  | April 21, 2010; 8:12 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  | Tags:  Caps hockey, E.M. Swift, George Plimpton, Hockey, Montreal Canadiens, NHL playoffs, National Hockey League, Washington Capitals, William Faulkner, hockey stories, hockey writing  
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