Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

May 4, 2009

Gotham's Hockey Oasis

Jeff Z. Klein's hockey blog is a neighborhood of passion for Canada's game in a baseball town.

Dan Adler

Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

The famous lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" are all too familiar to Jeff Z. Klein of the New York Times. Despite covering hockey for Rangers faithful in the Big Apple (pop. 8,274,527), he may be catering to fewer fans of the game than in his hometown of Buffalo, New York (pop. 272,632). Television coverage of Game 4 of the 2007 Eastern Conference semifinals between the Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres was watched by nearly a quarter of Buffalo's television households, but just 1.5 percent of those in New York.

Jeff Z. Klein
"The president of the Russian League calls and says, 'You wanted an interview?' Fuck, yeah!"

Jeff Z. Klein

Fortunately, Klein is fan enough for all New Yorkers. His posts on Slap Shot, the Times hockey blog, inform hockey aficionados on matters ranging from Russian hockey playoffs to Washington Capitals goalies. And when he drops the blogger's gloves to write a book—his efforts include Messier, a profile of the great former Rangers captain; and The Death of Hockey, or, How a Bunch of Guys with Too Much Money and Too Little Sense are Killing the Greatest Game on Earth, a lament of the NHL's deterioration in the mid-to-late '90s, co-written by Karl-Eric Reif—he eschews the measured tone of a journalist in favor of something else: pure bile.

Gelf Magazine recently spoke with Klein about his views on the power of blogging, the so-called "greatest team leader ever," and how the NHL can stop killing the sport of hockey. This interview was conducted in person, at the offices of the New York Times, and has been edited for length and clarity. You can hear Klein and other hockey writers read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, May 7, at the JLA art gallery in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Gelf Magazine: Why did you fall in love with hockey?

Jeff Z. Klein: It goes back to growing up in Buffalo. I think you'll find that for people who grew up in certain places—like Buffalo, Detroit, maybe one or two other places in the US—that question wouldn't even make sense. Here, people ask, "What do you do?"
"I'm a sportswriter."
"Oh, what about the Yankees?"
"I don't know."
"What do you cover?"
"Oh …"
In 95 percent of the US, that's the conversation. In Buffalo, you get, "Oh my God! Hockey! You are so lucky!" The way I feel about the game is the way a lot of people in Buffalo feel, and the way just about everyone in Canada feels. Regular Canadians walking around the street know much more about hockey than I do, or many Americans who cover it or write about it.

Gelf Magazine: How did you translate your love of hockey into a career? Did you always know you wanted to?

Jeff Z. Klein: Maybe. When I was really little, I played those fantasy games—before computers, obviously—with coins, or cards. And like a lot of boys, I would keep track of league standings. I would also occasionally make little sports pages. And then I came to college in New York, and was shocked to find no one cared about hockey. I would talk to my friends back in Buffalo—one guy in particular, Karl Reif, whom I wrote a couple of books with. He's a tremendous writer, hilarious and really knowledgeable; it's been a joy to collaborate with him over the years. We would write letters back and forth, and get just annoyed at the analysis of hockey that we often found, because that was the dawn of statistics. Baseball, of course, had had statistics for a long time, but this was even before Bill James. Baseball had basic statistics; hockey had practically no statistics. Finally a few stats were trickling out, and a lot of it seemed to contradict the conventional wisdom. That was our in. We were upset about that, and we convinced The Hockey News to let us write a column based on that. And that's how we got started.

Gelf Magazine: And how did you get from there to your current day job?

Jeff Z. Klein: I had regular jobs, and on the side I did hockey writing. I worked for a weekly newspaper in Westchester, The Pelham Sun; I worked at CBS radio as an archivist; and I was a freelance editor at various places, like Interview and Spin. Eventually, I started working at the Village Voice. That's where I started to write about hockey, and eventually, I became the sports editor there. And when they had one of their periodic layoff spasms, I got laid off, and came here. I've been here since 1996. I've been writing about hockey here in the Sunday paper for three years, but I've also been an editor in the sports department, for the magazine, for travel, and foreign. And then back here for the Olympics last year, to the sports department.

Gelf Magazine: Your entries for Slap Shot, the New York Times hockey blog, range from news on German hockey leagues to injury reports to observations on hockey's rising popularity in the nation's capital. What are you trying to do?

Jeff Z. Klein: There's a range of things. This year, I decided I wanted to follow European hockey, for two reasons. One reason is that it's so under-covered and unknown here. It seemed like a shocking lack of knowledge, almost willful ignorance, about European hockey on the part of North American writers, in addition to fans. Those teams have been around since around 1920—all those teams are older than our teams. There are very passionate fan bases there. I just thought it was interesting, and that we should write about it; so many good players come from there. And personally, I was drawn to it because it's different. It's exotic; it's interesting. It's culturally interesting to learn that the team in Berlin was originally the East German team, that there's resentment, a chip on their shoulder, because they were Osties—Easterners. All over Europe there are teams that represent cultural or political things that have nothing to do with sports. We don't have that here, so I was drawn to that.
The common thing that I always find appealing—and I think is not written about enough in hockey coverage in this country, and probably all sports—is the cultural component: what a team means to its fans. Unfortunately, in the United States and Canada, it's generally limited to city versus city. Even with Yankees versus Mets, it's hard to get a handle on what that means. If you're a Yankees fan, are you a Democrat? That kind of stuff is meaningless. Nevertheless, that kind of stuff is interesting when it happens here. Usually, when it does count, it counts on racial lines in the US; or in Canada, it counts on language lines. That's one reason why I like following the European stuff: to learn about it is just fascinating. To learn that this team was the trade-union team, and they hated the army team…whenever that appears to be present in a hockey story, it draws my interest.

Gelf Magazine: What gets you more excited, day-to-day blogging or writing books?

Jeff Z. Klein: Well, it's been a while since I've written a book. While it is true that there's an obsessive side to blogging, thinking, "I've got to enter something," on the other hand, it is interesting. You are able to get in-depth into something, and, as you write about it, you learn about it. I really feel like I'm delving into it in a way that I often felt when I was writing a book. Blogging, when it's going well, is the act of learning: considering something, meditating on it, turning it over, and sometimes being wrong about it. What's nice about blogging is you can be wrong about something and some guy will write in and say, "No, you're wrong—it's this." It's also an exchange, obviously. You learn more, and it's often fascinating.
A very brief example: I was writing about a Swiss playoff game, and a couple of guys writing in Switzerland told me there was a riot after the game, that the fans were so angry that they stoned the team bus and the cops had to come in. It's fascinating—you're reading about some little playoff game in Switzerland, involving a team that's trying not to get relegated, and there's all this passion and drama around it. I wouldn't have known about any of that, had someone not written in and illuminated me.

"All over Europe there are teams that represent cultural or political things that have nothing to do with sports. We don't have that here."
Gelf Magazine: Why write a book on Mark Messier?

Jeff Z. Klein: Messier is an enormous, compelling figure. He has a career that just wouldn't end. He was in the middle of everything, from the '70s right up to 2000 and beyond. So up in Canada they wanted a book about him, a full-fledged biography. There had been a few smaller biographies, and there had actually been a good one by Rick Carpiniello, who was the beat guy up in Westchester, but it was just about his Rangers stint. Up in Canada, he's not just the Rangers—he's Edmonton; he's Team Canada. I was supposed to do that book in a year, but it took me three years because the guy's career was so enormous. It just wouldn't end. He played forever—25 years. And every year was so jammed with circumstance and event.

Gelf Magazine: What makes him an interesting guy?

Jeff Z. Klein: It's funny, because when you see him now on TV, when he appears as a color man or something, he doesn't seem particularly well-spoken. But in the context of the dressing room, when he was the captain and he would address the press, he spoke well, and everything he said was measured for effect. Sometimes he'd drop in a little hint of a criticism of a player. Or he would obfuscate in a very smooth way, like a very good politician. And, of course, he was so charismatic. You see pictures of him, and he's an imposing-looking guy. You'd ask him a question, and he'd fix his gaze on you—it was like lasers, it was mesmerizing. He was such a charismatic, imposing, perhaps scary guy. And he had this entourage; people just hung around with him. You could have done Entourage, the TV show, and you could have switched it up to follow him around.

Gelf Magazine: Did you find it frustrating to write a biography about someone so protective of his private life, and who ultimately didn't give you access to him?

Jeff Z. Klein: That was a drag, unfortunately. I understand why he made that choice, and I even respect him for making that choice. But it reduces you to basically observing and doing a lot of archival work. That definitely was a drawback. But I said right up front in the book, in the foreword: Don't mistakenly think he sat down and told me stuff. He didn't tell anyone stuff. It was admirable the way he guarded his privacy.

Gelf Magazine: We get a varied picture of Messier over the course of the book, from the wild child of the early '80s to a leader of Stanley Cup-winning teams. Ultimately, what portrait of Mark Messier were you trying to paint? What is his legacy?

Jeff Z. Klein: I don't know if I was consciously trying to paint a particular portrait. But when I started it, I wasn't really that keen on the guy. He was obviously a great player, but he did a lot of dirty things. He was suspended about 10 times in his career. A lot of things he did were just really awful. I personally don't like that kind of hockey, when you hurt people.
However, I did come to admire him. To me, the most amazing thing he did was in 1990, after Wayne Gretzky left. I had been one of those people who said the Edmonton Oilers were all Gretzky. "It's Wayne Gretzky, come on! Take away Wayne Gretzky and what have you got?" Well, Wayne Gretzky left, and Messier led them to yet another Stanley Cup. That was amazing. And also what he did here [in New York] was really good.
So yes, he's the greatest leader in hockey—fine. But he stayed too long. He went to Vancouver, and only people in Vancouver know this or believe this, but they hate him. He fucked up their team. They had a nice team that they liked, and he broke it all up. He said, "OK, we're going to do what we did in New York; we're going to make it in my image." It failed. Then he came back to New York, and hung around for years and years, and the team was stagnant. He was taking up a place, both physically and psychically, that was just much too large. He was a great player, but the last six or seven or eight years of his career were not good.

Gelf Magazine: So, if you were to give the brief summary, what is Mark Messier known for? What is his legacy?

Jeff Z. Klein: I guess it would be kind of Gordie Howe-ish. A player who both was a fantastic scorer and hockey player, and also a player who was tough as nails, gritty, and frightening—a force of nature. And additionally—although, I know it's kind of like pornography with him—"the greatest team leader." I wouldn't dispute it; he was a great team leader. I'm not so sure he's the greatest ever. But that's probably what he'll go down for. It's all those things; it's the complete package.

Gelf Magazine: If you had to rank him amongst the greats, where does he fall?

Jeff Z. Klein: I would say Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard, Bobby Hull…Messier falls around No. 7, 8, 9.

Gelf Magazine: It sounds like you are a little more down on him than the market view. Would you agree with that?

Jeff Z. Klein: No, I wouldn't. If the market view is one that also includes people in Vancouver, who aren't usually taken into account here in New York, I would say I'm within the market. You can divide his career into several parts: the wild child in Edmonton, which is a huge, fantastic chapter; the first New York chapter, which is also fantastic; then the Vancouver chapter is a down; and the last New York chapter is a long falling off. All in all, it adds up to Messier as the seventh, eighth, or ninth greatest player ever.

Gelf Magazine: Several times throughout the book, you describe Messier's era with unrestrained nostalgia. Was Mark Messier the rear guard of the last great time in hockey?

Jeff Z. Klein: Interestingly put. Yeah, you could say that. I often think 1994 was the last apex, a year when offense and defense were in good balance. Play was exciting—everything was exciting. And then after that, it's hard to find that excitement in any year since, on a broad level. So yeah, what you said—there's a lot to it.

Gelf Magazine: If Messier strikes tones of nostalgia, The Death of Hockey reeks of frustration and anger with the state of the NHL. You refer to a fan of the NHL's southern expansion as a "gloating, inbred huckleberry," and refer to the owners' "tradition of mismanagement and malfeasance." In case it's not clear, just how mad were you?

Jeff Z. Klein: Actually, I believe those particular phrases were Karl's. However, we worked very closely on this book, and I'm proud of those phrases. We were quite angry, very upset, and we felt betrayed. A lot of hockey fans felt, and still feel, that way. We wrote this book in a hurry. We were just fed up, and we wrote it. And the response it got in Canada was actually quite gratifying—it was a very strong reaction. We'd go on radio call-in shows and people would call in, "Thanks for writing that, you're right." A lot of people would say, "It's amazing that two Americans would say this, because you're absolutely right." It tapped into a real broad-based feeling about the game among a lot of hockey fans.
Also, it's funny… We were not aware of this, but there had been a book by the very same title, The Death of Hockey, written in 1972, by two well-known magazine writers. Their complaint was that the expansion into the US of 1967, when the NHL added six American teams, was also a death of hockey. And their thesis was correct. They said it was killing the tradition of senior hockey in Canada, where every little town had a team, and players were independent. There had been a 20-year process of the NHL cornering the market on hockey, and then taking it to the US. It's an interesting history about sports in Canada that's waiting to be written.

Gelf Magazine: But if there can be a book written in 1967 about the death of hockey, and your book written in 1998 about a new era of the death of hockey, perhaps hockey is not dying but really evolving? Were you worried about sounding like the old guard just trying to beat back evolution?

Jeff Z. Klein: The book probably should have been called the death of the NHL. As it was pointed out to us by Canadians, hockey's not dying. We all still love playing hockey. We love hockey, and there are all different forms of hockey. But there was this vogue of saying, "the end of history," "the death of …"; there were all these books that were coming out. So we piggybacked on that, I'm ashamed to admit. In a sense, yes, hockey's not dying, it's evolving—perhaps evolving in a bad way. But I think if you were to draw a line between the original death-of-hockey book and our death-of-hockey book, there's a process by which the NHL is kind of capturing hockey, cornering the market on it, and transforming "hockey" to where hockey means the NHL. The NHL took control of the Stanley Cup in 1926; before that, it was independent. They got that, and got all the players. This is happening in the same way that now when we say baseball, we mean Major League Baseball—but there's more baseball than that. The NHL is cornering the market on hockey, at least in the US, so that it is the be-all, end-all of hockey. It is the totality of hockey. The NHL's rules become everyone's rules. They abolish tie games—everyone else abolishes tie games. Now, only Sweden and the NCAA are holding out, hanging on to tie games; they're the only places left.

Gelf Magazine: So is this an unfortunate development, that people just follow the NHL?

Jeff Z. Klein: Yes, I think it is. I now understand what those guys were writing about in 1967.

Gelf Magazine: Throughout the book, you sound less the objective journalist, and more the angry fan. Was that the tone you were going for?

Jeff Z. Klein: Yes, absolutely—that was not an objective book. I call it a position paper, like Jonathan Swift would write, when he wasn't talking about eating Irish babies. It was, "This is our position—this is what we think." It was not a journalistic exercise.

Gelf Magazine: Did you find it cathartic to get to write that way?

Jeff Z. Klein: Yes. It was fun, it was cathartic. It was good, to vent your spleen, to vent your outrage. It's like being Ann Coulter.

Gelf Magazine: Because we should all aspire to be Ann Coulter.

Jeff Z. Klein: Well, no. But I can see why it's so satisfying for her to repeatedly just complain, when you feel that you're absolutely right.

Gelf Magazine: The book was published in 1998. Now, it's 2009. Have things gotten better or worse?

Jeff Z. Klein: A lot of the things we complained about in 1998 actually got worse, so that there was a lockout in 2004. The things that we were complaining about in 1998 became widely recognized as problems over the next six years or so. The league has corrected a number of things. Most important, they now support the idea of Canadian teams. They don't want to be seen as encouraging teams leaving—not just Canada but anywhere—which is good. And they have also learned to enforce the rules in such a way that you can actually play hockey, instead of just tackling people each other all the time. A lot of people complained about that: "There's no more hitting in the game." That's rubbish. All in all, it's good.

Gelf Magazine: What's left to improve?

Jeff Z. Klein: I don't know what we can do about it, but there are too many teams. And you can't go back to the old rinks: They're gone.

Gelf Magazine: A recent Sports Illustrated article observed that this year, there are several intradivisional rivalries in the first round, such as Boston-Montreal. What would you think of bringing back the divisional playoffs?

Jeff Z. Klein: I don't know. You know, I didn't like it that much. I thought it was monotonous. I'm fine with this particular system. Although one of the problems we complained about in that book was that the playoffs go on forever. Two months—I think we said it was like pornography, just the same thing over and over again. Climax after climax, until suddenly you're numb to it.

Gelf Magazine: So what would be something that hasn't changed that can be changed? What could be most easily changed and would result in the greatest immediate benefit?

Jeff Z. Klein: Shortening the season, both the regular season and the playoffs, so that the season ended three or four weeks earlier. There would be great benefit to doing that. Now, by the time you get to the Stanley Cup finals, it's June, and people just don't care anymore. They can't sustain the interest, the weather is wrong—it's just wrong. Only those fans in the particular cities involved are following at that point, and that can't be good. The season goes on too long. And I would also say if there was a way to get a little more international play in there somehow, that would be good, maybe in those breaks. But I would say that would be the most easily effected reform—shortening the season.

Gelf Magazine: Did you ever get to talk to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, or another higher-up within the NHL, about what you wrote?

Jeff Z. Klein: They hated me. I've talked to Bill Daly, who's the No. 2 guy, a little bit, but not specifically about all this. It was years later, talking about particular things. So I guess you could say, no, not really. But I do know they really did not like that at all in the league office.

Gelf Magazine: Did that make you happy?

Jeff Z. Klein: No, neither happy nor sad. You don't want to go around making enemies, certainly. But yeah, they didn't like it. They're sensitive to criticism.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think the book had a role in prompting change?

Jeff Z. Klein: It's hard to say. But yes, I think it was helpful. Maybe the league didn't say, "Oh, well, maybe they're right." But rather, it just helped galvanize and concretize the general feeling of dissatisfaction, and the need that something had to be done.

"So yes, Messier's the greatest leader in hockey—fine. But he stayed too long. He went to Vancouver, and only people in Vancouver know this or believe this, but they hate him. He fucked up their team."
Gelf Magazine: So it was worth the ill will you may have engendered?

Jeff Z. Klein: Yeah, I think so.

Gelf Magazine: Final question: You are, ultimately, a hockey scribe in New York, a city that despite its size may have fewer hockey fans than Buffalo. What do you feel your task is? Are you trying to proselytize?

Jeff Z. Klein: I guess when I was young I used to feel that way. Now, I've come to my senses, and realized people like what they like, for whatever reasons—no one's wrong. But even though there are a greater raw number of hockey fans in a place like Buffalo than here, nevertheless, there are a lot of people here, in New York, who are very, very passionate and knowledgeable about hockey. That's an important audience. And what's nice about being at the Times is that we're kind of an international newspaper, so here they actually do let me write about Russian hockey, and people in Russia write in. The president of the Russian League calls and says, "You wanted an interview?" Fuck, yeah! You get the sense that even if you're writing about the most obscure thing in hockey, there is interest somewhere; people will find it because it's in the New York Times. That's a great thing for me, and for anyone working here.

Dan Adler

Dan Adler is a freelance writer.

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Article by Dan Adler

Dan Adler is a freelance writer.

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