My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a pretty good sports biography. Not the best I’ve read, but pretty good.
Grant Fuhr is a legend. One of the best goalies to ever play the game of hockey and a Hall of Famer. And the first black goalie to ever play and the first elite black player and I believe the first black Hall of Famer. He played most of his career for the Edmonton Oilers, before moving on to five other teams toward the end of his 17 year career. He set a number of records along the way and won five Stanley Cups. With Edmonton’s emphasis on offense, with Wayne Gretzy, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and others, he was usually the only line of defense for the Oilers, but teams rarely beat him. He was athletically gifted and could move very quickly. Had great reflexes. His personal stats will never be among the best, because when he played it was an offensive league, not the defensive league it is now. There were over eight goals scored per game, as opposed to the six per game scored now. Things have tightened up. But if he played now, I’m certain his stats would be among the best.
Fuhr was adopted by white parents in Alberta, Canada as a baby. Later, they adopted his sister. When he was five, they told him he was adopted. He didn’t care. They were his parents. He loved them. He went to school and played hockey and baseball. All of the kids in the neighborhood did. It was a small town outside of Edmonton. He decided at a young age he wanted to play goalie in the NHL. His parents did everything to support his dreams. He didn’t really notice color and no one else in the community seemed to either. There were two other black children in the school and some Native Americans. But everyone played and everyone was equal. Except Grant wasn’t. He was exceptional. He started playing in local leagues, often for two at a time. And as a result, his grades suffered. He would skip class to go out on the ice to play hockey. At 17, a scout saw him and told his boss at a minor league Victoria team to sign him, that he was going to be great. So he did and Grant dropped out of school to go pro. And he set the world on fire! He was amazing. He owned the league. He learned to play golf in the off season and that became a lifelong passion. The next season, he came back and had an even better year. The NHL draft came up, this was 1981 I believe, and Grant knew he was going to get drafted, but by whom? He thought it would be by Toronto or the Rangers. Surprisingly, the Edmonton Oilers took him with the eighth pick, even though they already had a star goalie in Andy Moog.
Grant came to his first camp, with his $45,000 contract in hand, thinking he’d play a little and be sent back to the minors, so he was shocked when the team kept him on the roster. And then he got to play in the fourth game of the season and did fairly well. And he kept playing. He split time with Moog, but at one point he had something like a 13 game no-loss streak going. He ended the year with a good record and good stats and as a finalist for the Venzina trophy, given to the best goalie in the league. (He only won that award once.) His second year, for whatever reason, was rockier. People began to question if drafting him was a wise decision. He began to have doubts about himself. But his third year, he came back and dominated. And for the rest of the decade, he owned the NHL. He helped the team to five Stanley Cups and people attributed much of his success to his laid back nature. He felt no fear. He was confident. He enjoyed the competition. But he suffered some injuries, mostly to his shoulder. But in one playoff game in the late ’80s, a goon dived on his leg, tearing his ACL and other tendons, requiring extensive surgery and his coach was livid.
At this point, I’ve got to be honest. There had been rumors for some time that some of the Oilers were using drugs. Fuhr had always denied he did. How could he perform at such a high level if he did? But it came out that he had used coke, at a minimum, for a number of years and his reputation took a major hit. The NHL decided to make an example out of him and suspended him for a full season, even though he had quit using drugs two years prior to this point. He took his punishment quietly and with many apologies to everyone.
In the late ’80s, when Gretzy got traded to the LA Kings, everyone in the world was in shock. How could that happen? Fuhr, by that time, was making more realistic money, but Edmonton didn’t have the money to pay their superstars, so he saw the writing on the wall. He got traded. It was a huge shock to the system. And so began his short term journeys. Finally, around 2000, he retired when his knees could no longer take it. And the Hall of Fame beckoned in 2003. A fitting end to a great career.
Normally this would be a five star book. But there’s one thing that really bugged me about this book. It’s the set up of the book. It’s allegedly by Grant, with Bruce Dowbiggin, but Dowbiggin is obviously the real writer and interviews Grant at various intervals for short quotes about various things. So Grant didn’t write this. Also, the book is supposed to be a bio. But when I got it, I was surprised to see it is divided by chapter into 10 prominent games and those were to be discussed. I wasn’t really thrilled with that, but I went with it. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that each chapter spent about one paragraph on the chapter’s game and the rest of the chapter building a standard bio, beginning with Grant’s birth and moving chronologically forward chapter by chapter. It’s kind of false advertising. Don’t get me wrong. I was glad to have the standard bio instead of just 10 games. But why divide the book into 10 chapters of 10 games if you’re just going to write a standard bio? It’s stupid. Aside from those complaints, it’s a good book and if you’re a hockey fan, you’ll want to read it. Recommended.