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Book Review: Behind the Bench by Craig Custance

Triumph Books

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
- Alfred Lord Tennyson: “Ulysses”

This may seem like a strange quote with which to begin a review of Craig Custance’s new book “Behind the Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey’s Greatest Coaches,” but after reading the book, it felt fitting.

By the time I finished the last chapter, two themes had emerged that connected each of the coaches featured, who in many ways could not be more different from each other.

The first theme was the ephemeral nature of success. How a team, each player, and its coaches could do everything right and still end up watching their opponent lift the Stanley Cup or be awarded an Olympic gold medal.

If the puck hadn’t hit Bill McCreary’s skate, maybe Ron Wilson’s Team USA takes home the Olympic gold in 2010 instead of Mike Babcock’s Team Canada.

If Marc-Andre Fleury is any later pushing off, Nick Lidstrom scores and Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final goes to overtime.

If the Bob Hartley coached Hawkesbury Hawks Junior A team lost Game 4 of their first round series, maybe Hartley stays a factory worker instead of eventually guiding Colorado to the 2001 Stanley Cup.

While that last example may seem out of place, it indicates the depth of the storytelling Custance is able to do in this book. The main structure of the book is that he sits down with one coach per chapter and watches the most important game of that coach’s career. As he tells the story of each game, he interweaves stories from players who played in that game as well as others throughout the coach’s career.

While each chapter is worthwhile in its own right, I most enjoyed reading the back to back chapters about Ron Wilson and Mike Babcock. In each chapter, they watched the same game: the 2010 Olympic Gold Medal game. Hearing from both the winning and losing coach of such a monumental game makes the sum of the two chapters greater than they would have been individually.

While each chapter illustrates just how much of a factor luck can make in a coach’s success, another theme runs through each story. Each of these coaches, at some point in his journey to who he is today, had to sacrifice. While that is not surprising, the stories Custance elicits from the coaches and the people who know them drive home just how hard some of these choices were and the extent to which they took a leap of faith.

In fact, Custance puts that idea into words at the very end of the book:

“For two years, I saw up close the payoff that comes with that kind of sacrifice. I saw the payoff that follows risk taking and hard work. I saw the payoff of living exactly the kind of life you were meant to live.

The aspect of the book I found the most fascinating was how Custance was able to humanize some coaches we feel like we know. Without giving too many details, after reading the chapter featuring John Tortorella, I did change my view about Torts, although not completely.

Surprisingly, Custance was able to get Tortorella to open up and talk in a way that we don’t see in public. The coach talks about his most famous blowups, and reflects on them in a way that humanizes him. At least it did for me.

The one warning I will give to our readers is that the first chapter features Dan Bylsma talking about Game 7 of the 2009 Finals. That chapter is still worth reading, but if Red Wings fans don’t want to open those old wounds, they can just skip to chapter two.

“Behind the Bench” by Craig Custance is a hockey book that is well worth reading. Once I started each chapter, I didn’t want to stop reading because even though I knew the outcome of each game in advance, the stories were so compelling that I felt I had to keep reading.

While the Tennyson quote from this review’s beginning could easily be used to describe someone like Ray Bourque, crying in the locker room because he fears his career will end without a Cup, I chose it because it reminds me of how hard it is to win a championship.

As the games add up, and the line for the trainer grows longer, it becomes harder and harder to do what is needed to succeed. Although a champion team can look back on bounces that went their way, they have to be in the position to be lucky, and that only happens if teams do not give up.

Even though their spirits and bodies are “made weak by time and fate” found in a series of increasingly difficult opponents, the ones who emerge victorious are the ones whose strength of will forces them “not to yield.”

And the one thing each of these teams have in common is a coach who refuses to let them.

Behind the Bench is available now at Amazon and wherever books are sold.

Jay and I will be interviewing Craig Custance for a future episode of Fer Sure: A 200 Foot Podcast, so if you are interested in learning more, please make sure to listen to that.

I was provided with a review copy of this book by the publisher.