Black Friday Book Review: The Instigator

A review of Jonathon Gatehouse's book The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the NHL and Changed the Game Forever.Not just for hard core hockey fans, this book is for anyone who enjoys sports, history, or biographies.

Gatehouse's book had generated buzz even before its release earlier this Fall. Since we've had no NHL games to watch and dissect this Fall, I decided to do this review FFH recap style. Almost all of the standard categories are included. Unlike a normal game recap, I will deal more in generalities as I don't want to spoil the book for our readers. You weren't expecting the New York Times Sunday Book Review were you?

Almost every major issue the NHL has faced in the past 20 years is covered in the book. This includes the history of the Coyotes ownership story going all the way back to the team's move to the Valley from Winnipeg. The author, a writer for Canadian current affairs magazine Maclean's, does a masterful job weaving interesting anecdotes into the narrative of the book.

The text deals quite extensively with the subject of NHL labor negotiations. Given how the current lockout has progressed (or not ), the author shows himself to be quite attuned to the personalities. He accurately predicts much of what has happened over the past few months.

While technically the book is a biography of the current NHL commissioner, it is really a brief history of the NHL both on and off the ice since the early 1990's. The book looks at Bettman's life, how he has changed the NHL during his tenure, and the major events and people involved in his story and that of the league. For those more recent devotees to the NHL, the book offers an excellent history lesson. For those of us who have been fans for a long time, it contains reminders of how far the league has come in terms of professionalism.

Five For Winning

1. Entertainment Value - The main reason I read a book is to be entertained. The author does a fantastic job of mixing humor, drama and irony into what is essentially a story about a lawyer being in charge of a business.

2. Ease To Read - Non-fiction, which normally have heavy doses of facts, figures and names, can sometimes feel like a chore to wade through. This book was the polar opposite. It reads like a novel which you don't want to put down.

3. Writing Style - I like a balance of description mixed with facts when reading a biography. I can't say I've ever read anyone who has done this better than Gatehouse does in The Instigator. He paints the pictures without falling in love with his own words.

4. Characters - Every good book has at least a couple of compelling characters. This text has more than a couple. The fact the writer makes a boring guy like Donald Fehr come alive proves his writing acumen.

5. Author P.O.V. - I find this issue to be incredibly important to me when reading non-fiction works. No author can be purely objective, but I like ones who can at least see both sides of a story. Gatehouse's seeming bias towards the league's newer markets is a drawback. However, this doesn't overshadow his even-handed treatment of his main subject, Gary Bettman.

Bullet Points

  • If you didn't read the excerpt from the book at Deadspin back in September, I suggest doing so. It is about what Gary Bettman was up to during the riots in Vancouver back in 2011 and an example of what the anecdotes in the book are like.
  • A word of caution, especially for Coyotes fans or those of other Sun Belt clubs. It appears the author is not a big fan of Sun Belt hockey and hockey in Phoenix in particular.
  • My favorite moment in the book is when Gatehouse mentions what is hanging in the commissioner's lavatory at NHL headquarters.
  • I counted 6 former Coyotes players mentioned in the book. The one current Desert Dog mentioned is Raffi Torres. You can likely guess why.
  • The biggest surprise of the book for me was the author interviewing former Coyotes executive Laurence Gilman.
  • If you are transfixed on the current labor negotiations, you might want to read the final chapter of the book first. The author does an excellent job with a mini-biography on Donald Fehr, and a look at the major issues involved.
  • Bettman spends the majority of his time on ownership and labor issues, and his owners appear to be happy about this. As someone who doesn't own an NHL club, I'm not so thrilled.
  • Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis doesn't come off well and probably would come off even worse if I wasn't a Caps fan and knew more about him.

My Three "Stars"

1. Gary Bettman - No surprise. The book is about him after all.

2. Mark Chipman - If anyone comes off well it is Chipman. However, I do wonder whether or not he would be seen in the same light if the book was written 15 years from now.

3. Bruce McNall - The former Los Angeles Kings owner shows up several times and, like others mentioned in the book, is used as a device to show the many sides to the commissioner's personality.

Looking Ahead

If there is anyone on your holiday shopping list who enjoys sports, reading, or any combination of the two, I highly recommend buying them a copy.

We also have a couple of copies we'll be giving away at the site soon.

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