The original cover art of Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane.

The original cover art of Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane.

I feel that I must preface this review by saying that it was a foolish idea to dive right into another author directly on the heels of reading Steven Erikson.  After all, who could possibly follow in the footsteps of Erikson without flagging in the pursuit?

Thus, it is with great trepidation that I begin writing this review of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, the first novel in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.  Published in 1977, Lord Foul’s Bane (henceforth referred to as LFB) falls smack-dab in the middle of the first generation of epic fantasy that follows John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in 1955.  As most fans of epic (or high) fantasy will know, it was Tolkien’s work that launched the genre into the public sphere proper.  The Lord of the Rings is also considered to have codified, in some manner, the rules of the genre – as if everything that followed is only fantasy by some relation to Tolkien.

Now, you might at this point be asking, “I’m 173 words in, when are you going to start talking about Stephen Donaldson?”  And you wouldn’t be wrong to do so as the ultimate point of this article is to review LFB, but I plan on taking a winding road (not unlike the one taken by Thomas Covenant in LFB) to get there.

I mentioned Steven Erikson and J.R.R. Tolkien for a reason.  In my mind they represent two ways you can go about writing fantasy.  Tolkien, as stated above, is the quintessential epic fantasy.  It plays by the rules, has a finely-crafted mythos, and is very highbrow in the writing style.  Erikson, on the other hand, eschews the typical tropes of the genre, deliberately obscures and even hides his mythos, and descends into the purely comic or sickeningly brutal at the merest flight of whimsy.  The other contrast that makes these authors so appropriate to the discussion of LFB is in terms of timeline.  Tolkien is old fantasy: his work is a tried and true classic.  It will stand the test of time even if it isn’t always the flavour of the month.  Erikson is new fantasy: his work readily engages with the mindset of the 21st century reader that wants fast-paced action that isn’t confined to the realm of PG-13.  It remains to be seen if Erikson will be seen as one of the classic fantasy authors, but he does possess an uncanny understanding of the current fantasy audience.

Going back to the very beginning, I mentioned that following Erikson with Donaldson was a fool’s errand.  The reason for that is because Donaldson is very far from being Erikson in terms of style and timeline.  Reading Donaldson directly after Erikson resulted in a culture-shock akin to switching genres entirely (e.g. trying to find my way in a Michael Connelly detective novel after polishing off George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows).  What I did find, however, is that Donaldson treads very closely on the heels of Tolkien, and it is this observation that will form the core of this review.

Last time around, when reviewing Erikson’s Forge of Darkness, I mentioned that I should try to say something nice before saying something critical.  However, this time I’m going to be blunt: LFB was an extremely unsatisfactory read.  At first glance, the reason for this reaction might be simple: as an avid reader of fantasy – and new fantasy in particular – Donaldson’s work just might not have touched me in the same way it would have touched people in 1977.  That might be true, but I wouldn’t be much of a reviewer if I didn’t try to explain my dissatisfaction in more technical terminology.

The first major point that I would like to make is that the similarity to Tolkien that I mentioned above, while positive in the sense that mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery, is far too pronounced to see LFB as anything other than an attempt to ride Tolkien’s literary coattails.  Without going too in-depth and revealing too much about the plot, it seemed like every new page contained another similarity to Tolkien, whether it was the “foreign” words that were bandied about (much in the manner that the people of Middle Earth tossed about snippets of elvish like they were English-speaking tourists trying to master French), a race of peoples that were eerily similar to Tolkien’s Ents in both description and mannerism, or the fact that the protagonist sports a ring of great power that his enemies seek to wrest from him.  Even the tone of Donaldson’s writing itself was a throwback to the stuffy, refined style of Tolkien.  To the experienced fantasy reader, or even one who is solely familiar with Tolkien, LFB has a strong air of been-there-done-that about it.  As such, it is hard to take seriously as a stand-alone novel within the greater context of its genre.

A pictorial representation of the monomyth.  Read from top left around the circle.

A pictorial representation of the monomyth. Read from top left around the circle.

Secondly, in LFB, Donaldson sticks far too strongly to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (or monomyth) as expressed in Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Campbell’s monomyth features strongly in most fantasy texts.  To an extent, the degree to which a text challenges the strictures of the monomyth is a sign of how readers will respond to the text.  An astute reader will be able to link sections of texts to the monomyth instantly.  They will also be able to recognize when a text deliberately breaks from the mold or seeks to challenge a certain aspect of the monomyth.  A familiar story that sticks to the monomyth doesn’t offer the reader much of a challenge or much satisfaction upon completion, especially when compared to a text that challenges the monomyth in well-thought-out and deliberate ways.  That being said, LFB doesn’t seem to challenge the monomyth at all.  Take, for instance, the first four recognized elements of the monomyth: The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid, and Crossing the First Threshold.  LFB follows these elements exactly, even if slightly out of order.  First, the protagonist is literally removed from his/her familiar world when Covenant is transported to the Land.  This doubles as Covenant’s Call to Adventure when combined with the task placed on him by the titular Lord Foul.  And if Covenant’s refusal of that call weren’t obvious in the actions of the character, Donaldson screams that it from the rooftops by nicknaming Covenant “the Unbeliever.”  As those in the screenwriting world are wont to say, that’s pretty on the nose.  Further, to address the last of the four exemplary elements, Covenant receives so much “Supernatural Aid,” both in the form of magic and people themselves that one would be forgiven if one went three-quarters of the way through the novel wondering when Covenant would actually do something for himself.  In short, Donaldson’s subscription to the monomyth is his undoing as it creates an overly familiar, and overly simple, text.

Since I ranted quite a bit about Tolkien and the monomyth, I’ll try to be brief with my last few thoughts on LFB.  Having gotten my major criticisms of the text out of the way I want to offer some specific things about the text that rankled me or were in some way unsatisfactory.  First, at points the novel read like a tourist brochure for the mythical Land.  Donaldson seemed to go out of his way, backed by the flimsy excuses of the characters, to show the reader as much of his fictional world as possible in the 474 pages (mass-market paperbound) of the text.  By page 200 it was getting rather tiresome when, by flipping to the map located in the front, one could trace a simple straight line from A to B and save at least 50 pages that could have been better spent elsewhere.  And one of the best places to spend it would have been to invest the reader more in the characters through segments of introspection or dialogue that revealed each character’s hidden layer.  Readers long to be connected with the characters – and great fantasy thrives on it – but LFB didn’t offer much of that outside of Covenant’s periodic protestations that he is only a leper and should not be expected to save the world.

My last thought is this: despite how unsatisfying I found Lord Foul’s Bane, Donaldson’s text occupies an important place in fantasy history.  As a student of the history of heavy metal, I take great joy in tracing the lineage of creative influences and production (publication) timelines.  And I see The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in the same way I see Judas Priest (apart from the fact that Judas Priest made good music).  Priest occupied the transitional phase of heavy metal from its forefathers – Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin – to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and landmark bands such as Iron Maiden, Angel Witch, Motorhead, and Saxon.  Donaldson’s work also occupies a transitional phase between Tolkien and classics such as Robert Jordan (I’m sure that I don’t need to remind you that A Memory of Light is just around the corner) and Terry Goodkind.  Donaldson represents the stage where Tolkien’s work is being mimicked in an attempt to find a successful product.  Jordan in particular found that successful product and it is easy to imagine at certain points when reading Donaldson seeing Jordan do the same and make a mental note to tweak this or that when writing his own novels.

Thus, if for nothing else, one should read Lord Foul’s Bane and the rest of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant for the historical value.  I know I will be.

This entry marks the first in a series of book reviews I intend to write as I work my way through various texts. Ideally I will write a review for every book I read but time and laziness will assuredly conspire against me. Since we have got the “this is a book review” mumbo jumbo out of the way, I don’t think I need to warn you that there might be spoilers. No matter how hard I try to keep them out, they’re going to creep in. Just start this and any other review I write with this in mind and we’ll save each other the mutual pain of having to read/write “Warning: Spoilers!” over and over again.

So, without further ado…

Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

You might wonder, “How can Steven Erikson possibly follow-up his 3-million+ word Malazan Book of the Fallen series?” Or, “Wasn’t 3.3 million words enough?”

Luckily for Erikson, the world he and Ian Cameron Esslemont created in 1982 – and originally imagined as a role-playing game similar to Dungeons and Dragons – has too many characters, too much history, and too many intertangled plots to satisfy a mere 3 million words. That the finale to the Book of the Fallen series, The Crippled God, left readers simultaneously satisfied and scratching their heads is testament to the depth of the Malazan world.

Steven Erikson came back from the dead – proverbially – with 2012’s Forge of Darkness. In FoD, Erikson delves into the history of the Tiste peoples and in particular the city of Kharkanas. This story is set many millennia prior to the events of the Book of the Fallen, and, in some ways, provides readers with a little bit of satisfaction insofar as they get a further glimpse into the mythos of the Malazan world.

Now, my creative writing teachers, when explaining how to workshop someone else’s work, have always told me that one should always lead with a good comment before diving into anything critical. While I do believe that any self-respecting adult should be able to take constructive criticism without having to be wined-and-dined first, I’m going to stick with this piece of advice for this review…as much as I really want to get into the criticism.

The first compliment I want to pay to Forge of Darkness is that it is ambitious, and a lack of ambition has never been one of Erikson’s faults as a writer. If I were Erikson and had just penned the greatest work of fantasy ever written, I would likely be content to set that world and those characters aside for fear of damaging the fragile word-child I had produced. Instead, Erikson decided to dive right back in and tackle the stories of some of his most beloved and most hated characters – namely Anomander Rake and Errastas. Whether he is able to pull it off – remember, there are still two books remaining in this trilogy – is irrelevant at this point. Kudos are in order for even trying.

Secondly, the device Erikson uses to frame this trilogy is nothing short of ingenious. Those who have read the Book of the Fallen will be familiar with the poets Blind Gallan and Fisher Tel Kath. These readers will also be familiar with Gallan’s Road used by the Shake and Fisher’s epic poem “Anomandaris.” To put it quite simply, this trilogy is “Anomandaris” made into prose, or properly speaking Gallan narrating to Fisher the events that comprise “Anomandaris.” Thus, what we get is Erikson writing a history within the context of his own created world. This isn’t a history textbook written to simply fill a void in the canon of Erikson’s works. FoD is a history as related to a great poet. It has purpose within the Malazan world. In other words, this tale is necessary even when to our, non-Malazan, eyes it isn’t.

Those who know me will know that I don’t like my literary criticism in the “Nice” flavour with a side of a pat on the back. Thus, I wouldn’t really be able to respect myself as a reviewer if I didn’t tell you exactly why I didn’t enjoy FoD quite as much as anything from the Book of the Fallen.

An artist's representation of Anomander Rake

An artist’s representation of Anomander Rake

First, and this touches upon some of the things I commented on in the “positive” section of this review, when reading FoD it sometimes feels as if Erikson is trying too hard to write a historical narrative and not enough on making it a compelling read for those of us in real life who spent real money on the book. While, as a lover of Erikson’s work, I do appreciate the frankness with which Erikson relays some historical details, a part of me pines for the days where you couldn’t tell if Silchas Ruin was going to hug you or run you through with twin keening swords. The book still seems satisfying, but it’s a “hey, I read something new” satisfaction and not a “holy crap, I didn’t see this coming but it all makes sense now that I think about it” satisfaction.

Speaking of satisfaction, another frustrating element of FoD is the lack of resolution with regards to the Malazan world creation myth. This may be a case of unrealistic expectations, but I had assumed coming into the novel that Erikson would be treating me to some great revelation about the creation of the Malazan world. I expected to learn about where the magical power comes from and where the gods themselves come from. Given the place on the timeline that the Tiste cultures fall this was a rather slim hope to begin with, but I was still hoping for something more than the classification of what were previously ‘gods’ as Azathanai. As far as meaningless revelations go, this might just take the cake. And it still doesn’t explain much of anything…

Lastly, as I was reading this novel there felt like there was something missing from it that made other Erikson novels unique. While FoD is assuredly an Erikson text, it read like it could have been written by a rather skilled imitator and not Erikson himself. It took me a while to pinpoint what this was and then, like a an assassination by Cotillion himself, it hit me: the military fiction – think Bridgeburners, Bonehunters, Coltaine’s Army, Paran’s Host, etc. – is non-existent. Gone are the scenes of banter between squad mates while on a march to a battle no one wants to take part in. Gone are the battles themselves. The only inkling of military fiction we get are in brief patches following squads sowing anarchy in Kurald Galain – and the characters that populate those scenes aren’t even like-able a la Fiddler, Quick Ben, Kalam, Bottle, Smiles, Corabb, et al. The trademark Erikson style, learned from Glen Cook and improved upon immensely, just isn’t there.

That being said, I shouldn’t let my eagerness to criticize overshadow the fact that I did, ultimately, enjoy the book. Those who are familiar with Erikson will certainly find it to be a worthwhile read while those who are new to Erikson might find it a more accessible starting point that the Grand Canyon-esque drop off that is Gardens of the Moon.

And, at 700-odd pages, it isn’t quite as daunting as Erikson’s other binding-stretching works.

Long odds: this bookie puts the odds of Ovechkin being suspended at 50-1.

What are the odds that Alexander Ovechkin gets suspended by the NHL for his late, high hit on Dan Girardi in today’s game?  And if he does get suspended, what are the odds that it will be anything more than a symbolic slap on the wrist?

When trying to answer these questions we might look at the precedent set earlier in these playoffs by NHL Discipline czar Brendan Shanahan.

For similar hits in these playoffs, Pittsburgh’s James Neal – a 40 goal scorer this season – got a single game for two high hits on the Flyers’ Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux (coincidentally both of these players were making the Penguins look foolish earlier in the game).  Phoenix’s Raffi Torres – a player not known for being integral to his team – got 25 games for a carbon copy of Ovechkin’s hit on Chicago’s Marian Hossa.  If this kind of inconsistency isn’t enough to make betting on the Ovechkin hit a prohibitive endeavour, consider that Girardi, like Couturier and Giroux, seemed to be in good health after being hit as opposed to Hossa who had to leave the ice on a stretcher.

Given the precedent Shanahan has set, my money, what little of it there is, is on Ovechkin getting no suspension at all – as disgustingly hypocritical as that might be to the NHL’s stated desire to crack down on hits to the head.  Let’s consider the things Shanahan will likely look at: the hit itself, if there was a penalty called, who was delivered the check, and who got hit.  Ovechkin’s hit was obviously high as he left his feet and clearly made contact with Girardi’s head.  Because it was so obvious Ovechkin got a 2-minute penalty on the play, meaning that he has, under the NHL’s interpretation, already been punished for his actions.

The other considerations of who delivered the check and who got hit are what the suspension will hinge upon.  Given that Ovechkin is one of Gary Bettman’s show ponies and Dan Girardi is a talented, but fairly anonymous defenceman I highly doubt that Brendan Shanahan is going to risk drawing the ire of his boss and suspending one of the most-hyped players in the NHL.  Also, if we compare Ovechkin’s hit to those of Neal and Torres it is easy to see that a top-line player – even a repeat offender such as Neal – is treated much differently than a fourth-line player such as Torres, especially when the fourth-liner takes out a top-line player such as Marian Hossa.

Head of NHL Discipline Brendan Shanahan. This is exactly the look I imagine on his face when he tries to decide on a suspension.

Thus, from the NHL’s viewpoint the Ovechkin hit is an open-and-shut case: star player + anonymous victim + penalty called = no suspension.  Then wipe your hands, make a wishy-washy public statement, and carry on with the hypocritcal discipline system that currently exists.

However, I might be sensationalizing the NHL’s reaction a little bit.  It might be more realistic to say that Ovechkin will get a one-game, slap on the wrist suspension designed solely to deflect some of the criticism that would surely follow if Ovechkin was not suspended at all.  I can hear Brendan Shanahan now: “the NHL does not condone hits to the head and as such we are suspending Alexander Ovechkin for one game.”  But such a suspension will be the biggest joke since Gary Bettman – he of the head that resembles the basketball with which he is more familiar – was appointed as Commissioner of the NHL.

All in all, this analysis of the possible Ovechkin suspension is just a build-up to a recognition that the NHL’s discipline system is deeply flawed.  Star players get special treatment, especially those that Gary Bettman has a special interest in due to their status as poster boys of the league (e.g. Ovechkin, Crosby, and Malkin – all of whom have gotten away with suspension-worthy offenses in these playoffs).  Scrubs get the book thrown at them, especially where there are already rumblings of dissatisfaction among fans that the suspensions have not been harsh enough.  Essentially, discipline in the NHL has devolved into a numbers game.  The numbers in question being how many bums a certain player can put into seats; those who draw the crowds can do no wrong and those who are anonymous to the general fan serve as examples for the NHL to pretend that it cares about cracking down on illegal hits.

In business terms, this might seem like a sound policy: protect your prize assets and jettison the unneeded waste.  Even in the terms of an NHL general manager, you sign up your key players for as long as possible and bring in guys from the minors to replace those that are disposable.  Star players are where the value is, so why not protect them?

Gary Bettman demonstrates the decreasing patience real NHL fans have with his Commissioner-ship.

The fact is that while the fair-weather hockey fan that Bettman is so desperate to keep coming to games and buying merchandise stands to benefit from this policy of letting star players play, the dedicated hockey fan who keeps the league afloat and generates revenue in the NHL’s key markets (i.e. the key markets who share revenue with the teams in the southern United States that Bettman is so keen to keep around) is becoming more and more dissatisfied with the laughable inconsistency of the NHL’s attempts at discipline.  The league has made it clear that they want to clean up head checks, but they refuse to suspend players in any meaningful way unless they are scrubs.

Despite my frustrations with the league’s inability to discipline players consistently, it wouldn’t be much of an argument that the dedicated hockey fan is getting fed up if there’s no evidence of such feeling.  However, let’s rewind to the reaction to the Raffi Torres suspension.  Coming only a couple days after James Neal’s hits, Torres’ hit was directly compared to those of Neal.  So, when Torres was given 25 games, the outcry on message boards everywhere wasn’t about the suspension being too high or too low, but rather that it was supremely hypocritical for the league to suspend Neal for only one game for two similar hits and then hit Torres with 25 games a couple days later.  Similarly, after the brawl-filled Game 3 of the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series, the message boards were filled not with comments about the skill level on display in the game, but rather why Sidney Crosby can start two line brawls and get away with it and why Aaron Asham got a slap on the wrist for his brutal assault on Brayden Schenn.

The sentiment is that these inconsistent suspensions that favour Gary Bettman’s prized assets are ruining the game and are only serving to exacerbate the problem of headshots by making them fair game for enough who earns a big enough paycheque.  You can punish scrubs and repeat offenders all you want, but until you crack down on the stars who commit the same crimes headshots will still exist.  This is why, given the chance Brendan Shanahan has with the Ovechkin case above, I’d give Ovechkin the same 25 game deal given to Torres and show players around the league that if you don’t respect your fellow players, then you get the boot.

Bertuzzi v Moore: the ugly ramifications of player-enforced discipline.

The alternative is that you let the players police themselves.  You can remove the instigator penalty (which was a joke to begin with) and let the goons of the league enforce martial law when their stars get hit high.  However, letting the players police themselves leads to incidents such as the one that ended Steve Moore’s career at the hands of Todd Bertuzzi.  Tempers flare, safety is ignored, and blood is sought.  Eventually the retaliation, the martial law, becomes more unsafe than the initial hits were to begin with.  That’s not the kind of hockey the fans, the players, and especially the league really want.  But it is the only alternative in trying to clean up the game and cut down on headshots.

Ultimately the moral here is for the NHL to smarten up and discipline players in a consistent and appropriate manner.  Stop being scared that you’ll alienate the fair-weather fans and realize that in placating them you alienate the dedicated fans who have stuck with the league since the original Winnipeg Jets, through the expansion era, and through the lockout.  Stop talking the talk and start walking the walk with regards to cracking down on illegal and unsafe hits.  It’s pretty simple.

And while you’re at it, NHL, why not crack down on hits from behind as well?

George Strait has more Number One singles than any other artist across all genres.

One night I did an experiment.  I sat in the Arts and Humanities Students’ Council Office and blared country music as loud as the crappy speakers on the council computer would let me.  I cranked up some Brantley Gilbert songs about partying in the woods and running moonshine.  I cranked up some George Strait tear-jerkers.  I jammed to some Zac Brown folk-soul-country.  I played modern country and I played old-school country.  I played up-tempo foot stompers and slow, old bar-room ballads.  But the result of the experiment would only ever be one thing.

I got the dirtiest looks from the people who walked by that office.  It was almost as if they were offended to be graced by the wholesome sounds of country music.  One girl, on her way to the bathroom, stopped for a second and just stared, with eyes ablaze like some spawn of Satan wishing death upon all things happy and breathing.  It was safe to say that country music was not her cup of tea.

Based on the reactions I got, and the accumulated data of four years at this school, it is readily apparent that people at Western do not like country music.  And, even though doing so will get me absolutely nowhere, I have to ask why?

I know that I derive my pleasure from country music in a way best described by Trace Adkins:

I met a guy on the red eye.
He spotted my guitar
and said what do you do?
I said, ‘I sing for a living,
Country music mixed with
a little rock and a little blues.’
He said, ‘I’m sorry,
but I’ve never been crazy
’bout that twang and trains and hillbilly thing.
What ever made you want to sing stuff like that?’
I just looked at him and laughed and said,

‘Cause they’re songs about me
and who I am.’

Many of the stereotypes that others point out in country music were a reality of my childhood.  I grew up on this type of music and in this type of culture.  Every morning when I woke up, the radio would be tuned to the local country station, where the sounds of Paul Brandt’s Small Towns and Big Dreams would describe our little section of farm town life as if he wrote it while driving down Ridge Road past the feed mill and the covered bridge.  From this point of view there is a certain romantic beauty to country music.  It takes the hard work of the everyday man and glorifies it; it makes the farmer growing your crops or the mason building your house into the heroes that they are.  It lays bare the soul of the world in a way that perhaps no other music can match.

But that’s my point of view.  That’s what drives my desire to know why country music is such an anathema to the population of this school.

The one point that jumps out at me is that not everyone comes into this school from the same background and the same values that I do.  There are as many daddy’s-credit-card-wielding, grew-up-in-a-rich-neighbourhood-in-Oakville people at this school as there are proud-to-be-called-such hicks.  There are as many people from small towns that just wanted to get away as there are people who can’t wait to go back.  The music they grew up with and that they treasure is something else.  They just can’t relate to songs about your pickup truck breaking down on some old gravel road or partying in some big ol’ field with a bonfire reminiscent of the one that resulted from a certain burning of alcohol-soaked couches.  And that’s fine, I can understand that.

The picture says it all...

What I can’t understand is the animosity.  There is a significant population that degrades country music based on the twanginess of the signing or the stereotypes present in the lyrics, but you can always say similar things about any other type of music.  For example, you might look at the distinctive vocal styles of auto-tuned pop and rap music or the angsty cry of the indie rocker.  Each genre has its own distinctive style that the majority of its artists follow and that designates it as that given style of music; that’s simply the way genres work.  Whether it is good or not is a matter of personal preference and is really nothing to get antagonistic over.  The same kind of thought can be applied to the stereotypes of given musical styles.  The emo sound, for instance, is characterized by a heavy reliance on emotional tropes, in particular sadness or angst.  Rap, as I’ve jokingly said before, can be broken down into songs about “capping a bitch,” doing drugs, or throwing money around.  Even heavy metal can be broken down into the stereotypes of death, destruction, and epic fantasy.  On one hand these stereotypes fit the bill, where in such a case it comes back to a matter of preference.  On the other they are but Wikipedia summaries of rich musical genres with large quantities of subject matter.

In any case there is no cause for animosity.  The beauty of music as a whole is that it can appeal to anyone in any situation.  I have yet to meet the person that says they don’t listen to music at all.  This beauty is also the reason why we have so many different kinds of artists and why we have genres.  Different artists and genres identify specific areas that people like.  This is as true of country as it is for rock and roll.  Yet people don’t hate rock and roll.  They don’t approach it with the same look of disgust on their faces as they do country.

The one solace that I can take from this entire thing is the way certain elements of country music—family, friends, and growing up—can speak to us all.  There is, at the end of the day, a certain universality about country music that isn’t as present in other forms of music.  These concepts that I listed above apply to all of us equally.  We all have some sense of family, friendship, and life.  Even if we’re separated from our family, have few friends, or have had a rough time in life we still have common ground in talking about them.  I think Jennifer Nettles, Kristian Bush, and Tim Owens put it best in their song “Very Last Country Song.”  The lyrics in the chorus describe perfectly this commonality:

"Very Last Country Song" singers Sugarland.

But if life stayed the way it was
And lovers never fell out of love
If memories didn’t last so long
If nobody did nobody wrong
If we knew what we had before it was gone
If every road led back home
This would be the very last country song

These things—that happen so often in everyday life—are what make up the majority of country music.  All the things that happen to us that have meaning—that stick with us emotionally—are captured in country music.  In order for country music to become irrelevant things would have to stay the same, people would not be left broken-hearted, we would forget about everything bad that ever happened, and we would have the foresight to avoid anything bad that came our way.  But that’s not possible.  Life as we know it would cease to exist.

So the next time you seek to degrade country music, think about how it relates to you and your life (because I guarantee that it will).  If you do that I suspect your mind will change faster than it takes Colt Ford to down a bucket of fried chicken.

When an athlete walks off the field (or skates off the ice) for the last time the first question on everyone’s lips is “what’s next?”

Depending on the player the options could be endless.  Some like to take a few years off to recover from the beating their bodies have taken over years of gruelling training and ritual poundings.  Others have an exit strategy lined up and waiting as a product of smart thinking while still an active player.

But perhaps one of the most common career paths for a retired player is coaching.

The Great One while coaching the Phoenix Coyotes

Picture it: the old, grizzled veteran who has hung up his skates for good coming back to the team he loves and teaching the next generation of players how to be great.  It’s the image we first had of Wayne Gretzky when he stepped behind the bench for the Phoenix Coyotes.  Here was the Great One arrived to teach the Blake Wheelers, Kyle Turrises, and Peter Muellers of the hockey world how it is done.  It’s the image that Dale Hunter has honed for years with the London Knights before making the jump to the NHL with the Washington Capitals.

However, as Gretzky’s failure to turn Phoenix into a contender will attest to, making the transition from player to coach is best attempted by a certain breed of player.  Players like Gretzky, to whom the game came easily, aren’t as well equipped to teach young players the ropes as those who fought tooth and nail to climb to whatever heights they did.  To make a long story short: greatness does not translate, but hard work does.

It was with these things in mind that I stepped behind the bench to coach Men’s Rec League hockey in September.  A friend had invited me to play, but I didn’t have my equipment with me so he told me I could coach.  At first I expected to be a glorified cheerleader, especially given that all the players save one were older than me.  But for some reason the players actually listened when I told them to do something.

Now, I was never the greatest hockey player.  I didn’t win a lot of awards or play on many great teams.  I certainly never played with anyone who ever made it past Junior ‘C.’  Further, back in my playing days I was a goalie, alone in my own little world.  It didn’t really matter what my teammates did so long as they didn’t give up breakaways or shoot the puck at me.  It didn’t matter what system they played so long as the puck got out of the zone at the first time of asking.

The 1-3-1 is hockey's version of the 3-man midfield in soccer.

As far as strategy goes I am a novice.  You’re never going to see me scribbling complex systems on a white board while channelling my inner Guy Boucher.  You’re never going to see me counter a devious defensive system such as the 1-3-1 by telling my players to not attack a la Peter Laviolette.  I was taught the basics, so I teach the basics.

As I mentioned, most of the players on the team I’m coaching are older than me.  They forked over $250 and their Friday nights to have a good time shooting the puck around.  I can see a lot of reasons why they wouldn’t want a coach and very few, apart from wanting to win games, why they would.  That’s why it was such a surprise that in my first game one of the players looked up at me as I stood on the bench and asked what he could be doing better.

In the beginning, the team could only be called a team in a very loose sense.  Some of the players had played together before while others were completely new.  While it certainly wasn’t a blow out, that game would not have been anybody’s pick for prettiest game of hockey ever to be played.  The defensive zone coverage was loose and the attack uncoordinated.

But with each game that I’ve been behind the bench these things have changed.  The defensive zone coverage, while not perfect, actually has some shape to it.  The breakout makes it out of the zone more often than not.  And when the puck gets into the offensive zone the players are on the same page with how to attack instead of just flinging the puck at the net and hoping to get lucky.  The calibre of hockey still isn’t going to wow anyone, but the progress is definitely there to be seen.

Perhaps the most telling piece of evidence that my coaching is having an effect is what happens when the coach isn’t there.  As a full-time student, member of student government, and active fraternity member I have various responsibilities that have gotten in the way of being at every game.  But, apparently, when I’m not there the team reverts to the team that played in that first game.  The moral: hockey players respond to authority.

If I am allowed to hypothesize for a moment I would say that having a coach is built into the psyche of the hockey player from a very young age.  Even when you learn to skate you have someone, even if it’s only your mother or father, teaching you how to do it; you have someone who knows better than you telling you how to do it properly.  The same extends to when you start playing hockey, no matter what level you start at.  You always have a coach and that coach always attempts to teach you to be better, both as an individual player and as a team.

In light of this, not having a coach may seem unnatural.  One might even go so far as to say that the unifying force that makes a team something more than a loose collection of individual players is lost without a coach.  Gone is the mentor who keeps the game on track and teaches players to be better and a vacuum of leadership is left in his wake.  The question is then who is going to fill it?  From there everything degenerates as everyone starts to play their own way and it takes an actual authority figure to rectify the situation.

Scotty Bowman has coached more Stanley Cup-winning teams than any other coach.

It is in light of this that I find my experience in coaching to be so interesting.  I am consistently amazed that players look to me, a former goalie with nothing in the way of proper training, as an authority figure.  When you look at the coaches that are so respected around hockey, whether it be your Scotty Bowmans or your friend’s dad, they all have one thing in common and that is that they know their hockey inside and out.  They command authority not because they stand behind the bench and wave their arms about, but rather because they know how the game is played better than anyone around them.

Perhaps why I’m so amazed stems from the aura we build around coaches as being the untouchable fountains of hockey knowledge.  A good coach commands respect and awe.  Just like the first-grader looking up at the grade-eights it’s hard to envision oneself as being in the same position as those who hold such an elevated place in your personal pantheon.  It’s like wearing the ‘C’ for the Montreal Canadiens and having to live up to the reputations of the greats who came before such as Newsy Lalonde, Toe Blake, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, or Yvon Cournoyer.

The other thing is that, unlike other hockey players, I didn’t plan to coach hockey when I stopped playing competitively.  I didn’t plan on being back on a bench any time soon.  I didn’t plan on being the next Kirk Muller.

For better or worse though, now I know that it’s there if I ever need a career to fall back on.

Right now the cynical part of me wants to say that television today sucks.  I want to say that the shows on television not only can’t compare to the shows of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but also can’t even compare with themselves a couple of seasons ago.

However, despite my waning opinion of most of the shows that I have enjoyed over the past few years, there are still enough bright spots left to make the sweeping generalization that television sucks seem fallacious.  These are the shows that, in the face of declining fortunes across the board, help me keep faith in television.

It sounds weird to say that one has faith in television, doesn’t it?  But think about it.  Television is reliable: our favourite shows come on at the same time each week and we could set our internal clocks by them if we so chose.  Television gives us joy: it can pick us up when we are feeling down or just ease the stress of a tiring day.  Television requires talent: to keep shows going for seasons can re-affirm our belief that hard work and talent will someday get us somewhere.

Given that, losing our faith in television is kind of a big deal and to think of that fate being dependent on a few shows is kind of scary.  What will happen if every show worth watching is suddenly cancelled?  Where will our faith be then?

30 Rock? Community is the best comedy currently on television (or not).

Luckily for me, NBC didn’t go the whole nine yards when pulling Community from its midseason lineup, assuring viewers that it was only on hiatus and not cancelled completely.  Despite being left like J.K. Rowling’s Nearly-Headless Nick insofar as it’s neither cancelled nor on-air, Community is still one of television’s bright spots.  I recently re-watched most of the first season and the third season—the current one—still compares favourably even though the first six to ten episodes of Community are among my favourite of all time.

Case in point, let’s look at Community’s offering from two weeks ago: “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux.”  On the surface this episode had the makings of a flop: re-treading already worn conceptual territory (see Episodes 205 and 216), an uninspiring synopsis, and being broadcast in the harsh light of NBC’s hiatus announcement.  But somehow, and saving the fat from the fire has become a recurring theme with Community’s writers and producers, the episode pulled through.  While the episode mainly focused on the trials and tribulations of Dean Craig Pelton, the writers were able to create stakes for all the other characters and, unlike a lot of other shows, created an environment in which the actors could show the full range of their talent (see Joel McHale’s Dean Pelton impersonation).  There were also enough funny moments to remind us that while Community is smart and dramatic it is still primarily a comedy series.  Add in to this the continued ability to weave storylines over multiple episodes and you have to wonder why NBC would want anything else on the air…ever?

It might be animated and it might be vulgar, but ignore it at your peril.

Another bright spot on the television radar is South Park.  Yes, South Park, the same South Park who debuted in 1997 with the poignancy of a poorly-timed fart.  Despite the early seasons being marked by vulgarity and jokes about the American Civil War, South Park—now in its fifteenth season—has evolved into the smartest show on television and Trey Parker and Matt Stone into screenwriting geniuses.  See, somewhere in between season three’s “World Wide Recorder Concert” (317) and season six’s “Jared Has Aides” (601) the show stopped being about how to get the entire third grade class of the United States to poop their pants and became a striking social commentary, always on the lookout for something in society to wholeheartedly mock.

But let’s fast forward to the South Park of today, because Messrs. Parker and Stone would be the first to take anyone who rests on their laurels down a peg or three.  The fifteenth season of South Park was marked by a rather mediocre series of episodes including “Crack Baby Athletic Association” (1505), “City Sushi” (1506), and “The Last of the Meheecans” (1509) before redeeming itself in the closing three episodes.  It is this redemption that makes it one of television’s bright spots; that the show can still produce relevant and enjoyable content after fifteen seasons lends it a certain Simpsons-esque quality.

Of particular note is the episode titled “1%” (1512).  I should preface this by saying the following: over the last month I have heard way too many ‘Occupy’ jokes.  They have ranged from the mildly tolerable to the completely dreadful.  Saying that, South Park actually managed to do something original with the Occupy Wall Street movement in this episode where so many have failed before.  The show managed to poke fun at the movement by comparing it to a grade-school fitness test while making smart social commentary with the episode’s conclusion.  Too few shows today manage to do this: they either stray too far towards the commentary side to stick the punch line or lose their social voice by making too many jokes.  South Park walks a fine line and after fifteen seasons is yet to fall off.

They drink in the afternoon. On the job. How can they get any more awesome?

I would be remiss in my coverage of what shows are left to save our faith in television if I didn’t mention Mad Men.  It, like Community, is currently on hiatus (there seems to be a pattern there).  However, showrunner Matthew Weiner is signed on for at least three more seasons, ensuring that television’s premier drama is set to continue for the foreseeable future (three years is a long time in the television world).  ‘But what sets Mad Men apart?’ you might ask.  Simply put, in the plainest way I can manage, there is no point during an episode of Mad Men where the viewer stops and says, ‘What?’  Everything, dialogue, acting, sets, costumes, concepts, everything is done flawlessly.  As a viewer I never question the way the show is run, shot, or written and that is the mark of a truly good series.  Contrast this with a show such as Breaking Bad, where I have to stop every few seconds and ask how people don’t notice that a high school chemistry teacher spends his entire week cooking methamphetamine in a multi-million-dollar bunker when he should be teaching classes, and you can understand why Mad Men is so brilliant, especially when casting itself as a period drama instead of being set in the present day.

Time will only tell though whether these shows can reach the heights of such television giants as Friends, The Simpsons, or The Sopranos.  But the fact of the matter is that of everything on television at the moment, these three shows have the best shot.

Whether any of them will challenge Due South as the greatest television show of all time is a completely different question though…

Isn't the maple leaf supposed to be red?

So, at the risk of jinxing it (here’s hoping), how about those Maple Leafs?

Traditionally at this point in the season I am breaking out the Leafs jokes such as “What is the difference between the Toronto Maple Leafs and a triangle? (A: A triangle has three points.)” or “What do the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Titanic have in common? (A: They both look good until they hit the ice.)”

However, the Maple Leafs have ignored the usual script so far this season and actually find themselves in playoff position heading into December.  And I’m completely in the dark as to the reason why.

On paper this Maple Leafs outfit doesn’t look much different than the one that once again managed to cause hearts to flutter up until the final week of last season in the latest instalment in the will-they-or-won’t-they saga better known as the Maple Leafs’ playoff fortunes.  The usual suspects are still there eating up inordinate amounts of salary cap space: Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, and Mike Komisarek.  Add in the newly acquired duo of Tim Connolly and John-Michael Liles and you’re halfway to the salary cap already, which is the exact same position that the Maple Leafs have been in for the past few seasons.  The management is the same too, with the crotchety duo of Brian Burke and Ron Wilson still holding onto jobs many thought they would have lost years ago.

So, in this top-heavy world of underachievers and unwanted All-Stars, what has changed between this season and last for the team known as the Blue and White?

Well, it certainly isn’t goaltending.  Toronto’s goalies have allowed 80 goals (this number does not account for empty net goals) in 26 games thus far, which is just over three goals per game.  Add in the all-important save percentage stat that reads at a rather pedestrian .901 and it’s easy to see that there certainly aren’t miracles being worked in between the Leafs’ pipes.  It’s not as though their goalies are seeing a disproportionately low number of shots either.  James Reimer, Ben Scrivens, and Jonas Gustavsson have faced on average 31.2 shots per game, which is around or above the NHL average.  They can’t make the same excuse as Detroit’s Jimmy Howard and say that his defence just doesn’t give up many shots to begin with.

Phaneuf is finally regaining some of the form that made him such a hit in Calgary.

If it’s not the goaltending causing MLSE CEO Richard Peddie to get excited for the first time in a decade, maybe it’s the defence.  Maybe the Leafs have become stingier in their own zone than those great, snore-inducing New Jersey teams of the late ‘90s.  Alas, that doesn’t seem to be the answer either as they’ve managed to give up a 26th-best total of 85 goals against in 26 games.  Of the teams currently in the top eight of their respective conferences Chicago is the only other team to have allowed more than 80 goals, with seven teams conceding fewer than 60 up to this point in the season.  This defensive frailty is hard to believe when you consider that the Maple Leafs defence core consists of a top four of Phaneuf, Komisarek, Liles, and Luke Schenn and up-and-comers in the form of Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson, and Keith Aulie, the latter two being stars for Canada’s World Junior team in recent years.  Gone is the mistake better known as Jeff Finger, but the Leafs’ defensive woes still continue.

That leaves us with what I like to call the Washington Capitals Syndrome (WCS): play a firewagon brand of hockey and score more goals than the opposition to cover up defensive frailties.  Washington has used this method to great effect to not only gain regular season success, but also get their coach fired because it is totally ineffective in the playoffs.

However, as I mentioned previously, Ron Wilson still has his job and I think a lot of the credit for that has been the emergence of Joffrey Lupul as a legitimate partner for Phil Kessel on the Leafs’ top line.  Lupul has been the Robin to Kessel’s Batman this season, matching Kessel stride-for-stride in the points scoring race while playing legitimate first line minutes.  As such it is no coincidence that the Maple Leafs also find themselves amongst the league leaders in goals for with 83 goals to their tally thus far.  Unsurprisingly, if we are continuing with the WCS hypothesis, the Maple Leafs are also getting great offensive contributions from their defence with Phaneuf and Liles racking up 18 and 16 points respectively.

While I term this the Washington Capitals Syndrome and am highly skeptical of its suitableness to playoff hockey, no one can deny that it is effective over the course of a regular season.  Washington has used it to great effect over the past few seasons, winning a President’s Trophy in the process.  Of course, the Capitals have a relatively more talented than Toronto’s current outfit.  Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, no matter how good they have started the season, are not Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.  Nor are Dion Phaneuf and John-Michael Liles in the same offensive category as Mike Green.

Mike Komisarek could be the key that allows Toronto to play sound defensive hockey.

What the Maple Leafs do have in their advantage over the Washington teams of recent memory is the personnel to play a more defensive-oriented game.  Washington was forced into playing a run-and-gun style because they lacked true talent on the blueline.  They lacked a true shut-down unit that could effectively combat opposing teams and such was their downfall when the opposition stopped theirs.  The Leafs have such a combo waiting in Mike Komisarek and Luke Schenn.  Whether or not such a partnership will develop is another story though.  It will take time, especially since Komisarek is just getting back into his stride as an NHL defenceman.  If such a pairing ever coalesces into something more than a pipe dream the Leafs might be a greater contender than you’d think.

Whether or not the Maple Leafs can emulate Washington’s success in playing offensively-charged, but defensively-irresponsible hockey is one of the reasons to keep watching the Maple Leafs intently.  If they continue at the same pace it is very possible that Leafs fans will see their team in the playoffs, but it is also possible that they will crash and burn as their opponents learn to shut down the Kessel-Lupul tandem.

But that’s the danger of firewagon hockey.  You might win a lot of games 5-3, 6-5, or 7-4, but you can lose just as many 5-2, 6-1, or 4-0.  A hot goalie or tight checking can be your undoing just as easily as 4-on-2 rushes can be your saving grace.

Either way, the Maple Leafs just made the hockey season interesting, and not only because I might have to wait a little longer before breaking out my best Leafs jokes.

All statistics from www.tsn.ca as of December 4, 2011.

All salary cap numbers from www.capgeek.com as of December 4, 2011.