Silver Seven interviews Michael McKinley, author of The Penalty Killing (part one)

PITTSBURGH - JULY 27: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman addresses the media at the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic press conference on July 27 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

A couple months ago, I talked with Michael McKinley about his non-fiction tome on the story of hockey, Hockey: A People's History. And after writing it, and a few other non-fiction hockey-related books, McKinley took a sharp right-turn and started a series on Martin Carter, a former pro hockey player who was forced to retire due to injury problems and falls into, of all things, investigating unsolved murders.

McKinley and his publishers were kind enough to send me a copy of the first Martin Carter mystery book, The Penalty Killing, in which Carter, while working for his former team, falls into a murder investigation with little choice: He's framed as the prime suspect in it. The book seemed to start a little slowly--and, to be honest, seemed to feature plenty of somewhat cheesy descriptions characteristic of mystery novels (page one: "His nose sported a hat trick of breaks that hooked it to starboard... ")--but that was largely forgotten when the story picked up as Carter struggled to stay run from the people trying to stop him from finding out the whole story that he was desperately trying to put together. By the end, I could hardly remember all the plot twists and surprise revelations, and--despite not being much of a mystery fan myself--I found it an enjoyable read. Maybe a bit of a guilty pleasure, but it left me looking forward to the next book in the series (which has a preliminary launch date of next autumn).

After reading the book, I caught up with McKinley once again, and we talked about the book itself, the writing process, but a lot about the game of hockey today. In this first part of the interview, McKinley talks about the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction, the 'backroom history' of the NHL that made him think a murder mystery novel would work, and about the never-ending desire of the NHL to control what is reported about them--no matter how impossible it might seem.

*****

Silver Seven: First off, tell me a bit about where the idea came from for a hockey-themed murder mystery, and about the writing process: I imagine this was quite different from a non-fiction work, like Hockey: A People's History?

Michael McKinley: Actually, the idea kind of came to me when I was writing Hockey: A People's History, because there was a lot of stuff that we couldn't put in the series. Not that there were any NHL murders, that I know of, but there was just, you know, backroom stuff about business and corporate shenanigans, and some of the people you meet in television--not to suggest anyone I worked with on this show were like that, but some of the other people I've met on my TV travels--were pretty interesting when it comes to getting what they want. So I just though, ‘Oh, it would be cool to set a murder mystery in this world." I said that out loud, while I was having a beer with my editor, and she said, "You write it, we'll buy it." So I had it centred from the get-go, in terms of the writing process, because I had a publisher who was already interested.

So what I did was I figured out how it was going to end first, and then worked my way through. Dinah Forbes, who was my editor, was great, in that she would e-mail me every month or so and say, "Where is it?" And that kept me motivated to finish. Not that I wasn't enjoying the story and all the rest of it, but I had other projects that I had to do for money. So it wasn't like the creative process took two months; I'd say it took about six or seven months, on and off, but then I knew that there was an editor who was very keenly anticipating its arrival, and wanted to see it. I thought, ‘Well, that's enough to motivate me to do it, to see if I can.'

The thing that I really found interesting about it is that as you're doing, as you know, journalism, you have to check facts: You can't just go off half-cocked and say something--unless you're doing an opinion piece, but even then. Here, I could make it rain when I wanted to, and that was very nice. But by the same token, I had to be careful about getting things accurate. Insurance, players' pensions; some of the stuff that's background to the business, the story about why a guy like Martin Carter who could be the next great thing doesn't have enough money. He hadn't played enough games. And that's still true, you have to play enough games to qualify for a pension. But the rest of it was fun to do, because I could just make it up.

But by the same token, you have to remember what you made up, coming in.

S7: What were some of those ‘backroom events' that didn't fit in to Hockey: A People's History, but drew you to think of this book?

MM: Well, one of the things we encountered during the series was the absolute and total reluctance of the NHL--who were only acting on A People's History in an advisory capacity out of courtesy, really--they didn't want to show any violence. And the history of the game is a story of violence, if you will.

So there was that seed that was sown, but also combined with the fact that we're so reliant on television now, and replays of the game. It was interesting watching some of the stuff from before the video replay, which wasn't all that long ago, about how referees officiated a game and how complicated it was. So that was part of it, too: What if everyone didn't get to see something extraordinary on the ice?

And the real backroom thing was the role of television in shaping the game, and how so much of the money that goes into it and has gone into it since television came along has altered the nature of the beast, if you will. From the creation of guys like Don Cherry, very much a creature of television, to salaries, to what owners will do to make money, to how valuable the playoffs are for the teams that get in them, because now they're getting all that nice, fat TV revenue and they don't have to pay the players.

Some of the stuff that's happened in the course of the NHL's history, a lot of the uglier stuff, has been about money, and a lack of it for the players, and how it's going to the owners, and how the owners won't show the books, and so on and so forth. So I thought, well, that that's a whole different story from the story we were telling in Hockey: A People's History, but what if an owner got so desperate, the people who were managing a team were so desperate, that they were committing murder to actually make a profit because they had to, or they would be exposed, and they could frame someone to do it. That would be an interesting story because that would be the logical conclusion for this greed. I'm not suggesting all owners have [this level of greed], but if you're paying guys millions of dollars to play the game, you're not doing it out of charity. There's a lot of money at stake, as to what would happen, when push came to shove?

S7: In the book, I think one of the characters says something like "If it's not on TV, it didn't happen." How much do you think TV shapes the way we remember and think about the game?

MM: Yeah, that's right, and of course Martin Carter is haunted by the replay of his accident, which he can't remember because Nurse Nature erased it from his brain. But TV helpfully replays it for him every time they want to talk, and they want to talk about him now because he's wanted for murder. So he's interesting to television again, and how quickly they paint a picture of him as quite likely guilty of it. And there he is: He's that guy flying headfirst into the goalpost, before they would helpfully popped off the pegs.

Even that wasn't that long ago; as you can imagine, that cold steel, it didn't move. It was frozen right in. And if you've ever played in a beer league, as I did a couple of years ago, I had the same experience crashing into the net and I thought I'd broken my rib cage through all the padding. And it hurt. I thought then--this was before Martin Carter crashed into the net--what if you were going full-speed, and you went head-first into one of those things? Your helmet would just crack like an egg, and you would be hurt. It wouldn't even matter if you were wearing a helmet, with the force of the impact on your brain your brain would get scrambled.

But anyway, TV reminds him of that awful thing quite helpfully, and so it does with us. Even now, just thinking about what HBO is going to do for the Winter Classic, they're going to follow the Caps and the Pens. They're going to get access to the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins much in the way they're doing with, I don't know if you've seen the series on the New York Jets called Hard Knocks on HBO. They let an HBO documentary crew to the New York Jets practices, and their meetings, and in the locker room, and all the rest of it. And it's unvarnished. And Rex Ryan, the coach, is pretty frank with the players, drops the F-bomb a lot. And the Jets public profile is really ridden, in this city, because of it, where the Giants have become overshadowed. And now the NHL is doing it, letting HBO in to follow the Pens and the Caps before the Winter Classic. That's going to be really interesting because I'm sure Bruce Boudreault and Alexander Ovechkin will be quite voluble. I don't know what Sid the Kid will do, per se, but...

And this is really counter-intuitive to the NHL as we know it. There was a guy--my team is still the Canucks, even though I don't still live there--there was a guy who did colour commentary on the Canucks broadcasts forever, almost from the beginning, and he's an American and a former football player who they hired at the beginning. Stroke of genius, right? "Let's hire a football player to comment on hockey." But he turned out to be really good at it. And he would also say things that the fan was thinking, like "That was a really stupid play" or "They're going to have to do better than that to justify their salaries and help to win any game." It was the kind of stuff you'd say over a beer to a friend, if you were watching your team blow it. And they fired him this summer: He's 70 years old, it was going to be his last season anyway, but--and there was a piece in one of the Vancouver papers the other day--the radio station fired him, because the contract is coming up for renewal next year for Canucks broadcasts, and it's extremely lucrative. The team that's currently got the contract is not the Canucks business partner; Rogers Communications is their business partner now, and they're looking for radio broadcasts. So they fired this guy with the Canucks' full support, or, in other words, the team was a little tired of him telling the truth about the team. And so, in the new NHL, they just sacked him. And they could justify it, "Oh, he's 70, he's going to retire anyway," and all the rest of it. But it was really too bad to see, because the worst mistake they could make would be to get a bland, predictable, average locker room interviewer. But again, it shows the control the league and teams have over the media, and how they want to keep the message very much on their terms. And the book deals with what happens when it escapes.

S7: I think that idea, the desire to control the message, is a big reason why teams are reticent to give access to blogs. But is it even possible to control the message anymore, with the way news travels today?

MM: Bloggers, and we spoke of this before, are able to speak in real time, but also aren't beholden to the beat structure of covering a team. You can cover a team as a blogger in a way that a beat reporter can't, even though they write their own blog, too. Okay, they're on the road with the team, but they're not going to tell you what happens at the rookie dinner. And they're not going to tell you the real backstory of why players are struggling in a way that a blogger might be able to, or to speculate on, without being punished by the team-in other words, having your locker room access denied. Beat writers have to walk that very fine line, and anybody who reports for the mainstream media in an office for a publication or a radio broadcast or a TV broadcast knows that if they lose their access, they could lose their jobs. Bloggers have much more freedom, and of course that would scare a team.

Then again, some of these teams... There are no league standards for dealing with the media, and some teams are much better at it than others.

*****

More of this interview next week. Thanks to McClelland and Stewart Publishing for the review copy of The Penalty Killing, and to Michael McKinley for taking the time to talk to us.

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