Book Review: I, Paulrus

Silver Seven reviews the new Paul MacLean biography

To kick off Silver Seven’s inaugural Roman Week, the new First Consul has tasked me with writing the next segment in the Silver Seven Book Review series. While earlier subjects in this series have dealt with hockey more generally, the book selected this time hits closer to home: Grave Roberts’ I, Paulrus the hotly-anticipated and just-released biography of Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean.

The dust jacket description summarizes the novel better than I could:

Paul A. MacLean has been the coach of the Ottawa Senators since June 2011. Reviled by rivals due to his immediate successes and incomparable mustachios, Paulrus survived the intrigues and poisonings that marked the reigns of Paddock, Harstburg, and Clouston to become the second Jack Adams-winning coach in Senators history. I, Paulrus, the first of Grave Roberts’s two-part account of the life of Tiberius Paulrus, is written in the form of Paulrus’ autobiography and is sure to become one of the modern classics of historical fiction.

Both the title of the book and the author’s nom de plume are a clear homage to Robert Graves and his famous novel I, Claudius. Many of our readers will be familiar with this work or its adaptations: particularly the terrific 1976 BBC television series and the spectacular Monsterpiece Theatre version, Me, Claudius (which Amelia L. was kind enough to bring to my attention). At this time, Grave Roberts’ actual identity is unknown, though the timing of this release and the almost-simultaneous disappearance of prolific Senators blogger Mark Parisi will surely raise eyebrows.

Like I, Claudius, Roberts’ novel is a work historical fiction. Roberts has clearly done his research and treats the topic with a surprising tenderness and caring touch, taking care to make sure that we come to know Paul MacLean the man and not just the hockey coach. The private thoughts of MacLean himself are, of course, conjecture by the author, and so too must be the majority of the dialogue in the book. Still, Roberts’ mastery of his subject is such that you often forget that this is not MacLean’s autobiography.

The book tells MacLean’s story from his earliest days in France and his childhood in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. One notices from the first page that the writing style is unusually formal and archaic for a book supposedly written by a self-described, "fisherman from Nova Scotia," who isn’t supposed to, "know nothin' about nothin":

I Tiberius Paulrus Drusus Nero Montrealicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as "the Walrus", "Wilford Coachley", or at best as "the Grizz", am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some three years ago, at the age of fifty three, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the "silver predicament" from which I have never since become disentangled.

The early chapters detail MacLean’s rise as a player and then as a coach in the NHL, including a great anecdote about MacLean inventing "Movember" in Peioria in 1993 (though it failed to catch on for several decades), and the surpringly raucus tale of how the "Paul MacLone" saga arose during a night of drunken carousing – and confusion – in the Byward Market. Still, while the stories are consistently amusing and often cast a fascinating new light on the enigmatic coach, in my personal opinion MacLean’s life and career leading up to his time with the Senators have been better chronicled elsewhere.

However, I have no doubt that Senators fans will be highly interested in the later chapters, which address MacLean’s time to date with the Ottawa Senators. While many of the details will be known to readers who have followed the team closely, there are also parts that, if true, would completely change how we view Paul MacLean and his style as a coach.

For instance, Roberts delves into the team’s impressive success in the early days of MacLean’s tenure:

Blessed Fortuna looked down kindly on my early years in Ottawa. Many of our critics had thought the mosaic of role players on our roster could not make up a greater whole. They were wrong. The doubters had also failed to account for the heroism of Erik Karlsson, a man so perfect in his stature and athleticism that he must surely have had the blood of Hercules coursing through his veins. Led by his superhuman efforts, we won many victories in that first campaign.

The next year was more difficult. The grinding wheels of politics had contrived to shorten the season, and the team suffered an horrifying spate of casualties early in that abbreviated campaign, including Erik being struck down from behind by a cowardly blow. But somehow, we kept winning. To this day I cannot say how it was done. It seemed like boys were coming in every day to take the place of the veterans on the roster. There was one player on our team – number 61 – whose name I never even learned!

Given the tempest in a teacup surrounding Jared Cowen’s recent play for Ottawa, Senators fans will be particularly interested in Roberts’ portrayal of MacLean as a man trapped by the circumstances.

The 2013-2014 season was particularly difficult for me, particularly for the situation that evolved with one of my players, Jared Cowen. Jared was a large man, skilled for his size, and he had been a terror in the provincial leagues for many years before rising to the NHL. Minerva had not graced him with the gift of wisdom, but he had an animalistic cunning that made him dangerous.

In the summer of 2013, Jared took advantage of a bathroom break during a negotiation session with Bryan [Murray] to sneak into Bryan’s office and make off with Bryan’s pet turtle, Beatrice. Bryan loved that turtle, and everybody in the organization knew it. By threatening to flush the turtle, Jared was able to get himself a substantial new contract – one whose size and term must have greatly confused media and fans who were not privy to the truth of the situation.

Nor was Jared finished. I soon received the order from Bryan that Jared was to play 20 minutes every game, regardless of how he performed on the ice. It was a nightmare. I was the reigning Jack Adams-winning coach, and I was forced to conduct myself as though I could not tell a first-pairing defenseman from a tire fire.

Beatrice was finally recovered during a game against the Detroit Red Wings in February 2014. Matt Kassian, who we kept on the roster for matters just like this, conducted a daring raid on Jared's home during the game the only time during which no one would notice Matt's absence. He was able to escape safely with Bryan's turtle. Unfortunately, by then it was too late to save the season.

Senators fans will probably be most intrigued by the manner in which (Roberts’) MacLean discusses his love of creating, mixing, and destroying various line combinations – sometimes even several times per game.

That was an inauspicious campaign for the team, but I am proud of what I did for hockey analytics that winter. At the time, too many people in the hockey world were turning a blind eye to the incredible amount of information that could be gleaned from metrics and statistics. The brave bloggers and geeks advancing this field needed data if they were going to turn the tide. I gave it to them. I would change the lines five times a night so that every player could be analyzed in context. I played exhausted goalies on consecutive days. Sometimes I would put out a so called "checking" line for more than 20 minutes in a single game - even when the team desperately needed goals.

It seemed like madness, but by the gods, it worked! I – and a few noble souls in Toronto and elsewhere – changed the way the sport was understood. By the end of the season, CORSI and WOWYs were on everyone’s lips. I may not have received the Jack Adams that year, but I feel like I won part of a F.A.B.I.O. award.

In the end, I thought this book was thoroughly engrossing, but I was consistently frustrated by my inability to differentiate fact from fantasy. Roberts reveals few of his sources, so it is impossible to tell whether most of his work is based on speculation or careful archival research. Did Jared Cowen really steal Bryan Murray’s turtle, Beatrice? Was MacLean’s bizarre decision-making in the 2013-2014 season really based on a desire to underscore the importance of analytics? I recommend you read I, Paulrus and decide for yourself.

Finally, I should note that fans who enjoy I, Paulrus should look forward to the summer of 2016, when Grave Roberts’ sequel Paulrus the God, which details the story of the Senators’ improbable 2015 Stanley Cup victory, will be released in hardcover.

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