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Book Review: Sports Illustrated's 'Hockey's Greatest' - Come for the history, stay for the pictures

In a world where books are often overlooked and coffee table-sized books waste real estate, this one gets the medium right. Mostly.

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Sports Illustrated Hockey's Greatest (Time Inc. Books; Fall 2015; $32.95)
Sports Illustrated Hockey's Greatest (Time Inc. Books; Fall 2015; $32.95)
Sports Illustrated

Ultimately, it's about the pictures.

When you have a "best of" sports book that measures 13.5" by 11" and 256 pages in this day and age of rampantly available top 10 lists and Internet click-here-for-malware slideshows, the pictures better be the kind of vivid, large prints you don't want to put down.

Sports Illustrated's "Hockey's Greatest" delivers on that front.

Which is why it's so frustrating that it misses the boat on one too-often overlooked aspect of historical sports photography -- the captions.

With a panel of SI writers and contributors led by longtime SI hockey writer Michael Farber (plus love-him-or-loathe-him hockey broadcaster Pierre McGuire as "special contributor"), the lists here aren't terribly controversial but are thought-provoking enough to make the content worth perusing. Personally, I can take or leave every bar-inspired debate over how to rank players and teams and eras, but this compilation does a good job of capturing the essential history of the game.

In addition to the ranking lists you'd expect, there are fun breakdowns (best hair), things that get to the heart of why we watch (most entertaining players) and lists that rightly go beyond the NHL (U.S.-Canada women among the greatest rivalries, the legendary tactician and victim of Russian party politics Anatoly Tarasov ranked seventh among the greatest coaches).

There are ranks by position, by franchise, by various game situations, and by fan whim. Accompanying several of them are period pieces from SI's archives to complement different players or personalities who appear in these rankings.

For New York Islanders fans, the Isles are on all the top 10 lists they are supposed to be on, though their ranks might rankle Orange and Blue faithful, including Al Arbour (ranked 3rd among coaches), Denis Potvin (inexcusably 5th behind Ray Bourque among defensemen), Mike Bossy (5th among right wings), Bryan Trottier (9th among centers), Clark Gillies (10th among enforcers, due to basically everyone being afraid to challenge him), Billy Smith (8th among "clutch performers") Frans Nielsen (3rd among shootout takers), their city rivalry (7th among rivalries), and the 1981-82 Isles (5th among single-season greatest teams).

Outside of the box, McGuire was allowed to pick the 10 best, or rather his favorite, jerseys. I don't much agree with his taste here, but his ranking at least provided some freshness to what is an often repetitive exercise where people always feel obliged to put Original Six jerseys in the top. McGuire honors that obligation by ranking Montreal, Chicago, Detroit and Boston 1-4, but then he goes a bit off the map with nods to the gold-era Kings and Penguins, plus the Seals' later jerseys (which are honestly quite inferior in color and logo to their Oakland originals), and honorable mention to the Whalers, of which he notes "I was an assistant and head coach from 1992 to '94" in the best understatement of the book.

But the photos, goodness the photos: They are breathtaking and vivid...alas several cry out for context that is too often omitted.

I know Scotty Bowman's career, I know his accolades, what I don't know is the situation around what is a stunning black-and-white photo of him behind (I think) the Blues bench at (I think) the old "Igloo" Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. I'd also love to know what year and where he was wearing the awesome plaid pants we see behind the bench in an undated photo.

A picture of Ken Morrow holding the Stanley Cup next to his "best beard" entry speaks for itself. But I'd love to know more about what was going on in a photo of Guy Lafleur against the Bruins at The Forum, or Bobby Orr driving the net draped by three Maple Leafs, or even a mid-'80s contest between the North Stars and Oilers where Grant Fuhr is wearing his "Oil spurt" mask. I don't know, it's ultimately a history book, so I'd like some historical detail to go with the art that is frankly the key piece that differentiates this from an internet package.

Some of the obvious photos are captioned -- "Probert tangled with the Rangers' Tie Domi" appears next to a photo of, well, Bob Probert fighting Tie Domi -- while others, you're just left to wonder.

But that beef isn't just for me; I'm thinking of the next generation.

While I know quite well a great behind-the-net vantage point of Mario Lemieux splitting the North Stars defense and beating Jon Casey is from the 1991 Stanley Cup finals -- a highlight that I can replay in my head -- my 14-year-old nephew could use the context. Likewise, a brilliant shot of Martin Brodeur leaping in the air in his crease after Jason Arnott's Stanley Cup-clinching overtime winner against the Dallas Stars in 1999, years before my nephew was born.

I'm thinking of the books and photos my dad handed down that helped me learn the history of the game the predated my own lifetime: if you don't know the moment from having lived it, a brief caption would sure help give detail and perspective to the awe.

But that is all picking at the book's main weakness, and one that probably matters more to me as I perused a review copy. The caption thing isn't a deal breaker; this is a common (and curious) afterthought in books like these, so maybe it doesn't even bother the average viewer. But fixing that would make this book a priceless treasure to go along with some beautiful photos and a few great flashbacks to Sports Illustrated articles written at the time of the "greatest" moments.

In the end, as it's the holiday season, exquisite, grand-sized productions like this are the kind of keepsake that work for hockey fans, whether they know this history because it's etched in their DNA or they're just getting into the sport and need an accessible entrance to the historic names they hear on modern broadcasts.

"Hockey's Greatest"
By The Editors of Sports Illustrated

Introduction by Michael Farber

Time Inc. Books • October 6, 2015 • ISBN: 978-1-61893-136-8 • 256 pages • $32.95