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'Scrubs on Skates' remains timeless, inspirational tale

Book's message about lessons in hockey, life resonates 65 years later

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

MONTREAL -- There is no record of Pete Gordon in any NHL encyclopedia, though it's possible he's happy today in retirement, banking his memories with a League pension.

But no matter what Gordon might have done in professional hockey, his career was defined in high school, highlighted by a goal scored 65 years ago in the Winnipeg (Manitoba) Amphitheatre and the typewriter of the late Scott Young.

Gordon was the hero of "Scrubs on Skates," Young's classic 1952 young-readers book about hockey and life, and the lessons both can teach. Believed to be perhaps the first significant hockey fiction book written for young readers, The book inspired and charmed countless fans of all ages and remains a refreshing, magical read more than six decades after it was published.

A versatile Canadian journalist and a prolific author, Young died June 12, 2005, at the age of 87. Published tributes immediately celebrated his work as a war correspondent, broadcaster and sportswriter; all broadly discussing his 45 books, none neglecting to mention that he was the father of rock-music icon Neil Young.

But not one obituary had a specific mention of "Scrubs on Skates," Young's first title in a McClelland & Stewart-published trilogy that lives today in well-loved school and public library copies in Canada and beyond. It can also be purchased online.

Young followed Scrubs with "Boy on Defence" in 1953 and, 10 years later, "A Boy at the Leafs' Camp." The three were packaged in 1985 as a paperback boxed set. But Scrubs is the one best remembered, a story that's more literature than sports writing, a simple tale with a profound moral.

Teenager Pete Gordon is transferred from Winnipeg's Daniel McIntyre Collegiate, his father's alma mater, to new Northwest High School when the city's districts are redrawn.

Gordon had won the Manitoba provincial hockey championship with powerhouse "Daniel Mac" the preceding season. Now he must leave that program and his friends to join Northwest and its pickup squad of poorly skilled players, these so-called scrubs on skates. He can't motivate himself to even try out for his new team; when he finally does he is by far its best player, though one without the heart to try his best. This angers his teammates, who would skate through the boards to have even half his talent.

But the situation improves as the season wears on. Gordon rediscovers his work ethic and eventually bonds with these players, especially Bill Spunska, a Polish immigrant who is far less gifted on and off the ice.

The playoffs were out of the question for first-year Northwest when the season began. But facing Daniel Mac in the climactic game, anything is possible.

Published March 17, 1952, "Scrubs on Skates" was the first "real" book I read as a boy; so often, in fact, that I recall having had a crush, like Spunska, on Pete's fair-haired sister, Sarah.
In 1985, I replaced my long-lost copy with a boxed set of the trilogy.

Young had dipped back into Scrubs for this reissue, updating it.

Gordon's favorite center in the freshened version was no longer Ted Kennedy of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but Bryan Trottier of the New York Islanders. Spunska's Polish father was not from the wartime underground, as he'd been in the original, but a supporter of Solidarity and Lech Walesa. And Spunska's ailing mother spoke not of NHL players Wally Stanowski, Bill Juzda and Bill Mosienko, as she had in 1952, but of Wayne Gretzky, Dale Hawerchuk and Peter Stastny.
I had long wanted the original back in my library, and Young's passing a dozen years ago sent me in search of one. This was not an investment of the wallet, but one of the heart.

I found a copy at a small bookshop that, as it turned out, was only a few miles from my home. The owner of the mostly online store met me over coffee to deliver the book, priced at $24 Canadian. He thought he'd had it for about a year, probably bought on a local driveway.

My new, then 53-year-old copy of "Scrubs on Skates" was, and remains, in wonderful condition, the pages crisp and creamy-white and unmarked, the spine remarkably solid, the colorful dust jacket showing typical wear and a small tear on the back.

With the paperback at hand to compare, I once more devoured Young's prose and James Ponter's delightful illustrations, among them the sketch of a play that a group of us successfully executed for a goal in 1960s road hockey after I'd chalked a tracing of it onto the asphalt.

The most obvious difference is the cover -- Pete Gordon is more imposing in his 1985 equipment and visored helmet, even if his jersey has mysteriously changed from No. 15 to No. 5.

In the original, Sarah spoke of a career in home economics. In 1985, with Young having deleted "in an unladylike manner" to describe her reclining on the couch, she sought to be a psychologist.

The fur coat Spunska's mother received for Christmas in 1952 became a down parka. The expression "Gol darn it" changed to "darn it all," Max Bentley, an NHL star in the 1940s and '50s, became Brad Park, and a mimeograph machine evolved into a photocopier.

Young added detail about college hockey scholarships, something unknown in the early 1950s. But he left intact two epithets used in the heat of a game to get under the skin of Chinese and French-Canadian players, key elements to the plot.

The message of both was as unchanged as it remains timeless: The person in the mirror should be your most important judge, and anything worth doing in life or in sports is worth doing well.

In 1983, Ken Dryden published his seminal "The Game," considered by many to be hockey's finest, most cerebral book. I called the Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame goaltender upon receipt of my new/old copy of Scrubs, and he recalled having anxiously awaited the first newspaper review of "The Game," opening the Saturday edition of the Globe and Mail to find Scott Young's byline above it.

"I felt totally vulnerable, waiting for that review, but Scott's words were generous and positive," Dryden said. "They meant a great deal to me, not just because of what they were, but because of who wrote them.

"Like Trent Frayne and Jim Coleman of his generation," he said of two brilliant Canadian sports journalists of the 20th century, "Scott made writing sports a craft, done with style and with elegance."

A decade before his death, in his autobiography "A Writer's Life," Young suggested that his young-readers books "were based on hockey as I had known it in Winnipeg high schools and junior teams."

In truth, Scrubs and its sequels were based in any school, in any town. It took very little imagination then, and now, to enjoy Pete Gordon and the gentle lessons that "Scrubs on Skates" offered in 218 fast-turning pages.

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