Thunder and Lightning/Messier

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Thunder and Lightning
By Phil Esposito and Peter Golenbock. McClelland & Stewart, 294 pp, $36.99, hardcover.

Messier
By Jeff Z. Klein. Doubleday Canada, 320 pp, $35, hardcover.

Phil Esposito--star centre for the Big Bad Bruins, '72 Summit Series warmonger/hero--was a kid in the '40s in the all-Italian west end of Sault Ste. Marie. His grandfather owned a company that recycled slag and was, says Espo, "a mean, sadistic bastard" who once stuck a clothespin on the boy's penis. Espo's father gets credit for his kid's first broken nose.

Mark Messier--star centre for the Wayne Gretzky--blessed Oilers and born-again Rangers, dud centre for the Canucks--was a kid in the '60s who summered in a log cabin on Mount Hood. His dad, Doug, wore No. 11 for the Portland Buckaroos while completing a master's degree in education at the U of Portland. Without TV, the family picked flowers, swam in the creek, played cards, and, says Doug, "realized the power of conversation and listening".

These two entertaining bios are as different as those childhoods. Thunder and Lightning: A No-B.S. Hockey Memoir is told by the chummy yet egomaniacal Esposito: he takes credit for every big win and ignores, for example, teammate Derek Sanderson's superior face-off skills. Anecdotes typically end like this one: "Wayne [Cashman] said, 'Shit, no. She'll throw me out and keep the dildo!' " The subtitle suggests a no-holds-barred frankness about hockey's wild days, but Espo's prurient details supply no shocks. (See Sanderson's I've Got to Be Me [1970] for a more revealing proto-exposé, "Warm, Wet and Wild".) Esposito's memory is selective, too, about the Tampa Bay Lightning expansion, but his detailed account of the goofy and goofed-up process he championed is poignant in its old-school bitterness. Oh, and it wasn't him who dropped the chandelier in Moscow.

The tone of the stat-laden Messier is more reverential and smarmy. Written by New York Times editor and hockey scribe Jeff Klein, it's a detailed, chronological summary of everything published about Moose. Not much new: Messier declined interviews, as did family and friends, and, it seems, players. Maybe Klein hoped Mess would retire last season so his book could be an elegy. Tough pucks.

The chapter on Messier's flaccid yet dictatorial time in Vancouver--he enraged fans with a coup d'état of Trevor Linden and played awful--only glosses the work of local newsies. It was the most paradoxical stint of Messier's career and warrants better analysis. (When Markus Naslund won the Lester B. Pearson Award last spring, he called Messier his biggest influence; Klein doesn't mention Naslund's surprising tribute.) But the Vancouver chapter's better than the protracted one about September 11 in New York: Messier cheered everybody up with his awesome leadership skills.

Sex, Mess, and little Pavel Bure--that's urban legend, says Klein, but only after a weird chapter about Mess's appeal to the gay fan base, his private relationship with driver/escort Captan, the transvestite bar, the time he waterskied in a G-string and wig. Sure, the lingerie models, but still--that's a mighty culture shift from Esposito's day, when all the guys were screwing all the babes all the time, especially that panty grabber Bobby Orr, "the pig". Put it this way: Messier shoots, Esposito scores on the rebound.