A Q&A With the Editor of Sports Illustrated’s Hockey Book

The Hockey Book, the most recent title in Sports Illustrated’s series of sport-specific coffee-table books, pays tribute to the game by combining the writing of William Faulkner, George Plimpton, Gary Smith, and others with gorgeous photography and an era-by-era look at the sport’s best players and teams. The Sports Section spoke with Kostya Kennedy, SI’s senior hockey editor and the editor of the book, about finding the right amount of Gretzky, why there’s no octopus in the book, and what exactly would have to happen these days for the sport to appear on the cover of SI.

Can I assume it’s no coincidence that the William Faulkner piece — in which he writes about attending his first hockey game, at Madison Square Garden — is the first longer piece to appear in the book?
It was the earliest one that we had that seemed worthy of reprinting, from ‘55. But the other thing was the tone it set. It’s just about going to a hockey game, so I felt it set a sort of opening tone of the experience of watching hockey in general. And it seemed like a good way to start.

Did you go into the book with a checklist of things you wanted to touch on? As in, we need something on Lemeiux and Roy and Brodeur, we need to hit these Olympic moments, etc.?
That’s a very good question. You’re not going to do this book and not have Wayne Gretzky, you’re not going to do this book and not have Gordie Howe, or whoever the 10, 20, 30 players are that we could rattle off quickly. So that was certainly a part of the DNA. “We need Bobby Orr in this book,” and so on. And then it sort of grew from there. We didn’t have to account for absolutely everything. You could go through maybe and find something: “Well, isn’t this a little more important than that?” But it wasn’t supposed to be an encyclopedia.

Was it tough to limit how much Gretzky appeared in the book? There’s a lot, but there could have been even more. For example, there isn’t much on his trade to Los Angeles.
You’re absolutely right. One of our opening spreads is Gretzky behind the net with the puck, and Grant Fuhr guarding the net. So it’s Gretzky against the Oilers. So without saying it, that’s saying something. You know what I mean? It’s giving a little bit to someone who remembers the trade. I don’t think you have to know the history of hockey by any means to get a lot out of this book, but there are some places where a hockey fan, or even a casual fan, would understand, say, the significance not just of Gretzky behind the net, but behind the net against the Oilers. We ended up just calling those years the Gretzky Era. And it was. He was worth that. Certainly, there’s tons of Gretzky available, and I think we gave him a lot of space, but not too much.

Do you have a favorite photo in the book?
I love the one of Jacques Plante in net, where you see the crowd behind him. He’s looking straight ahead at the puck, or where you imagine the puck would be, and he doesn’t have a helmet on. And the crowd behind him — like a lot of these pictures, the crowd behind him is as much a pleasure as anything. They’re just all there in their glasses and their suits and it’s very era-specific. It’s like the cast of Mad Men went to watch a hockey game. It’s a beautiful picture.

For some reason, I loved the photo of the guy sweeping up the fake rats in Florida, from 1996. I’d forgotten about that.
That was one gross tradition, wasn’t it? And there’s no octopus in the book. That was almost a little too gross. We looked at them, and it didn’t quite lend itself. We know it’s a great tradition. But the rats are plastic rats.

Hockey doesn’t appear very often on the cover of Sports Illustrated these days. What would have to happen for a hockey story to be on the national cover of the magazine?
I think you’d need to have an event that somehow steps outside of the game. I mean, if you had something like the equivalent of a home-run chase — no one’s catching Wayne anytime soon, so that’s not going to happen — but I think somebody or something is going to have to take the conversation out of the hockey page a little bit. And we’re still kind of waiting for that. It’s kind of reflective of hockey in general, in that there’s a lot of strong markets, and we’ve done some very successful regional covers in recent years, in Detroit, in Pittsburgh. But hockey has a very strong regional following, in many different regions, but in other regions it doesn’t, obviously. And it wants to create a national image, or continue to create it. How much it needs that, I don’t know. Maybe it’s okay to be a very strong, regional sport, but that’s another conversation. But for us, it has to be something that gets in the national spotlight. I can’t think of what specifically that would be. I don’t know exactly what that is. Mario Lemieux coming out of retirement was a cover for us, because it was that big. What’s the thing that would have to happen? I’m not sure. If something can dominate people’s imagination for a little bit, that would guide us.

A Q&A With the Editor of Sports Illustrated’s Hockey Book