I consider myself a student of the game. I grew up watching the Washington Capitals of the early 1980s. I collected hockey cards, and studied the statistics on the backs. I heard stories from my older cousins about some of the players they watched growing up: Hull, Orr, Howe, Sittler, Perreault, LeFleur, Bossy, Dionne. I learned as much about them as I could. It's helped me undertstand the game a little more.
It troubles me that many of my own peers, hockey players born from the late '70s-'90s, have absolutely no understanding of the history of this fine game of ours. It's hard to understand how far the game has come without understanding its past. Fortunately, in this world of the NHL Network, YouTube, and Amazon.com, we have all the tools we need to find out about everything 'Hockey'.
As I grew up watching videos and reading books on the subject, I think that's the best place to start. Below are a few of my recommendations, just in time to add them to your Christmas Wish-lists.
Putting A Roof On Winter
The history of hockey from the first indoor game to the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the USSR, this book is hands-down my favorite hockey history book. Finally, I have stories to go with the names on all the NHL trophies. An excellent read.
Written by Hall Of Fame goalie and lawyer Ken Dryden during his last season on the Montreal Canadiens, it is possibly the best book ever written on the game. Introspective, funny and touching. Also, it provides excellent insight into hockey in the '70s and just how different today's NHL Players have it.
The Best Of Bobby Orr
There is a reason I consider Bobby Orr to be the best hockey player ever: I saw this on VHS when I was a young kid. You can probably find rare YouTube footage that rivals some of the video found here, but as a one-stop shop for greatness, this is it.
For those who consider Wayne Gretzky to be the greatest who ever played, this DVD certainly won't sway your opinion. Some truely remarkable footage of the Great One, from his early days in Indy to Edmonton, LA and beyond. A great look at the speed of the game in the 1980s. Compare the game to that of Orr's day, and you'll be stunned at the differences.
A little self-flattering, but interesting none the less. Ok, honestly, this book marks my least favorite moment in hockey. Standing mere feet from The Great One at an book signing, Wayne decided to end the session with roughly 200 people still waiting. A few of us kids snuck past the ropeline and got to Wayne, politely asking to have our books signed. One kid in our group had an old wooden stick for Mr. Gretzky to sign. Gretz looked at him and said "I only sign Easton sticks" and walked away. It taught me that you can be a great hockey player, but still be a failure as a human being.
Legends of Hockey Seasons 1 & 2
This is pretty much the video version of Putting A Roof On Winter. Old archival photos and film footage of the early game, it does a fantastic job of putting faces to names and asking the question "who really was the greatest to every play?" You'll see names pop up on the screen and literally get goosebumps.
Hockey: A People's History
No one takes the game of hockey more seriously than Canada. From the title of the book, it's easy to figure out that this book reads like a love letter/thank you card to the game and all it's done for the country (and the country for it). To know hockey is to know Canada. The history of the country is reflected in the way the game has changed over the years.
Do You Believe In Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team
The moment that changed hockey in the US (and Russia, for that matter). Honestly, if you can find a copy of the original broadcast, it trumps this documentary. But as those copies are very rare, this is a great #2 resource.
No hockey history lesson is complete without this gem. As funny and extreme as it is, it's also a great look at the minor leagues in the 1970s; a far cry from the modern AHL (or even the ECHL).
A great companion to Slap Shot (written by film extra, career minor leaguer, NHLer and current NHL head coach Bruce Boudreau), the book is a fantastic mix of funny and touching stories, interspection about lost potential and redemption as a coach. Plus, if you're a Caps fan, it's just cool.
The Physics of Hockey
Ok, more of a science book than a history book. But the concepts of friction, kinetics and momentum as they relate to hockey are awesome to read about.