Monday, May 28, 2012

THE MIGHTY TIM HORTON


Written by Mike Leonetti

Illustrated by Greg Banning

(North Winds Press, 2010)

If you’re Canadian, Tim Horton is a household name.  Nowadays, the name immediately conjures up images of sugary donuts, hot coffee and “Roll up the Rim” cups, but many of us still know the popular food chain took its name from its co-founder, a hockey legend who played twenty-two seasons in the NHL, most with the Toronto Maple Leafs.  It’s a no-brainer that (Canadian) kids will eagerly give The Mighty Tim Horton a read even if its standard word count exceeds that of current picture books.

The story is told from the point of view of Trevor, a boy who struggles to define his role on the ice.  Bigger than his peers, he throws his body around, resulting in too much time in the penalty box and on the bench.  His coach gives Trevor an ominous message:  “If you keep this up, there might not be room for you on the team.”  While Trevor wants to change his game, he doesn’t know how.

Then one day he goes out with his father to try to raise money for the team by selling Christmas cards.  It proves to be a tough day as few buyers shell out money in the Toronto neighborhoods.  They try one final street before heading home.  (It always comes down to one final try, doesn’t it?)  Trevor knocks on a door and, sure enough, Tim Horton opens the door.  Good ol’ Tim buys the final box of cards, but the excited boy tells his hockey hero of his struggles on the ice. 

Tim takes the time to offer four tips to becoming a better defenseman (e.g., “get the puck out of your end as quickly as possible”).  With specifics to focus on, Trevor has no time to waste throwing his body around as an agitator.  Tim’s improvement parallels the Leafs’ successful Stanley Cup run.

Greg Banning’s  illustrations are exceptional, combining the look of photographic realism with a nostalgic tip to Norman Rockwell.  The facial expressions are vivid, but highly sanitized...sort of like a Brady Bunch depiction of family crises.  Even when Tim Horton checks a player into the boards, it comes off as an aw-shucks-move-aside maneuver.  Gosh, were hockey players of yesteryear perfect gentlemen?  Maybe playing without helmets led players to hold back a bit on aggressive play.

I have always found sports stories to be a challenge in hooking the reader.  Reading play-by-play descriptions does not match the excitement that comes from playing or watching a game.  That’s why it often fails when we think the way to excite an athlete about reading is to have him read stories that feature his favorite sport.  Mike Leonetti’s story does build, but the portrayal of the action in games comes off like a dry rundown of highlights.  There is little in the way of crowd reactions, no imagined dialog and not much suspense.  We know Tim (and Trevor) will succeed. 

While I think the book is worth a read, I am concerned how Horton is idolized.  “Nobody ever got past him along the boards” is an unnecessary overstatement.  Moreover, the end page, entitled “About Tim Horton” fails to fully disclose the circumstances regarding Horton’s death.  All that is said is, “He died in 1974 as a result of injuries suffered in a car accident.”  I have always felt a connection to Horton, probably more due to his donut legacy, due to the fact the first Tim Hortons opened in my hometown the year I was born.  However, I remember the image of Horton’s wrecked car splashed across the front page of The Hamilton Spectator and my father taking the opportunity to comment about the tragic loss, a life ended too soon, the result of driving recklessly at 100 miles per hour.  Later I learned that alcohol played a part in the accident. 

When we portray sports stars idealistically and cast them as heroes, they become as unreachable as Greek gods.  Tim Horton was human.  While there are lessons to learn from his life on ice, there are also important conversations to be had over his tragic death.  Kids deserve the whole truth.

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