At the outset, veteran writer George Johnson’s book 100 Things Flames Fans Should Know or Die Before They Die seems a bit daunting. It features a lot of content, boasting a length of 320 pages and bursting with information about the Calgary Flames. But once you dig into the book, it’s a shockingly informative and accessible tome that doesn’t seem nearly as long as the title boasts – in a good way.
A bit of disclosure, gang: I know the author. He’s a longtime local scribe, having spent many years with the Calgary Herald before transitioning over to working for the Flames website in recent years. When you begin to cover the Flames you never anticipate just how much time you’ll spend in hallways or in the stands waiting – for press conferences, for media availabilities, or just watching practice. In person, Johnson is a masterful storyteller with an eye for nuance and detail. The best thing I can tell you about 100 Things is that it almost perfectly replicates the experience of hanging out outside the Flames locker room and listening to him tell stories about covering the team way back when.
The book itself is basically 100 short stories, broken into 100 different (but somewhat connected) topics. The whole thing is laid out in roughly chronological order, with a few diversions here and there for thematic reasons – the discussion of the team’s arrival and early days in the Stampede Corral is logically followed by a discussion of the ’88 Olympics and the Saddledome’s construction. The 100 stories vary in terms of their length and the amount of depth they get into; some are dramatic, some are humourous, and some seem designed to poke fun at some of Johnson’s old favourites. (Kent Nilsson factors into a handful of stories, many of which provide some interesting colour about the Magic Man.) The book 100 Things probably compares best with is Mark Spector’s Battle of Alberta: Spector’s book obviously has a stronger narrative hook (the rivalry) and the opportunity to go more in-depth on topics, but Johnson’s definitely has stories that will appeal more to Flames fans. Battle of Alberta is more of a drill-down at the rivalry, while 100 Things is a cross-sectional look at the Flames franchise’s history.
If you’re looking for criticisms of the book, you could argue that it’s a bit too focused on the 1980s and 1990s and perhaps a little bit sanitized. Granted, the Flames were a wonderfully interesting team with colourful characters in their heyday and the arc of the team’s arrival in Calgary and ascendance is really interesting, but it seems like a majority of the fun in-depth stories were about the glory days. Fans looking for a deeper dive into the team’s more recent eras may find it wanting. While the book doesn’t sell itself as a tell-all, it misses some opportunities for some depth: for example mentions of Theoren Fleury gloss over his personal struggles somewhat and there’s very little discussion of the Marc Savard/Greg Gilbert feud that saw both guys ultimately leave town. There’s also a couple sections that seem out of place given the stories they follow, with a de facto group sales pitch for the Big League Experience and a brief discussion of CalgaryNEXT. Given the focus of the book – things for fans to know and do – their inclusion makes sense, but there’s a weird tonal shift between them and Johnson’s fun historical stories.
Overall, though, 100 Things is an excellent read. It’s the type of book you’ll open when you have a bit of time to kill, then realize you’ve read through half the book and your afternoon is gone. If you have a Flames fan in your life, it seems like a no-brainer for an easy Christmas or birthday present.