Book Review: Butch Martin

By Kyle Gerber in Book Reviews

Del Gingrich’s Butch Martin is an illuminating history of the life of Floyd “Butch” Martin (b. 1929), a young Mennonite boy who started by playing shinny on the frozen Floradale Dam and became one of Waterloo Region’s most accomplished athletes. In the process, he turned down an offer to play in the NHL, represented Canada at two different Winter Olympics (winning bronze and silver), won a silver medal in the 1962 IIHF World Championship, and earned a place in several different halls of fame. If, like me, you’ve never heard of Martin before, don’t be surprised. Gingrich writes “[n]ot many Canadian hockey players, at any level, have played more hockey games on the international stage than Butch. And few have done it with as little public recognition.”

The narrative is primarily chronological with chapters addressing significant events in Martin’s career, and is centred around Martin’s international accomplishments. Other chapters celebrate Martin’s successful local hockey career with teams like the Elmira Polar Kings, the Galt Terriers, and the K-W Dutchmen. At the heart of the story, however, is a young Mennonite hockey player who prioritizes his community’s values (and his love for a certain young lady) over a future in the NHL. Gingrich somewhat successfully sketches the sociological nuances of this decision.

The book, which draws from a range of local sources, has enough general regional history to interest most local readers, but those interested in local hockey history will especially enjoy it. Some readers may struggle with Gingrich’s tangential digressions highlighting Martin’s contemporaries, but such digressions are typical in this type of work.

Here’s the thing: I like the book. It fits well within the Canadian publishing landscape with its focus on regional interests, especially those that weave narratives around ordinary local people who accomplish extraordinary things. There’s a regional storyteller’s quality to the book too, and it reminds me of how my late grandfather used to lean back and dust off some especially bizarre or wonderful story about a local character: stories about so-and-so, the legendary anchor of the township tug-of-war team, or what so-and-so did to win a turkey in a bet down at the feed mill. These tales, however (in)significant, add texture to our lives, which is why we cling to them. This is what Gingrich’s book does so well, adding a wonderful texture to Waterloo Region by illuminating the rise and career of our own Floyd “Butch” Martin.