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An extraordinary look at the game
on August 13, 2000
Calling this "the best book ever written about hockey" somehow does not do this work justice. Ken Dryden was one of the best goalies of his time, on one of the greatest teams of all time, and yet this portrayal of a year in the life of that team is much more than "team wins hockey games, gets Stanley Cup." In fact, unless you know what happened in 1979 you may miss that fact. What Dryden aims to do with this book is far more ambitious than to simply describe his last year in the NHL. He wants to discuss the meaning of hockey in the context of his own life as well as that of his country. If this seems a little ambitious, well it is. But Dryden is certainly up to the task.
Written in what amounts to a modified stream-of-consciousness, there are many digressions as Dryden wanders away from descriptions of game days to talk about his early career, the origins of the game, and what it means to Canadians. It's not hard to follow this, but you do have to pay attention. The thing that struck me most was that, while Dryden the author is articulate, thoughtful, and clearly smarter than the average bear, he describes "Ken Dryden the goalie" as a bit of a goof, the last to get locker room jokes, the guy who falls for pranks, who makes himself the target of other, quicker minds. Dryden clearly feels no need to make himself look good to the reading public and when he dissects his playing ability you get the impression that he's being totally honest: he's a Hall of Fame goalie who wishes he could have been just a little better.
(On the other hand, while I agree that popular culture creates images of athletes that they often cannot live up to, I balk at Dryden's insistence that "people think I am smarter than I am, because of this image." When you dissect the NHL's policy on fighting by referencing three psychological theories of human behaviour as well as Monty Python's "Holy Grail" -- well, don't expect me to think you're really Big Bobby Clobber, all right?)
Among the most attractive parts of this book are his descriptions of his teammates. I was a very young hockey fan in the 1970's and we were Habs fans -- absolutely. The names in this book are magical ones to me, and my reaction to reading about them is proof enough of Dryden's remark that "things are never as good as in the old days -- and they never were." In other words, the players you admired as a child are ALWAYS the best. Ken Dryden in the 1970's was never as good as the players he admired in the 1950's, and don't try selling him any silly statistics to prove otherwise. (It's when Dryden writes as a fan that he's especially charming.)
Anyway, the pen-portraits he gives of his teammates alone make the book worth reading. Who knew Guy Lapointe was an incorrigible locker-room prankster? Still, written as it was at the twilight of Dryden's own career, "The Game" has a certain melancholy air in places. Guy Lafleur is clearly not going to be at the top of the league forever -- and then what? Rejean Houle is depicted as someone who has come to terms with himself and will be fine, but I have to admit that even twenty years later I was a little disturbed by the portrait of Larry Robinson. Dryden describes the beloved defenseman as self-doubting and possibly afraid that if he was too good at being the tough guy he would one day wake up and find himself slotted into being a goon instead of a player. He also indicates that in his efforts to remake himself into a more complete player, Robinson may have ended up selling himself short. It's not every day that you imagine Larry Robinson as a tragic figure but after reading this bit I really had to remind myself that at this point he probably does not need my sympathy! (On the other hand, considering that early in his head coaching career Robinson's major problem seems to have been being a little over-sensitive and almost pathologically conscientious, it's interesting to see that he was the same way as a player.)
The team as a group entity is remarkably likable: there is a certain innocence in their silly pranks and teasing. The Habs of the 70's were said to be a remarkably united team and Dryden offers no argument there: in the midst of the rise of the Parti Quebecois Dryden's claim that there was no "French-English problem" on the team rings true when he depicts even the anglophone players as cursing almost entirely in French (and it's oddly endearing.) Guys like "Shutty" and "Flower" and "Pointu" and "Bird" were Canadiens first, everything else after. Even the legendarily unpleasant Scotty Bowman is made a sympathetic character, which I am told is a feat in itself.
Once again, this is not simply a remarkable book about hockey. It's a remarkable book by a remarkable guy who happened to be a remarkable player on a team that was... well, you know the rest.