I think I read Ken Dryden’s The Game at the perfect time. It’s summer, I had post concussion syndrome, and I was completely removed from any form of hockey. In those conditions, even with a concussion-shortened attention span, I devoured The Game in two days.
To say that the book is great would be an understatement, but to say it is phenomenal would imply you like reading these kind of books. Dryden is very intelligent and downright brilliant when it comes to discussing the game of hockey, and if you are a fan you simply must give the book a read.
The book’s format is odd, only covering a number of days; but so much is discussed over the course of the work. Dryden’s preparation for games was to completely clear his mind of everything related to “the game”, and in that process his every thought on hockey is spilled onto the pages.
Dryden talks of the game’s history, how the Habs’ team culture has changed with winning, and how he has changed as a hockey player. He talks candidly about many of his own teammates, the various teams in the league, and his thoughts on retirement. There is just so much covered, but I tried to narrow down a few sections to talk about.
There is something remarkably strong about a team that wins; and something remarkably weak about that same team when it doesn’t. The team that is “more than just a hockey team,” the athletic, cultural, and political institution that inspires romance in more than its followers, is just a hockey team if it loses; and the romance disappears. The team that won together, our favorite metaphor for sharing and cooperation, loses as twenty separate guys, each running for his own lifeboat.
There was so much about the books’ opening pages that rang familiar it surprised me. The arc of success Dryden described seemed to be a path the 06-07 Sabres team followed to perfection. However, the frustrating and terrible thing about it is that the Sabres acted that way with absolutely no prior success. The more time I put between myself and that season I see a team that lost its way down the stretch; and it only makes their subsequent collapse more painful to remember.
Nothing is as good as it used to be, and it never was. The “golden age of sports,” the golden age of anything, is the age of everyone’s childhood. For me and for the writers and commentators of my time, it was the 1950s. For those who lived in the 1950s as adults, it was the 1920s or the 1930s. Only major disruptions like wars or expansions can later persuade a child of those times that what he feels cannot be right. For me, the greatest goalies must always be Hall, Sawchuk, Plante, and Bower.
To me this proves that no one is ever satisfied with the current state of hockey. Dryden himself says that hockey isn’t perfect, but the fact that it is an inherently flawed game is one of the reasons we love it so much. Every generation has said the previous one was better, and it is a fact that will not change.
The interesting thing is that today an emphasis has been put on labeling things as “the greatest” or “the best.” Part of this is the “ESPN effect”, in which an artificial hype is injected into events to bring viewers to the fold. However, for the most part hockey has been left out of this movement.
While every college football team is openly argued as the greatest ever, no one questions the greatness of Dryden’s Canadiens when talking about the Red Wings, and no one is putting current goaltenders in Dryden’s category. Even when Carey Price was being compared to Patrick Roy this spring there was much debate against the comparison. It is an interesting exception in the world of sports, one that is actually quite refreshing.
But there’s one more thing. What does money do to the game on the ice? How does it affect a player? In playoff games, does Guy Lapointe put aside his shot-blocking phobia because of money? And what about Lafleur and his relentless brilliance? What about Robinson and Gainey and Lemaire? What about the so-called money players? Do they play the way they do because of money? No amateur would believe it, nor would many fans, nor indeed many players, but on the ice, in a game, more money, less money, playing for team or country, a blocked shot, a body check, a diving save comes only from instinctive, reflexive, teeth-baring competition. Money, like other motivations, comes from the mind and has nothing to do with it. More money can’t change that.
This is something I’ve always wanted to believe, and while it may be less true in the era of max contracts and arbitration, you still want to believe that on the ice the money doesn’t matter. Later on in the book Dryden will talk about playing the Red Wings, who were awful at the time. Only then, when a game was “easy” and other thoughts could creep into their minds did bonus incentives or contract expectations come up. Perhaps this has changed over time, but so much of what Dryden describes is still the same today. You have to wonder how much “the game” actually changes as generations pass.
Much of what Dryden talks about mirrors the same discussions hockey fans have today. The fundamental “problems of the game”, the defensive mindset of teams, the differences between “speed” and “quickness”, the way good teams play. However different we think the game is, however “advanced” the rule changes have made hockey, it is still the same game.
Dryden wonders who is the authority when it comes to rule changes, citing the history of Canadian hockey and its roots in defense. A decade before the trap, he predicts the same problems will be repeated over and over again. In his prose he is a true goaltender, seeing the entire ice, understanding the game completely as it is happening.
His foresight does not come simply from his own brilliance, but rather a complete fundamental understanding of hockey. He has studied its history, lived a part of it himself, and wants to follow it as it progresses. It is admirable at the very least, and to me quite inspiring. Even with a career in law, even with a family, even with other interests, “the game” is still with Dryden. As a mere fan, you can only hope the sport affects you that much.
There is a lot more to talk about with the book, but I’m curious to see what other people think. If you have read The Game, I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments. If you haven’t and have some time to kill, I’d say pick it up before the summer is over.
There is so much time left before you see the puck drop in October. Why not get a glimpse behind the lean?