Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Game

You know what people say about goalies -- they're "different." Ken Dryden certainly is. Imagine the way his teammates saw him. Aloof and introspective, brainy (he's got a law degree!), unusually tall for a player in the 1970s (at 6'4" he was taller than just about everyone else in the league).

He's the only person to win the Conn Smythe trophy (as playoff MVP) before winning the Calder (rookie of the year). After playing two full seasons with the Canadiens, he rejected the contract he was offered and sat out a year. (Players just didn't do that then.) He abruptly retired after a short but brilliant career (seven and a half seasons), during which he backstopped the team to six championships.

He went on to become an Member of Parliament, and made a bid for the leadership of the Liberal party. Think of it, a goalie as PM!

Like its author, The Game is "different." One might have expected a book that recaps at least some of those Stanley Cup wins. But no, it's structured around a week near the end of his final season, when he's made his decision to retire, and takes us through several routine league games.

The book is a couch on which Dryden analyzes himself, his teammates, and the state of the game. He reflects on practices and warmups, pregame chatter ("Gotta play it, might as well win it") and dressing-room gibes ("Hey, you're the guy Plager scored on from the parking lot...").

He muses upon officiating ("like doing spot-checks on New Year's Eve"), and the "NHL theory of violence," and how Gretzky and the Soviets contributed to obstruction and the "dump-and-chase" style.

But he's best when fixing his gaze on those around him: the prankster Lapointe, Shutt "a perfect Shakespearian fool," Phil Esposito a "volume shooter," Don Cherry coaching the Bruins with "a tiny permanent grin on his face, like a ten-year-old kid holding a stink bomb behind his back."

And the brilliant but unlikeable Scotty Bowman whose playing career ended during a breakaway, his skull fractured by the stick of Jean-Guy Talbot, who was chasing him. How ironic that Bowman later coached Talbot, or that a typical pregame harangue by Bowman went like this:

...and that Woods, is there some reason we can't touch that guy? Is there? For crissake, I see Lupien pattin' him on the ass. And Mondou, sniffin' around, 'Hiya Woodsie. How are ya, Woodsie?' You're not playin' with him.

And Dryden's analysis of Larry Robinson:

More skillful with each year, doing more things, stretching himself wider, he has stretched himself thinner. Working hard, he is making more good plays; but, overextending himself, his stride now chopping, his invincibility in question, he is making more bad plays as well. The numbers are still hugely in his favour, but now it is a game of numbers, concrete and measurable, as for everyone else. By exchanging a game he dominated for a larger, more demanding one he cannot dominate, Robinson is no longer a presence.

The Game is earnest and rambling, often insightful, sometimes windy. It's been hailed as the best book about hockey ever written, and is lauded on the back cover by no less a personage than Mordecai Richler. It's one of only two hockey books listed in Sports Illustrated's Top 100 Books of All Time. (The other is Game Misconduct by Russ Conway, about Alan Eagleson.)

First published in 1993, it was reissued in 2003 as a "20th Anniversary Edition" with an additional chapter. The cover photo and most of the 16 pages of photos were taken by Denis Brodeur, father of another famous goalie. One of them shows Dryden sitting in the dressing room with a serene look on his face, cradling the Stanley Cup like a teddy bear.