Monday, December 19, 2011

Ken Dryden's "The Game"

Ken Dryden's book, "The Game," is considered one of the greatest ever in sports. Many times, I've heard it called "the best hockey book ever written," and that's the quote (unattributed) on the cover of my 1999 edition. The Canadian literary crowd loves it.

So, last week, I thought I'd read it. I was disappointed.

"The Game" takes place towards the end of the 1978-79 NHL season, Dryden's last before retirement. It was actually written later, based on his notes at the time, and published in 1983. It takes the form of a ten-day diary, although most of each day is taken up by Dryden's reminiscences and analyses, rather than the actual events of the particular day.

I'd argue that it's only tangentially a book about hockey. It's really a book about Ken Dryden. What he does, how he feels, what goes on in his dressing room, what he thinks of his teammates, and so forth. If you actually were hoping to learn something about hockey and how it works, there won't be much for you here ... except that you'll hear some stories about the personalities of teammates and coaches.

It doesn't talk much at all about strategy, or playmaking, or statistics, or how to win games. It deals a little more with personalities, and stories. But, mostly, it deals with Ken Dryden's feelings.

That may not sound too interesting ... except that Ken Dryden is very, very articulate. He can take the most common observation, and write paragraphs of poetry about it. Here he is talking about travelling to the Forum:

"I drive down side streets narrowed by drifts and snow-shrouded cars. Traffic is light today, and the few cars on the road move easily, unconcerned by the conditions. After the awkward caution of a winter's first snowfall, for Montreal drivers, like riding a bike, it all comes back, and slippery streets are driven as if bare and dry. I park several blocks away from the Forum and walk. The wind, gusting up Atwater Street, is bitter and cold, and, hunching over, I try to cover up, but can't. I start to jog, then run, faster as the wind bites harder. At de Maisonneuve, the light turns red but I continue across."

Well, OK, great, that's certainly a vivid picture of a windy Montreal winter's day. But the tone is a bit dramatic. It's an impressive feat of writing, and there's nothing wrong with being Shakesperean at times ... but Dryden does it *everywhere*, from the first page to the last. It started grating on me.

What would mitigate the tone, a bit, is if Dryden would talk more concretely about hockey. Sure, there are a few pages on Scotty Bowman's coaching style, and on Larry Robinson's history, and little profiles of some of the other players pop up occasionally. Finally, close to the end of the book, there's a bit of meat -- about 20 pages on the history of hockey, and how the game has suffered, and how rule changes can fix it. It's really good stuff, especially for 30 years ago, when that kind of analysis was rare. Moreover, with something more concrete to explain, Dryden allows some air to come out of the lofty prose, and it reads a lot better.

Still, even accounting for those 20 pages, the book is mostly Ken Dryden, sociologist and psychologist, observing his hockey team. It becomes a little weird because Dryden writes like he's not even there, like he's a psychiatrist floating above the dressing room taking notes.

I guess that's his thing. Ken Dryden is a lawyer; he famously took a year off from the NHL in 1973-74 to finish his law degree. He's intelligent and articulate, and it's almost like he figures there's no everyday scene that can't be made better if you try to analyze it dramatically:

"... Half-naked players move hurriedly about, laughing, shouting for tape (black or white, thick or thin), cotton, skate laces, gum, ammonia "sniffers," Q-Tips, toilet paper, and for trainers to get them faster than they can. It is the kid of unremitting noise that no one hears and everyone feels. But there is another level dialogue we can all hear. It is loud, invigorating, paced to the mood of the room, the product of wound-up bodies with wound-up minds. It's one line, a laugh, and get out of the way of the next guy -- "jock humor." It is like a "roast," the kind of intimate, indiscriminate carving that friends do to keep egos under control. Set in motion, it rebounds by word association, thought association, by "off the wall" anything association, just verbal reflex, whatever comes off your tongue, the more outrageous the better. Elections, murders, girl friends, body shapes, body parts, in the great Tonight Show / Saturday Night Live tradition, verbal slapstick dressed as worldly comment ..."

Nothing wrong with all that, but ... for a lot of the book, that's all there is. And, for all the analysis and introspection, you won't even feel like you know much abour Dryden, which is weird, because he writes a lot about himself: how he feels, and when he's more confident in net, and how he reacts to winning and losing, and his thoughts on retirement. But it's all detached, like he's trying to save you the trouble of understanding him yourself by doing the analysis for you.

There are a few occasions when he tries to say something about the game, something that a sports columnist would say, and it's almost a relief -- finally, something you can get your brain around! At one point, for instance, he talks about how he doesn't think the Canadiens are going to win this year (they eventually did, but that season was their last of four consecutive Stanley Cups). Why? Because, he says, he notices the team is complacent, spoiled by its own success, looking for the "big play" to win the game. Players "shoot from long range, safe from the punishment that goes with rebounds, deflections, screens, and goal-mouth tip-ins." Dryden says he himself cares less about winning, "content that goals appear as "good goals.""

I'm not sure I necessarily buy it 100%, but at least there's something concrete there ... you can try to figure out if it's true or false, or at least how you could study the issue. You think, hey, the guy played in the NHL for a few years, finally he's telling us what he learned!

But, that's as meaty as it gets before Dryden starts getting poetic again:

"I have felt it before in other years, but never so often and never with the same feeling, that if we lose, it will be because of us, no one else. It is not fun to feel a team break down, to find weakness where I always found strength; to discover the discipline and desire can go soft and complacent; to discover that we are not so different as we once thought; to realize that winning is the central card in a house of cards, and that without it, or with less of it, motivations that seemed pure and clear go cloudy, and personal qualities once noble and abundant turn on end; to realize that I am a part of that breakdown."

I can see why some people like this stuff, but ... well, I don't. It's just cotton candy, an exquisitely-worded paragraph that melts down to nothing when you try to figure out what it means. It's articulateness disembodied from communication, as if, when you say something beautifully and poetically enough, it doesn't matter that there's no content. Dryden produces this huge fog of articulateness that overwhelms you with feeling and the sense that something important has just been said, but ... there's not much there when you actually look.

I can't resist one more example. Here's Dryden analyzing Guy Lafleur:

"For there is a life there, and in destiny and romance there is no room for life. Painted as they are with broad brush strokes, vivid and lush, they find shape and pattern only with distance. The person who lives them is too close. He feels sweat as well as triumph. He understands what others see, but feels none of it himself."

Huh? Some people eat this stuff up, but I just don't get it.


Call me cynical, but I think that these things I think are weaknesses are actually why people like this book. It's about hockey, but not about hockey. It talks about "big issues" that people like to pretend they care about. There are long digressions into Quebec separatism and culture, and personal growth and emotion. It's articulate, it's educated, and it's erudite. It detaches the reader from the world of uneducated jocks, allowing them to identify and affiliate with someone they look up to. For some readers, it lets them signal to the world that *this* is the hockey they like, that they watch every Saturday night and talk about at the water cooler, the hockey that's deep and sociological and high-class.

"The Book" is a lot like a politician giving a speech, saying things so beautiful and eloquent and moving that you don't even notice that he's not saying anything concrete about what he'll do once elected. You wind up voting for the guy, not because of how he'll be able to run the country, but because you feel like you're voting for him as a person, good-looking and well-dressed and articulate.

But, no offense to Dryden ... it could be just me, that his book just isn't what I'm looking for, that the emotional stuff doesn't do anything for me. But ... whether it's me or not me, this is still not a book about hockey. It's a book about Ken Dryden, articulate hockey player. If you didn't know much about hockey before the book, you still won't know much about it after.

Of course, if you're a Montreal Canadiens fan, you'll love it ... the little stories about the team you love will be irresistible. In his chapter on Toronto, there are some of Dryden's little psychological observations on some of the Leafs of my childhood. I'm not sure if I really believe them, but I still ate them up, and I wished there were more.


It's kind of an aside, but the reminiscences in the book don't seem to be right. When I started writing this post, I figured I'd try to let you know which ten days Dryden's diary covered. It should have been easy: a ten-day stretch with the first game in Buffalo, and the last game against the Islanders. But the historical record doesn't jibe with Dryden's narrative. It's not just occasionally that the book is off, but almost all the way through.

This may be a little long ... if you don't like this boring "tracers" stuff, you can skip to the next section.

1. At the beginning of the book, Dryden writes "last night was the sixty-second game of my eighth season with the Montreal Canadiens." It was a game in Buffalo, where the Habs won and Dryden played well.

Here's a game log for the 1978-79 Canadiens, one I'll refer to many times in this post. From the log, it seems the 62nd game of the 1978-79 season was a home game against the Leafs, on March 1. Dryden might be referring to the February 18, game, which was a 5-2 win in Buffalo. Not that big a deal.

That game, Dryden writes, came "after a tie in Chicago and a Saturday loss at home to Minnesota." That doesn't work out. The Canadiens played two games in Chicago that year: a 4-1 loss on October 28, and a 5-3 victory on December 20. Neither of their two home games against the Black Hawks was a tie, and neither closely preceded a game in Buffalo. They did tie Chicago the year before, on Feburary 9, 1978, but that was a home game.

They did play Chicago at home on November 25, losing 8-3, making up for it with a 8-1 rout in Buffalo two games later. That's as close as I could find.

As for Minnesota, the Habs played them four times that year, winning three. The loss was a 4-3 game, but not at home, and not on a Saturday. It was on Wednesday, March 14, 1979 -- almost a month *after* the Sabres game that Dryden possibly describes.

2. That Buffalo game was on a Sunday, as it was described as "yesterday" in the "Monday" chapter. The next game occurs on "Wednesday," at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. That could have been the aforementioned 62nd game that year, on March 1, except that it doesn't match. The Habs won it 2-1, but Dryden's description is 6-4.

It can't be that he just misremembers the score, because he describes the game in detail. After tying the game, Dryden writes, the Leafs get confident that they can keep up with the powerhouse Canadiens, and the Leafs begin to take over the play. But Mark Napier and Pat Hughes score two quick goals for the Habs. The Canadiens score two more, and then the Leafs get two late. The next day, the players wonder why coach Scotty Bowman didn't give them hell for allowing those two late goals.

That adds up to 6-4. There was no 6-4 win in Toronto in 1978-79. Also, I couldn't find a 6-4 win in Toronto in either of the two prior seasons.

There was a 6-3 win on February 3. I looked that game up in the February 5 Globe and Mail. It doesn't match Dryden's description: it went 1-0 for the Leafs, then 3-1 Habs, then 3-2, Then 4-2, then 6-2, then 6-3.

3. The next day, Dryden writes, the Habs fly to Boston, where they win 3-2 after coming back in the third period from a 2-1 deficit. But, according to the 1978-79 game logs, Montreal played only two regular season games in Boston, and tied both of them, 1-1 and 3-3.

There *is* a game that fits in the *following* season, February 10, 1980. It matches the 3-2 score, and the Habs coming back from 2-1 in the third period. But, of course, it can't be that game, because Dryden was then retired (Denis Herron was in net). Also, Dryden describes Larry Robinson tying the game early in the period on a power-play goal, and Mario Tremblay potting the winner. But the third period goals were actually scored by Mark Napier and Pierre Larouche -- the first goal coming at 10:03 -- and there were no power plays after the first period.

4. The next game is in Montreal, against Detroit. Scotty Bowman says, "we got 'em back in Detroit next week." The home-and-home timeline pins it down to the game of April 4 (the return game in Detroit would have been April 8). According to the game log, Montreal won the April 4 game by a score of 4-1.

But that can't be it. During the game, Dryden notices the Leafs vs. Flyers on the out of town scoreboard. Those two teams didn't play each other on April 4. But they did on March 3, when Detroit was also visiting Montreal. So now we have two candidates.

Dryden doesn't explicitly tell us the final score, but he tells us Montreal won. The book says it was 1-0 after the first period, 2-1 after the second, and, with five minutes left in the game, Guy Lapointe scored on a shot off Mario Tremblay's right knee to make it 3-1.

Montreal lost on March 3, so it couldn't be that one. On April 4, Montreal won 4-1, which looks promising -- perhaps an empty-net goal that Dryden didn't report.

But, nope, the rest of the details don't match. The April 4 game was 1-1 after one period, and 4-1 after the second. Jacques Lemaire had a hat trick, and Steve Shutt the other goal.

5. The next game, Dryden has Montreal 7, Philadelphia 3. Flyers goalie Bernie Parent was out with an eye injury that game, the book says.

Parent did indeed suffer a career-ending eye injury in 1978-79, which occurred on February 17. But, Montreal's last game against Philadelphia was January 29. It was indeed a 7-3 score -- but Bernie Parent was the starting goalie.

6. Next is a road game against the Islanders. The book has been foreshadowing that Islanders game from the beginning -- the Islanders were challenging Montreal for number 1 in the standings, and appeared to be the Canadiens' main rivals for the Cup that year. There are several mentions of that important Islanders game coming up, including one in the first few pages, which puts it nine or ten days after the Sabres game.

As far as score, all Dryden says is that the Canadiens lost. So it could be either of Montreal's two games on Long Island: February 27, by a 7-3 score, or October 17, by 3-1. The February 27 game is nine games after the original Buffalo game, so that must be it. Still, none of the games in between are the ones Dryden describes in the book.

7. Epilogue: "In the season's final game, we needed a tie against Detroit for first place, and we lost. The Islanders, waiting to be crowned, lost to the Rangers in the playoffs. And we won again."

Finally, this time it works out. Detroit beat Montreal 1-0 in the last game, and the playoffs match Dryden's recollection.


So, six out of seven cases don't check out. What happened? Perhaps instead of using an actual ten days out of the season, Dryden pieced together a composite. That might actually make sense. The book has lots to say about Toronto, where Dryden grew up. It has lots to say about Boston, where he went to school and had a major playoff victory in 1972. And it has lots to say about Philadelphia, which Dryden uses as his springboard for what's wrong with hockey.

He'd have liked to have a period that included all three cities. Maybe he just constructed one out of previous games, periods, and goals that he saw.


8. Finally, not a score thing, but: on page 71, Dryden describes Maple Leaf Gardens:

"The enormous Sportimer is gone; an even larger, more versatile scoreboard-clock, the kind you might find in any large arena, is in its place."

But: in 1979, Gardens sported the same, iconic clock that it had since 1966. It wasn't changed until 1982 -- after Dryden's retirement, but before his book was published. Or, maybe he's referring to the original Sportimer, the one before 1966, which he would have seen as a child.

Either way, Dryden's career went from 1971 to 1979, so he would have seen the exact same clock his entire career. So what's this all about? Perhaps he saw the new clock in 1982, before the book was published, and thought he also saw it back in 1979.


Reading the book made me think of how different Dryden is from Don Cherry.

Cherry, in one five-minute episode of Coach's Corner, will say more of substance than Dryden says in ten pages. But Cherry uses uneducated language, dresses funny, is passionate about the things he believes, and occasionally slips into political views that tend to be less accepted by "learned" people. So Dryden gets credited with "the best hockey book ever written," and Cherry gets scorn.

Coincidentally, Cherry has books of hockey stories too (as dictated to sportswriter Al Strachan); I just finished reading his second one. The styles, as you can imagine, are different. Dryden shrouds each locker room conversation in a cloud of profundity and mood; Cherry tells it in his straight-ahead style. But Cherry has something to say, and a point to make, and the stories are actually interesting. Dryden's got a couple of good ones -- like Steve Shutt urinating into a cup, adding Coke for color, and waiting for one of his teammates to come by and drink it -- but most of them are, well, not that engrossing. Like this one:

Amid the business of getting ready for practice, there is talk of beer.

"Calisse, you see the paper?" [Rejean] Houle moans. "Beer's goin' up sixty-five cents a case. Sixty-five cents!"

His words bring a grumble of memory.

"Shit, yeah," says a mocking voice, "the only thing should go up is what they pay fifteen-goal scorers, eh, Reggie?"

There is laughter this time. Across the room, Guy Lapointe stares at the ceiling, lost in thought. Suddenly he blurts, "That's it, that's it. No more drinkin'."

There is loud laughter.

"Hey, Pointu," Steve Shutt says, "ya just gotta learn to beat the system -- drink on the road."

That one, it seems safe to say, wouldn't have made it into Cherry's book. And, as far as actual hockey content goes, Cherry has Dryden beat by a mile. I opened Cherry's book to a random page, 74, where there's a thing about fighting. It's too long to quote entirely, but here's what Cherry tells me in five paragraphs:

-- There is no rush in the world like when you fight.

-- When players get older, they get a conscience and start to hesitate, and they have a tough time. That's why you see few older players fighting.

-- Fighters' hands suffer serious damage. "You wouldn't believe the hands on Joey Kocur ... it looks like he's had a ping-pong ball implanted under each knuckle."

-- The advent of helmets and visors have made hand injuries much more common, so fighters will remove their helmets as a show of respect. "I love it when I see one guy who's have trouble getting the strap loose on his helmet, and the other guy gives him time while he gets it off. ... That's honour! I love those guys."

No exaggeration: I learned more in that half-page than probably in 50 pages of Ken Dryden. Now, I'm not saying Don Cherry is always right, or even mostly right, or that you have to agree with him, or that he's particularly eloquent. But, he does try to tell you something about hockey. He may be wrong about some of the things he believes, like Joe Morgan or Harold Reynolds, or any other commentator in any other sport. But, geez, at least he says things about hockey!

As much as people love the Ken Drydens of the world, it's the Don Cherrys who actually can teach you things. I mean, they're not always right: for every non-Dryden who believes something correctly and passionately, there'll be many other non-Drydens who believe something different, incorrectly but just as passionately. So I'm not saying that when you find a Don Cherry, you should immediately become a mindless follower. I'm just saying that if you actually want to know how things are, you should start with the Cherrys and then go with your brain. Whatever the subject, hockey or otherwise, you'll never learn anything unless you stick with the people who are seriously trying to tell you something -- not just the people who sound the best.


No offense to Ken Dryden. I'm not saying that he doesn't know anything about hockey, just that he chose not to tell us too much about it. He actually wrote a pretty decent book, just one that's not as much to my taste as it could have been. And Dryden is under no obligation to write the kind of book that I like to read.

Still, "The Game" is nowhere near the best hockey book ever written. It's just the most poetic.

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At Monday, December 19, 2011 3:09:00 PM, Blogger Jeff J said...

The one passage from The Game that sticks in my mind is where Dryden gives an account of a single goal against. The puck was dumped in by the opposition. A Canadiens winger partially deflected it, which led to the Canadiens defender thinking he could intercept it and leaving his man in front of the net. The defender failed to intercept the puck. An opposing forward took possession, passed it to the open man in front who then scored.

If the Habs winger is out of position, or does his job less well, that goal is probably not scored. That bit planted a germ in me 25 years ago that led to the way I understand hockey today. Dumb luck and randomness are very large factors in the game. Journalists' just-so stories are wrong more often than they are right. We all rationalize outcomes. Dryden's ponderous style is perfect for mulling over subtleties. As far as actual hockey content goes, some subjects just take a little exposition to explore.

The readership of Don Cherry's Hockey Stories Part 2 is probably not as interested in subtlety. (I've read Cherry's first Hockey Stories book, but the emotional stuff just doesn't do anything for me so I think I'll skip Part 2) Like a colonial-era encyclopedia, I'm sure it is a torrent of factoids and the print equivalent of sound bites about bare knuckle boxing and unilateral military action. There's no accounting for taste, right?

At Monday, December 19, 2011 3:14:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...


Fair enough! As you say, everyone's different.

At Thursday, December 22, 2011 8:04:00 AM, Blogger Jon said...

Thanks for this post. It leaves me wondering if there is a baseball equivalent to Don Cherry's books. Tim McCarver "wrote" a couple, but it has been years since I've read them.

At Thursday, December 22, 2011 8:07:00 AM, Blogger Jon said...

Thanks for this post. It makes me wonder if there is a baseball equivalent to Don Cherry's books. Tim McCarver has a couple out, but it has been years since I've read them.

Too, wrt to the next post, are there good team shortstops and bad team shortstops? I think a bad team shortstop would be more error prone but have more range than a good team one.

At Tuesday, January 24, 2012 10:52:00 AM, Blogger Kevin Sylvester said...

read ball four by jim bouton. it's old but still offers an athletes glimpse inside the game

At Wednesday, January 25, 2012 10:27:00 AM, Anonymous DB said...

I'm in the middle of "The Game" now. I'm surprised that Dryden's memory doesn't match the facts. He seems like a guy who would write with precision. Still, the facts don't matter when I read what he wrote. I love learning how a player as special as Ken Dryden is thinks about himself and hockey. How he interacted with the other players. About how lack of condfidence and insecurity was hidden underneath his ability on the ice. And about how he struggled with his decision to leave hockey. You get the sense that he didn't fit in on that Canadiens team. To me the book is about how he felt, not about the facts.

Anyway, having said that I love knowing that he didn't get the facts exactly right. It makes the whole thing even more intriguing tio me... Thanks for sharing it.


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