Reading “The Game” in Seattle

Makin’ that insane kick save, then soliloquisin’ about it, since 1971

It’s no Lolita in Tehran of course, but reading Ken Dryden on Seattle public transport is still somewhat incongruous. I would like nothing more than to strike up a conversation about hockey on the bus, but the chances of this are small in a town where finding a bar that’d show even the Winter Classic is impossible. Much more likely, people will assume I’m reading Neil Strauss, and, given that, conclude that I am a douchebag and that’d be no good. Nevertheless I’ve been reading it on the bus, holding out that flicker of hope.

“The Game” is a pretty good book, but it can’t help but be a letdown. Part of that is the all-promising title: “The Game” is not so much about the Game as it is about Ken Dryden’s life, and also his teammates on the late 70’s Canadiens. This ought to have been immensely entertaining for those alive to watch hockey at the time, but for me, those names are merely echoes. Not that that isn’t some fun in itself. The surprise in recognising in the plucky never-say-die journeyman the Réjean Houle of the disastrous GM tenure with the Habs. Or recognising in the happy-go-lucky jokester the Mario Tremblay of the disastrous coaching tenure with the Habs… hmm, wait, I think I see a pattern. Well, okay, there’s also the smooth, focussed defensive forward with an ineffable quality of improving the team that we later recognise in the totally unexplainable but possibly God-like Gainey. Time has somewhat dulled, but also metamorphosed the appeal of the names in this book. The biggest name (in block capitals on the front cover) is also the one whose appeal has changed most. I suppose that has to do with this: Ken Dryden was more than just good as a goalie – he was incredibly good. Unfortunately, that doesn’t – and can’t – come across in writing. Dryden himself, writing about hockey skill explains the phenomenon:

Listen to a great player describe what he does. Ask Lafleur or Orr, ask Reggie Jackson, O.J. Simpson or Julius Erving what makes them special, and you will get back something frustratingly unrewarding. They are inarticulate jocks, we decide, but in fact they can know no better than we do. For ask yourself how you walk, how your fingers move on a piano keyboard, how you do any number of things you have made routine, and you will know why. Stepping outside yourself you can think about it and decide what must happen, but you possess no inside story, no great insight unavailable to those who watch. Such movement comes literally from your body, bypassing your brain, leaving few subjective hints behind. Your legs, your fingers move, that’s all you know. So if you want to know what makes Orr or Lafleur special, watch their bodies, fluent and articulate, let them explain. They know.

Seeing as I’ve never seen him play, I can’t connect Dryden’s thoughts on hockey to him, the player. My dad assures me that Dryden was very good (and his mask was the scariest). Of course, dad didn’t get to see him much, either – just the summit series and the super-series games when CSKA played NHL teams. But the biggest sensation I got from reading the book is the nostalgic yearning for the Habs to be good again. Okay, so I’m first and foremost a Nucks fan, but there is something about the Habs dominating the league that would just be right. And the fact that they’re not is just sad. Dryden, again, explains it very well, except he’s talking about the Leafs:

Yet I can’t help feeling sorry for [Leafs owner Harold Ballard]. Though he confronts the public, almost challenging fans to stay home if they dare, laughing at them when they don’t, taking their money, telling them he cares for nothing else, in part it must be a pose. For as someone who has spent most of his life in hockey and with the Leafs, it is impossible to imagine that he doesn’t feel some of the immense sadness and anger a Leafs fan feels at seeing a once great team, a once great institution now shabby.

That’s just it. Look, I’m glad Montréal had that 7-3 win with Lars Eller scoring four goals recently. I saw the highlights, it looked good. But Montréal is a middling team. And that just shouldn’t be. And I’m not just saying that ’cause my sister lives in Montréal. Or just as an unabashed Québecophile. Or just as a Theory of Ice fan.

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6 Responses to Reading “The Game” in Seattle

  1. Zuuko says:

    u know what was a common refrain in Edmonton, something that I remember even though I was very young during their heyday and the immediate aftermath (of the heyday)? that the old must make way for the new. That is, fuck Montreal and their right to win every Cup every year. As great as the Habs were, Edmonton’s time was now and they were the dynasty of the 80s.

    It is supremely unfair that one team should hog greatness in perpetuity.

    Did the Game make me nostalgic? Sure. Do I wish that there was a team that embodied the qualities of that particular Habs team? yes. I just don’t want it to be Montreal.

    • zolltan says:

      I don’t buy the “supremely unfair” thing. Dynasties are inherently “unfair” – the “fair” situation of each team winning roughly once every (number of teams) years or roughly proportional to population or fanbase or whatever is stupid. I’m not looking for it to be fair.

      • Zuuko says:

        dynasties are not perpetual. i don’t mind a few years of unfairness. usually, the benefit is some great hockey. but Montreal fans are very presumptuous lot. that’s the part that annoys me.

  2. zolltan says:

    Judging teams by their fan bases, I’m guessing Detroit and Winnipeg have the only fanbases that aren’t entitled (MTL), perpetually aggrieved (TOR), boorish (PHI), bandwagoneering (BOS), clueless about hockey (LAK), non-existent (TBL), sad-sack suicidal (EDM) etc. etc. or some combination of the above. To achieve that, though, you need to either be in a place where hockey is appreciated but hasn’t been around for a while so that everything seems like a bonus (Winnipeg), to be a very good team for a very long time (Detroit), or be in a city where it’s so unpleasant to live that hockey is a necessary escape (Detroit, Winnipeg).

    In some way yr right, though, dynasties oughtn’t be perpetual. Take the Islanders. For me, it’s difficult to even imagine that the Islanders were once a dynasty. At the same time, some teams develop reputations, or personae if you will, that they sustain. If the Red Wings became a shitty grinding team or the Devils became fun to watch, I wouldn’t like it at all. I was fine with Montreal being “pretty good”. This year, they are quite terrible and seemingly getting worse. The point of Dryden’s quote about the Leafs and this situation is this: if the Blue Jackets are terrible, in some way, that’s just the way things go. If the Habs are terrible, well they fell there, and that means that somebody is at fault. Is that fair? Probably not. But, once again, I’m not looking for fair.

  3. zolltan says:

    PS, I should point out that just cause I say I have this opinion in part as a Theory of Ice fan doesn’t mean that I think E shares it. In fact, she pretty clearly doesn’t, and is more of Zuuko’s opinion than anything.

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