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.