I grew up in a baseball family, my dad was concerned with teaching us how to play baseball, we watched baseball and we heard about old baseball players. I collected baseball cards, including those of players who had retired or died before I was born.
There was one exception to all of this, not a sport, but a player: Ken Dryden. Dryden retired before I was born, but the thing is, my dad went to university with Dryden, and watched him play. So the only stories I heard about hockey players growing up were about Dryden. For my father, Dryden was the greatest hockey goalie of all time. (Not that he would know.) Then, as an adult, I read more than once that The Game was the greatest book ever written about hockey.
So you can imagine my expectations about this book, written by my father’s favourite hockey player and considered by many to be the best book about the sport. Those expectations were not about to be met, unless this was one of the best books ever written.
And it’s not, of course. It’s by an athlete first, a writer second (or third). But it’s still very well written for a book written by an athlete without a ghost writer. Despite that fact, it still took me about 155 pages to get into it. I don’t blame Dryden so much as I blame the ridiculous expectations I had of the book, which was going to be The Breaks of the Game of hockey, or something.
Dryden is extremely insightful, reflective and observant. It’s hard to imagine too many hockey players, especially players of his era or earlier, writing so clearly and thoughtfully about hockey, about people and about the business of the sport. Still, it wasn’t until he described Lafleur that something clicked for me, where I got used to his style and stopped thinking “well, he’s a good writer for an athlete I guess”.
My favourite parts of this book include how he describes (some) other players and how he describes life on the road. But I think my biggest takeaway from the book is how he describes team dynamics and, particularly, preparations for a mundane game in the middle of a season. The late ’70s Montreal Canadiens, the best team in the history of the sport, are fragile, human and imperfect. For me, that is the great revelation of the book, that even the most talented and dominant team in history was just made up of people, nervous, self-conscious, anxious people. The best part of the book, for me, is his description of a meaningless game against the sad sack Red Wings. It’s pretty incredible.
I don’t love everything about the book, even once he finally won me over to his style. I find Dryden at times excessively critical, particularly of Larry Robinson. I must admit that I never saw Larry Robinson play. But, here is Robinson’s career line: 208G, 750A for 958P in 1384P, +722 (1st all time, needles to say), 6 Cups, 2 Norris Trophies, 1 Conn Smythe, 3 1st Team All stars, 3 2nd Teams. I understand that he’s a human just like everyone else, and maybe this particular season wasn’t his best, but he was one of the best to play his position in the history of the sport and he was on of two most important defensemen on the best team in the history of the sport. Writing about him 1/3rd of the way through his career, as if he’s past his prime…well, that hasn’t held up well.
And there’s often an Old Man tinge to Dryden’s analysis of the sport at large. Dryden tries to mitigate this – he admits multiple times that nostalgia is just nostalgia – but there still is a tone, a certain feeling that he certainly feels like things were better “back then”. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, especially given how many times Dryden mentions that things weren’t actually better in the past, but I can’t help sensing a certain wistfulness, which comes across as kind of hilarious given how we now regard the 1970s. (Dryden deals with this to a degree in one of the multiple afterwords.)
But, despite those criticisms, I must admit that this is the best book I’ve ever read about hockey and one of the best few books I’ve ever read about sports. I’m not sure it ever took me to the places I wanted it to, except in two specific chapters which I feel like stand out for me as the best. But I wonder how much my impression of these two chapters as “better” than the rest comes merely from my inflated expectations. I had fewer expectations of my favourite sports books and I wonder if, upon reading those again, I’d find similar flaws I didn’t notice. What I’m trying to say is, that the degree that I didn’t love this book as much as I thought I should is probably totally dependent upon being raised with the idea that Ken Dryden was The Greatest and then hearing he wrote The Greatest Hockey Book of All Time a few too many times.
Maybe in a decade or two I’ll re-read it and find what I was looking for.
9/10 because of my absurd expectations