Metro Book Club: The Game, by Ken Dryden
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Welcome to the first instalment of the Metro Book Club. This month we’re talking about The Game, by Ken Dryden, an account of the author's career playing goal for the Montreal Canadiens between 1971 and 1979. Every month, a panel of Metro journalists will pick a book to read and discuss.
Dryden published The Game to critical acclaim and commercial success, in 1983, four years after his last season, in which his Canadiens won a fourth consecutive cup. Whereas in his playing days he was a mere Renaissance Sportsman, in retirement he became a full-on Zelig: he was one of Ralph Nader's Raiders, he received honorary doctorates from about a half a dozen schools, he was appointed president of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the late '90s, and in 2004 he was elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal and given a cabinet post. Oh, and he was Al Michaels’s colour commentator for the broadcast of the “Miracle on Ice,” the U.S. Olympic hockey team's stunning defeat of the Soviet Union at the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The Game is divided into nine sections, each named after one of the nine days in late February and early March of 1979 when the action of the book takes place. In the first chapter, “Monday,” Dryden wakes up in Montreal and giddily recalls a strong mid-season performance against Buffalo the night before. By the end of the second “Tuesday,” the Canadiens have completed a three-game road trip, beating the Bruins and Flyers but losing a symbolically significant game against the Islanders, heirs apparent who were poised to embark on a four-consecutive-championship dynasty of their own.
Descriptions of Dryden’s pre- and post-game downtime, the banter in the dressing-room and the action on the ice are interspersed with long sections devoted to, among other things, capsule biographies of teammates, discussion of life in Quebec under René Lévesque’s Parti Quebecois, and the effects of money, fame, suburbanization, and cultural conservatism on hockey.
Matthew LaForge is Metro's managing editor of night-production and an Ottawa native who unceremoniously abandoned the Canadiens around the time the Senators started making the playoffs in the late '90s.
Jennifer Prittie is a Metro copy editor and diehard, season-ticket-holding fan of the Toronto Public Library.
Jonathan Russell is a Metro copy editor who would rather read Hemingway in a snowstorm than play hockey under perfect sunshine.
Agree with our panel? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. You can also find more information on the Book Club on our Goodreads page.
Jen and Jonathan — with all this in mind, I want to start by asking you what you expected to get out of this book when you were told that we would be reading it. How much of Dryden’s and the book’s background did you know going in, and how did that colour your expectations?
And what little I knew about Ken Dryden going into this didn’t change that. I basically knew who he was, knew that he had a pretty well-rounded resumé outside of hockey. In fact, I remember he once came to visit my elementary school to talk about a charity campaign, though I’m not going to say how long ago that was. One thing about his bio did pique my interest: Apparently, he’s a member of the International Scholar-Athlete Hall of Fame. How many people could possibly belong to this institution? Is it located in a hut in someone’s backyard?
Really, the sole thing that gave me hope was the glowing back-cover quote from Mordecai Richler. So maybe all that made me the perfect test case — or test reader — for this book. If it could engage me for 300 pages, there’s no telling what it could accomplish. And it’s pretty safe to say I got a major comeuppance.
I knew almost nothing about Dryden or The Game. I’m a hockey fan in a very distant way: I knew that the Canadiens have won the most Stanley Cups of any team, that Dryden helped them win some of them and that he went on to be a Liberal MP. Because I happened to catch some of his columns in the Globe and Mail, I knew he was a fairly thoughtful fellow, but I had heard nothing about the book until it was in my hands — though I was pleased to see Mordecai Richler’s name attached to it. The rest of the glowing reviews I figured were by hockey freaks for hockey freaks.
Probably I was too easy on him. I never found him so clumsy (with the exception of his overusing “for” as a connective) that it distracted, and therefore detracted, from the reading experience. In fact, whenever he was able to reduce a big idea into a single, almost poetic statement ("Slender, with dark pop-star good looks, in a room of slab-muscled bodies, [centre Pierre Larouche] looks immature and unused, like a hand without calluses"), I was pleasantly surprised that he was able to write with such precision. But that is only a passing charm of the book. Taken on his unique perspective and the ideas alone, it was fairly uneven for me. I have to say, though, I liked more of the book than I disliked.
Jonathan, you mentioned Dryden’s frequent use of conjunctive “for.” The style tic that really got on my nerves: The text is just lousy with semicolons. As a dyed-in-the-wool copy editor like you two, I’ve never been one to endorse Kurt Vonnegut’s famous roasting of semicolons — i.e., that they’re “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college” — which always rang to my ears as smugly populist in a Tea Party-type way. But in reading Dryden I couldn’t help but be reminded of old Kurt. It would be unfair to assume that the stuffier aspects of The Game’s prose represent a superficial attempt on Dryden’s part to establish his literary bona fides, but the tics are hard to miss, and they mean something — something, perhaps, about the peculiar standards often applied to athletes-as-writers: We expect nothing from them, yet, even when they write well, we love to hold against them all of their predictable and understandable shortcomings.
Jen, that International Scholar-Athlete Hall of Fame observation reminds me of the classic moment in Airplane! when the passenger asks for some light reading and Julie Haggerty’s flight attendant offers her “a leaflet on famous Jewish sports legends.”
Anyway, you said that you got a major comeuppance from this book. Am I right, then, to assume that you were less distracted than I was by minor style issues? Or, to put it less delicately, that your enjoyment of the book was less hamstrung by prejudice? In what ways do you think this book delivers the aesthetic goods?
Look, I loved long stretches of this book, and the main reason is that he did a fantastic job of observing the characters on the team over time. Not just [star winger] Guy Lafleur and [head coach] Scotty Bowman, but the whole lot of them. You learn why one player is miserable, another irrationally worried about money, another an incorrigible joker — and how their character feeds into their playing. That was remarkable. Surely that’s infinitely more riveting than focusing on stats?
In fact, I’d say my main problem now is, knowing I liked this style of sports writing, what would I read next? Because I don’t think anyone but a player would ever witness the kind of details he describes. I don’t see how even the best sports writers could have this sort of access. Players wouldn’t let down their guard to that extent.
Matt, I will say that I think you might be being overly crabby about the style points. There are a lot of traps even trained writers fall into that Dryden managed to avoid, self-indulgent sentences among them. If I have an overarching complaint it’s that I don’t think he ever says what season he’s writing about. You have to figure it out yourself.
But not everything was that fascinating or engaging. Dryden, through long, long, long stretches, wrote about aspects of the game that could have been written by anyone. The most unforgivable is his writing on the business side of hockey. It could have been ranted by any schlub on a bar stool.
But who knows, maybe it’s because I’m not such a hockey nut.
Otherwise, I agree with what you both said about Dryden’s sensitivity and acuity in writing about his teammates. I love this passage on defenceman Larry Robinson:
"If you were to close your eyes and think of Larry Robinson, before you thought of his occasional punishing body-checks, or his amiable rawboned farmboy look, you would think of his size. It is his defining feature. As a boy, it was what held him back, and gave him his chance; what made coaches wonder and pro scouts drool; what gave him his potential, and made him slow to realize it. Maturing, slowly gaining control of his distant parts, it was what finally made him a star, and created the Bunyanesque expectations of him not always fulfilled. Like other big men, like a rich man's son or a beautiful girl, he has spent much of his life denying what he is, anxious to prove, ostensibly to others but really to himself, that he is more than just big, that he is what he is by his own merit, not by a quirk of genetics."
In this passage and in many others like it, Dryden makes a ton of narrative hay out of his fly-on-the-wall presence in the dressing room, which — Jen, you're right on the money — exposes as basically futile the brand of sports journalism that trades in speculation about “team chemistry” and about what players are “good in the room,” what players are “clubhouse cancers.” Dryden proves in The Game that, almost by definition, the average journalist isn't qualified to gather the raw materials one requires to write credibly about the psyche of a player or team.
Jen, quick aside, might I suggest that Jim Bouton’s Ball Four is a sports book worth your time. It might be the one sports book that everyone in every walk of literary life agrees on. Bouton was a knuckleball pitcher for the Yankees in the ’70s who gave up the goods on his closed subculture with much less sympathy than Dryden did. He takes a lot of famous Yankees to the cleaners — it’s the book that informed the world of Mickey Mantle’s now-legendary crapulence. Look it up.
I’m curious about what you both thought of the section early in the book about Dryden’s impressions of living in Quebec in the ’70s and the language dynamics in the Canadiens dressing room. I have a few things to say about this section but I’ve been yammering for long enough. Let’s hear it.
For me, and forgive my ignorance on this, it was a pretty minor part of the book. I understand that it paints a picture — and a good one — early on about how it felt playing in Montreal at that time. But Dryden mentions — and perhaps this is telling — that the Canadiens felt the effect of the language rift less than politicians, journalists, and business people because, he writes, "most of my work is alingual." He goes on to say that, if you look deeper into the language divide in the Canadiens dressing room, with English pockets here and French pockets there, "if language is not an issue of their work (like other professions), just as it is not of mine, the tension and rivalry, the division caused by language, are not features of their workplace."
Most important for me, as is true of the other portions of the book I enjoyed the most, he was able to personalize the experience rather than theorize in a dry, disconnected way. His feeling of dislocation in Montreal (such feelings are peppered throughout the book, in various contexts) is expressed nicely, slightly comically, in his description of walking, hands in pockets, past tanks and machine guns from his law school to the Forum after Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act.
You’d think it might have been more of a factor from time to time. But perhaps if I’d grown up in Quebec I wouldn’t assume that at all.
Secondly, hailing as I do from the Ottawa area, the urban streetscapes of my formative years were very French: French street signs, French business names, French food, French–English labour tension — on and on. Ottawa shares some of Montreal’s flavour where language and culture are concerned. When I moved to Toronto in 2004, the absence of French in my new surroundings was jarring. So to read a first-person account of an English speaker being simultaneously charmed and mystified by Quebecois mores was to be transported to a former life. And yet my favourite of Dryden's insights in this area — that a key element of francophone Canadiens players' privilege was their ability to travel freely, whereas average citizens were "language-locked in one area of the continent" — had never occurred to me before. If you speak only French on these shores, you are geographically anchored in a way that even the most remotely located anglophones can't begin to understand.
OK, this has been a great conversation, but we should wrap up. What are your final thoughts? What do you plan to say to people whom you’ve told about this book club, and who are bound to ask you whether they should consider reading this book? Jen, what would you have said to that stranger in Kensington Market?
If you’re not a hockey fan, the miracle of this book is that it offers a route into the game — and I wouldn’t have believed there was a route for me. I could follow the players’ lives, the flow of a whole season through reading this in a way that I just can’t follow a hockey game.
I’ll give you more specific examples. Previously I wouldn’t have given two minutes’ thought to what it’s like to be an NHL goalie. Having read Dryden on the psychological makeup of goalies, their sort of eccentric mentality, I’m more likely to look at a game and wonder what’s going on behind the mask. It’s remarkable that goalies can keep it together day in and day out.
As another example, when I see a hockey fight on TV I think, That is just absurd. It’s really ridiculous. But when Dryden starts writing about competing theories of hockey violence — invoking Freud, NHL brass, various anthropologists and so on — well, that I can latch on to. No doubt someone else will find that absurd, but it works for me. I’m willing to at least consider the possibility now that there’s more to fighting than I thought.
One proviso — I wouldn’t say this is a summer read. Save it for September.
Ken Dryden is a thoughtful guy and a decent writer. He’s not, say, Fitzgerald, whose writing has the ability to hold my attention long enough for me to realize that I do, fear that I do or fantasize that I do have something in common with the characters. I think that effect can be achieved in non-fiction too, but Dryden doesnt have those kinds of chops. His prose style will slide from brevity and precision into verbosity, over-explanation and giving repeated examples of this or that, as if he doesn’t trust that the reader understands what he’s saying. This is part of the reason I preferred the stretches that I sensed were rooted in Dryden’s genuine experience — childhood fantasies in the rink, and realizing those fantasies in the Forum; mid-roadtrip introspection; mixed feelings about the demands of playing in the NHL and pursuing a law career.
Which is not to say that the weaker stretches read as disingenuous. I believe him when he intimates that he gets queasy thinking about hockey as more of a product than a passion, some marketable "thing" to make horrible rich capitalists horribly rich(er). But he writes about the business side of the game in a way that I’ve heard innumerable times in 50 different outlets, his insights no grander than what I’ve encountered in a thousand songs, movies, commercials and the like.
I grew up in Labrador playing shinny in -40 C weather in the Murphys' backyard, played minor hockey for a couple of years and am mildly disappointed when a Canadian team gets knocked out of the playoffs. As a sports reporter and sports editor for different newspapers, I’ve covered a WHL game, a national tournament, small-town minor-hockey games and Hockey Day in Canada celebrations. I've interviewed Dryden himself, as well as Wendel Clark and some other big names you don’t really need to love hockey to know. My relationship to the game exists, however distant. But I still don’t have the passion or the audacity to claim that I’m a fan. I’d recommend the book to the real hockey fans I know, as well as to people like myself, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who has less interest than I do.
I think we'll leave it that for this month. Thanks, Jen and Jonathan. Talk to you again next time.
- You’re encouraged to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
- June's book will be Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead. Read along now so you're up-to-date for the next instalment of the club, and if you're reading -- join the Metro Book Club on our Goodreads page.