Today’s Subject: Dryden, Ken. The Game. [Location and publisher ambiguous in my edition, so we’ll just say,
Representative Soundbite: “The game goes on, too fast to stop, too fast for anything but a penetrating burn of feeling that later, with time, will explain itself. Its smile has disappeared. It has lost its professional cool; it is fun. Desperate, twisting, thrilling fun that hurts so much you want it to stop, and need it to go on.” (231-232)
Everyone but me has read this book already. It is the most famous hockey book ever written, so famous that even people who don’t like hockey read it. It is also, officially, the best hockey book ever written, and in case you have any doubts, the entire thing is covered with declarations thereof- the awards it’s won, the fantastic reviews it’s received. So I’m going to go ahead and assume that: A) anyone who is reading this has already read the book, and B) no one needs another review of it. So I’ll just skip the summary and the obligatory recommendation (seriously, it’s an amazing book), and go on to my own disjointed thoughts.
It’s an immersive book to read. Dryden is an evocative, insidious writer, he gets under your skin, or maybe just invites you into his. When he speaks of his team, and especially the daily life of hockey- the routines of practices, games, road trips, hotel rooms, team meals- the words on the page are glass. It feels like looking through a picture-window on the 1978-1979 Canadiens, only the occasional odd smudge to remind you that there is in fact something intermediary between you and the events described.
But it’s not all description, and it’s not really about his season, his team, or his career. Although Ken Dryden is a great writer, he isn’t a writer by vocation. He did write a few other books later, but The Game has the feel of a single, great attempt, as though he’d intended to write one and only one book that included everything he had to say about hockey. As such, while his personal experiences frame the book, it’s full of digressions and asides, brief meditations on almost everything, from
Like a lot of hockey writing, it’s pervaded by a quirky tension between nostalgia and progressivism. On the one hand, there’s a sparkling ache in it, a yearning for a past that feels more and more lost with every passing season, for something that hockey was, or seemed like, when he was young. He spends a lot of time talking about childhood, his own childhood, those of his teammates. In best Canadian fashion, it is those remembered moments that he uses to represent what hockey ought to be- acknowledging that it’s a myth while at the same time lovingly replicating it- the game for the sake of the game, most real when it is most improvised. With the ever-increasing professionalization of the sport, the money and celebrity and business aspects, the forces that motivate children to take hockey as work rather than fun at a younger and younger age, he laments a certain loss of freedom that comes when playing turns into training- a loss that reaches all the way to the NHL, where he sees the sport becoming less creative and less organic with time. Everything was sweeter, purer, more authentic back in the days before.
But at the same time, he cannot resist letting out his (even then) inner politician and making some grandiose- and by contemporary standards, sometimes quite odd- predictions and prescriptions for the game. One particularly long section is nothing more than his own recap of Canadian hockey history, but it’s a rendition with an agenda, and by the end he is exuberantly proposing all sorts of changes that would ‘fix’ the game. Everything is changing too fast, let’s change it some more and see what happens. One gets the sense that hockey is a sport that has never stopped to catch it’s own breath, perpetually suspended between a golden past and a platinum future, the present just an unsatisfactory stopping point between the glory that might have been and the greater glory that might be, if only everyone would for once start moving in the same direction. But no, we’re all trying to yank the sport in different ways- backwards, forwards, more violence, less violence, more commercialism, less commercialism, nationalism, internationalism. It was that way in 1979 and it’s that way now, and maybe we should just be glad that hockey wasn’t ripped apart at the seams a long time ago.
It’s a painful book to read as a latter-day Habs fan. To a lot of readers, it’s probably incidental that it’s about the Canadiens- Dryden’s eloquence and talent for the insightful generalization almost make them into a meta-team. For example, when he talks about Bob Gainey, he’s also talking about the distinctive experience of the defensive forward, and I suspect a lot of people can’t help but substitute in whatever talented but low-scoring 3rd-liner has meant most to them, when they read those passages. But it was a real team, a real group of men; men who still cast long shadows over hockey in this city. 1979. The last year of Dryden’s career, the last year of the Habs’ golden age. The last dynasty. The last really good Canadiens.
One morning, in a hotel room in
But he can’t. For him, extraordinary is ordinary, and just like I can’t imagine what it’s like to have that kind of talent- at anything, much less hockey- he can’t imagine what it’s like not to. He knows that he was one of the greatest goalies of his generation, his team the greatest of its time, but for him, that’s just the way it was, and all his eloquence can’t give a reason for it. It was a thousand things, and nothing, no single secret that he can unlock. It just was- a rare moment, a strange and wonderful time, and in the end, if I’m angry, it’s because I missed it, and however many years of my life I spend with hockey, how many teams of Canadiens I adopt, I may never see the like.
It’s impossible to write hockey. Trust me, I’ve tried, but there’s something at the core of the sport that makes a mockery of language and you just cannot write the truth of it. Mostly you can write about it, and with enough metaphors and enough imagination you can sort of approximate it, but the game itself, on the ice, is just not writable. But there’s one chapter of The Game (fittingly Saturday) that comes as close as I think will ever be possible to capturing a hockey game in text. It evokes the speed, the strategy, the style of hockey, but more than that, it somehow- and believe me, I wish I knew how- captures the feeling of it, the rush, the visceral thrill. If it doesn’t make your heart beat a little faster, you might not actually be human. That alone is more than enough to make it not just the best hockey book ever, but a genuinely great book on the wider scale of literature. It almost writes the unwritable. It is, seriously, amazing.