Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Summer School: The Required Reading

Today’s Subject: Dryden, Ken. The Game. [Location and publisher ambiguous in my edition, so we’ll just say, Toronto: Ken Dryden’s Tortured Psyche], 1983 (2005)

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 Quebec politics to the nature of celebrity to the psychology of fighting. Sometimes it feels a little schizophrenic, or stream of consciousness. Dryden should have had a blog.

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 New Jersey, I threw the book across the room, when I realized that it wasn’t going to give me the only thing I really wanted from it. I wanted an explanation. I wanted him to tell me what greatness was. I wanted him to explain what made them great, what allowed them to win so often, so spectacularly, what made winning natural for them. What did those Habs have that my Habs don’t? I feel cheated by Dryden’s comfort with his team and their success, the way he can take one of the most extraordinary teams every assembled in the history of the sport and make them into some sort of lovable Everyteam. He says, in the book, that it isn’t fair to expect athletes to be able to explain what they do, that it lives in their muscles and not their minds. But I don’t want to accept that explanation from him. This is a man, after all, who’s made his career(s) on being thoughtful and articulate. If anyone can explain what it is, what it feels like to be phenomenally talented, it should be him.

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.


aquietgirl said...

The best sketches of hockey character I've read is Game of Our Lives by Peter Gzowski. His impressions of Wayne Gretzky, the entire team hibernating in their hotel because they were too afraid to step out into New York City, really stayed with me.

Another author that really tries to capture hockey is Tropic of Hockey by Dave Bidini, which I would venture that you've already met or come across in some form. It's not pure hockey though -- Bidini tends to inhabit the dressing rooms, the beers after the game.

During the Senators' playoff run, I wish I had some of Dryden's eloquence, because hockey's not a sport suited for writing -- it's fluid, it's Zen, it's now now now. The best sports writing tends to be about baseball, where authors have the time to jot down, spit some tobacco and make notes about the creases in the pitcher's forehead whenever he's about to throw a curveball etc. etc. but hockey assaults you emotionally, renders you incapable of articulation. I imagine Dryden writing it and using many, many drafts to get it right, although I'm probably overestimating because he was a part of the game and he probably had time to pick out the exact verb with the perfect nuances as he leaned on that stick of his and gazed out into the crowd.

Oh, and if you're ever feeling frisky, Bidini wrote a great book of hockey erotica called The Five Hole Stories.

aquietgirl said...

Oh! And one last recommendation in case your thorough search in the world of hockey literature has inexplicably failed to find it: The Red Machine by Lawrence Martin, a fascinating account of Soviet hockey, history and tradition that seems to be lost now, even with, erm, the distinguished Kovalev.

I'm making it my mission for the summer to buy a copy. Or convince my library to sell it to me.

Julian said...

My favourite part of The Game is when he talks about Gainey controling the ice, running the game his way and then actually having time to savour it as the clock counted down on another Canadiens Cup. Makes me wonder if I'll ever see the game in remotely the same way.

The part where he goes on about the importance of unstructured play in making players creative and how times have changed is kinda funny when you realize he would have been writing that just as Gretzky was starting to wreak havoc in the NHL.

AQuietGirl, I've heard of that Lawrence Martin one, I had looked for it breifly as well but it's hard to find.

Bidini has a third hockey book (the one before the hockey erotica one, which for some reason is the only hockey book i have here in Taiwan... it's funny, I met him in Guelph shortly before I moved here and he signed the book for me, writing "show this to the taiwanese, they'll understand you better".... which may be true, but it's still a book of hockey erotica. There's not many people I'll willingly show it to as an explanation of who I am) called The Best Game You Can Name. It's about his own beer league team in a tournament and he links his own hockey stories with those of former NHL player, both big time and very small time. Reminds you of the little things that are great about playing, and it's a little more insightful than your average hockey (auto)biography.

E said...

aqg, thanks! i've had tropic of hockey recommended to me many times, in glowing terms, so it's definitely on my list, as is game of our lives. i'll look for the the red machine, but based on preliminary inquiries i think it'll be hard to get my hands on. hockey books seem to have tragically short life-spans, a lot of them disappear within a few years of publication, and i have a feeling i'll have to spend a lot of time haunting used book stores to find stuff.

i've never been able to get into baseball writing. possibly because i've never been able to get into baseball, but also because in the states you get a lot of it pushed at you and most of it is thoroughly plated with 24-carat sentimentality which can be a bit of a turn-off. not that hockey writing doesn't get sentimental as well, but it's a rougher-edged game that seems to inspire a very different tone. i do wonder how far removed dryden's prose is from his actual experiences- it's a book published in 1983 about the 1978-9 season, so he definitely spent a lot of time choosing his words, and you've got to ask if his remembrance of the game and the teams isn't colored by the need to make good narrative. but in the end, it's so good that i just don't care if he's self-fictionalizing a bit.

julian- yeah, there are definitely a few points where he's so catastrophically wrong about something that it's sort of funny to read, although i do think the thing about the loss of creativity still has a certain validity. for me the hilarious part is that he completely failed to anticipate the nhl becoming a multi-national league in the truest sense- he envisioned european hockey staying in europe and canadian hockey staying in north america and the two styles playing out their differences in big international tournaments. he didn't even suspect that the different styles of play would be confronting and integrating with each other within nhl teams on a nightly basis. i think it must have been strange for him that he raised his jersey number in the bell center with the help of two goalies from france and switzerland, and a finnish captain.

and hockey erotica is nothing to be ashamed of! it's interesting, actually, from what little i've been able to find, it seems like hockey fiction that isn't written for children tends to veer toward sex quite frequently and enthusiastically. i wonder if that's the case with all sports fiction, or just the power of hockey's ineffable kinkiness.