Ken Dryden's 'The Game' still works 30 years later

Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden in net at

Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden in net at Madison Square Garden. (Credit: Newsday file photo)

Neil Best

Newsday columnist Neil Best Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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The cast of characters mostly has faded into hockey history by now, little more to fans under 45 than names in a book or images on scratchy, standard def video.

So, truth be told, there likely will be something lost in translation for young readers of Ken Dryden's "The Game" as he recalls fellow stars of the 1970s, no matter how elegant and accurate the descriptions.

But the small miracle of the book, set in 1979 and published in 1983, is that three decades later most everything else about it remains relevant to 21st century readers thanks to its razor-sharp observations about sports and life.

That is what has helped it maintain its "undisputed title" - as Bill Simmons puts it in a foreword written for a new 30th anniversary edition - as the greatest hockey book ever written and one of the best about any sport. (The updated edition includes a moving chapter on Dryden taking the Stanley Cup to his childhood home in 2011.)

Does its staying power surprise the author, now 66 and coming up on 35 years since his playing career ended with a victory over the Rangers in the 1979 Stanley Cup final?

It does not.

He read the book six months ago for the first time since he wrote it and found that it still works.

"When you're writing about a life, then it doesn't get dated," Dryden said last Tuesday over coffee in Manhattan, steps from what would have been the entrance to the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue.

It was an interview arranged in one of his final professional acts by Art Kaminsky, whose pioneering career as a sports agent began with his old Cornell friend Dryden. Kaminsky died last Wednesday.

"Guy Lafleur is dated if it's just Guy Lafleur," Dryden said. "But if it's about Guy Lafleur and fitting into a team and where a great player comes from and all the rest of it, that's timeless stuff.

"It's like somebody writing a book of fiction. Just because it's written about 1922 or '48 or 1855 doesn't necessarily date it, because it is about a person and what that person is dealing with, thinking, worrying about, wondering and in relation to the rest of a family or whatever it happens to be.

"That was the intentional way in which the book was written. The names change and some details change but I think it holds."

The above quote, lengthy as it is, is but a portion of a larger thought from a guy who speaks and writes in well-conceived paragraphs that are difficult to pare down or summarize.

You really have to just read the book to appreciate his thoughts on numerous topics, including celebrity, retirement, fear, business, hockey fighting and the Flyers, the one subject that consistently cracks the shell of his Canadian politeness.

"I don't like the feeling I get in Philadelphia," he writes. "It is a hollowness, deep and disturbed, as if something is about to happen that I don't want to happen but can't stop."

Here's one sliver of his treatise from the book on the life of goalies:

"Playing goal is not fun. Behind a mask, there are no smiling faces, no timely sweaty grins of satisfaction. It is a grim, humorless position, largely uncreative, requiring little physical movement, giving little physical pleasure in return.

"A goalie is simply there, tied to a net and to a game; the game acts, a goalie reacts."

Dryden wrote the book over the course of two years while living in England with his wife and two young children after walking away from the Canadiens at age 31, having won six Cups in eight seasons.

Later he filled a variety of roles, from sharing the TV booth with Al Michaels at the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament to running the Maple Leafs to serving as a Member of Parliament. These days, he teaches a course called "Making the Future" at McGill and the University of Calgary whose goal is "Canadian studies, but in a different way."

Said Dryden, "What Canada has been historically and understood to be historically is far different from the Canada of 2014."

He has no plans to retire, but at least now he has reached normal retirement age, another subject on which he has thought deeply. "At least I've gone through it before," he said.

In the book, Dryden describes the Bruins and Boston Garden, a pivotal venue as both a collegian and a pro, with passion and insight, writing among other things, "To me, Boston Garden is like a dishevelled friend."

But he has less to say about the Rangers and Islanders of that era in the book. So I asked him about Rangers fans and he said he found them "kind of in-between" the "rabid and nasty" Flyers fans and Bruins fans who were "rabid, with a little twinkle in their eyes."

"There was a little bit of that sense of Ranger destiny about them that somehow things weren't going to turn out," he said. "They'd be angry about that but kind of humorously philosophical, too, which is kind of fun."

Dryden said the Canadiens caught a huge break in 1979 when the Rangers beat the Islanders in the semifinals, greatly enhancing their chances for a fourth consecutive Cup before the Islanders began their own streak in 1980.

"They were just a good, solid, hard-to-play-against team that was starting to get a sense of itself and how good they were," he said.

Dryden said the Islanders in the mid-1970s had been "a solid, methodical team that scored by wearing you down rather than with a special play."

Then Mike Bossy came along.

"Bossy could give you the special play," he said. "The rest of the team needed 10 shots to score; Bossy needed one shot to score. So he was a real equalizer. They were just becoming very, clearly good."

Dryden still follows the game, all these years after "The Game." In the book, he is critical of its fighting culture, especially as practiced by the mid-1970s Flyers. So he must be pleased that fighting is less a part of the game now, right? Yes and no.

"There are many fewer fights, but they're different kinds of fights; that's the part that's disturbing,'' he said.

Again, to make a series of long, cogent points short, Dryden's take is that in olden times players mostly fought their own battles, and often weren't particularly adept at fighting, decreasing the stakes.

"It wasn't really dangerous, or the extent to which it was dangerous was a bloody nose,'' he said. "The difference now is fighting has become its own specialty . . . You get designated fighters when in fact the whole original notion was that this was all spontaneous. The difference is the guys who fight now, they really know how to fight."

This story has gotten far longer than it is supposed to be yet is far shorter than it needs to be, so I'll wrap it up with a passage from the book about fandom that helps explain why even for a crusty old sportswriter of 53, spending a few hours with Ken Dryden's book and an hour with Ken Dryden in the flesh meant more than most assignments.

"Hall, Sawchuk, Jacques Plante, and Bower - they were the heroes of my childhood,'' Dryden writes. "Performing before my adolescent eyes, they did unimaginable things in magical places. Everything they did was braver and better than I had ever seen before. Then later, when I got old enough to get close to them, they had gone. And so it was that as a boy, my impression of them was fixed and forever frozen. They were the best. It meant that later, when I would get better, they would get better too.

"For any goalie who came before - Georges Vezina, George Hainsworth, Frank Brimsek, Bill Durnan, Turk Broda - I have only record books and someone else's opinion, invariably exaggerated by time. For those who have come later - Bernie Parent, Tony Esposito, Gump Worsley, Vachon, Ed Giacomin - I have seen each of them up close, too close. I have seen their flaws and remember more than their highlights, and I have fixed on them a thirty-one-year-old's cold, jealous judgement. I know that pucks are now shot faster by more fast shooters. I know that players train harder and longer, and receive better coaching. I know that in any way an athlete can be measured - in strength, in speed, in height or distance jumped - he is immensely superior to one who performed twenty years ago. But measured against a memory, he has no chance. I know what I feel.

"Nothing is as good as it used to be, and it never was. The 'golden age of sports,' the golden age of anything, is the age of everyone's childhood. For me and for the writers and commentators of my time, it was the 1950s. For those who lived in the 1950s and adults, it was the 1920s or the 1930s. Only major disruptions like wars, or expansions can later persuade a child of those times that what he feels cannot be right. For me, the greatest goalies must always be Hall, Sawchuk, Plante, and Bower.

"As I skate off at the end of practice, I wonder what Johnny Bower is thinking."

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