Review of Ken Dryden, The Game *
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Ken Dryden’s seminal account of life as a professional hockey player during the 1978-1979 NHL season and sheds light on the sport’s important place in Canadian society, culture, and identity – all very prescient topics for discussion given Canada’s approaching sesquicentennial in 2017. In articulate, reflective, and at times refreshingly honest prose, Dryden chronicles the Canadiens’ ultimately triumphant quest for a fourth-straight Stanley Cup in his final season, which cemented the squad as the last professional sports ‘dynasty’ from Canada. Though it has many, Dryden’s book is not just a compilation of anecdotes but fundamentally a tale of structure and connectivity, with hockey serving as the chain and link within his own life as a player, a teammate, a fan, a son, a husband, and a father. In this regard, the simple yet poignant title fits perfectly. For Dryden, although hockey is just a game, he considers the rink a place of refuge for its sentimental value, his enduring ‘love for the game,’ yet also, paradoxically, the relief of retirement. Though not without flaws, The Game is still a tour de force thirty years on largely because it remains very accessible and relevant. Committed hockey fans will be fascinated by Dryden’s description of the Canadiens-Maple Leafs rivalry and the dynamics of his team’s camaraderie and various personalities. Casual observers, meanwhile, will find his views on hockey violence and the commercialization of sport relevant as such issues still in many respects define the NHL today.
In terms of organization, Dryden’s book is more thematic than chronological. Though each chapter is consecutively entitled after a ‘day,’ the book is not based on a single week during the 1978-1979 campaign but rather an entire season through the framework of his ‘typical’ week. In the first three chapters, entitled ‘Monday,’ ‘Tuesday,’ and ‘Wednesday,’ respectively, Dryden discusses the influence of hockey on players’ private and professional lives. In ‘Monday,’ he explains the book’s format by emphasizing hockey’s hegemonic role: there were only three ‘seasons’ in a given year (offseason, regular season, and postseason) and only two ‘days’ in a given week (practice days and game days). For Dryden, this structure reflected another salient point regarding hockey and life as a professional athlete in Canada during this time. Escalating lingual and cultural tensions between much of English- and French-Canada found little traction in the Canadiens’ dressing room, as such concerns were deemed petty and unimportant to their function as a team. Canada is no longer primarily defined by the French-English divide, but it is worth considering whether Dryden’s experience of the Canadiens dressing room could be extended to encompass other racial and cultural divides in Canadian society or if, on the other hand, the English-French tension was easier to overcome than, for instance, the ongoing prejudice faced by NHL players who identify as Indigenous.
In the next two chapters, Dryden highlights the false dichotomy of professional and private life as both interacted and blended with one another. In ‘Wednesday,’ a ‘practice day,’ hockey briefly recedes into the background as he discusses the difficulties of adapting to a bilingual city and remaining close to family before regretfully leaving to participate in a team practice. In ‘Thursday,’ a ‘game day,’ a showdown with the hated Maple Leafs in Toronto also meant for Dryden a visit with his parents, sparking the recollection of childhood memories of quintessentially ‘Canadian’ backyard rinks and innocent dreams of stardom. After a convincing victory for the Canadiens, his postgame conversation with his father is short and brief, echoing the fleeting nature of his nostalgic reminiscences of the past, and perhaps gesture towards this superficial aspect of the Canadiana mythology.
The rest of the book, by contrast, focuses more on the team itself and less on Dryden’s personal life. In ‘Thursday’ and ‘Friday,’ the success of the Canadiens is a result of not merely superlative skill and ability but also, crucially as Dryden affirms, playful and cordial relations amongst teammates. In particular, a come-from-behind victory over the powerhouse Bruins in Boston—a rematch of the previous two Stanley Cup finals—was fondly recalled, especially for the ‘forbidden’ consumption of alcoholic beverages on the team bus after the game in celebration. As well, he provides unique perspectives of fellow teammates and future team legends such as Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey, and Yvan Cournoyer. In ‘Saturday’ and ‘Sunday,’ Dryden broadens the audience for his book from the diehard fan to the casual sports observer. He discusses the business of hockey, the changing conceptions of players from simple heroes to celebrities, and violence in the sport, placing blame on the league and players accordingly. Lastly, in what can be considered two relatively brief but concluding chapters entitled, quite deliberately, ‘Monday’ and ‘Tuesday,’ Dryden returns to discussing the familiar tropes of passion, competitiveness, closure, and regret; though on this occasion, he emphasizes the manifestation of such themes on road trips against difficult teams such as the Islanders in New York and the Flyers in Philadelphia. He does not enjoy such trips as he once did, in large part because the game, he suggests, has changed for the worse.
Readers can learn a lot from this book, and such knowledge is not confined to basic hockey facts. For Dryden, participation in hockey was originally fuelled by a ‘love of the game’ and soon developed into a profitable passion. Increasingly, however, it felt like a profitable ‘burden,’ and since it had come to influence everything for Dryden, it followed that it soon meant nothing. Dryden’s sober, honest, yet still optimistic perspective of his experience as a professional hockey player adds a dimension of realism typically unfound in other popular histories of the sport. Casual and committed observers alike will find that Dryden’s book is quite substantive. He does not glorify team accomplishments or his own personal celebrity; in fact, on many occasions, he relates anecdotes of dressing room discussions following a Canadiens victory that show his teammates were too bothered by the imperfections of their performance to enjoy the game’s outcome.
He also laments the commercialization of the industry, particularly how hockey became defined by profit rather than on-ice success, a point that is truer today than ever. Oddly, Dryden attributes as much blame to the players as the owners, claiming that they were equally responsible for escalating salaries, which in turn caused higher ticket prices and perturbed fans. Dryden’s assessment here probably needs to be taken with a grain of salt; NHL players were, for most of the century, paid very little for dangerous and short-lived – if often ‘fun’ – careers. Indeed, this ties into his sharp assessment of violence in hockey: he condemns the NHL’s laissez-faire approach which allowed for more infractions and belligerence during games, pointing out that the lack of decisive action maintains if not increases on-ice violence. Players and teams had little incentive to make games less hostile since the NHL, due to consistent profits, downplayed health concerns. In the thirty years since The Game was first published, the NHL has largely promoted hockey as a rugged, tough, and physical sporting spectacle. To attract potential stakeholders and investors in wealthy American markets, the fast-paced nature of the game and individual and team skill is not fundamental to the NHL’s marketed hockey ‘brand.’ Dryden suggests that the commercialization of the league has fostered increased on-ice violence which, in turn, has made the sport increasingly and deliberately unsafe. In light of current health-related concerns pertaining to head injuries in hockey, Dryden’s assessment still has considerable merit. Elite NHL players and especially team owners have become infinitely richer over the last three decades but such growth has not followed in terms of limiting on-ice violence and promoting a cleaner yet still highly competitive league. Arguably, the violence has been encouraged in order to keep profits up, with little regard for the players whose careers are ended or shortened as a result, nor especially for the tens of thousands of junior and minor league players who are encouraged to batter one another brutally, year after year, while competing for the limited number of NHL spots.
For committed hockey fans and observers, Dryden’s book does not disappoint. There are several memorable anecdotes that demonstrate the sometimes playful dynamic of the team. Dryden tells of one instance when Steve Shutt, a forward, urinated into a cup and added Coke to change the liquid’s colour after a practice. When fellow forward Mario Tremblay decided to steal a sip from Shutt’s ‘Coke,’ players howled with laughter for obvious reasons. On a more serious note, Dryden’s brutal honesty towards teammates is another undeniable strength of his book. He notes that future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Larry Robinson was ‘past his prime’ by the 1978-1979 season and accuses Guy Lapointe of having a ‘phobia’ for blocking shots. Given the legendary status of these players for Montreal fans then and now, such frankness is decidedly unconventional. Regarding his relationship with backup goalie ‘Bunny’ Larocque, Dryden bluntly states that on the odd occasion that the Canadiens were losing badly in a game and ‘Bunny’ was in net, he wanted him ‘to play well, but not too well.’ This kind of honesty contrasts the standard ‘team-first’ attitude to which most fans believe players adhere.
For all potential readers, Dryden successfully places hockey in the fabric of hegemonic Canadian identity. First off, he argues that the 1972 Summit Series reflected Canadians’ fatalism regarding hockey: they were prepared to embellish victory celebrations precisely because Team Canada had been so close to defeat. In this sense, for Dryden, hockey reflects a certain innocence – he might have said ignorance – about what Canada actually is, yet a willingness amongst Canadians to defend the notion of an abstract Canada. As well, his recollections of the long days and nights spent on backyard rinks and frozen ponds and rivers is still a familiar trope for Canadian hockey players, regardless of its veracity. Hockey, according to scholar Michael Robidoux, originally became prominent in Victorian-era Canada largely because it was the sport (relative to lacrosse) that was popular for its accessibility; it transcended class divides and socio-economic status. However, in recent years, it is not a secret that hockey has become a sport for the wealthiest Canadians, especially as high costs severely limit its affordability. The parents of Patrick Kane – the reigning Conn Smythe trophy award winner of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks – estimated that they spent $250 000 on his minor league hockey. Kane was born in Buffalo, NY, but such expenses are not uncommon for aspiring young players and their families on both sides of the border. If Dryden’s memories of playing in his formative and adolescent years conform to a dominant view of hockey’s place in Canada, new realities suggest that competitive, organized hockey is a sport less for the many and more for the few.
Dryden’s book is not without other flaws. Its organization leaves the reader confused at times regarding specific dates and times, especially since some of the games referenced do not actually occur during the 1978-1979 season. He can be rather longwinded and pontificating, which leaves hockey fans desiring for more insider accounts of his experience goaltending for one of the greatest teams ever. At times, he focuses too heavily on his perspectives as an Ivy-League-educated citizen. Despite these shortcomings, The Game is one of the more informative and readable popular sports histories available to consumers. It contains a plethora of fascinating insights and accounts of hockey life from a bygone era. Yet, many of Dryden’s reflections still resonate today, particularly regarding the business of hockey and the league’s regulation (or lack thereof) of in-game violence. As a result, The Game will remain an important book fusing hockey history with Canadian identity and culture approaching 2017 and likely long after. Indeed, as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper intends to release his own book about hockey – whenever that may be – one gets a sense of the self-conscious effort on behalf of the Canadian elite to link itself to the popular nationalism associated with the game. For progressive Canadians, the question is not whether hockey is woven into the fabric of the Canadian nation but, rather, how to use that relationship to create a better Canada.
Adrian Zita-Bennett is currently a graduate student at McMaster University and his work has appeared in several peer-reviewed journals. He is a devoted Habs fan, patiently awaiting the club’s 25th Coupe Stanley.
* Ken Dryden. The Game. Toronto: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1983.