The Game

Patrick J. Garrity

May 1, 2008

The Game by Ken DrydenThe Game
Ken Dryden (Wiley, John & Sons, Inc., 2005), 308 pp.

Over the next two weeks, the most exciting of the major professional sports playoffs will culminate in the Stanley Cup Finals—viewable for the most part, alas, only on an obscure American cable television network. In the absence of big-time media coverage, the best way to appreciate the Finals is to read, or re-read, The Game, Ken Dryden’s memoir of a week during the 1978-1979 hockey season. Dryden used that otherwise unremarkable week as a means to reflect memorably on the life and times of a professional athlete, in what is perhaps the best first-hand account ever written.

No ghost writer needed to apply. Dryden is often compared to Bill Bradley, the Rhodes Scholar and New York Knicks basketball forward who later became a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate. Dryden, a Cornell University graduate and attorney, associated himself with the Canadian version of Ralph Nader’s Raiders and a variety of other public interest causes. Dryden’s activities off the ice brought him much publicity and the reputation as an “egghead,” quite literally a clubhouse lawyer. After his retirement from hockey and a stint in the front office of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dryden too went on to career in politics. He was elected as a Member of the Canadian Parliament and served as Minister of Social Development in the Liberal Government. But while Bradley was a role player, albeit an excellent one, Dryden was a genuine star—a Hall of Famer, generally ranked among the five best NHL goalies of all time and at the top of many lists, especially for his brilliance during the playoffs. During his career, Dryden’s Montreal Canadiens won six Stanley Cups.

From a purely athletic standpoint, a better comparison for Dryden might be with Jim Brown, who retired from the National Football League at age 30 after leading the league in rushing in 1965; or Sandy Koufax, who walked away from baseball after winning 27 games in 1966. Dryden likewise left hockey at the peak of his career, after only eight seasons (including his first abbreviated season, when he won the Most Valuable Player award for Stanley Cup playoffs). The season described in The Game would be his last. He did not write the book until four years later, after rummaging through notes he had jotted down on the back of envelopes and hotel stationary over the years. Dryden focused his narrative on this particular week because it involved a critical regular season game against Montreal’s emerging rival, the New York Islanders, but also because it was about this time that he made his decision to retire. He explained that he wrote the book not in order to understand why he retired at the peak of his career, but quite the opposite: to understand why he played professional hockey as long as he did. Dryden said he originally signed a pro contract with the idea of earning enough money to put himself through law school. He had no idea that he would become as good as he did but that was not why he played. In the end, he decided, he stayed because he loved “the game,” not the sport, the money, or the fame.

“The game” was … something that belongs only to those who play it, a code phrase that anyone who has played a sport, any sport, understands. It’s the common heritage of parents and backyards, teammates, friends, winning, losing, dressing rooms, road trips, coaches, press, fans, money, celebrity—a life, so long as you live it. — It is hockey I’m leaving behind. It is “the game” that I’ll miss.

Dryden’s tale was noteworthy not only because of who he was but because of where he played. The Montreal Canadiens were for decades the royalty of professional hockey, the New York Yankees of their sport. From 1916, before the National Hockey League existed, until 1993, when the organization fell on lean times, Montreal won more championships (24) than any other professional sports franchise. But the Canadiens were more than that. Hockey was the Canadian national sport and the Canadiens were Canada’s team. More specifically they were French Canada’s team, with a long line of memorable French-Canadian stars: Henri and Maurice Richard, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Jean Béliveau, Guy Lafleur, Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cournoyer, and Patrick Roy (before his trade). The city of Montreal and the province of Quebec were passionate about their Canadiens, perhaps only in the way that Green Bay is passionate about its Packers, but the passion went beyond sports to the very culture that French Canadians were then striving to protect.

Not all of the team’s stars were French-Canadian—Dryden, a native of Ontario, being a case in point. He lived and played in Montreal in the 1970s, during one of the periodic pushes for independence, notably the 1976 general election victory of the Parti Québécois. Dryden attempted to fit in by working hard to learn and speak French, which many English-speaker players and coaches did not do, because “in Montreal language is the single dominant fact of life.” He admitted that he was never truly comfortable speaking French but at the same time, he felt little in common with the English-speaking community. Although he generally liked living in Montreal, “I feel like I do when I lose my glasses. I know that there is much going on around me, but I can’t see what it is.”

Dryden considered whether the societal divisions were reflected in the locker room. By and large he thought not, at least not directly. “We know there are differences, we just don’t think they are important”—what they had in common as hockey players outweighed the cultural and linguistic differences. But Dryden did acknowledge that external pressures and expectations could not be kept out of team affairs. In 1971, Dryden’s first year with the club, aging star Henri Richard told reporters during the Stanley Cup Finals that coach Al MacNeil was “incompetent.” This was widely understood in Quebec as code for “MacNeil, a unilingual English-speaking Canadian, cannot relate to French-speaking players.” Montreal, behind Dryden’s brilliant goaltending, won the Cup—but MacNeil was soon gone as coach. Message received. “And so, while language may not divide us, others—the public, the press—whose experience is different, who themselves are divided by language, and who find tension and rivalry by language in their work place, understand and explain us in their way, and in doing so, sometimes cause division. That will not change. For if the team is no longer truly of the society of which it is a part, it remains its most visible symbol. It has been, and continues to be, used by both sides as they play out their tensions.”

Inside the confines of the Montreal Forum—the old arena—Dryden’s professional life was dominated by the Canadiens’ controversial coach, Scotty Bowman, who took over for MacNeil in 1971-72. (Bowman, born in Quebec, was bilingual.) Bowman would become the most distinguished North American hockey coach, eventually winning nine Stanley Cups, five of them with Montreal. Bowman, as portrayed by Dryden, sounds very much like New England football coach Bill Belichick—”abrupt, straightforward, without flair or charm, he seems cold and abrasive, sometimes obnoxious, controversial, but never colorful. He is not Vince Lombardi, tough and gruff with a heart of gold. … He plays favorites. His favorites, while rarely feeling favored, are those who work and produce for him. He is complex, confusing, misunderstood, unclear in every way but one. He is a brilliant coach, the best of his time.”

Bowman’s brilliance, according to Dryden, began with his ability never to lose sight of the ultimate goal—the month of May, when the Stanley Cup would be decided—while never compromising any game during the regular season, which Bowman regarded as a series of signposts measuring the team’s progress toward peak performance in the playoffs. Bowman believed that the coach’s most important job was “getting the right players on the ice,” which sounds trite, but it ran against the common coaching practice of creating a system of play that seeks to impose one’s style on the opposing team. According to Dryden, Bowman’s ideal was a team “good enough to play, and win, any style of game. For it, a system would be too confining, robbing a team of its unique feature—its flexibility. Further, Bowman understands … that the flip side of winning with a system is losing by that system. So Bowman, a pragmatist, with the tools any pragmatist would envy, coaches with what he calls a ’plan.’” Bowman’s plan emphasized speed. Speed disoriented opponents and stripped away their skills and coordination. Speed was to be combined with flexibility—”a championship team needs all kinds of players, and … too many players of the same type, no matter how good, make any team vulnerable.”

Bowman was clearly the boss, a constant, nagging, belligerent presence. He identified the excuses that each individual player used as “crutch” for poor performance and systematically removed them, “leaving us with no way out if we lose.” The team with the fewest crutches, he believed, would win. Bowman thought that the great players were largely self-motivated—or at least beyond motivation by a coach—and so he focused his principal attention on manipulating and motivating the marginal players, sometimes cruelly, by benching or ignoring them; but then calling on them (usually successfully) when the right moment arrived, only to start the process over. As to Bowman’s treatment of his star goalie, Dryden:

I always believed that he played me the way he did because he understood me. He played me often because I needed to play often to feel part of the team; he put me into a game after a bad game because he knew that the humiliation I felt wouldn’t go away until I played better; he played me on the road, when I was sick or injured, against the Islanders, Bruins and Flyers because he knew I needed the exciting challenge that each offered. And when he talked to the press of my outside interests, he always spoke positively of them, as if he understood my need for distractions from the game, my need to pursue other things for their own sake.

The relationship between great players and role players was one that interested Dryden as well. He believed that a superstar was set apart by one great stereotypical skill around which he organized his game, something that was his own—Guy Lafleur’s quickness, Bobby Hull’s wicked shot, Maurice Richard’s insistent passion. But by Dryden’s definition, great players must also be selfish. “It is a platitude of sports that a great player makes everyone around him better, but when it is true, the effect is often just spillover and coincidental. Indeed, more commonly, it works the other way—the great player has everyone around him to make him better. When a superstar comes on to the field, a game changes and is drawn to him. … It is why great players rarely work well together (there can be only one ball or one puck at a time), and are more effective with players of complementary and subservient skills.” Dryden believed that it was almost impossible for a single player, however great, to dominate a hockey game—there are too many players being rotated too often. He did make two exceptions from his experience (writing before the days of Wayne Gretzky): Philadelphia’s Bobby Clarke, whose fierceness set the mood for the entire game; and Boston’s Bobby Orr, whose remarkable skill set as a defenseman changed the way the game was played.

Those reflections highlight the importance of the so-called role player, or what Dryden called “a player’s player.” Dryden’s model was his teammate, Bob Gainey, a defense-oriented forward with limited offensive skills, a man who “has the personal and playing qualities that others wish they had, basic, unalterable qualities—dependability, discipline, hard work, courage—the roots of every team. To them, Gainey adds a timely, insistent passion, an enormous will to win, and a powerful, punishing playing style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo. If I could be a forward, I would want to be Bob Gainey.” That is not to say that Gainey was without selfish interests, rightly understood. “For Gainey’s skills are a team’s skills. … While other players, in their roles, constantly battle between the tension between team and self … simply put, what is good for Bob Gainey is good for the team; and vice versa. In many ways he is like former basketball star Bill Bradley. Without virtuoso individual skills, team play becomes both a virtue and necessity, and what others understand as unselfishness is really cold-eyed realism—he simply knows that works best, for the team and for him.”

When making a trade, general managers and coaches have the difficult task of weighing the value of certain role players in the subtle mix of personalities in the locker room as well as on the ice. Dryden recalled fondly Pete Maholovich, an outrageous personality and the team’s informal social director, ambassador and guide—but a player whose performance became more uneven and labored over the years. Even his party-animal act began to wear thin with his teammates. And then Montreal traded him to Pittsburgh. “When he left, the dressing room changed,” Dryden recalled. “Everything we had come to expect of him—the hats, the jackets, the laughs, the outrageous stories—we couldn’t count on any more. Even the few things we told ourselves we wouldn’t miss, we did. Each had become something we could depend on, something we could fit in with and organize around, something that was part of him, had become part of us. … In a life that changes with the score, this is our continuity, our security. When Maholovich was traded, the whole room felt lousy for a while.”

But what about the goalie? Is he—must he be—a superstar, or is he merely a glorified role player? Can he dominate the game? Common wisdom says that Stanley Cup champion will be determined by the team with the best goaltending, the goaltender who makes saves standing on his head. A hot goalie arguably can carry an otherwise ordinary team to the Finals or to the championship itself.

Dryden had a rather different take on his position. He distinguished fundamentally between good “good team” goalies and good “bad team” goalies. The latter are spectacular, capable of making near-impossible saves that few others can make. “They are essential for bad teams, winning them games that they shouldn’t win, but they are goalies who need a second chance, who need the cushion of an occasional bad goal, knowing that they can seem to earn it back later with several inspired saves.” Dryden thinks of himself as meeting the rather different requirements of a good team goalie—one who has fewer near-impossible saves to make (because his defense will prevent the other team from having easy scoring chances) but one who must make the “ordinary” save flawlessly, because he plays in close and critical games and he will get no second chance.

A good “bad team” goalie, numbed by the volume of goals he cannot prevent, can focus on brilliant saves and brilliant games, the only things that can make a difference to a poor team. A good “good team” goalie cannot. Allowing few enough goals that he feels every one, he is driven by something else—the penetrating hatred of letting in a goal.

Dryden does not offer a technical dissertation on goalie play, the advantages of standup/position goalies (now a dying breed) versus the butterfly technique. Playing goalie is grim, humorless, and reactive—not especially dangerous, at least as Dryden figured, but a position in which pain accumulates. For Dryden, goaltending is a not primarily a style or set of physical attributes. (He claimed that his wife had better hand-eye coordination.) Rather, it is “a certain character of mind that need not be nimble or dexterous, for the demands of the job are not complex, but a mind emotionally disciplined, one able to be focused and directed, a mind under control.

Because the demands on a goalie are mostly mental, it means that for a goalie the biggest enemy is himself. Not a puck, not an opponent, not a quirk of size or style. Him. The stress and anxiety he feels when he plays, the fear of failing, the fear of being embarrassed, the fear of being physically hurt, all are symptoms of the position, in constant ebb and flow, but never disappearing. The successful goalie understands these neuroses, accepts them, and puts them under control.

Dryden’s satisfaction for controlling his mind and emotions came from the challenges that playing goal presented. “Simply stated, it is to give the team what it needs, when it needs it, not when I feel well-rested, injury-free, warmed up, psyched up, healthy, happy, and able to give it, but when the team need it.” Oddly enough, as the years go by, the good team goalie feels increasingly detached from the team’s success. “What I enjoy most about goaltending now is the game itself: feeling myself slowly immerse in it, finding its rhythm, anticipating it, getting there before it does, challenging it, controlling a play that should control me, making it go where I want it to go, moving easily, crushingly within myself, delivering a clear, confident message to the game.” He had long since abandoned keeping a written record on opposing players or trying to memorize their tendencies and strengths and weakness. He just knew what is going to happen. Dryden struggled to make the laymen—all non-goalies—understand the Zen of his position.

When the game gets close to me, or threatens to get close, my conscious mind goes blank. I hear nothing, my eyes watch the puck, my body moves—like a goalie moves, like I move; I don’t tell it to move or how to move or where, I don’t know it’s moving, I don’t feel it move—and yet it moves. And when my eyes watch the puck, I see things I don’t know I’m seeing. … I see something in the way a shooter holds his stick, in the way his body angles and turns, in the way he’s being checked, in what he’s done before that tells me what he’ll do—and my body moves. I let it move. I trust it and the unconscious mind that moves it.

Because goalies live the life of the mind, they are different and apart from “regular” hockey players, in much the same way that football kickers and baseball pitchers are different. They are typically introverts, flakes, loners, hypersensitive. Dryden, who had the added difference of being an attorney and social activist, was even further removed from the mainstream. As such he found the blessing and curse of all modern professional athletes, that of money and celebrity, to be especially troubling. “I have never been able to justify the amount of money I earn. I can explain it”—he and his team produced enormous revenues, and he was entitled to his share—”but that’s not the same thing.” If someone asked him why he should earn more than a teacher, nurse, carpenter or mechanic, he had no answer.

Dryden also reflected uneasily on the special treatment he received as an athlete/celebrity. When he entered his local bank to make a routine deposit, he was recognized and taken care of immediately. These courtesies multiplied endlessly, without the athlete even realizing it. “It is the kind of treatment we have grown accustomed to, and enjoy. We have been special for most of our lives. … And we love it. We say we don’t, but we do.” This has always been the case with athletes but modern image makers now create a public persona—affable, independent, articulate, whatever suited the market and the popular need for heroes. An entire industry has grown up to make athletes seem to be as good at life as they are on the ice or the playing field (as Roger Angell put it). Their photos are taken with sick children and the elderly in old folks’ homes. But is it real? Dryden confronts the Charles Barkley question, famously raised in the Nike shoe commercials: should athletes, qua (celebrity) athletes, be treated as role models? Dryden emphatically answers, no. “We all lose, at least a little. We lose because you think I am better than I am—brighter than I am, kinder, more compassionate, capable of more things, as good at life as I am at the game—and I’m not. … The public loses because it feels less worthy than it is: I, because once, twenty-three years old and trying to learn about myself, I wanted to believe I was everything others said I was, or soon would be; instead older and having learned much, I feel co-conspirator to a fraud.

We are not heroes. We are hockey players. We do exciting, sometimes courageous, sometimes ennobling things like heroes do, but no more than anyone else does. Blown up on a TV screen or a page of print, hyped by distance and imagination, we seem more heroic, the scope of our achievement seems grander, but it isn’t, and we’re not. Our cause, our commitment is no different from anyone else’s, the human qualities engendered are the same. Instead we are no more than examples, metaphors because we enter every home, models for the young because their world is small and we do what they do. But by creating celebrity and mistaking it for substance, too often we turn celebrity into hero, and lose it again.

Since Dryden wrote The Game, much has changed, as he notes in the 2003 edition. Most importantly for him, the role of money in hockey. But some things about the game never change. In that edition, Dryden noted that he had recently watched a tape he had not seen in years, the second game of the 1978 Stanley Cup semi-finals between Montreal and Toronto, won by the Canadiens, 3-2. “When I sat down to watch, I wasn’t sure what I would see. I was less sure how I would react to what I saw. As I watched, I started to enjoy. We were good. We were really good.”

Patrick J. Garrity is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.