11 September 2020

The Game by Ken Dryden

I got this book for my husband a few years back because he told me he liked reading to impress me but I've only seen him read one book in the years we've been together... he still insists he's going to read this but in the meantime I thought I'd pick it up to learn a thing or two about his favourite team and goalie, and because I do like sports culture. It's widely considered one of the best sports books of all time.

Ken Dryden is a former goalie for the Montreal Canadiens and the book chronicles his last year playing professional hockey ('78-'79 season). Dryden is an interesting athlete because he's also a lawyer and practiced both law and politics after his retirement from the game. For me, a large part of the book's success is how articulate and compelling of a writer Dryden is. I'm not sure a lot of athletes could paint such a successful or holistic picture of the multifaceted lifestyle of playing professional sports. My copy has a foreword by Bill Simmons where he mainly says the same. 

Scott, my husband, loves hockey. I know a lot of guys who love hockey just the same but Scott, who doesn't care about much of anything, is such a fun person to watch obsess over something. I've taken to watching hockey with him but I care more about googling the players than watching their stick handling. I love learning about how they got started and watching old clips of them skating around in Timbits jerseys. Dryden's book caters to both mine and Scott's interests. It's packed with details about the games and players in the '78 season but peppered throughout are so many great stories about him playing ball hockey with his brother as a kid, etc.. 



Particularly, Scott has a thing for goalies. Everyone who knows him knows he has a low key obsession with Carey Price - he loves to make excuses for him when he's had a bad game but tell me "he's back!" when he has a good game - but Scott actually requested a a framed picture of Dryden leaning on his stick to be hung in our basement over a picture of Price - Dryden was his first love. I guess the position is somewhat iconic (it's on the cover of the book) and Dryden acknowledges it here:

I'm not sure when I began leaning on my stick. Perhaps at Cornell, perhaps sooner; it was a resting position at first, a habit, in time a personal trademark of sorts, and though I'm never conscious of doing it, after a good save or a bad goal I always hold the pose a little longer, as if wanting to deliver a message. Wishing to appear crushingly within myself- 'A great save?' it says, with curious indifference. 'Not even a test. You might as well give up.' A bad goal? In a quietly defiant way it reminds fans and opponents, 'You'll never get to me.'"

I guess the Canadiens used to be good, lol. Weirdly enough I married someone who cheers for the same hockey team as my dad, and even when I was a kid I remembered them being terrible. Dryden was the Canadiens' goalie for a few cups and I believe is widely regarded as one of the best goalies in the sport, but you would never know it from this book. Modesty and humility are the two main traits I'd attribute to him after finishing it. 

Dryden talks about the technical elements of the game- speed, hands, etc., but also the mental challenges of being a goalie, the pressures of being a a cup winning team, what it means to ready for a game, etc. He talks a lot about being prepared- knowing your opponent and how they play, etc., but at a certain point having to let that go and let your muscle memory play for you or your brain and logic can interfere. He talks about how good players haven't just memorized plays, they can "invent" the game in new situations and know how to pivot on the fly. A lot of what he talks about when he talks about hockey I would assume applies to most sports.

Canadiens celebrating with coaches after their '79 Stanley Cup win

Hands down the most interesting thing for me about this book was Dryden's observations about his life passing him by. I always assumed athletes and celebrities alike share these lavish lives and have tons of time to spend with their loved ones but Dryden paints a picture that's honestly pretty depressing. 

For eight months in a year, our time is fragmented and turned upside-down. Awake half the night, asleep half the morning, with three hours until practice, then three hours until dinner; nighttime no different from daytime, weekends from weekdays. At home, in the rhythm of the road; on the road, needing to get home. Then home again, and wives, children, friends, lawyers, agents, eating, drinking, sleeping, competing in a kaleidoscopic time-spring, for thirty-six hours, or thirty-eight, or fifty-four- and we're on the road again. It is a high energy life lives in two- or three-hour bursts, and now, after eight years, I don't know how to use more. I am not very good at off-days. Weekends, which I only get when injured, disorient me. I go to the store, make a few phone calls, take the kids to the park, and it is barely noon. I start on something that takes longer, and don't finish; tomorrow and the next day and the next few weeks, I have no time. Always rebounding from one thing to the next, I'm always on the way to some place else; in contact with families, friends, and outside interests, but never quite attaching onto any of them."

Similarly:

It is a life that can fool you. Eight months a year in good years, fewer in others, three games a week, an hour a day at practice, there should be time for other things, plenty of time; but there isn't. There are no weekends for families and friends, no night time; then there is a summer of weekends and night time, catching up to fall behind the rest of the year. Hurry up and wait."

For the first two years we were together Scott worked a fly-in/fly-out job across Canada where he would be gone for 3-4 weeks and sometimes home for only two. This arrangement was perfectly fine before we were seriously considering having a family as I really value my alone time but I felt a shiver of anxiety reading that passage from Dryden remembering what is was like to try and jam a full life into two weekends every six weeks... who we would hang out with, what we would do, etc. I thrive on routine and the chaos of him coming home would sometimes turn me into the worst version of myself. 

This is where Dryden being a fantastic writer really propelled the book for me because I could fully understand the mental rigour of his experience. I never considered athletes would have this experience but it makes complete sense and really gives me a new appreciation for professional sports families. The below passage, especially the concept of "neighborhood fathers" was almost heartbreaking.

It's life in a revolving door- home, away, home again- spinning around and around until Montreal is one more stop on the road, and you're never really anywhere but on the way. Just picking up, packing up, and moving on, you are never around to see how things turn out. A bump on the head, a trip to the hospital, and 2000 miles later you say, 'How're ya feeling, Sarah?' [Dryden's wife] You have an argument, time's up- 'We'll talk about it when I get back.' It's a road mentality, popping in, performing for the troops, popping out again. There are no commitments, no responsibilities; we let absence become the tie that binds. Then one day, 'Daddy's coming home'- and lives get rearranged; new dresses are put on, rooms get cleaned up, and special meals are prepared. We arrive with gifts, are treated like special company, and everything is wonderfully the same. Except this time, where once you left loneliness, where you left a family to live off the goodness of neighborhood fathers, you come home to a family that has learned to cope; a family that has built a life without you."

Dryden also talks a lot about his anxieties as a professional goaltender. He feared injuries, like I'm sure most athletes do, as well as the ability to keep performing, but another thing that I found interesting was his concern that he wasn't appreciating the time in the NHL the way he felt he ought to be. He talks a lot about not being able to make the connection between what he was doing on the ice and the goalies he idolized growing up. He tells a fantastic story about the first time he and his brother played against each other in the NHL and how it didn't feel the magical way he always thought it would growing up, and how that was both a bummer but normal because they'd played against each other unprofessionally thousands of times before. 

Dryden and his family when the Canadiens retired his jersey number



I used to work at a very ritzy country club where several NHL players played golf during their summers and most of them proved to be the cocky assholes I'd always imagined them to be. Reading this book added a new angle to professional athletes for me. I empathized with Dryden and almost felt sorry for him through a lot of it, whether that was the intention or not. I think this must be why it's considered one of the best sports books of all time, it gives you a totally different picture of what the lifestyle is like. 

And after a while, everything is inextricably linked- winning, playing our best, money, celebrity. If someone asks us why we play, we're not sure any longer. We might speak ritually of 'loving the game'; then, embarrassed, skip on to winning, money, and the rest. And everyone understands."

I really enjoyed reading this and think anyone interested in sports, hockey or otherwise, would enjoy it a lot as well. It's detailed, well-written, and emotional. 

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