Friday, May 18, 2012

The Game by Ken Dryden

My grandmother has a huge collection of books.  Being a ninety-one year old woman who has subscribed to the book-of-the-month club for decades, her basement is filled with books. She moved to a nursing home after Christmas, which left her family to deal with her possessions.  We were perusing her book collection when I came across The Game by Ken Dryden, a rare title owned by my grandfather.This find is no surprise to me, seeing as my grandfather was a huge hockey fan and my grandmother continues to listen to every Canuck game on the radio from her nursing home bed.  The Game was also recently featured on the latest instalment of Canada Reads, and my interest was piqued by Allan Thicke's passionate defence of its merits.  So with an enthusiasm which usually borderlines on crassness, I pounced on it.  

The background behind this book is very important.  At this point in time, Ken Dryden is a washed-up (in his eyes) goalie for the storied Montreal Canadians dynasty of the 1970s. At only thirty years of age and with a handful of Stanley Cups under his belt, he is ready to retire and pursue a career as a lawyer.  The Game is a collection of his thoughts on hockey, character sketches of his team mates, and a fascinating insight into the life of a hockey player.  As he writes, there are a number of sweeping ideological changes in Quebec society and the rise of the Soviets as a threat in international tournaments.  As a celebrity Anglophone in Quebec during the Quiet Revolution, he is in a unique position where he is within the action, and yet somewhat psychologically removed.  There is one memorable passage where he describes walking down the street to the forum with tanks rolling down the street past him.  He remarks that at the time he didn't think too much about it because he was new to the province and assumed it was routine.  

His analysis of the Soviet game and certain key hockey players is a key highlight of the book.  Dryden delves into the old practices of the Soviets and how they have adapted their offensive style to combat the Canadian approach.  He hopes that Canada will make the necessary evolution so that our nation can keep up with them, but is not entirely optimistic.  Though his thoughts on the Soviet hockey style are interesting, I was most captivated by his sketches of key players of his era.  Though I am familiar with both Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, Dryden outlines their impact on the game.  He informs us about how Orr created the role of the "offensive defenseman", the first player to use his speed to join the rush rather than hanging back as forwards assume the lion's share of the goal-scoring responsibilities.  Esposito is another fascinating figure.  In modern hockey, the practice of going to the front of the opposition's net and hoping that a deflection will go off a player's stick, is extremely commonplace and most analysts advocate it.  Go to the front of the net, agitate the goalie/defenseman, and maybe score a dirty looking goal.  This strategy was first employed by Esposito, and he was extremely successful at it, though at the time it was dismissed.  

I could go on and on about the colourful characters and the great insights which Ken Dryden provides into the game of hockey.  His is a unique perspective and he articulates it brilliantly, making this book required reading for any hockey fan.  Even Maple Leafs fans who will have to overcome their natural distrust of a former Montreal Canadian.  Dryden is, after all, from Toronto.

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