By Stu Hackel
It's a good year for interesting hockey books. Bobby Orr's long-awaited autobiography has been well received, and former NHL tough guys Chris Nilan and Darren McCarty have told their compelling stories. Toronto writer Dave Bidini has a very well-written personal memoir of growing up a Maple Leafs fan and idolizing their great veteran captain Dave Keon.
Most notably, the 30th anniversary of the greatest hockey book ever written -- one of the best sports books ever written -- is celebrated with a new, updated edition. The Game, by Ken Dryden, has never gone out of print for good reason. It connects the reader with professional hockey players as few books have ever done by revealing that which is universally human in them, showing their strengths alongside their vulnerabilities and placing them within the context of a superior but sputtering team striving in a common effort to maximize their potential.
Dryden's journey has been amazingly varied and public. A star collegiate goalie at Cornell, he went on to an historic Hall of Fame NHL career with the great Canadiens teams of the 1970s, winning the Stanley Cup six times in his eight seasons of play. From there, he went on to TV commentary for the Olympic Games (including the 1980 U.S. "Miracle On Ice"), get his law degree from McGill, author numerous books on hockey and non-hockey subjects, produce TV documentaries, become president of the Maple Leafs, a Member of Parliament, a leading national Canadian political figure, university lecturer and, most recently, an activist for safer hockey.
If The Game launched Dryden into the world of writing, he's never stopped regardless of what else he was doing. Earlier this month, he answered Orr's thoughts in The Globe and Mail, which outlined a role for the continued existence of fighting in hockey with an essay of his own opposing it.
In an extended phone conversation on Monday, Dryden discussed The Game, its newest edition and other related topics. What follows is an edited transcript.
You've done so many things in your life, but this book seems to be the most permanent of all. Why do you think that is?
Stories like this are actually timeless stories. The names are not timeless. Even a name like "Lafleur" kind of moves to the horizon and other, less prominent names are sometimes hard to recollect. Stories like this seem to be about names, but if all you write about is the names, then the story will not be timeless. But if you are writing about the experience, then the story can be timeless.
And the magnitude of the money players get paid -- that changes. But the story itself really doesn't change. It's a team. It's how you function as an individual and within a group, with your own needs and your team's needs. It's setting goals and falling short and sometimes achieving. It's dealing with your own dreams that have been with you for a long time and with the hopes of lots of other people. And it's trying to live with all of that, deal with all of that. All of that stuff is timeless. It's like a novel. Something that's set in the 1800s or 1930s can seem timeless because it's about people.
It's hard for you and I to separate the names from the stories because we know these people. I know who Rick Chartraw is because I saw him play. I know who Guy Lapointe is. But how has the book connected with younger people who didn't see these Canadiens play and didn't see this era of the NHL?
They may resist reading it because they think it's about somebody they don't know, so why would they read about them? But once they get into it, they know a Rick Chartraw. They don't remember him as a player, that he wore number 27, that he was shifting back and forth from defense to forward, and he's from Erie, Pennsylvania -- they don't know any of those things. But they see a character, and they see a character within a team, and they see how he relates into a team even if he seems like Clumsy Carp and everything kind of goes a little bit wrong. Well, that's like lots of people in their lives and they come to have a very affectionate feeling about a person like that. They know that as much as they would like Rick to not go out of control and wipe you out during a practice -- or, the equivalent, in an office -- at the same time, the office wouldn't feel quite the same way if Rick wasn't around. So once they start reading it, they identify with the people who are there.
When I started to write it, what I understood about sports and the experience that I had was that -- unlike just about every other sports or entertainment book, or even political book that I had read where the tone of it seemed to be, "Look, I'm going to give you a behind the scenes look at this experience and it is something unlike your life, unlike what your life was or ever will be and I will give you a chance to take that in." I understood what I was doing wasn't that. I didn't think that the hockey experience was that much different from other experiences that I had had. Yes, we're doing what we do in front of 18,000 people and TV cameras and all the rest of it.
But the fundamental experience is, as I said earlier, doing something you want to do, that you have dreamed of doing and wanting to achieve in it, for yourself and for others around you, and going through the ups and downs of it all. This is not an experience unique to hockey, and if I can get that across, then even those who don't have any background in hockey or sports or think they are dumb about hockey and sports, will kind of nod their heads and go, "Gee, I actually understand this better than I thought."
In Canada, what happened was that it went from being a hockey book to being a crossover book. I think best-selling hockey books sell 20,000 copies and this sold many times that, and I think it was from all those other people who didn't think they knew anything about this or weren't the slightest bit interested in it and discovered, in fact, it was really a heightened representation of their own lives.
The new 2013 chapter, which is terrific, is in some ways different from the rest of the book. It's more about you and your family and friends and your day with the Stanley Cup in 2011, taking it to your father's hometown in Manitoba, then bringing it back to metro Toronto, to the rink where you played as a kid and your old home where you played on the paved backyard driveway with your brother and neighbors, recreating those games decades later. You could have written about a number of things in that new chapter: your tenure as a Maple Leafs executive; the changes in the game during the last 10 years, continuing the update you wrote in 2003; or the work you are doing now on trying to limit concussions. Why did you take the route you did?
Yeah, the chapter I did in 2003 was kind of that "catch-up chapter" from '83-2003. And, yes, I could have done that again and I thought about doing it that way. And then I thought, no. Actually that 2003 chapter was different in tone from the rest of the book. Even though there are other parts of the book where I write about celebrity or about the history of hockey, I thought the new chapter was more in tone with the rest of the book, even if it's very much about us, my family, and me.
What I wanted to get across in the new chapter was, first, that amazing experience -- and some of the totally weird parts of it, like the timing of it coinciding with my father's 100th birthday, just total coincidence.
A day with the Cup is all about, "Who do I want to share it with?" This is a sharing moment and it's not sharing with the rest of the team, it's sharing with the rest of my life. If you're 27, it's back to your hometown and your buddies who you played with. When you're a lot older than that -- I guess I was 64 when I had my chance -- it's exactly the same question, but you've got another 35-plus years of thinking about who you want to share it with and you realize even more just who those people are that are central to your life. It's that absolutely wonderful chance to say, "Who" and "Where."
What you feel at the end of all these things, of course, is immense gratitude with the experience you had and the life chances you had. So the new chapter is a chance to say that directly, but also indirectly in terms of the feel you can bring to those places.
That tradition with the Cup is such a fantastic tradition. Whoever thought that up, it was a moment of genius. It's just great. You could go to 25 different places over the summer, wherever the players take the Cup, and it will be a terrific story. The Cup is unlike any other cup. It is magical. It is just so much more beautiful than any other championship trophy. To have the chance out of the blue and to have it only because the backyard was about to disappear, it was, oh, very fluky.
Again, thinking about things that happened to you since the last update in 2003, you had that great reunion with your teammates for the Canadiens' 100th anniversary, skating in a warmup in full gear at the Bell Centre. Since they were so much a part of the book, did you give that event some thought as well for the new chapter?
Well, actually, no I didn't, although I could have. It would have been a much shorter story. But it was a special moment, I know, for me and I'm pretty sure for every other player, too. And I didn't expect that.
I hadn't been on the ice wearing goalie equipment since the last game I played with the Canadiens in '79 and I wasn't crazy about going on the ice with it. And this wasn't going to be my equipment, it was Carey Price's equipment and I didn't know whether anything was going to fit and be comfortable enough in terms of balance in order to skate. I don't know if you remember a ceremony the Canadiens had as part of their 75th anniversary and Aurel Joliat came out on the ice. He was about 85 at the time, skating around, and he didn't see very well. He hit the carpet and fell and everybody in the arena was just holding their breath that he really didn't hurt himself.
I think everybody since that time has had that memory in their mind, that if you go out on the ice with your equipment on, just make sure that you can deal with it. There are some players who are coaching who are on the ice every day and there are others who haven't skated in 20 years you can lose your sense of balance and confidence. So I wasn't sure. I was almost sure I wasn't going to go out with equipment and I told the guy organizing it that the chances were no, or very unlikely. But I told him I would go on the ice at 1:00 p.m., they would have all the equipment there for me and I would see what it felt like and if I felt like I could handle it, I would go out in the evening. But it wasn't at all clear until then. So I did it at 1, and it wasn't so bad.
When we went out that night, I was totally shocked at the reaction of the crowd. When you play, there's all that crowd noise but you're so absorbed in the game that you almost don't hear the sound. And when I came out, I was the last one, and coming from the back corridor and hearing the crowd and then seeing it, it was, "Oh, my heavens! This is unbelievable!" I thought it was going to be one of those experiences of where, "This is not something to enjoy while you're out there. This is to survive the moment while you're out there to enjoy afterwards." That was my pep talk to myself. But as soon as I got out onto that ice, it was just fun. Forget waiting for it to be fun later. It was a fun then.
The other part that was kind of interesting was that I thought what I would do would be to go out into the crease and not much would happen and I'd end up leaning on my stick [the classic, oft-photographed Dryden pose -- SH]. As I was waiting in the back hallway, I realized I couldn't lean on my stick. Why? Because the gloves were too big. Gloves are so much bigger now than they were that in order to lean on my stick, the gloves were up and covering my face and I'd be propping my head up on my stick rather than leaning down on it.
But that was a totally unexpected moment.
And in the dressing room beforehand, did all your teammates exhibit the same personalities and resume playing those wonderful roles you describe so well in the book that they assumed 35 years ago?
Yeah, pretty much. And it's the good part -- and sometimes for people, it's the not-so-good part. That isn't them any longer and for some people, it's not who they want to be. They have moved to a different kind of person, but so long as it's for a short period of time -- and I think that's why some people don't go back to reunions; it's "That really wasn't me then, it's the role I needed that was available on the team, it was the role I played, and I kind of enjoyed doing that but it wasn't really me and I'm much more me now and I don't really want to go back." But yes, Guy Lapointe [the club's top practical jokester -- SH], everybody is sitting around waiting for Lapointe to do something, and for poor Lapointe, he had to come up with something new and maniacal in order to satisfy the memory of it all. So the pressure's on him. The rest of us just sit around as a good audience.
And then there will be just a little touch of something and we'll say, "Oh, my God, he's still doing that." If it was Chartraw, he'd be out on the ice and he'd cut around the net and lose his balance a little bit and kinda crash into the boards just a little while he's saying, "Oops." All these years later, nothing has changed. There'll usually be something like that beyond even that person's control or orchestration that will come out and it will stand for 50 other things that aren't there but feel as if they could be.
And of course, there was Scotty Bowman with other Canadiens coaches behind the bench that night and in The Game you captured him so well in the prime of his coaching career -- although I guess that prime went on for decades.
After I retired and before I wrote The Game, he had gone to Buffalo and I went down there and spent a day with him. Of all the people I wanted to talk with, he was the forthcoming one who was willing to spend a lot of time. The players were good that way. Sam Pollack, I could never get him to talk. I think it was just that even though circumstances had changed, I was still a player and, as a manager, he didn't talk to players in any kind of intimate way.
You outlined changes in the game in the 2003 update, the neutral zone trap and rise of obstruction, which seemed to creep up on us. Then, following the lockout, the new rules arrived and the game really opened up. How do you think those changes came about?
It's a coach's job to find answers. If the game gets too clogged up, then it's up to coaches to find a way of unclogging it, and if it gets too bad, it's up to the league to try to change things. Through the '80s, things just went crazy. The goal scoring was dramatically higher. It was Gretzky and the Oilers, a greater number of skilled European players, and goalies had not yet adapted by getting bigger equipment.
Then the goalies adapt, coaches learn how to trap and how to shut down the open ice and it gets clogged. And in more recent years, it picks up again because it's even more of an international game and with coaches cutting player shifts even shorter. It might have been 45 seconds in 2003, but it's 37 seconds now.
And the other big thing is the level of off-ice training and the level of specialized coaching. It's so focused. As good a shape as players started getting themselves in during the '90s and early 2000s, it's even more so now. It means they don't need to compromise their skill, they don't need to compromise for fatigue, that either their better conditioning or shorter shifts mean they can go absolutely full out while they are on the ice. And you know what speed does to a game: At first, it kind of makes everybody clumsy but then you learn to adapt to speed and gear your skill to speed and you just get that much more skillful.
I go to this gym that's run by the Leafs' fitness guy, a tiny gym in the back of St. Michael's Arena. When I'm on the exercise bike we bring it out into the arena part and there at 7 in the morning you see 12, 13 and 14 year old kids with an instructor going through drills that, holy cow, it's unbelievable to see! These are drills that NHL players of the past would have a hard time doing. Not that they couldn't do them -- they never had to do them.
Where is the game going now?
Well, I don't know. I think you can reasonably predict that the speed and skill will continue to escalate. But I think that's part of the reason for the outrageous hits -- not the normal routine hits, but the out-of-the-blue ones that make you shudder. They're usually 4 or 5 feet from the boards and those have increased. In part, I think it's from speed. Speed gives you the opportunity to be reckless. In earlier times, you weren't close enough or moving fast enough to deliver that kind of hit. Now, there are opportunities and that's the dangerous part of it.
And there's a different kind of antagonism now. A slash on the wrist or a jab on the ankles is a different kind of antagonism than an elbow to the head. That's the part that can get overlooked and confused. People say, "Well, we've always had antagonism." Yes, but tell me what they used to do and how fundamentally dangerous it was or wasn't. At one time, the stick was the dangerous instrument in a game. What did leagues do? They passed stick rules. No high sticking or slashing or spearing or, worst of all, stick swinging. Well, now with the kind of protection players wear, the stick isn't the dangerous weapon anymore. It's the body that's the dangerous weapon. The pests, the instigators and the antagonists now do it with their body.
It's not as if hockey or sports is different from other things: There are still traditional ways we do things in whatever field. What happens is a lot of things will change, but the notion of "traditional" will remain the same. So here you've got a game of the 1950s that moved very slowly, the shifts were long and players played a coasting-bursting game. You add the better shape, better training, coaches that shorten shifts, you make all those adaptations and then you forget that all those things affect the rest. If you look to change the rest, the voices come out and say, "Oh, you can't do that. That's tradition. That's the way we do things. You can't change the nature of the game." Well, guess what? The nature of the game is changing all the time. If this game didn't change, we'd still be playing seven a side without a forward pass. All these other things were traditions, too, and we changed them. So how do we keep these changes in balance with each other?
And that's why you've been involved in various forums, like the recent Mayo Clinic conference on concussions in hockey where you made a presentation in which you said, "Science has responded to the game on the ice. "Now it's time for the game to respond to the science." And you want more conferences, which feature players of all ages who have suffered concussions and want them to tell their stories, the details of what they've gone through, the physical discomforts, the inability to function normally.
Those stories almost never get heard. And we want the answer to be easy, that it isn't really a problem. It's an epidemic or an overreaction and it will go away. No, I don't think so.
Then we want the answer to be a better helmet. Well, none of the research says that. The research says that helmets have virtually no effect if any effect at all in terms of concussions. So that isn't the answer.
Then we want the answer to be the doctors, who will be able to diagnose better, treat better, manage it better so a head injury will be like a banged up knee or shoulder and there will be a predictability about it, "This is a two-week injury" or "This is four to six weeks." And then you talk to the doctors and they say, no that's not really what this injury is.
Finally, you get to the answer that isn't so easy. It's, how do we play?
Is there a way that the game can be just as exciting to watch and to play and to be less dangerous? Concussions don't just happen randomly; they can be random, but they also happen when you do certain things in certain places and often involving certain people. If you really focus in, you can see certain patterns. Then you put it to the coaches and put it to the players and say, "You guys are always adapting. You adapt every shift you're on the ice. Between games, you're imagining how you're going to do something, always trying to get ahead of the other guy."
Well, if this is one of those challenges, having coaches, managers and players figuring out how to change those techniques in those problem moments. Players do that all the time, but they don't talk about it. They're competitive and they adapt, like figuring out how against a certain defenseman when they go back for a puck, how you come out with control of the puck and not get blasted by the guy. It's learning how to control the moment.
That's the next stage. Like at Mayo, it was a day and a half of 12 minute presentations about concussion research and the like. Well, imagine a hockey conference where you had a day and a half of somebody else every 12 minutes talking about this technique, that technique, what works, what doesn't work. Then, you're really into it.
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The former NHL director of broadcasting, publishing and video, Stu Hackel has written about hockey for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, SI.com, The Hockey News, The (Montreal) Gazette, Goal magazine and The Village Voice. He wrote his first hockey stories nearly 50 years ago when he published a newsletter for the Gump Worsley Fan Club.