The Game

The Game



The Pequod Review:

Ken Dryden's The Game is an unusually intelligent and absorbing memoir that covers not just Dryden’s hockey career (he won an amazing six Stanley Cups between 1971 and 1979 as goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens), but also the psychology of team sports, the nature of leadership, and the national significance of hockey in Canada.

Dryden's book is so beautifully written, with such a wise and thoughtful voice, that it often rises to level of great literature. Here is his astonishingly perceptive profile of Montreal head coach Scotty Bowman; it's so good that it is worth quoting at length:

Scotty Bowman is not someone who is easy to like. He has no coach’s con about him. He does not slap backs, punch arms, or grab elbows. He doesn’t search eyes, spew out ingratiating blarney, or disarm with faint, enervating praise. He is shy and not very friendly. If he speaks to reporters or to a team, he talks business, and his eyes sweep several inches above their heads. If he speaks to you alone, as a few times each year you force him to, explaining something that is annoyingly unclear, you share three or four intimate, surprising minutes that bring you closer to him than you ever thought possible. Then, as if he suddenly remembers where he is and what he is doing, he cuts it off — “ Yeah, yeah, is that it? Good, good” — and before you can answer, it’s over. And if, by chance, your path crosses his away from the rink, at first there will be several awkward “caught in the act” moments. Recovering, he may ask how you are, but if he does, he’ll blurt something about Tremblay’s rash or Lemaire’s injury before you can answer. And all the time you talk, one foot on the brake, the other on the accelerator, he lurches away, inch by inch. In the intimacy of a team, Bowman calls Bunny “Michel,” Sharty “Rick,” and Pointu “Guy.” Bo and Bird and Co and Shutty are Bob and Larry and Jacques and Steve. He doesn’t call anyone by his nickname.

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. His players don’t sit around telling hateful-affectionate stories about him. Someone might say of him, as former Packers great Henry Jordan once said of Lombardi, “He treats us all the same — like dogs,” but he doesn’t. 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.

He starts each season with a goal — the Stanley Cup — and he has no other. It is part of the Canadiens’ heritage passed from Selke to Pollock, through Dick Irvin, Blake, and Bowman, to the Richards, Béliveau, Lafleur, and the rest. A good season is a Stanley Cup; anything else is not. So in September, in November, in December, and in March, he never loses sight of May. With schizophrenic desperation/perspective, he treats each game as an indicator, as a signpost, en route to May; yet he makes no compromise for any game. He sees an inextricable link between the months and games of a season — “ You can’t turn it off and on,” he says, as other coaches say. But Bowman believes what he says, and practices it. Like his mentor, Sam Pollock, he lives with a conviction, what others, less strong, might call paranoia, that no matter how good the team is, it might never win another game. He can see in every game the beginning of a chain of events he cannot stop — a careless loss at home, a tougher game on the road, an injury, three games in four nights, Chartraw missing a plane, a sweep of winter sickness, an opponent on a hot streak, building pressure at home, a media scandal, a team that shows you less respect, then another, and another, and quickly several more.

For someone of his obvious ability, Bowman seems a remarkable contradiction of strength and weakness, realism and insecurity; but he is not. As others have discovered, at the top, where Bowman is, strength, weakness, realism, and insecurity are really just symptoms of each other. So while he surely knows that we are better than any other team, if he has ever thought about it, he has done so only fleetingly and not without wincing at his own dangerous thought. For he knows that May is always ahead, and when May is over, September is never far away. With each Stanley Cup, we look for, and sometimes find, signs he is loosening up. But he has never really changed. We know that when two or three days of uncharacteristic pleasantness leave us talking to ourselves, as winger Jimmy Roberts once said, “It’s nothing that a loss won’t cure.”

Not long ago, I asked him his most important job as coach. He sat quiet for a moment, his face unfurrowed and blank, thinking, then said simply, “To get the right players on the ice.” In an age of “systems” and “concepts” and fervid self-promotion, his answer may seem a little unsatisfying; but though misleadingly simple, it is how he coaches. No one has ever heard of a “Bowman system” as they have a “Shero system.” Fred Shero’s Flyers, a good but limited team, needed a system. To be effective, they needed to play just one way, and to play that way so well they could overcome any team. Bowman’s team is different. Immensely talented, immensely varied, it is a team literally good enough to play, and win, any style of game. For it, a system would be too confining, robbing the team of its unique feature — its flexibility. Further, Bowman understands, as Shero did, 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.”

It starts with speed. It is the essence of the Canadiens’ game “fire-wagon hockey” someone once called it — and Bowman understands speed. He knows that speed is disorienting, making a player feel like an old man in a thirty-year-old’s world. It robs an opponent of coordination and control, stripping away skills, breaking down systems, making even the simplest tasks seem difficult. He knows that with Lafleur, Lemaire, Shutt, Lapointe, Gainey, and others, speed is an edge we have on everyone else; so Bowman hones that edge and uses it. His practices are in constant motion, shooting, passing, everything done on the go, with speed, every drill rooted in high-pace skating (in the Canada Cup and the Challenge Cup, when Bowman coached players from other teams, they tired quickly in early practices, unused to his pace). In games, he tells us in his earnest way to “throw speed at them.” Other teams forecheck, then fall back quickly to pick up their men, but Bowman frees his skaters to chase the puck in all but the defensive zone. In the 1976 Stanley Cup finals with the Flyers, in a high-pitched, impassioned voice, he reminded us repeatedly, “Don’t respect their speed.” He wanted to pressure the Flyers with all five men in their zone, unworried by 2-on-1 breaks that would sometimes result. He knew that against the Flyers, a methodical, even slow, team, our speed would let us recover easily.

But speed is not enough. Quick players are often small, and in smaller rinks against bigger teams, are frequently subject to intimidating attack. Bowman knows that Lafleur, Lemaire, and Lapointe, players whose skills turn the Canadiens from a good team to a special one, must be made “comfortable,” as he puts it; they must be allowed to play without fear. So never farther than the players’ bench away, to balance and neutralize that fear, Bowman has Lupien and Chartraw, sometimes Cam Connor, in other years Pierre Bouchard, and, of course, Larry Robinson. With a game-to-game core of fourteen or fifteen players, Bowman fine-tunes his line-up, choosing two or three from among the six or more available to find the “right mix,” as he calls it, for every game we play. He believes that a championship team needs all kinds of players, and that too many players of the same type, no matter how good, makes any team vulnerable. So for games against the Flyers and the Bruins, and for many road games, he goes with a “big line-up”; for other games, different combinations which an opponent and the circumstances of a season make appropriate.

It gives him the kind of flexibility that no other coach has. He knows that only a special set of circumstances can beat us, so he coaches as if preoccupied with minimizing those circumstances. He can do nothing to prevent slumps and injuries, but he can make sure that well-prepared replacements are ready when needed. We carry five or six extra players, more than any other team. It can be a problem at times, since players who play little complain often and disturb a team. But when a team is winning, these players say little, for few in the press or public will listen to them. And while Bowman maintains even stricter isolation from them — his attitude seems to be, “If you don’t play the way I want you to, why should I speak to you?” — he keeps them around and uses them. He plays them occasionally, and gives them ice time with Ruel before and after practice, reminding the regulars that good players not out of sight, never out of mind, are only the barest margin away from playing more often. It is with these marginal players that Bowman feels he has the greatest impact.

Once he remarked to me that Guy Lafleur seemed obsessed always to do better; that while he was a good team player, being the foremost player in the league carried with it a larger responsibility, and that for him anything less than a scoring title was not enough. Bowman feels much the same way about the team’s other exceptional players — about Gainey, Robinson, Savard, Lapointe, Shutt, Cournoyer, Lemaire. He believes that while he can set a constructive tone for the team, and can prepare these players physically and tactically, reminding them from time to time to their annoyance that they are not playing as they can, ultimately what drives them is them.

Not so the marginal player. Young players whose styles are not yet set, older players on the other side of their careers, their egos battered until they’re willing to listen: these players are vulnerable and can be manipulated. So Bowman manipulates them — Tremblay, Chartraw, Larouche, Larocque, and others — sometimes cruelly. Benching them, ignoring them for long periods of time, he makes them worry, and makes them wonder why. Then the team hits injuries or a slump and he uncovers them again. He works them hard in practice, watching them, telling the press how hard and well they are working, making them feel they are earning their place in the team. Given a chance, usually at home, they give back an inspired game. A few games later, the inspiration fades, and it all starts again. He holds them by their emotional strings, often for many years, manipulating them until he gets out of them what he thinks is there; then, when he gets it, when he feels it is grooved into place, he stops.

“He’s not honest,” they often complain, though translating “honnête” too literally they mean, in part, that he isn’t “fair.” Several times each has asked to be traded, but it won’t happen. Bowman knows that a championship team needs two goalies capable of winning a Stanley Cup; that it needs Chartraw’s versatility and toughness, Tremblay’s infectious enthusiasm, the prodigal goal-scoring of Larouche. In important games, when each team fixes on the other team’s best, holding them in check, it is often the quality and readiness of the rest that make the crushing difference. In the third game of the 1976 finals against the Flyers, Chartraw made that difference; two years later, Tremblay scored two goals and Larouche one in a 4–1 Stanley Cup-winning game against the Bruins. It is all part of getting “the right players on the ice.” Bowman knows the enormous strength he has, and squanders none of it.

On a team of talented, tough-minded, egotistical players, Bowman is the boss. His captains — earlier Henri Richard, now Cournoyer — have no special role. A few years ago, he formed a committee of the senior players on the team — Lemaire, Savard, Lapointe, Cournoyer, Roberts, Pete Mahovlich, and me (“ the Magnificent 7,” the others called us) to meet with him periodically to discuss the team. We held one meeting. (That we had only one meeting didn’t surprise us; that he formed the committee did.)

Unmistakably, and to an extent that may surprise even him, Bowman is in charge. Not Grundman, not Pollock before him — in distant upstairs offices, with technical authority, we feel little contact with them. It is Bowman who sets the tone and mood for the team. He may say less than he seems to say (when asked, most players admit to their own surprise they “never really had any problem with him”), but his presence, belligerent, nagging, and demanding, like a conscience that never shuts up, is constant. And every so often, when some internal threshold is passed, he will blurt out something in his acerbic, biting way, to others, usually, but really to all of us. Just words we’ve all heard before from others, but coming as they do without malice, with nothing in them that can be for his benefit, we hear them as words that might be right, and probably are. It is what he says and what he might say that make us fear him. It is his hair-trigger sense of outrage at those who don’t measure up; and the feeling, the fear we all share, that at any moment that outrage will be directed at us.

He knows each of us too well; he leaves us no place to hide. He knows that we are strong, and are weak; that we can be selfish and lazy, that we can eat too much and drink too much, that we will always look for the easy way out, and when we find it, that we will use it. He knows that each of us comes with a stable of excuses, “crutches,” he calls them, ready to use whenever we need them. The team with the fewest crutches will win, Bowman believes. So he inserts himself into our minds, and anticipates these crutches — practice times, travel schedule, hotel, the menu for our team meal — then systematically kicks them away, leaving us with no way out if we lose. And when we don’t lose, we get our revenge, we pretend that we did it ourselves. We want him to have no part of it; and he lets us. He never challenges the integrity of the team. Just as he will allow no player to stand above the team, he will not stand above it either. The team must believe in itself.

More than any coach I have had, Bowman has a complete and undistractible team focus. He has one loyalty — to the team; not to individual players on the team, though most coaches prefer to ignore the distinction (as most players do until they are traded or become free agents); not to fans or to anyone else. Most of us like to pretend the primacy of personal relationships in our work (then are unforgiving of those who let us down); Bowman doesn’t pretend. To him, loyalty is doing what you can and doing it well. If you don’t, and play less often or are traded away, it is not he who is being disloyal.

He is uncompromising, unmellowing, unable to be finessed; he is beyond our control. Being a nice guy doesn’t count; going to optional practices, coming early, staying late, doesn’t count. As Pete Mahovlich, Cournoyer, and Henri Richard have discovered, what you have done before counts only until you can’t do it again. No politics, no favors, it is how you measure up to what you can do, how you help the team, how you perform — they are what count. It is thin comfort.

Many times, I have sensed in Bowman a personal loyalty beyond the team, but I have been mistaken. 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 scheme with myself to justify continuing in hockey, my need to pursue other things for their own sake. Two years ago, I allowed four goals in a first period against Vancouver, then was jeered by Forum fans the rest of the game. When I didn’t play at home for more than a month until we met the Bruins, I thought he had been protecting me, keeping me away from the Forum until we played a team against which I always played well. In fact, it was none of those things; it was nothing personal at all. I played often, I played after bad games, and against the league’s best teams when I was sick or injured, because I play well then, and because when I play well, the team is better off. It is because he understands me as a goalie that he plays me when he does; he does it for the team, not for me.

Dryden also has rich insights into teamwork and leadership; here he highlights the essential role of lesser players like Bob Gainey:

If there is such a thing as a “player’s player,” it would be [Bob] Gainey. A phrase often heard and rarely explained, it is seldom applied to the best player of a sport, as Gainey is not, for performance is only a part of it. Instead, the phrase is for someone 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....

He is the consummate team player. An often misunderstood phrase, it does not mean that Gainey is without the selfish interests the rest of us have. It means instead that without the team’s tangible rewards, without the wins and the Stanley Cups, there are few tangible rewards for him. For Gainey’s skills are a team’s skills, ones that work best and show best when a team does well; ones that seem less important when it doesn’t. While other players, in their roles, constantly battle the tension between team and self (it is surely good for Larry Robinson to score a goal; if the team is ahead and the score is close, it may not be good for the team that he try), simply put, what’s 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 virtue and necessity, and what others understand as unselfishness is really cold-eyed realism — he simply knows what works best, for the team and for him.

Like a coach, like a goalie, Gainey plays with a constant perspective on a game. But unlike a coach or a goalie, he plays a game in its passionate midst, where perspective is rare, perhaps unique to him. He is sensitive to a game’s tempos, to its moods, if it moves too fast or too slow, if we are in control, or they are, or no one is. And each time he goes on the ice, his role becomes the same. More than to score and to stop his man from scoring, it is one almost of stewardship. When he leaves the ice sixty seconds later, he wants the puck in his opponent’s zone, the tempo of the game to be right for the score and for the time of the game; he wants the game under control. Then, as the next line comes on to do what it does best, Gainey stays with the game, watching for the link between what he has done and what comes next, and if a goal is scored a minute or two minutes later, he will find satisfaction or despair that is more than just vicarious...

While a team needs all kinds of players with all kinds of skills to win, it needs prototypes, strong, dependable prototypes, as examples of what you want your team to be. If you want it to be quick and opportunistic, you need a Lafleur and a Shutt, so that those who can be quick are encouraged to try, and those who cannot will move faster than they otherwise might. If you want a team to be cool and unflappable, you need at least one Savard, to reassure you, to let you know that the time and the team needed to do what you want are still there. If you want a team to be able to lift a game, to find an emotional level higher than any opponent can find, you need players like Lapointe and Tremblay, mercurial players who can take it there. And if you want a team game, where the goal is the team and the goal is to win, you need a player with an emotional and practical stake in a team game, a player to remind you of that game, to bring you back to it whenever you forget it, to be the playing conscience of the team. Like Bob Gainey.

And here Dryden describes his fondness for the Boston Bruins' home arena:

The Bruins and Canadiens in Boston Garden is my favorite game to play: bursting with energy and commitment, our speed always threatening to break out, on the smaller ice surface their strength and muscle usually holding us back, making us be stronger, making them go faster, bringing out the fullest and best in both of us. Too cramped and bruising for pretty plays, too gut involving, it is a game of players, not skills, and without such distractions, a game where you see people, unguarded and exposed, and come away thinking you know them: Cashman, skating bent and stiff like an old man with a sore back, chopping ahead with effort and little speed, getting where he needs to go. Park, like a fire hydrant on a freeway, players moving quickly by on either side of him, but knowing the lanes that players use for skating and passing, intercepting them, then starting up with his quick windmill stride, moving thirty feet to another play. Cheevers, playing goal like a defenseman, playing the man instead of the puck, knowing the man, knowing the situation and moving first; like a high-roller in a crap shoot, knowing if he’s wrong, his luck will change...

And the crowd, brawny and rough like its team, but without the meanness of crowds in Philadelphia or New York. Under it all, something good-natured and generous that shows through. It’s a crowd expressive and involved, building with the action, suddenly swarming over you, shrill at first, then deep and resounding, making the exciting more exciting, fusing excitement into the game before it can escape. And the Garden itself. Old and dirty, not unlike sports neighbor Fenway Park, but its quirks unsoftened, uneulogized by the romance of baseball, and what makes Fenway a cherished anomaly makes the Garden an embarrassment. For me it is special. 

The Boston Garden ice surface is small enough to involve me in every game. Its steep, balconied seats bring intimate, exciting contact between the fans and us, and the game. And in an age when new arenas go up like modern cathedrals, often dramatic on the outside, usually uniform and dull inside, the Garden is engagingly maladroit: its huge scoreboard clock that hangs distinctly offcenter; its commemorative banners, on one side of center ice, thirteen large “WORLD champions” banners, green and white for the Celtics — on the other in yellow and black those of the Bruins, one each for sixteen Division Championships and four Stanley Cups, all cluttered together, looking like the morning wash; its dull red seats that hide dirt and always look dirty; the ubiquitous flat yellow wash that covers its walls and balcony facings, the one great attempt to brighten it up, not glossy, not bright, looking at least one coat too thin. All of it together somehow fits, giving the Garden its unique personality. To me, Boston Garden is like a disheveled friend.

This is an absolute masterpiece of sports writing. Highly recommended.