The great Canadian poet Don Coles died this past Wednesday in Toronto at the age of 90. “Such a thoughtful, lovely guy & a breathtakingly sensitive (& slyly witty) poet,” the writer Gary Barwin wrote on Twitter. “He had such grace & gentility, such decency and menchlichkeit. Such precision saturated with deep feeling.” Coles’ 1993 collection Forests of the Medieval World won a Governor-General’s Award. He won’t be remembered principally, perhaps, as a hockey poet, but he did, as a writer born and breathing in the Canadian landscape, sometimes hit the ice, as he did his very beautiful 1998 poem, above, “Kingdom.”
Could we salute him, too, for his supporting role in seeing hockey’s most thoughtful and incisive memoir to the shelf? I think so: yes.
It was 1980, as Ken Dryden recalled it in a short remembrance he wrote for ARC, Canada’s national poetry magazine, on the occasion of Coles’ 75th birthday. “I had retired from hockey the year before and finished my bar admission course in Ottawa, and I wanted to write a book,” Dryden wrote. “It would be about experiences I’d had in hockey, and impressions and feelings that those experiences had left behind. It seemed as if it was a book that was in me, or it wasn’t. Outside research wouldn’t help much. It seemed as if it was a book that could be written anywhere.”
So Dryden and his wife, Lynda, took their young family to Cambridge in England. Friends in Toronto put him in touch with Don Coles, who was living there at the time. Dryden called. He was looking for help, advice, confidence, and that’s what he found with Coles.
They met for lunches. Talked. Coles might have suggestions for Dryden. “But more importantly,” Dryden recalled, “he was respectful and encouraging. He made me feel that what I was trying to do was worthwhile, and that what I was trying to say was worthy of the attempt. He made me believe that no matter how ragged my work, there was something there. That I was getting there, would get there.”
“I didn’t have much else to go on then. I had no critical eye. I had no idea what was good and what wasn’t. Whatever anyone else said I was, I was. I was lucky that that someone else in Cambridge was Don.”
Ken Dryden’s The Game, published in 1983, was nominated for a Governor-General’s Award. “The best book on sport ever written by an athlete,” Roy MacGregor thinks, and he’s not the only one. Dryden has six other books to his name, including this fall’s important Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and The Future of Hockey.