wear a mask (or two)

Toronto digital artist Stephen Cribbin is the man behind a suite of one-inch buttons that accessorize some beloved old-time goalie masks for our 2020 times. “Original Sicks” is what he’s calling the series of six buttons, which feature masks made famous shielding the faces of Mike Palmateer, Ken Dryden, Terry Sawchuk, and Bernie Parent. For information on acquiring a set of your own, you can send an e-mail to cribbin@subtle.ca, or contact him via Instagram, @cribbin13.

under review: reading your way through a hockey hiatus

Write-In: The back-jacket author photo that adorns the novel Don DeLillo published in 1980 under the nom-de-glace Cleo Birdwell.

Is it really 50 days since the pandemic stopped hockey, and everything else, except for in Belarus? Yes, that’s right, it was, this Thursday past — two score and ten scoreless days since the rinks closed up on March 12. Does it feel like a hundred days? Two hundred? As David Remnick was saying on The New Yorker’s podcast a couple of weeks into this strange spring, the loss of big-league sports is not — by far — the worst we’ve sustained, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bitter.

In the absence of hockey, and everything else (except in Belarus), it’s the questions that multiply to fill the ever-expanding void. They’re bulky and awkward, mostly unanswerable, and all but impossible to shepherd out of mind: How did this happen? Will everything be okay? When does it end?

Some of them are smaller, too, with a mosquito’s whine, no less nagging for being non-essential. Does hockey matter? What, really, are we missing? Were this year’s Leafs any good, does anyone recall? How do I know if my sourdough starter is still alive? Did you see those 1980s Oilers on Sportsnet the other night — how great were they? Not to mention Don Wittman on the play-by-play. Also: should I wash my hands again now? Also: anybody been able to zoom in on Ron MacLean’s good-looking bookshelves to see just what he’s got back there?

Hockey did focus itself on books in the first late-March weeks of isolation, back when we were still getting used to distracting ourselves. Remember? Back when we were focussed on tricks with rolls of toilet paper, before advent of multi-paned Zoom conclaves of housebound NHLers really got going? I suppose that people are still reading books, quietly, thoughtfully, off-screen, but in those days, the hockey world seemed to be as intent on talking books, hockey and otherwise, as much as zone starts or PDO.

San Jose Sharks captain Logan Couture started a book club.

Washington’s goaltender-on-hiatus Braden Holtby made a steeple of the books he’d been reading, or his wife Brandi did — she was the one, anyway, who tweeted out the photo:

In Seattle, the NHL’s newest franchise revealed … no, not the team’s much-anticipated name, that’s still to come — when “the mood is right,” as Greg Wyshinski of ESPN reports. The should-be Metropolitans did proffer some literary advice, even if it wasn’t exactly adventurous.

Hockey Canada weighed in:

Others turned their cameras to their shelves to advocate for hockey-minded favourites, historian and L.A. Kings writer Mike Commito had some counsel:

To which some of us answered back:

I added a novel to this massif of mine; I could have elevated more. I’ve written elsewhere about hockey fiction, superior and not-so-much. Ranking the novels I’ve enjoyed most of all, and learned from, the ones that rise above the regular, I tend to back up Roy MacGregor’s The Last Season (1985) with books like Paul Quarrington’s King Leary (1987), The Divine Ryans (1990) by Wayne Johnston, Fred Stenson’s Teeth (1994), and Mark Jarman’s Salvage King, Ya! (1997). Pete McCormack’s sweet and underappreciated novel Understanding Ken(1998) would be on it, and so would The Good Body by Bill Gaston (2000). And, from 2011, Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist.

So much for the best. What about the rest? A couple of years ago, when I was working hard to read allthe hockey books, every one of them — well, I didn’t do that, is what happened: I failed. It turns out that there are just too many, and not enough time, plus while a whole lot of them are vivid and insightful and even beautifully rendered, many others are … not.

I did read a lot, though. And for all the hockey narrative I made it through, I acquired a whole lot more, much of which I have shelved here behind me, with the fiction closest to hand, in case of emergency. It’s not all novels; this is a library rich with juvenile and genre editions, mass-market, pulp, serialized, and self-published sagas, too. Colonizing three shelves and part of a fourth behind the desk I’m sitting at, they’re all here, the great and the good and the just-entertaining mixed in with the middling, the muddled, the dumbly offensive, the merely harmless. It’s some of the latter that I’m thinking of paying some attention to here, in this space, over this next little stretch of our Great Hiatus, with a particular focus on the made-it-halfway-through and the couldn’t-get-myself-past-the-second-page. If now’s not the time to take a walk on the pulpier, predictable, prosaic side of hockey’s library, when is?

That’s not to say that some the fiction that comes under consideration in this upcoming series isn’t deftly done, incisive, insightful. We’ll look for that, without necessarily counting on finding it. The cover-art we’ll see along the way will be, I’ll mention, as fantastic as this. How far will we wander, through just how much turgid prose, down how many clichéd plotlines? We’ll see. No judgment … unless, no, I guess it’s too late for that. No harm, then — that’s what I’ll say: no harm intended. I’m not here to blame or berate or bicker. If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the books discussed here, I forgive you. Same thing if you happen to have written any of them.

So: stay tuned. We’ll get going in earnest, maybe … tomorrow? Before that I’ll just say, finally that … um … well, that I’m not sure whatto say about the novel whose several covers I’ve planted all around the property here. Keith Gessen, whose opinions I hold high in my esteem, has written that Amazons (1980) is, after Dryden’s The Game, “the other monument of hockey literature thus far.”

That should perk up your attention, even though, by and large, Cleo Birdwell’s account of her time as the first woman to play in the NHL mostly hasn’t drawn up much in the way of hockey-world notice to date. It’s no secret that the actual author has never openly acknowledged that he actually wrote the thing, nor that his name is Don DeLillo.

That alone should, to my mind, keep hockey readers flocking to its pages. That they remain relatively unflocked is — well, strange to me. It may not be Libra or White Noise or Underworld, but it’s DeLillo, after all. There’s plenty of hockey in Amazons (and lots of sex, too), but as Gessen has noted, its particular subject isn’t so much the game as it is America, “the dark schizy heart of it.” It’s a book, Gessen writes, that’s “not about hockey in just the right way.”

It’s pretty great, actually; I’m just recalling that now. Time, maybe, to revisit its pleasures? At some point? That sounds like a plan. In the meantime, will we end on one preferred passage, from the novel’s early pages?

I think so.

So Cleo, who at 23 has just made the Rangers, is talking to the blusterous Kinross, president of Madison Square Garden, who hates hockey, doesn’t understand why he should bother with it in his building.

“It’s a fuggin shit-ass game,” he tells her, “for my money. You don’t have a black or Hispanic element. It doesn’t reflect the urban reality. Who wants to see two white guys hit each other? The violence has no bite to it. It’s not relevant. It doesn’t reflect the streets and I come from the streets.”

Cleo isn’t fazed. “It reflects the Canadian streets,” she says. “It’s a Canadian game. It reflects ice and snow, that’s what it reflects.”

“Well and good,” he says. “I understand that. But this is New York, New York. Where’s the fuggin criminal element? Who do we root for? Escapist violence is all right in the movies. But this is live. Real people swinging sticks. Without any relevance, it’s kind of disgusting. If it doesn’t reflect the streets, you wonder what these guys are doing it for. What’s the point?”

 

neo conn

Conn Man: Jean Béliveau with the silverware he accumulated on a Saturday of this date in 1965, when his Canadiens won their 13th Stanley Cup and the Montreal captain was chosen as the inaugural winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. (Archives of Ontario)

“General opinion in these parts is that NHL governors should be herded to the saliva box if they fail to name Montreal’s master craftsman Jean Béliveau for the new Conn Smythe Trophy and the loot that goes with it.” Easy (if not entirely sanitary) for columnist Vern DeGeer to write, as he did in the Montreal Gazette on a Saturday of this same date in 1965 ahead of the game that would decide the winner of that year’s Stanley Cup. By the time it was over, the hometown Canadiens had dismissed the Chicago Black Hawks by a score of 4-0 to win the seven-game series and claim the 13thCup in franchise history. Sure enough, when NHL president Clarence Campbell stepped up to announce the winner of the inaugural Conn Smythe, recognizing the playoff MVP, it was the Montreal captain’s name he spoke. Fifty-five years ago tonight, Béliveau, who was 33, won the handsome new trophy and its accompanying loot of $2,000 (about $16,000 in 2020 dollars), half of which was awarded by the NHL, half by the Canadiens.

It’s true that Chicago’s Bobby Hull had been in the Conn conversation, earlier in the series, when there were also fleeting mentions that Montreal defenceman J.C. Tremblay deserved a chance. Hull did end up as the playoff scoring leader, gathering ten goals and 17 points in 14 games to Béliveau’s eight and 16 in 13 games. The Montreal captain’s showing in the latter days of April sealed the deal: he recorded two goals, including the winner, as well as a pair of assists in Montreal’s 6-0 game-five win. May 1 he again scored the game-winner, and later added an exclamatory assist.

If nobody really disputed Béliveau’s worthiness, there was a brief hue and cry in the days leading up to the decision. The new trophy, which cost $2,300, had been donated by the Toronto Maple Leafs in honour of their influential president, coach, and manager, who was also an honorary NHL governor. While NHL’s other individual awards were decided by a poll of sportswriters, by Smythe’s own request it was decreed that the winner of the new award would be annually voted by the league’s governors.

There were six of them, at the time, august names all, adorned with initials to prove it. From Toronto there was C. Stafford Smythe, Conn’s son; Bruce A. Norris stood for Detroit while his half-brother, James D. Norris, represented Chicago. The New York Rangers had William M. Jennings. Weston W. Adams was Boston’s man, and from Montreal it was J. David Molson.

The arrangement was this: at the conclusion of the final game of the finals, the jurors would file their ballots with Clarence Campbell and he would duly announce the winner. I’ve seen a single reference suggesting that the governors would decide on a shortlist of three names before they did their voting, with points awarded on a 5-3-1 basis, but I don’t know whether that’s how they actually proceeded, in ’65 or the years that followed — there’s no public record that I can find of finalists or voting tallies.

The hue that was cried was, mostly, Jim Vipond’s. Another leading columnist of the day, he was sports editor at the Globe and Mail, wherein he lit a small rocket on Thursday, April 29, 1965, under the headline “Smythe Trophy Vote a Farce.”

His issue? Three of the NHL governors — Boston’s Adams, New York’s Jennings, and Norris of Detroit — hadn’t attended a single game of the final round. Chicago’s Norris and Montreal’s Molson had been at all five games to that point; Toronto’s Smythe had seen four.

“Each absentee delegated authority to an executive member of his organization who is probably more qualified than his boss,” Vipond allowed. “But this was not the intent nor the meaning of the terms of reference.”

“The missing governors are at fault on at least two counts. First, they should have been in attendance out of respect for the man after whom the trophy was named. Second, this is the world series of what they loudly refer to as major league sport. By their absence they depreciate the league they represent.”

He continued:

“Considerable thought was given to the method of selecting the winner. Managers, coaches, and newspapers all were rejected.

“Obviously the system in use is a poor one and if the governors are really interested in advancement of hockey they should consider a better scheme before next year.”

Vipond liked an idea floated by Ron Andrews, the NHL’s publicity man and chief statistician. “It is his proposal that the league invite six former players, one from each team and stars in their own day, to attend the playoff as guests of the NHL. There would be three at each game of the semi-finals, will all six at all games of the finals. They would cast a ballot after each game with the league president counting the votes at the end of the series.”

“That would produce a worthy winner and would be far better than a remote control system operating out of Florida or some other place far removed from playoff action.”

I don’t know how the governors reacted to Vipond’s reproach — or if the three absentees were sufficiently stung to fly in to see the final game of the series. There was no official response, and no change to the system.

That didn’t come for another six years. Since 1971, the winner of the Conn Smythe has been voted by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. They picked Montreal’s goaltender, Ken Dryden, that spring, after his Canadiens won their 17th Cup. By then, the league loot accompanying the Conn Smythe seems to have grown to $1,500 (about $10,000 in today’s money). And while I’m not clear whether Canadiens were matching that figure, it is the case that Sportmagazine stepped up to give him a car for his efforts.

For Béliveau, the 1971 Cup was the tenth and final one he won as a player: he announced his retirement later that summer.

A Stitch In Time: Toronto artist and editorial designer Nadine Arseneault’s embroidered rendering of Béliveau and his ’65 Conn Smythe. You can find her on Instagram @nadine.design.

riverton’s rifle

Born in Riverton, Manitoba, in 1950 on a Sunday in April of this date, Reggie Leach is 70 today. Just why he still hasn’t been voted to hockey’s Hall of Fame remains a mystery, but the oversight does nothing to diminish what he accomplished as a goalscorer in the NHL. Best known as a Flyer, Leach was never better than he was in the spring of 1976, which is when he scored five goals in a decisive Conference-Final game against the Boston Bruins in the Conference Finals on his way to notching 19 goals in 16 playoff games. Though Philadelphia fell to the Montreal Canadiens in the finals, Leach was named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy that year, as playoff MVP, the only non-goaltender in NHL history to win the award as a member of the losing team.

With an assist from Randi Druzin, Reggie Leach published a memoir in 2015, The Riverton Rifle: Straight Shooting on Hockey and on Life. I had a chance to talk to him at the time, on assignment for Slapshot Diaries. I asked him about goaltenders; here’s what he told me:

Q: You scored a lot of goals in the NHL. Was there one goaltender who gave you particular problems?

A: You mean one goaltender I couldn’t score on? Gerry Cheevers. I did score some goals on him, but he was one of the hardest goaltenders for me to score on. I couldn’t figure him out.

When I played, I used to watch the warm-ups all the time and practice shooting from different spots. Where I was dangerous was top of the circle, and out farther. I wasn’t that great inside, I don’t think. Kenny Dryden: the easiest goaltender, for me. Yep. Because Kenny was scared of my shot. And I beat him high all the time, always over the shoulder.

Gerry Cheevers, I’ll tell you a story. When I was in Boston, I remember going to practice as a rookie and as a rookie you just go all-out, you just shoot it, and I go in there and I put one past Cheevers and I thought, Yeah, I beat him. But Gerry, if you hit him with a puck, he’d chase you down the ice. I hit him one time in his chest, he chased me with his stick, and the guys were all laughing, they didn’t tell me that. Gerry Cheevers would stand, no lie, all he did was stand in net, stand there, wave his stick. Right? And that was his practice. And if you hit him, he’d chase you down the ice.

But goaltenders are really strange. Our thing with Bernie Parent, we’d say, Bernie, you weren’t that goddamn good, you only had 18 shots a game. He was funny. One time in Vancouver he comes in — he always smoked the cigar, right — he’d come in with the cigar and say, Boys, I feel good, give me one goal today, that’s it. And guys would be smiling, great, yeah, we only have to get the one goal. And 99 per cent of the time, that’s all we needed, the one goal. That’s the way he was. And Bernie actually stayed out to practice his angle-shots all the time. I would shoot the puck at him and I’d tell him, Bernie, just move over a bit more, and he’d say, Just shoot the puck, I’ll do the moving. He would have everything all angled out, left-handed shots versus right-handed, he would work on that, the only goaltender I ever saw who worked on something after a practice was Bernie. All the other ones I played with never did.

eastertide bunny

Stop Sign: Born in Hull, Quebec, on a Sunday of this date in 1952, Michel Larocque played a dozen seasons in the NHL, mostly under the nickname Bunny, largely for the Montreal Canadiens — though he also suited up for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers, and St. Louis Blues. Backing up Ken Dryden in the Montreal nets in the 1970s, he helped the Canadiens win four Stanley Cups, and had a share in four Vézina trophies as well. Bunny Larocque died of brain cancer at the age of 40 in 1992.

 

henri richard: a reader’s companion

16 + 9: John Taylor’s 1960 still life with skates and sweaters, left behind by brothers (and Canadiens legends) Henri and Maurice Richard.

“Henri Richard, the Pocket Rocket, doesn’t want to be a little gale in the wake of a rumbling hurricane. He wants to swirl through the National Hockey League under his own power, creating his own storms, if any, and reaping the respect of his rivals strictly on his own merits.”

That was the opening to a Vince Lunny cover story for Hockey Pictorial in March of 1956, towards the end of the younger Richard’s rookie season in the NHL. It didn’t take long, of course, for Henri, who died on Friday at the age of 84, to skate up a storm of his very own alongside Maurice, 14 years his elder. It was only two years later that Milt Dunnell took to Hockey Pictorial’s columns with Maurice’s take on how Henri was faring in the league. “The Rocket gives the opinion faster than he breaks over a blueline,” Dunnell wrote in April of 1958: ‘Henri is a better skater than I ever was. He’s a better stickhandler, he’s a better puck-carrier. Henri is a better hockey player.”

Rocket’s view wasn’t, perhaps, universal at the time — Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake, for one, wasn’t yet willing to declare Henri supreme among Richards. All these years later, the question of which brother was the more valuable player might well still start a debate that wouldn’t necessarily finish. What we do know is that Henri played 20 seasons with Montreal, amassing 1,175 points in 1,436 games, regular season and playoffs, winning an unmatched 11 Stanley Cups along the way. He captained the Canadiens from 1971 through to his retirement in 1975. The team retired his number, 16, that year; he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.

It’s true that Henri’s literary legacy doesn’t measure up to Maurice’s. A quick check of the bookshelf tells the tale: the elder Richard’s life and riotous times have been the focus of at least 12 books over the years, from Gerry Gosselin’s Monsieur Hockey (1950) to Jean-Marie Pellerin’s Maurice Richard: L’Idole d’un Peuple (1998) to The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard (2009) by Benoît Melançon. No-one (to date) has published Henri’s biography or devoted a volume to his place in hockey or Quebec history.

That’s not to say the younger Richard doesn’t figure in more general histories of the game. Stan Fischler’s 1971 Hab history The Flying Frenchmen, for instance, delves into the brothers’ relationship during Henri’s early days in the NHL and offers up this telling anecdote:

The Canadiens were in the midst of a workout when Henri rounded the net at full speed from one side and Maurice approached on the same track from the other direction. They collided violently and both fell to the ice unconscious. When they were finally revived, both were escorted to the first-aid room where Maurice needed 12 stitches to close his wound and his kid brother, six stitches.

Then, in a masterful understatement, Maurice intoned: “You’d better watch yourself. Henri. You might get hurt.”

Henri rates a chapter in Michael Ulmer’s Canadiens Captains (1996). And he’s a voice throughout Dick Irvin the Younger’s 1991 oral history, The Habs. That’s where you’ll find Henri doing his best to explain his infamous 1971 outburst wherein he called Al MacNeil the worst coach he’d ever played for:

“I didn’t really mean it, but it came out because I was mad. Al was a good guy. But I was just mad, and they made a lot of things about that in all the papers. Even Guy Lafleur, in his book. He said I said to MacNeil that he shouldn’t coach the Canadiens because he didn’t speak French, and all that shit. I never said that in my life.”

Trent Frayne’s Henri essay in his 1968 anthology of hockey profiles, It’s Easy, All You Have To Do is Win is worth seeking out. While you’re arranging that, maybe settle in with the inimitable Frayne’s 1958 Maclean’s Henri profile, which is archived here.

So far as odes and obituaries published in the days since Henri’s death, recommended readings would start with this piece by Dave Stubbs at NHL.com, which includes reflections from Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer.

Tom Hawthorn’s Globe and Mail obituary is deftly done and deserves a read, along with Roy MacGregor’s reminiscence, also in the Globe, which is here.

If you read French, take a look at Gaétan Lauzon’s coverage in La Presse, ici. Richard Goldstein wrote a New York Times obituary, published Saturday — that’s here.

If you missed Friday’s broadcast of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, you can download the March 6 podcast here (and should) to listen to Carol Off’s conversation with Henri’s Canadiens teammate Ken Dryden. It gets going at the 37.40 mark.

On Saturday night, Hockey Night in Canada opened with Ron MacLean’s conversation with Dick Irvin, which includes his thoughts on the origins of the nickname Pocket Rocket. There’s tape of that here, and worth your attention, if you didn’t catch it on the night.

One more? That would be Michael Farber’s Richard tribute at TSN, which you can find over this way.

(Top image: John Taylor, about 1960, silver salts on film, gelatin silver process, MP-1999.5.5032.4, © McCord Museum)

power play: from abraham’s plains to the ice at the montreal forum

Born at Chateau de Candiac, near Nîmes, in France, on a Wednesday of this date in 1712, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Grozon, Marquis de Montcalm de Saint-Veran was a distinguished lieutenant-general in the French Army whose hockey career never really got off the ground. He (and his famous death, in 1759) figure prominently nonetheless in Rick Salutin’s brilliant 1977 play Les Canadiens, which scopes Quebec’s history and identity through the lens of its iconic hockey team. It first found a stage at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre, with Guy Sprung directing; the magnificent poster here, above, was designed by Theo Dimson for the play’s Toronto run in the fall of ’77, at Toronto Workshop Productions, where George Luscombe directed. Salutin worked closely with Ken Dryden on the script, and he also checked in with a distinguished assortment of other Habs illuminati credited in Salutin’s introduction to the published version of the play, including:

Jean Béliveau, in his office at the Montreal Forum.

Jacques Beauchamp, editor and sports columnist of Journal de Montreal, who absentmindedly flicked cigar ashes into a puck on his desk.

Toe Blake, as he opened his tavern one morning.

Dickie Moore, at his equipment rental agency, practically on the runway of Dorval Airport.

Jacques Plante, at Olympic Stadium, where he was running the food concession during an international bicycle competition.

Wayne Thomas, former Canadiens’ goalie, in the snack bar at Maple Leaf Gardens.

 

(Top image, Theo Dimson; cover painting, above, Bill Featherston)

in the crease, behind the bench: ken dryden on scotty bowman

Habs Helmsman: Scotty Bowman patrols the Canadiens bench, circa the early 1970s.

A version of this post appeared in the Books pages of The Globe and Mail on Saturday, January 4, 2020.

In 1983, Ken Dryden wrote a bit of a ballad, if not quite an ode, about a former coach of his.

“Scotty Bowman is not someone who is easy to like,” Dryden confided in The Game, the memoir he published after retiring from his NHL career, a book that’s still roundly recognized as the most insightful reflection on hockey ever written. “He is shy and not very friendly. … Abrupt, straightforward, without flair or charm, he seems cold and abrasive, sometimes obnoxious, controversial, but never colourful. … He is complex, confusing, misunderstood, unclear in every way but one. He is a brilliant coach, the best of his time.”

Together, as younger men in the employ of the Montreal’s then-mighty Canadiens, Dryden and Bowman reached hockey’s heights during the 1970s, when they coincided on five of the six Stanley Cups the team won in nine years. There were other key players you could name from the Canadiens’ decade of dominance, but none who played a more important role than the coach or his first-choice goaltender.

Both men departed Montreal in 1979, Dryden for retirement, Bowman to continue coaching in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Dryden’s post-playing career has included stints as a teacher, a TV commentator, president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a federal MP and cabinet minister. By the time Bowman retired from the bench in 2002, he was hockey’s (in sports parlance) winningest coach, with more victories to his name, regular season and playoffs, than anyone else in NHL history. All told, he’s been involved in the winning of 14 Stanley Cups in his career — second only to Jean Béliveau’s 17.

The most plentiful Cup years came in the ’70s, when the coach and his goaltender helped propel Montreal to six championships in nine years. Now, 40 years later, Dryden and Bowman have collaborated on Dryden’s seventh book, Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other.

It’s a singular work in its own right: a biography, yes, but an unconventional one that also folds in a lively fantasy hockey playoff series. It’s a contrivance that allows Dryden to frame in the hockey history around Bowman by challenging him to choose the best eight NHL teams of all time, to explore how it might go if they were to face-off across time.

For Dryden, the relationship the men have shared since they first met at the Canadiens’ training camp in 1971 has remained consistent. “I think it’s essentially never changed,” he said in an interview. “I think we always got along. I think he sensed that I thought that he was absolutely the right guy to be the coach of our team and I think he felt sort of similarly about me. And we trusted each other.”

How the relationship expressed itself has, Dryden allows, been different at different times. In Montreal, in the ’70s, “Scotty was somebody who was never comfortable with a conversation that lasted more than 30 seconds.” Later, in the ’80s, working on his first book, Dryden sought Bowman out in Buffalo. “I thought we would be an hour or so — we talked for four hours.”

Dryden thought about writing about his former coach for a decade before he asked Bowman in 2015 whether he’d be interested. He was. Two things that Dryden understood about Bowman: he has a prodigious memory, but he’s no storyteller. That’s where the historical fantasy came in: Dryden had to find a way of allowing the coach to look over the players on a roster, understand what each one could or couldn’t do  — he had to find a way to let him coach.

So two of the great hockey minds came up with a list of the teams they considered to be the greatest in NHL history, including the 1951-52 Detroit Red Wings and the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers along with their own 1976-77 Canadiens.

Armed with with contemporary accounts and statistics, this was how they immersed themselves in the hockey past that Bowman had lived and helped to shape. The talking went on for a year, mostly over the phone, Dryden in Toronto, Bowman at home in Buffalo or else in Florida, where he and his wife, Suella, spend their winters.

As the book makes clear, Bowman, who’s 86, is very much still in the game. Working asan advisor to the Chicago Blackhawks, the team his son Stan manages, he studies the NHL as attentively as he ever did, players and analytics, systems and tactics, what works, what doesn’t.

“The conversations were easy,” Dryden said. “I think they would have grown tired for both of us if it was just recollections. At a certain point, it’s not enough. It’s not interesting enough.” Bowman’s voluminous memory, Dryden realized, is more of a thriving depot than a dormant repository. “He remembers everything, but it comes to be in the service of whatever he’s doing now and whatever he might be doing in the future.”

For the coach who’s never really quit coaching, memory isn’t about nostalgia. “It’s an exercise of having learned and of continuing to learn and of fitting even more pieces together to learn even more.”

•••

I arranged to meet Dryden one morning last fall near his home in midtown Toronto. Early to the rendezvous, I watched a passerby recognize and intercept him, shake his hand. At 72, the erstwhile goalie doesn’t look like he’s lost any of his playing trim, or the 6’4” stature with which he made a career of fending off pucks, and it’s just possible to imagine him stepping in to relieve Carey Price in a crisis. In fact, the only time he’s suited in goaltending gear since he retired 40 years ago was in pads he borrowed from Price for a Bell Centre celebration of the team’s centennial in 2009. The incumbent Canadiens goaltender has otherwise superseded him: Dryden notes that both of his young goaltending grandsons wear Price’s number 31 on their sweaters rather than the famous familial 29.

Ken Dryden (Image: Sergey Smirnov)

Don Cherry spent three decades broadcasting hockey’s blustering id. Through most of those same years, Dryden has approached the game more, shall we say, methodically and coherently. He’s celebrated its variety and beauty; he’s attended it with a restless curiosity and a public intellectual’s broadness of perspective and willingness to engage. In no-one else’s biography do the adjectives erudite and Conn-Smythe-Trophy-winningcoincide. He published The Game the same year he was ushered into hockey’s Hall of Fame. (Bowman joined him there in 1991.)

As Rick Salutin once pointed out, questioning and self-doubt come naturally to goaltenders, and in classrooms and lecture halls as well as on the pages of books and newspapers, Dryden has never stopped pondering the game’s finer points, riddling its riddles, questioning its verities, calling out its contradictions, trying to plumb — and, from time to time, restore — the game’s conscience.

 In 2017’s Game Change, Dryden fixed his focus on hockey’s response to the concussion crisis, positing a comprehensive plan to re-imagine the culture of the game in order to eliminate hits to the head. Appealing directly to the man who has the power to lead the way, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Dryden was, as he’s said, trying to  — create the conditions “by which he and hockey might make better decisions.”

Two years have passed since he personally presented a copy of the book to Bettman over lunch in New York. He’s still waiting for a response.

•••

If in Scotty Dryden shifts from Game Change’s pointed advocacy, it’s no less passionate in its embrace of the game. With Bowman as his prompt and guide, he unpacks more than 70 years of hockey history, delving deeply into Bowman’s early years in Verdun, exploring the legacies of his mentors in Montreal, legendary Canadiens coach Toe Blake and Sam Pollock, who’s widely acknowledged as the greatest GM in NHL history.

Growing up on the southern verge of the island of Montreal, Bowman was a fan of the Boston Bruins. He was a good player, not a great one. He was skating for the Junior Canadiens in 1952 when a rival defenceman swung his stick and fractured Bowman’s skull. He recovered and continued to play, but as he told Dryden, “I was no longer a prospect.” Continue reading

somebody who plays hockey, somebody else who coaches

It was October when I started talking to Ken Dryden about his new Bowman biography, Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other. We talked again, on the phone, in November and December, but for that first interview we met in person, one early gleaming fall morning, at an espresso bar not far from his home in midtown Toronto. I got there early and was ensconced in a window seat when Dryden strolled into view a block-and-a-half to the north. He was waiting for a light to cross the last of the distance between us when a man walking with his small son accosted the former goaltender and thrust out a hand for the shaking. It was a quick exchange, and friendly-looking. As Dryden continued on, I watched his admirer explaining who he was to his boy. As I mention in the feature I ended up writing for the Globe and Mail’s Books pages, Dryden, who’s 72, looks like he could slip back into the Montreal Canadiens’ net without a flinch, summoning up no problem the puck-preventative instincts and reactions that served him so well through the 1970s. He was wearing a white t-shirt white a light blue fleece pulled over it. I got a cortado, Dryden a Morning Glory muffin. In the more than 40 years have passed since Dryden stopped playing NHL hockey, he’s worked on TV and served in government, helmed the Toronto Maple Leafs, and written some of the most penetrating and insightful books known to hockey. For people like me who continue to ask him about how the diverse projects that command his attention might connect, the answer he’s assembled is this: “I’m not a hockey player, I’m somebody who played hockey. I’m not a writer, I’m somebody who writes. I’m not a politician, I’m somebody involved in politics. I’m not a teacher, I’m somebody teaches. And it depends on what the subject is and the purpose of doing it as to whether the best approach is by teaching or by writing or by administering or by … whatever.”

My feature on Ken Dryden and Scotty is up online at the Globe today, where it’s available to subscribers here. It appears in the paper proper, on paper, tomorrow.

 

(Image: Aislin, a.k.a. Terry Mosher, “Ken Dryden and Scotty Bowman,” 1973, ink and felt pen on paper, © McCord Museum)

29

Pucks Beware: Born on a Friday of this very date in 1947 in Hamilton, Ontario, Ken Dryden turns 72 today. The Montreal Canadiens won six Stanley Cups with him in their net in the 1970s; he was inducted in hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1983.

under review: our game, and everybody else’s

A version of this review first appeared, here, at H-Net Reviews.

Hockey: A Global History
Stephen Hardy, Andrew C. Holman
University of Illinois Press, 2018
600 pp. (paper), US$29.95/C$35

By the end of May, the winter had mostly receded from the upper third of the North American map, if not yet the nation’s appetite for hockey. While on Canada’s east coast the national junior championships were wrapping up, fans of the international game settled in across the country to see whether the plucky national team could grab gold at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Slovakia. Off the ice, the sudden springtime demise of the nation’s women’s professional league continued to reverberate.

Meanwhile, at the center of the hockey world, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman convened a press conference to deliver his annual state-of-the-game address. The fact that he was doing so from Boston, and that (once again) no Canadian-based team would be playing for hockey’s most coveted prize, the Stanley Cup, isn’t enough anymore to faze the country that thinks of hockey as a proprietary natural resource indivisible from the national soul, never mind how far the Cup might wander away from home.

Bettman spent much of his time on the podium lauding the successes of the corporation he guides. “While there are things that are always debatable in our game,” he said, “let’s first focus on some indisputable facts that detail why the NHL is in the strongest position in our history.” [1]

Bettman went on to extol hockey as the “greatest spectacle in sports” and the “remarkable” season the NHL had seen on ice. He cited soaring TV ratings, expansion to Seattle, exciting future ventures into Europe and China, and technological innovations that will bring player and puck-tracking into play as soon as next season. He spoke about the prevailing turbulence in women’s hockey, but only in passing. His assertion that the NHL features “the best pace of play in sports” may or may not have been primarily directed at those with both doubts and attention deficits. “We have the most and fastest action in the shortest period of time,” Bettman boasted. [2]

Speedy as it is, the NHL has also become in its one hundred years of existence such a mighty mass that at times it can seem to displace all other forms of the game that don’t quite mesh with the massive workings of the league’s corporate machinery. For all the excitement that the league generates with its hockey, despite its many good-faith efforts to grow and diversify the game, the NHL hockey is not — and should never be — the only game in town.

Authors Stephen Hardy and Andrew C. Holman don’t command TV cameras the way Gary Bettman can, and their important new book, Hockey: A Global History, won’t be broadcast as widely as the commissioner’s messaging. It’s too bad: their expansive and very detailed study of hockey’s evolution, structures, and culture is required reading, the new standard text when it comes to understanding how the sport got from the far-off historical there to where it is today.

The library of the sport’s literature is an extensive one, but there’s nothing in it like their Hockey: A Global History. Hardy is an emeritus professor of kinesiology and history at the University of New Hampshire; Holman is a professor of history at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. It’s not that the game hasn’t been studied with serious and scholarly intent before. A stack of the most interesting and edifying books on the game’s rise and development would necessarily include, for example, On The Origin of Hockey (2014) by Carl Gidén, Patrick Houda, and Jean-Patrice Martel; Craig Bowlsby’s 1913: The Year They Invented The Future of Hockey (2013); and Deceptions and Doublecross: How The NHL Conquered Hockey (2002), by Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth.

For insight into hockey’s character and culture (including its many deficiencies and outright failings) you’d add Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities, and Cultural Politics (1993), by Richard Gruneau and David Whitson; The Death of Hockey (1972) by Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane; and the 2018 scholarly anthology, Hockey: Challenging Canada’s Game, edited by Jenny Ellison and Jennifer Anderson.

As for general histories, books like Michael McKinley’s Putting A Roof on Winter: Hockey’s Rise from Sport Spectacle (2000) stick close to hockey’s perceived home ice, which is to say Canada and the northeastern United States. No previous single-volume study has ranged so broadly as Hockey: A Global History nor dug so deeply into the details, and I don’t know of a precedent, either, for the quality of Hardy and Holman’s analysis as they make their way through hockey history, cracking open orthodoxies as they go, and briskly reordering many of what we have come to think of as the game’s immutable verities. It all makes for a brisk and fluid narrative, too: on top of everything else, Hardy and Holman unpack an awfully good story.

The crux of it all is in the title, three words in. Referencing Gruneau and Whitson, Hardy and Holman acknowledge that Canada and the Canadian experience is at the center of any discussion of hockey. “The problem,” the former pair wrote in Hockey Night in Canada, “arises when Canadians’ appreciation for hockey is mistaken for ‘nature’ rather than something that is socially and culturally produced.”

“We try,” note Hardy and Holman, “to move hockey history beyond the limits of one national bias.” Unbounded, they also succeed in their effort to transcend “dimensions beyond nationhood, particularly along lines of class, gender, and race.”

They also make a key shift in considering the game’s early evolutionary momentum. The emphasis of much previous historiographical debate has been fixed on determining hockey’s “birthplace” rather than on discussing migration patterns. As Hardy and Holman write, “birth details would matter little (beyond antiquarian interest) if the game and its followers, players, and promoters had never grown, if they had never become fruitful and multiplied.”

If there is a consistent tone to the narrative here, it’s set early on as the authors remind readers (while discouraging any romanticists who might have strayed by) that there was never a golden age of hockey, a prelapsarian frozen garden where once the game was purely, innocently yet to be spoiled. Hockey, like most human endeavours, is an imperfect, in-process, not always entirely progressive affair that its various stakeholders — players, coaches, owners, members of the media, fans — continue to make up as they go along.

And it was ever thus. The game, to start, was many games, and they proliferated spontaneously wherever people picked up sticks to knock balls—or bungs or, eventually, pucks. They note that the first skates were fashioned, probably, from animal bone, with practical purpose: in northern climes, they were developed for travel and transport before they were put to use in fun and game. Many of the proto-hockeys that were played in the wintry past were, of course, informal, without consistent rules or equipment or chroniclers. That they went largely unrecorded isn’t so surprising — as historian Craig Bowlsby has pointed out, 200 years ago, nobody was assiduously annotating the history of snowball fights, either. Continue reading