Excerpt

THE NEW GAME

Two decades later, KEN DRYDEN adds a fresh chapter to his best-selling book

September 22 2003
Excerpt

THE NEW GAME

Two decades later, KEN DRYDEN adds a fresh chapter to his best-selling book

September 22 2003

THE NEW GAME

Two decades later, KEN DRYDEN adds a fresh chapter to his best-selling book

Excerpt

The updated version of The Game hy Ken Dryden, the Montreal Canadiens goaltender turned Toronto Maple Leaf executive, is being published by Wiley Canada. An excerpt:

IT HAS BEEN 25 seasons since the Canadiens were the best team in hockey. They won the Stanley Cup in 1986 and 1993, but that’s not the same thing. They were underdogs both times, and both times they found victory with smart, opportunistic play, good fortune, strong goaltending and that catchall which everyone understands and no one can explain: the “Canadiens mystique.”

In 1986, only Bob Gainey, Larry Robin-

son and Mario Tremblay remained as players from dominant teams of the 1970s. By 1993, Serge Savard had become the team’s general manager. Jacques Lemaire had been head coach for a year. Jacques Laperriere had been an assistant coach, as would Steve Shutt, news that surely made his (deceased) former coaches turn over in their graves and Scotty Bowman swallow his ice. “Hey, Shutty, you in charge of backchecking?” Yet if few of the players on those 1970s teams remain in Montreal, their impact on the NHL has been profound. Gainey and Savard have each won Stanley Cups as general managers; Lemaire and Robinson as head coaches; Laperriere, Robinson and Doug Jarvis as assistant coaches. And Doug Risebrough, as general manager of the Wild, has created in Minnesota a Montreal midouest, with Lemaire as head coach, Mario an assistant coach and Guy Lapointe as a scout.

Only Savard and Laperriere have won non-playing Cups in Montreal. Lemaire and Tremblay had a chance, but in Montreal, becoming head coaches as they did with little experience, they had to be great before they had learned to be good. Gainey and Robinson had to leave the glare of Montreal to learn their trade, in Dallas and New Jersey. Scotty Bowman left Montreal to win again, too. He had gone to Buffalo as coach and general manager in 1979, and maybe for the first time in his career, he was a disappointment. Without likeability to forgive his failure, he was soon fired. He appeared to be at the end of the coaching line, and

joined Pittsburgh as director of player development. But when Bob Johnson died of cancer, Bowman took over the team and led it to its second consecutive Stanley Cup. In Detroit, things only got better for him.

Even his former players, who had never ever wanted to say anything nice about him, have been unable to resist. That may be the real measure of his achievement. He retired after the Red Wings’ victory in 2002: at age 68, having won Stanley Cups over a span of four decades, through NHL expansion, the introduction of the European player, free agency, big money and all the rest, Scotty Bowman left the NHL as—undeniably, indisputably—the best coach of all time.

I KNEW the dominance of the Canadiens would diminish. Nobody could sustain the pace of 15 Stanley Cups in 23 years. Sam Pollock and Bowman were gone. The farm

system had been built during a sponsorship time when teams could sign up kids almost at birth, and when every Canadian kid wanted to play for the Canadiens or Leafs. When sponsorship ended in 1969 and a universal draft of players forced kids to play with whichever team chose them, the Canadiens had enough players already in their system to trade their surplus for future draft picks to teams desperate to compete and survive.

But by 1979 all that was coming to an end. The next generation of great players was getting spread around. Denis Potvin, Brian Trottier and Mike Bossy had all gone to the Islanders. Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier were in the WHA. The Canadiens had been reduced finally to equal ground, and while that, with proper care, might produce good teams, it won’t generate domination.

And the league is different now. Better organization of the NHL Players’ Association, among other things, has resulted in huge gains by the players in the last 10 years. Some of those gains have come out of the owners’ pockets. But most have come from money that hadn’t been there previously. Now, teams spread their tickets around and most fans attend games as a special occasion, like going to The Lion King or The Phantom of the Opera, something they budget for, that they only do once or twice a year. Fans complain that higher costs mean they can’t go anymore, let alone take their kids. With fewer kids at games, the mood is now less joyful and unrestrained.

The owners have met the test of higher salaries with higher ticket prices and with “up-selling.” “You want a beer? Can I get you a hot dog and fries with that? ” “You want a ticket? Can I get you a private box, or a club seat, or a restaurant reservation as well?” Advertising signs are everywhere—in the ice and on the boards. The owners also ex-

When he returned to work in hockey, Dryden (right) found a much-changed NHL

MONEY HAS AFFECTED who wins the Stanley Cup and who doesn’t. And it has especially affected Canadian teams. In the 50 years from 1943 to 1993, Canadian teams won 35 times.

In the last 10 years, they’ve not won once.

panded the league to 30 teams, generating a windfall of more than $500 million in expansion fees that they then spent on players, setting new salary levels and creating an economic structure based on one-time expansion windfalls that couldn’t continue.

Money has affected who wins the Stanley Cup and who doesn’t. And it has especially affected the fortunes of Canadian teams. In the 50 years from 1943 to 1993, Canadian teams won 35 times. In the last 10 years, since money has become a competitive tool, they’ve not won once. Currency, market size, TV ratings, sale of merchandise, and season-ticket-splitting to support higher ticket prices have come to matter more. The “Canadian advantage” of history, climate and passion for the game has been neutralized. For Montreal, a team more accustomed than any other to winning, it has made winning even harder to achieve.

I LEFT HOCKEY in 1979 because it felt like time to go. I didn’t take any other job in hockey because, as I told people then, I’d already had the best job—goalie for the Canadiens. Eighteen years later, I came back as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The experience in hockey that I came back to was different, often dramatically. My time in the NHL in the 1970s, with its overexpansion, rival WHA, dump-and-chase and Flyers-level violence, seemed a mess to commentators at the time. To today’s adult, frustrated by obstruction and money, it seems wondrous. The 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets, so rancorous and disappointing at the time, is now a glorious national memory. The longer we don’t play, it seems, the better we get.

Twenty-five seasons from now, what will this time in hockey feel like to today’s 10year-olds? How will they remember it? And what about today’s players, 10 or 15 years after they have retired? How will they look back on their hockey life? When you ask them that question, listen to their liquid voices as they answer, see the glistening pride in their eyes, you will know. The NHL has changed, but the game has not.

A year ago, I was asked to give the TV commentary on a past Leafs-Canadiens game from the 1978 Stanley Cup semifinals. We had won the Cup the previous two years and had dominated the 1977-78 regular season as well. The Leafs had their best team of the decade, with Borje Salming,

POSTSCRIPT ON THE GAME

When I was done writing this chapter for the last time, I came across something I had written to myself a few months before, that I had left unfinished, and I finished it:

I am a player I love to play I want to win

It matters to me if I win or lose It matters to me how I play the game I want to win without injustice or bad luck or regret

I want to own every pleasure and disappointment

I want to get lost in play I want time not to matter I want to do something more important than me

I cannot win alone

I need my teammates and my opponents to make me better I trust, because I have to trust I forgive, because I need to be forgiven I play a game, not only a game I try because that matters to me I try because it’s more fun that way I don’t quit because it doesn’t feel good when I do

I play with others, but I play against me I learn when I play I play when I learn I practise because I like to be good I try what I’ve never tried before I fail, to fail smarter

I want to be better than I was yesterday I dream I imagine

I feel hard and deep I hope, because there’s always a way Ken Dryden, July 21,2003

Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Tiger Williams, Ian Turnbull and Mike Palmateer. They had just upset the Islanders in seven agonizing games. This was the second game of that semifinal series, in Montreal; we had won the first game.

Before doing the commentary, I brought the game tapes home to watch. I had no memory of the game at all, and if I had realized what I had agreed to, I wouldn’t have agreed to it. The game had been a long time ago and that time was over and done. The

results were on the scoreboard and could not be changed. All my feelings were in too; they had been tallied, and they added up to something great. It had been a wonderful time. To live in Montreal in the 1970s, to live in Quebec, to play for the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum; to be surrounded by people who were the best, from the Molsons and Bronfmans to Sam Pollock and Scotty Bowman; to win six Stanley Cups in eight years: what could be better?

And there’s nothing I would want to do about this part of my life. But in going back with these tapes, I realized there’s something that might be done to that period of my life. I might see things now that I don’t want to see, that I didn’t see then, that can make me feel different now, that can muddy and confuse something that has been clear.

When I turned on that tape machine, I realized that while I had seen highlight clips, I had never seen us play a full game before. And there we were. Roger Doucet singing the anthem; the players without their helmets; ice that looked slightly blue. The voice of Danny Gallivan, smart, clear, still able to tingle my spine. Larry Robinson, much taller than I remember, and such a good skater. Jacques Lemaire, so smart, efficient, effective, always knowing where he should be. And Bob Gainey, his stride no longer or quicker than the players who were chasing him, surging past them with embarrassing ease.

Bill Nyrop, too. Mostly unremembered from those teams, he moved so well. If he hadn’t left hockey the following year, I thought again to myself, he might have made “the Big Three”defencemen of Robinson, Lapointe and Savard “the Big Four.” And Guy Lafleur, quick, decisive, confident, everthreatening, his jersey rippling, his hair streaming back the way no one else’s hair did. Shutt, Jarvis, even me. I could have played the two goals differently, but I was OK.

We went ahead 2-0. The Leafs scored two quick goals in the second period and might have won a game they shouldn’t have won. Instead, unshaken, we scored late in the second period and shut the game down completely in the third.

The Leafs had some good players, but we were just better. It was there, perfectly clear, on that TV screen. When I had sat down to watch, I wasn’t sure what I would see. I was less sure how I would react to what I saw. As I watched, I started to enjoy. We were good. We were really good.