Book reviews: The Game and The Rebel League

As the first season of what everyone is calling the “new NHL” draws to a close, it may be an appropriate time for a look at professional hockey’s recent past.

Ken Dryden’s The Game has been hailed as the best hockey book ever written and included in Sports Illustrated‘s list of the top 100 best sports books of all time. While an interesting and insightful look at NHL hockey, its age may now hamper those accolades.

For those unfamiliar with him, Dryden played goalie for the Montreal Canadiens, a true hockey dynasty. During Dryden’s eight seasons with the Canadiens in the 1970s, the team won the Stanley Cup six times. Dryden does not fit the stereotype of a hockey player. He “retired” for one season to finish his law degree. He is currently a member of the Canadian Parliament. As that background would suggest, The Game is both thoughtful and articulate.

The problem lies in its age. Last year, the paperback edition of the 20th anniversary edition of the book was released. With the original book having been published in 1983, timeframes can be confusing. Written in a type of diary format covering one week, Dryden covers so much ground it’s often difficult to figure out exactly what year he is talking about. His references to recent Stanley Cup victories, players and games makes it that much more difficult. At the time The Game was initially published, these events would be relatively fresh in the minds of hockey fans. Some 20 years later, though, it is more difficult to keep the times straight.

There are also annoying typographical issues. For example, one paragraph refers to the Canadiens being behind “twenty-one” but tying the game on a power play. Now that’s a powerful power play. In addition, the book frequently, but without rhyme or reason, uses em dashes instead of hyphens, causing the reader to pause to figure out what a sentence or phrase actually says. Given the fact this paperback follows a hard cover 20th anniversary edition of a book first published more than 20 years ago, such errors should not show up.

Still, the more timeless areas of the book are an admirable insider’s view of play at the professional level. It covers the history of the game, Dryden’s past, other past and then-current players and coaches, as well as the development of hockey styles and strategy. Dryden’s analysis of the differences between Canadian hockey and the then-burgeoning Soviet program are insightful. Several of his recommendations on how North American hockey could remain competitive were prescient.

Dryden urged speed and emphasis on a transition game, saying, among other things, that “the league must deliver a message, clear and uncompromising: hooking, holding, and highsticking will be penalized, so that the quick and skilled are not, so that open ice created will not be taken away.” Those concepts are a large part of what has created the “new NHL” this season, reflecting the caliber of Dryden’s analysis.

At the same time Dryden was playing for a longstanding NHL empire, others were trying to shake up the world of professional hockey. Taking cues from the American Football League and the American Basketball Association, the World Hockey Association was formed. The Rebel League, by Ed Willes, makes a worthy but not always successful effort to document the history of the WHA.

Although in existence only from October 1972 through March 1979, the impact the WHA on professional hockey in North American is unquestionable. As a renegade league of sorts, the founders and owners knew the only chance of success was to have top-name players. As a result, they lured superstar Bobby Hull with a million dollar bonus at a time when most NHL stars were lucky to make six figures.

Large contracts and bonuses allowed the WHA to land other quality NHL players and top quality draft picks. The WHA’s actions not only increased player salaries in the NHL, they cracked the reserve clause in the NHL. Whether that ultimately has been good or bad for hockey is a matter of opinion.

Yet the WHA also got Gordie Howe to come out of retirement and play — and quite effectively — with his sons. It delved heavily into European players, opening the door much wider for those players in the NHL. It also was the starting ground for many future NHL superstars, such as Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.

Still, the WHA remains perhaps more renowned for its characters. There was, for example, the night a referee was somewhat stumped on what penalty to call when two teammates on the Minnesota Fighting Saints got in a fight on the ice. Seems the rules don’t specifically cover teammates fighting each other. Then there was goalie Gilles Gratton. A believer in reincarnation, among other things, Gratton begged off starting a game because of sore ribs he said were the result of a spear wound he suffered 300 years before. In another game, he simply left after two periods because he felt he’d faced enough shots.

Thanks to Hollywood, though, perhaps the most famous were the Carlson brothers of Minnesota. Not only did they serve as the inspiration for the bespectacled Hanson brothers of Slap Shot fame, two of the three actually played themselves in the movie.

The problem with The Rebel League is there is just too much ground and too many people to cover. Business and financial details compete with personalities and historical developments for both the writer’s and the reader’s attention. Willes also makes an effort to give each team equal time and its due but that is at time disruptive to the flow of the material. Still, it is a worthwhile excursion into a rebel league that would change the face of professional hockey.

Anyone who might question the impact of the WHA need only look at the Stanley Cup finals. The Carolina Hurricanes actually began as the New England Whalers in the WHA. Their opponent? The only original WHA team that remains from the WHA’s merger with the NHL 1979 — the Edmonton Oilers.

The “golden age of sports,” the golden age of anything, is the age of everyone’s childhood.

Ken Dryden, The Game

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