The Series: What I Remember, What It Felt Like, What It Feels Like Now
by Ken Dryden
McClelland & Stewart
199 pages, $34.95
As hockey’s brainiest practitioner, Ken Dryden knows that the essence of a good story is memory and feeling. Hence the subtitle of his ninth book, The Series: What I Remember, What It Felt Like, What It Feels Like Now.
He’s talking about the Summit Series, eight electrifying hockey games in 1972 between Canada and the Soviet Union that this year marked its fiftieth anniversary. As one of Team Canada’s two starting goaltenders, Dryden was a pivotal figure in the astonishing comeback victory that culminated in Paul Henderson’s goal with thirty-four seconds remaining in the final game.
The story opens during Dryden’s childhood. After Canada’s unthinkable loss to the Soviets in the 1954 world hockey championship, a Canadian obsession began. Like any hockey-mad kid, seven-year-old Ken lived for the day when Canada would retake the crown that had been our birthright for decades. We did that the next year, which was followed by three more world championships.
“Then,” Dryden recounts, “we started losing.” For the next decade, international hockey was dominated by the Soviets. Young Ken shared his country’s frustration at knowing that Soviet hegemony was possible only because Canada had to send amateur players to compete. Our best played for money in the National Hockey League, and so were barred from competition, yet the Soviets played year-round on the government payroll and were deemed “amateurs.”
Fast-forward to 1972: Canada finally gets the chance to prove that it has the best hockey players in the world. Dryden, by now a twenty-five-year-old Stanley Cup-winning goalie with the Montreal Canadiens, is one of the NHL stars chosen to play an eight-game exhibition series against the Soviet national team. In this country, wild anticipation fuelled by Cold War antagonism predicts a Canadian sweep.
Dryden starts game one in Montreal. He remembers “a feeling that kept building and building,” even more overwhelming than before a Stanley Cup final. Then the stunning reality. After rocketing to a 2-0 lead, Team Canada flames out. Dryden allows seven goals, and the game ends 7-3. The nation goes into shock, mourning a lost illusion. “I didn’t know what to think, what to feel, what to do,” Dryden writes. “I was just embarrassed.”
By focusing on his feelings, and those of his teammates and fellow Canadians, Dryden evokes the karma of the series. Canada will need divine inspiration for game two in Toronto: “We had to win that game.” And they do, 4-1. From the stands he cheers on his replacement, Tony Esposito. “For us, it was the first exciting and happy time of the series.”
That happiness is short-lived. In Winnipeg, with Esposito in goal again, Canada blows a 3-1 lead to tie 4-4. “For us, it was a tie that felt like a loss,” Dryden remembers. “For them, a tie that felt like a win.”
With Dryden back in the net for game four in Vancouver, Canada takes too many penalties, losing 5-3, and the crowd boos lustily. Dryden writes, “I could feel my insides being sucked out.” He can understand the fans’ anger. There’s also anger on the sweat-drenched face of team leader Phil Esposito as he pleads for the nation’s understanding in a now-legendary on-ice interview.
The series moves on to Moscow. Of the four games left, Canada must win three on alien ice. Dryden endows the familiar denouement with renewed resonance. “It was time to think,” he tells us. “It wasn’t time to feel.” How he analyzes the Soviets’ ever-flowing attack based on speed, mobility, passing, and puck control — so different from NHL individualism and brute strength — and how he changes his goaltending style, are key to enabling Canada to pull off a miracle.
Dryden was in goal for two of Canada’s three straight series-concluding victories, including the series winner, dispelling his worst fear: that he’d wake up on the morning after the series “the most hated person in Canada.” Not to say that brute strength didn’t play its part: Bobby Clarke’s vicious slash in game six disabled Soviet star Valeri Kharlamov. But ultimately victory came through a fusion of the head and the heart, and the Canadian never-say-die will to win was epitomized by Henderson’s “goal of the century.”
The Series resembles a coffee-table book, artfully and abundantly laid out with photos. But don’t be deceived: This story has grace and pride in the telling, and soul as well.