Terry Fallis gets into The Game

As we head into the home stretch of Canada Reads 2012, my final five posts will be all about the books themselves. Each week I'll take a closer look at one of the five finalists. First up is Ken Dryden's The Game.

The Game is as different from most sports books as Ken Dryden is from most athletes. Ken Dryden was never your garden-variety celebrity athlete superstar. And The Game is certainly not your garden-variety celebrity athlete superstar memoir — you know, the books written "with" or sometimes "by" a co-writer whose name appears on the cover in a much smaller font, if it appears at all. Nope. Ken Dryden wrote every word in The Game, and it's unlike any sports book I've ever read.


Ken Dryden discusses his book with host Jian Ghomeshi during the Canada Reads 2012 launch on November 23, 2011 (Tanja-Tiziana Burdi/CBC)

Full disclosure here. Hockey was a big part of my life growing up, and frankly still is. I've been a diehard Leafs fan since I was a toddler. I played house league and all-star (now called "select") hockey growing up, coached my son's house league team for about a decade and still play ball hockey at least once a week, albeit with diminishing skills. In light of my hockey history, it's strange that I never actually read this book when it was first published back in 1983. I can't recall why. So it was with great anticipation that I cracked the cover about a month ago. (Spoiler alert: I loved it.)

As an ardent hockey fan growing up in the '70s, I followed Ken Dryden's playing career and saw him interviewed dozens of times. I've met Ken a few times over the years, and even had a meeting with him once in my day job as a PR professional. So I had a very clear sense that this would be a departure from most sports books. It took about one paragraph to see the difference.

Ken Dryden is intelligent, articulate and cerebral, and so is The Game. If you're looking for a nice, quick, light look inside the life of an NHL player, choose something else. While Ken does write about what it's like inside the dressing room, at team practice, on the road and in the heat of the game, he always takes us so much deeper and searches for what it all means. He gets under hockey's skin and inside Canadians' psyches (that's "Canadians" the people, not "Canadiens" the team). And he writes very well. You have only to hear Ken speak to know that he can write.

The structure is smart. Ken walks us through a week or so during his final season including practices, a road trip, a home game at the famed Montreal Forum and encounters with an extraordinary array of coaches, players, fans, reporters and family. Along the way, he takes us on long and thoughtful digressions to ruminate on several important and still timely topics.

Ken talks at length about the philosophy that underlies a team. He goes deep on coaching. He explores our celebrity culture. He analyzes the roots of violence in the game. And of course, he examines how hockey has shaped our national identity. I spent much of the book realizing that after more than 45 years of involvement with the game, I really didn't know much about hockey at all.

Now, weeks after reading it, I still find my mind returning to the thoughts and themes of The Game. But what I can't really answer with authority is how it might feel for a non-hockey fan to read this book. Will it have the same impact on those who have not played hockey, or who haven't come to enjoy the game, even as a spectator sport? That is the challenge its defender, Alan Thicke, faces in the debates. But even if you're not part of the Canadian contingent that lives and breathes hockey, there's plenty in The Game for you. Truly, there is. You just have to get over the idea of reading a book with a goalie on the cover. Trust me. You won't regret it, and you'll come through it with new insights about Canada, Canadians and the game we created.

Don't judge this book by its cover. This is not so much a sports book about hockey. It's really a story about Canada, about all of us.

Heading into the debates, this "Canadianness" is where the greatest strength of The Game lies. But will Alan Thicke be able to counter the sports book stereotype and broaden its appeal to a wider audience?


Terry Fallis is the author of The Best Laid Plans, a satirical novel of Canadian politics that won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and the 2011 Canada Reads title. It's currently being adapted as a six-part mini-series for CBC Television. His follow-up novel, The High Road, was a finalist for the 2011 Leacock Medal. McClelland & Stewart will publish his third novel in September 2012.

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