Ah, the joys of Christmas.
When the pleasures of decontaminating the furniture after the explosions of a sick household were put to one side — so small, yet such strength in the lungs — there was the consolation of reading.
I went a bit over the top in my selections for the season: a book each by Roger Angell and WC Heinz, a memoir by Vladimir Nabokov and a thriller by Jess Walter.
The book that made Robert Caro’s name as a biographer, The Power Broker, about Robert Moses, the city planner responsible for shaping New York City in the 20th century — no, I had never heard of him either.
I held off on the two John Updike collections. Had to draw the line somewhere. But I did manage — finally — to get The Game by Ken Dryden.
Clearly I’m well behind the eight-ball on this one. When I wondered aloud on Twitter earlier in the year about whether or not it’d be worth the investment, I got a chorus of positive replies (though no one seemed willing to part with their copy, I noted, which seemed an endorsement of its own).
Anyway, I settled down with Dryden’s account of his last season as a goalkeeper with the Montreal Canadiens in the National Hockey League, late in the ’70s, but it’s much more than that. It’s an exploration of a team’s motivations, of a game’s place in the soul of a nation, of the intensity of goalkeeper’s experience, and the loneliness of that experience.
And some lessons for sport here, maybe, or one in particular.
You may have noticed in recent seasons a focus on the physical nature of hurling, the necessity for aggression, the development of rucks and mauls and the fluid attitude to tackling, legal or not.
There’s something to it. Collisions bite harder and space is more difficult to find in a top-class inter-county hurling game than ever before. This is frequently ascribed to referees being untroubled by players using their free hand to tackle the man in possession, thus making it harder for the latter to get to daylight.
Funnily enough, Ken Dryden discusses a similar situation which pertained in hockey — when a greater physicality came into the game and it became more difficult to play, which meant there were fewer alternative styles of play and thus the styles of play became more systematic.
This didn’t happen as a result of one team dominating, as Kilkenny have done in the last decade in hurling. It didn’t occur because referees, tacitly or otherwise, decided to turn a blind eye to tackling which some observers regarded as borderline legal. No, it happened because of speed.
“The game had become rougher,” wrote Dryden. “If speed and confined space had guaranteed collisions in the first place, more speed, more congested space and this style of play would guarantee more. If collisions were unavoidable, they would be made calculated; a hit now, a message for the next time, and there would be a next time.”
Any of that sound familiar? Dryden ascribed the new edge in hockey to the fact players were faster around the rink: it became a matter, as he put it, of who could get there first, with how many, and how much punishment you could take.
You could go further and hear the echoes in what Dryden wrote about the effects of the new dispensation, the ramifications for the sport as a whole: “For what happens to a game when it picks up speed and never learns to use it, when its balance of speed and finesse is disturbed, when finesse turns to power? It becomes a game of energy — an adrenaline game.”
In that you can hear the current laments for the game of hurling as it used to be played, for the lack of room in the modern game for the touch player; you can hear what happens when a sport is at a crossroads.
It makes a lot of sense when you apply the criteria to the way Kilkenny play the game: suffocating the other team and gang-tackling opponents in possession can only be done if, as Dryden says, you can get your players there first, if you can get plenty of them there, and if they’re willing to take and dish out punishment.
A lot of factors feed into that: hunger and work-rate, commitment and conditioning. The irony is that a loose term like ‘hunger’ is usually taken to mean a Kilkenny player’s appetite for the next medal; a more accurate description would be the player’s willingness to back up a fellow forward bottling up an opposing defender trying to break upfield.
That’s the reality behind the wondering about where hurling is going.
What was Dryden’s solution? I haven’t come to that part of the book yet.
But I can tell you this — if Robert Caro is as good on Gaelic football as Dryden is on hurling, then those books were one hell of an investment.
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