Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Modern World, Boomers and Hockey

When an athlete writes a book, it can be horrendous. Even when the book is written by someone else, it can read like a twelve year old decided to sit down and tell you their life. Considering modern athletes, this might not be far from the truth. I recently read one sports memoir due to a recommendation of a reformed and rehabbed alcoholic, and it reminded me of another great sports book due to its specific sport: hockey. These books are a bit dated as the athlete-writers were playing decades ago, but if anything, they are great windows into the massive change in our post-'68 culture and the monetization of sports. These are sports guy books, but check out The Game by Ken Dryden and Crossing the Line by Derek Sanderson.

The Game was written by Ken Dryden as he retired from playing goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. It is the best book written by an athlete. Dryden is also one of the few athletes to be the best at his position and one of the best ever and also an Ivy Leaguer with a law degree, which might explain the book's quality. Dryden does a good job of explaining the road grind, simple "being a goalie" during a game, money, the media, what hockey means to Canadians and what it takes to win. A couple of things stand out. The Summit Series was a special event orchestrated by the Canadians and Soviets for a series of friendlies. It was best against best, and with Canada's creation of hockey as a sport, tons of national pride was on the line. Dryden builds up the significance by discussing growing up in Canada where hockey is "the game". Nothing else comes close. It is weird to think of national pride being wrapped up in a game, but it makes the players' behavior during the series have much more meaning. 

Dryden's other great bit was on endorsements and the media. Dryden did one endorsement and did not like it. He did not do others. He also mentions how easy it is to manipulate the media to earn a reputation and sway coverage. Mention a couple books you've read and they think you're a scholar. Mention doing some charity work, and they'll say you've got a great heart. Little tidbits to reporters could mold the entire sports' view of you for a lifetime. His one giant miss is at the end; he does not see how player salaries and revenues can keep rising for the sport. Dryden realized what flim-flam professional sports was/is, but he did not see how marketing could tap into the national identity and obsession of hockey to build it bigger. Television, especially cable television, and Gretzky changed everything. The Game is a good read.

The book I recently finished, which reminded me of The Game, was Crossing the Line by Derek Sanderson. This is not as well written. Is Sanderson a colorful character who is entertaining as hell? Yes. This reads like your buddy from high school making the NHL. Sanderson is also a recovering alcoholic. He pulls no punches and does not blame his childhood, parents or anything else. He is honest about his drinking, drugging and being an all around douchebag that threw away a career. Sanderson eventually gets to his rock bottom. He goes the Christian route for recovery, so there is a thread of Christianity throughout the book. Similar to Dryden's book, Sanderson explains how hockey means so much to Canadians. It is thoroughly weird. This is beyond Brazil and soccer since they did not invent it, nor is it England and soccer since England has other passions and once ruled the world. Canada's identity seems to be two items: "not America" and "hockey". 

Sanderson's great nugget though is on the changes in broader society showing up on the team. Sanderson started with the Bruins in '68. He was different than the older guys. Gone were the crew cut, blazer wearing, professional look of players. Sanderson brought "style". It was change but Sanderson never stops to ask if it was good. His horrific journey was the outcome of that change and the ascendancy of the sex and drug infused culture of the post-'68 West. His teammate, and legend, Bobby Orr was two years younger than him but played by the rules and dressed appropriately. You can guess who saves who later in life. Sanderson is a Boomer through and through, so while he is a wild child, NHL original, he is just another Boomer who screwed a lot of people but hey, he's cleaned up and okay now. All is forgiven, right? I was funny, right? It is an entertaining, easy read. It is good for an airplane flight and layover in an airport terminal.

Besides Orr, these two athlete-authors, Dryden and Sanderson, are two Boomers. They both came from two parent homes. They both had parents who encouraged their hockey careers from an early stage. They both played on championship teams and enjoyed great success. Sanderson made serious bank as did Dryden, but Sanderson gave into the temptations around him at every turn. Dryden did not. This is something those Boomers who have wrecked their loved ones lives or even just burdened them do not understand. It is great when someone cleans up, but why did you have to do it in the first place? In Sanderson, and many others', instance, why did you have to throw away second and third chances? Why could you not think beyond yourself? As much as the Boomers dislike the "Me Generation" label, it fits so well. Genes do come into play, but so does the broader framework of society. Like hockey, you set up the rules with penalties, goals, and zones. Our permissiveness and liberalization might have been okay for people with amazing self control and discipline, but it is not for everyone. We see this everywhere. Even the people who embody the negative consequences of the great unraveling are blind to it. Like many other Boomers, Sanderson could never admit that he was miserable because he was free.


ARoss said...

It's kind of funny, one goes from a piece shit druggy to turning his life around as a Christian and a managing director and the other goes from being one of the best goalies in the history of the sport to a political piece of shit.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of sports bios of that vintage, let me plug Fatso by Art Donovan. It's a minor masterpiece.