Review by Budd Bailey
My strongest reaction to Ken Dryden’s latest book, “The Series,” came from a single photo – and the accompanying coincidence it raised in my mind.
It’s a shot of the stands during a practice in the hockey series between Canada and the Soviet Union in 1972. In the middle of the photo is Alan Eagleson, essentially the organizer of the eight-game matchup that changed hockey forever. He’s next to Jean Beliveau, the Montreal Canadiens’ classy superstar who had just retired.
Seven reporters are surrounding them in the seats, including Red Fisher of the Montreal Star, Dick Beddoes of the Globe & Mail, and Mark Mulvoy of Sports Illustrated. The man in the top left, though, is called “unknown” in the caption.
But wait just a minute. I know that guy. It’s Bill Wolcott!
Bill worked for the Niagara Gazette for several years, and he covered the series in Canada and the Soviet Union for his own newspaper and the Gannett News Service. Those games were one of the highlights of his career.
The reason I know so much about this is that it was printed in his obituary … only a couple of weeks before I read this book. That’s quite a coincidence. I no doubt first met Bill at a Sabres’ game in the late 1970s. We were friendly but not quite friends over the years, if that makes sense.
And speaking of surprises, the arrival of this book also qualifies. Dryden kept a diary of the series at the time and turned it into a book with the help of Mulvoy (speaking of coincidences) called “Face-off at the Summit.” That volume isn’t mentioned here at all, which is somewhat curious.
Dryden hasn’t written about the experience of playing in that series since then, and didn’t plan to do so. Then the pandemic came along, and the Hall of Fame goalie needed something to do. The subtitle sums it up. “What I Remember. What It Felt Like. What It Feels Like Now.”
Some of the memories have faded away, of course, after 50 years. One of the most striking aspects of his description of those days, however, is what it is like for an athlete when he or she is simply expected to win when it matters the most. In this case, an entire country was counting on Team Canada to prove that it had the best players in the world. Short answer: It’s a very difficult situation, especially then things turn sour at the start.
Dryden has a couple of other interesting points to make along the way. Since he was in the eye of the hurricane, he had no idea what was going on back home when the series was concluding in Moscow. Life in Canada stopped, to the point where about three-quarters of the country stopped what they were doing on a workday morning to watch the game. The country was united in a way that was unique, and the winning goalie of the deciding Game Eight wishes he could have felt what that was like.
Then there’s the matter of the game itself. Dryden has argued in the past that this was one of the few times in sports history in which the winners learned from the losers. The Soviets played the game of hockey in an entirely different way – more east-west than north-south. That style worked just as well as Canada’s approach. Some people in North America took notice – slowly, to be sure. But the series turned out to be a revolutionary moment in hockey’s development, and not simply an evolutionary moment. As Dryden points out, Wayne Gretzky played like a Soviet player when he arrived in the NHL in 1979 and became the greatest scorer of all time. Alexander Ovechkin of Russia came along 30+ years after the series and became a superstar playing like a Canadian. The lines have blurred.
You’d probably call this volume a “coffee table book” if it were a bit bigger. The photos are plentiful and unusual. However, the problem is that there isn’t a great deal of text to go along with it. It can be read in a morning, which seems like it is too quick for a $24.95 purchase. Dryden always has something to say, but this left me wishing for more from him.
Even so, “The Series” captures the feelings involved in one of the great moments in hockey history. It will even help those on the other side of the border from Canada understand what the fuss was all about then, and what it’s about 50 years later.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)