If you get around to reading Ken Dryden’s new book, Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other (and you should), be prepared to read, “I remember it like it was yesterday.” A lot. Dryden figures those words are attributed to Bowman at least 10 times in the book and he reckons he removed those words at least as many times in the manuscript so as not to sound too repetitive.
The greatest coach in NHL history and one of the most successful coaches in the annals of professional sport celebrated his 86th birthday recently and it’s true, he does remember almost everything like it was yesterday. In his attempts to deconstruct Scotty Bowman, Dryden evokes memories of Bowman’s life and career in intimate detail. Stories such as the summer of 1964 when he and Cliff Fletcher forgot to call Serge Savard to not bother coming back in the fall to play for the Montreal Junior Canadiens, only to have him show up in September and play his way onto the team and begin a Hall of Fame career. Or how Jacques Lemaire’s mother called him once saying that her son was heartbroken that Bowman told him he would never play for the Montreal Canadiens. But that wasn’t what Bowman said. He told Lemaire he would never play for the Canadiens unless he started paying attention to his defensive play. It’s no coincidence that Lemaire developed into the best two-way center on the most dominant team in NHL history. How Jean-Guy Talbot, who hit Bowman over the head with his stick in junior hockey and ended Bowman’s career, ended up playing for Bowman in the NHL without the two men ever mentioning a word of the incident.
The book is full of those nuggets, which is no easy feat when you’re dealing with Bowman. Dryden goes through great pains in the book to point out that Bowman is not a natural storyteller. But that’s where he’s wrong. Bowman has a lifetime of stories to tell, they just have to be brought out by the right person. And in this case, Dryden is that person.
“Scotty is not a past-tense person, he’s a present-tense person,” Dryden said in a recent telephone interview. “Nobody has a past like his and yet, he’s not interested. He’s proud of it…but he’s too absorbed in what he’s doing. You watch him on this book tour and he’s 86 years old and he’s the first one out the door to the next place. ‘We’re going to be late, we’d better get going.’ That’s the way he is.”
So in order to evoke those stories, Dryden took a novel approach. He invited Bowman to pick his eight personal top teams of all-time and he asked Bowman to be a coach, not a storyteller. Bowman examined all eight teams from his unique perspective of a coach, breaking down their strengths and weaknesses and what made them special. Three of the teams he chose – the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, the 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings and the 2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks – were ones with which he was involved. A playoff system was set up pitting the teams against one another and Bowman picked an eventual winner. It might sound clunky, but it’s not. Bowman was asked to be a coach and he turned out to be a wonderful storyteller.
Much of this is, of course, due to Dryden, whose Hall of Fame career intersected with Bowman’s. In an absolutely masterful way, Dryden weaves the coaching analysis through the story of Bowman from his working-class roots in Verdun right through his NHL career and beyond. It’s clear their relationship as player and coach worked in Dryden’s favor, and his ability to capture the minutia of Bowman while keeping his story flowing along at a good pace is something to behold. At one point in the book, Dryden captures the essence of Bowman in a way that few could. “He often seemed awkward around others, and so everyone thought he didn’t like being around people,” Dryden wrote. “But that wasn’t it at all. He was a hockey genius, but he was no pointed-headed academic focused only inside his own head, his eyes wide open but blind to everything around him. He looked outward, always searching for something new.”
Another example comes when Dryden talks about Grant Fuhr. How many times have we heard that the greatness of Fuhr was in that he would allow five goals, but would never allow that sixth one to get past him late in a game or in overtime? What does that even mean? Here’s how Dryden explained it. “Your team can score better than anyone else in the league and they will score. Just keep the game close and if a shot beats you, make sure you stop the next one, even if it’s harder to stop than the one before. Because if you do, Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Anderson or someone else will get the rebound and take the puck up the ice and score, and they’ll make what you did not only a tough save, but a big save. A save that matters and makes you – the goalie for that Oilers offensive machine – matter too.”
This book is not 377 pages of rollicking fun. But it is about a hockey genius, written by a hockey a genius. And that makes it a compelling read.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.