George Plimpton proposed in 1992 that there “seems to be a correlation between the standard of writing about a particular sport and the ball it utilizes — that the smaller the ball, the more formidable the literature.”
Where does hockey fit into that theory? A quick review of my books on Goodreads indicates that I do consider baseball writing (average rating 3.7 out of 5) better than soccer writing (3.0), but a puck is smaller than a baseball and my rating of hockey books (3.1) is also lower than the baseball books. Then again, I’ve never read Plimpton’s hockey book.
For no particular reason, I did read the recent autobiography that it took Bobby Orr 35 years to write and the still-celebrated autobiography that Ken Dryden wrote 30 years ago one after the other. The contrasting approaches of the two former players is due, I think, both to the difference in separation from their playing days—three decades for Orr, four years for Dryden—as they wrote, and to their different personalities and reputations.
Orr, who led the league in scoring twice while playing defense, has no peers in the game’s history, but the dominant impression his book leaves is of humility and his reluctance to talk about himself and his achievements. His book skips almost sheepishly from childhood to juniors to the frozen moment of his Stanley Cup-winning overtime goal in 1970. And he seems most comfortable giving advice about how adults can help kids learn about life by playing hockey.
Dryden, one of hockey’s all-time intellectuals who left at the top of his game to pursue a law career, describes individual practices and conversations with his coaches in great detail. His book has been called one of the top 10 sports books of all time for its inside look at his part in one of the sport’s greatest dynasties but it’s not anywhere near that high on my list.
It’s unreasonable to expect great athletes to write great literature in addition to playing their sport at the world’s highest level, but it’s still fun to hear their stories.