?Guy LaFleur by Ken Dryden

Published: 2021-06-30 22:40:05
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The Forum is disturbingly empty: just a few players sit quietly cocooned away in a dressing room; twenty-five or thirty staff work in distant upstairs offices; throughout the rest of its vast insides a few dozen men are busy washing, painting, fixing, tidying things up.

There is one other person. Entering the corridor to the dressing room, I hear muffed, reverberating sounds from the ice, and before I can see who it is, I know it’s Lafleur. Like a kid on a backyard rink, he skates by himself many minutes before anyone joins him, shooting pucks easily off the boards, watching them rebound, moving skates and gloved hands wherever his inventive instincts direct them to go. Here, far from the expedience of a game, away from defenders and linemates who shackle him to their banal predictability, alone with his virtuoso skills, it is his time to create.
The Italians have a phrase, inventa fapartita. Translated, it means to “invent the game.” A phrase often used by soccer coaches and journalists, it is now, more often than not, used as a lament. For in watching modern players with polished but plastic skills, they wonder at the passing of soccer genius – Pele, Christiano Ronaldo, Messi – players whose minds and bodies in not so rare moments created something unfound in coaching manuals, a new and continuously changing game for others to aspire to.
It is a loss they explain many ways. In the name of team play, there is no time or place for individual virtuosity, they say; it is a game now taken over by coaches, by technocrats and autocrats who empty players minds to control their bodies, reprogramming them with X’s and O’s, driving them to greater efficiency and work rate, to move systems faster, to move games faster, until achieving mindless pace.
Others fix blame more on the other side: on smothering defences played with the same technical sophistication, efficiency, and work rate, but in the nature of defence, easier to play. Still others argue it is the professional sports culture itself which says that games are not won on good plays, but by others’ mistakes, where the safe and sure survive, and the creative and not-so-sure may not.
But a few link it to a different kind of cultural change, the loss of what they call “street soccer”: the mindless hours spent with a ball next to your feet, walking with it as if with a family pet, to school, to a store, or anywhere, playing with it, learning new things about it and about yourself, in time, as with any good companion, developing an understanding. In a much less busy time undivided by TV, rock music, or the clutter of modern lessons, it was a child’s diversion from having nothing else to do.
And, appearances to the contrary, it was creative diversion. But now, with more to do, and with a sophisticated, competitive society pressing on the younger and younger the need for training and skills, its time has run out. Soccer has moved away from the streets and playgrounds to soccer fields, from impromptu games to uniforms and referees, from any time to specific, scheduled time; it has become an activity like anything else, organized and maximized, done right or not at all.
It has become something to be taught and learned, then tested in games; the answer at the back of the book, the one and only answer. So other time, time not spent with teams in practices or games, deemed wasteful and inefficient, has become time not spent at soccer.
Recently, in Hungary, a survey was conducted asking soccer players from 1910 to the present how much each practised a day. The answer, on a gradually shrinking scale, was three hours early in the century to eight minutes a day today. Though long memories can forget, and inflate what they don’t forget, if the absolute figures are doubtful, the point is nonetheless valid. Today, except in the barrios of Latin America, in parts of Africa and Asia, “street soccer” is dead, and many would argue that with it has gone much of soccer’s creative opportunity.
When Guy Lafleur was five years old, his father built a small rink in the backyard of their home in Thurso, Quebec. After school and on weekends, the rink was crowded with Lafleur and his friends, but on weekdays, rushing through lunch before returning to school, it was his alone for half an hour or more. A few years later, anxious for more ice time, on Saturday and Sunday mornings he would sneak in the back door of the local arena, finding his way unseen through the engine room, under the seats, and onto the ice.
There, from 7:30 until just before the manager awakened about 11, he played alone; then quickly left. Though he was soon discovered, as the manager was also coach of his team, Lafleur was allowed to continue, by himself, and then a few years later with some of his friends.
There is nothing unique to this story; only its details differ from many others like it. But because it’s about Lafleur it is notable. At the time, there were thousands like him across Canada on other noon-hour rinks, in other local arenas, doing the same. It was when he got older and nothing changed that his story became special. For as others in the whirl of more games, more practices, more off-ice diversions, more travel, and everything else gave up solitary time as boring and unnecessary, Lafleur did not.
When he moved to Quebec City at fourteen to play for the Ramparts, the ice at the big Colisee was unavailable at other times, so he began arriving early for the team’s 6 p.m. practices, going on the ice at 5, more than thirty minutes before any of his teammates joined him. Now, many years later, the story unchanged, it seems more and more remarkable to us. In clichéd observation some would say it is a case of the great and dedicated superstar who is first on the ice, last off. But he is not.
When practice ends, Lafleur leaves, and ten or twelve others remain behind, skating and shooting with Ruel. But every day we’re in Montreal, at 11 a.m., an hour before Bowman steps from the dressing room as signal for practice to begin, Lafleur goes onto the ice with a bucket of pucks to be alone.
Not long ago, thinking of the generations of Canadians who learned hockey on rivers and ponds, I collected my skates and with two friends drove up the Gatineau River north of Ottawa. We didn’t know it at the time, but the ice conditions we found were rare, duplicated only a few times the previous decade.
The combination of a sudden thaw and freezing rain in the days before had melted winter-high snow, and with temperatures dropping rapidly overnight, the river was left with miles of smooth glare ice. Growing up in the suburbs of a large city, I had played on a river only once before, and then as a goalie. On this day, I came to the Gatineau to find what a river of ice and a solitary feeling might mean to a game.
We spread ourselves rinks apart, breaking into river-wide openings for passes that sometimes connected, and other times sent us hundreds of feet after what we had missed. Against the wind or with it, the sun glaring in our eyes or at our backs, we skated for more than three hours, periodically tired, continuously renewed. The next day I went back again, this time ,alone. Before I got bored with myself an hour or two later, with no one watching and nothing to distract me, loose and daring, joyously free, I tried things I had never tried before, my hands and feet discovering new patterns and directions, and came away feeling as if something was finally clear.
The Canadian game of hockey was weaned on long northern winters uncluttered by things to do. It grew up on ponds and rivers, in big open spaces, unorganized, often solitary, only occasionally moved into arenas for practices or games. In recent generations, that has changed. Canadians have moved from farms and towns to cities and suburbs; they’ve discovered skis, snowmobiles, and southern vacations; they’ve civilized winter and moved it indoors.
A game we once played on rivers and ponds, later on streets and driveways and in backyards, we now play in arenas, in full team uniform, with coaches and referees, or to an ever increasing extent we don’t play at all. For, once a game is organized, unorganized games seem a wasteful use of time; and once a game moves indoors, it won’t move outdoors again. Hockey has become suburbanized, and as part of our suburban middle-class culture, it has changed.
Put in uniform at six or seven, by the time a boy reaches the NHL, he is a veteran of close to 1,000 games-30-minute games, later 32-,then 45-, finally 60-minute games, played more than twice a week, more than seventy times a year between late September and late March. It is more games from a younger age, over a longer season than ever before. But it is less hockey than ever before.
For, every time a twelve-year-old boy plays a 30-minute game, sharing the ice with teammates, he plays only about ten minutes. And ten minutes a game, anticipated and prepared for all day, travelled to and from, dressed and undressed for, means ten minutes of hockey a day, more than two days a week, more than seventy days a hockey season. And every day that a twelve-year-old plays only ten minutes, he doesn’t play two hours on a backyard rink, or longer on school or playground rinks during weekends and holidays.
It all has to do with the way we look at free time. Constantly preoccupied with time and keeping ourselves busy (we have come to answer the ritual question “How are you?” with what we apparently equate with good health, “Busy”), we treat non-school, non-sleeping, or non-eating time, unbudgeted free time, with suspicion and no little fear.
For, while it may offer opportunity to learn and do new things, we worry that the time, we once spent reading, kicking a ball, or mindlessly coddling a puck might be used destructively, in front of TV, or “getting into trouble” in endless ways. So we organize free time, scheduling it into lessons-ballet, piano, French-into organizations, teams, and clubs, fragmenting it into impossible-to-be-bored segments, creating in ourselves a mental metabolism geared to moving on, making free time distinctly un-free.
It is in free time that the special player develops, not in the competitive experience of games, in hour-long practices once a week, in mechanical devotion to packaged, processed, coaching-manual, hockey school skills. For while skills are necessary, setting out as they do the limits of anything, more is needed to transform those skills into something special.
Mostly it is time-unencumbered, unhurried, time of a different quality, more time, time to find wrong answers to find a few that are right; time to find your own right answers; time for skills to be practised to set higher limits, to settle and assimilate and become fully and completely yours, to organize and combine with other skills comfortably and easily in some uniquely personal way, then to be set loose, trusted, to find new instinctive directions to take, to create.
But without such time a player is like a student cramming for exams. His skills are like answers memorized by his body, specific, limited to what is expected, random and separate, with no overviews to organize and bring them together.
And for those times when more is demanded, when new unexpected circumstances come up, when answers are asked for things you’ve never learned, when you must intuit and piece together what you already know to find new answers, memorizing isn’t enough. It’s the difference between knowledge and understanding, between a super-achiever and a wise old man. And it’s the difference between a modern suburban player and a player like Lafleur.
For a special player has spent time with his game. On backyard rinks, in local arenas, in time alone and with others, time without shortcuts, he has seen many things, he has done many things, he has experienced the game. He understands it. There is scope and culture in his game. He is not a born player. What he has is not a gift, random and otherworldly, and unearned. There is surely something in his genetic makeup that allows him to be great, but just :is surely there are others like him who fall short. He is, instead, a natural
“Muscle memory” is a phrase physiologists sometimes use. It means that for many movements we make, our muscles move with no message from the brain telling them to move, that stored in the muscles is a learned capacity to move a certain way, and, given stimulus from the spinal cord, they move that way. We see a note on a sheet of music, our fingers move; no thought, no direction, and because one step of the transaction is eliminated-the information-message loop through the brain-we move faster as well.
When first learning a game, a player thinks through every step of what he’s doing, needing to direct his body the way he wants it to go. With practice, with repetition, movements get memorized, speeding up, growing surer, gradually becoming part of the muscle’s memory. The great player, having seen and done more things, more different and personal things, has in his muscles the memory of more notes, more combinations and patterns of notes, played in more different ways. Faced with a situation, his body responds. Faced with something more, something new, it finds an answer he didn’t know was there. He invents the game.
Listen to a great player describe what he does. Ask Lafleur or Gretzky, ask Sachin Tendulkar or Lebron James what makes them special, and you will get back something frustratingly unrewarding. They are inarticulate jocks, we decide, but in fact they can know no better than we do. For ask yourself how you walk, how your fingers move on a piano keyboard, how you do any number of things you have made routine, and you will know why.
Stepping outside yourself you can think about it and decide what must happen, but you possess no inside story, no great insight unavailable to those who watch. Such movement comes literally from your body, bypassing your brain, leaving few subjective hints behind. Your legs, your fingers move, that’s all you know. So if you want to know what makes Orr or Lafleur special, watch their bodies, fluent and articulate, let them explain. They know.
When I watch a modern suburban player, I feel the same as I do when I hear Justin Beiber or Carly Rae Jepson sing a love song. I hear a skilful voice, I see closed eyes and pleading outstretched fingers, but I hear and see only fourteen year-old adolescents who can’t tell me anything.
Hockey has left the river and will never return. But like the “street,” like an “ivory tower,” the river is less a physical, place than an attitude, a metaphor for unstructured, unorganized time alone. And if the game no longer needs the place, it needs the attitude. It is the rare player like Lafleur who reminds us.

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