Sunday, August 19, 2007

Book Review: Open Net by George Plimpton

Open NetThe thought of playing professional sports ranks up there as one of the most common childhood fantasies. It’s one that continues long after a person has grown and often takes on other elements including regret and longing. To even have a brief chance to know the thrill of competing at the highest level in front of thousands of people is one of those dreams that can fuel adolescence and keep us sports fans long after.
George Plimpton was an author who, amongst other more literary endeavors, carved a niche out in the 1970’s and 80’s by playing alongside professional athletes and then writing books about his experiences. Open Net details Plimpton’s brief time with the Boston Bruins in the late 70’s, as he trained with the team and played as a goaltender in an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

From the eyes of a relative neophyte as both a spectator and player, Plimpton offers a detailed rendering of all appealing aspects of the game. The visual aesthetics, the sounds, atmosphere, the feel of the equipment, sticks, pucks, ice and the fittings in arenas. Plimpton articulates things life-long fans may not consciously reflect and the result is likely to be captivating for those who have always loved to watch and read about the game and those who may be new to its attractions.

Many of the legends detailed in the book come to us via the use of dialogue between Plimpton and various Bruins’ players and the coach at the time, Don Cherry. Plimpton has that skill that so many writers lack; writing crisp, realistic exchanges that make you feel you are reading exactly what was said, though no doubt things are polished up and “narratized.” Reading the quotes from Cherry alone are a reminder of the same kind of statements he makes today, though with the luxury of not having to listen to his loud abrasive voice.

Though not formally divided as such, there are 3 sections (periods) to the book. The lead up and preparation with the Bruins for the exhibition game, the game itself and an extended period following his experience where Plimpton interviews numerous people and players involved in the game.

While essentially a publicity stunt that gave the Bruins some exposure and allowed Plimpton to write the book, he no doubt went through some serious anxiety and angst in the process. His good nature and self-deprecating view of the whole affair make the farcical aspect of his lack of any skill and comical performance part of the enjoyment of the book.

The pre-game preparation and his 5 minutes in net are written about with a tension and attention to detail that will make readers feel they are right there. After Plimpton completes his 5 minutes in net he vacates to a lounge in the Boston Garden to talk about his experience with other sports writers. As he sits there sipping a beer, a massive brawl breaks out between the Flyers and Bruins. When Plimpton learns that he missed the spectacle he curses himself and this regret is mentioned throughout the rest of the book, almost as a metaphor for the bitterness of lost dreams that is so much a part of professional sports.

The 3rd part of the book spans a number of years as the author offers some reflections on his experiences and has time to seek out those he briefly trained with now that they are out of the game. A great section on player’s wives offers insight into that rarified world. Again, the ability of Plimpton to relay people’s thoughts in entertaining prose and dialogue is one of the most memorable aspects of Open Net. A multi-page discussion with Harry Sinden offers some concise musings on what it takes to make a great hockey player. Finally, things come full circle in a nice satisfying way .

During the early part of the book, tales of Bobby Orr were relayed to Plimpton on numerous occasions though the Bruins’ legend had long since retired. Plimpton finally gets a chance to interview him in the closing pages. He also straps on the goalie equipment again and practices with the Oilers and Wayne Gretzky. It’s a fitting way to wrap up the book in recognizing that the mantle of hockey greatness has been passed from Orr to Gretzky.

A subtle underlying theme throughout Open Net is the appeal of ice hockey as an antidote to the existential drudgery of everyday life. The bland minutiae of life often doesn’t match the dreams and fantasies that occupy our minds. Hockey as a spectator sport (as with many other pastimes) goes some way in bridging that gap. When even the sport itself falls short, the anecdotes that get embellished and passed on and the books and columns that record them take up the slack.

Plimpton tips his hat to this notion with a tale relayed to him by a Bruins hockey player about, strangely enough, NFL linebacker John Matuszak. When Plimpton phones Matuszak for confirmation, he is told the tale is nothing more than an urban myth but agrees it should be kept alive in the spirit of posterity and boosting his own reputation.

The meta aspect of including the tale --- a yarn about the retelling of a sports legend, (in a sports book that is in a large part about the telling of yarns) that in the end details the agreement to keep the myth alive but in the process really dispels it --- is as close as Plimpton comes to telegraphing to readers what appeals to him about the whole subculture of sports.

The double filter, of athletes who exaggerate tales, and writers of non-fiction books who engage in the same practice to mythologize and entertain, likely results in something less than the absolute truth. But it doesn’t matter. It’s all about contributing to the magic and lore of the games that we love to watch.

This book will be especially interesting to those with an affinity for goaltenders or anyone who may have actually played the position. I can’t help but thinking that Plimpton captures some of the visceral aspects involved in such a unique position in professional sports. Open Net is already 20 years old and is now a nostalgia piece at the same time as evoking the aesthetics and emotions of the game. Not often mentioned when a discussion of hockey books come up, it is well worth a read for all fans of the game.

(While I don't usually clutter reviews up with tales of how I bought the book, this one was too good to leave out. Heading into Bangkok one day with the sole intent of buying a book about hockey, I didn't hold out much hope. After scouring some of the big high-end bookshops with no luck, I walked into a used book store in the centre of the city. As I was ready to give up I noticed the spine of a book with "Plimpton" in bold letters. Knowing the sports books he was famous for, I pulled it out and there he was in the Bruins jersey. Beautiful!)


  1. I liked your article. Good writing. I look forward to reading Open Net one day.

  2. The game was not played at the Boston Garden. It was played in the Spectrum in Philadelphia. I know. I was there.