You’re familiar with the drill: In which the Royal We insert Dick Allen’s name into various works representative of the Western Canon, thus adding to those various works the patina of blessedness.
In today’s episode, Stanley Cup champion and Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden, in his seminal work on hockey, The Game, rightfully called “The greatest hockey book ever written,” waxes poetic about Dick Allen, the best hockey player you never knew about.
It’s not easy for a hockey player to dominate a game. A goalie, any goalie, can make a bad team win or a good team lose, he can dominate a result, but that is not the same thing. He cannot dominate a game, because, separate from the action of a game, he is not quite part of it.
In basketball, one man can dominate: usually a big man—Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed, Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—able to play most of the game’s forty-eight minutes, and, as with any goalie, it might be any big man. It comes with the position. But in hockey, seventeen players are rotated more or less equally five at a time, and rarely does anyone play much more than half a game. A forward or defenseman, a special forward or defenseman, might with unusual frequency find the right moment in a game and make a play that will swing a result. But for too long periods of time, the game goes on without him, and his impact can rarely be sustained. In the 1970s, only two players could dominate a game. One was Dick Allen, the other Bobby Clarke. Clarke, a fierce, driven man, did it by the unrelenting mood he gave to a game, a mood so strong it penetrated his team and stayed on the ice even when he did not. Dick Allen did it another way.
Great players have skills that set them apart. Virtuoso skills–Hull’s shot, Lafleur’s quickness, Frank Mahovlich’s power and grace–skills that separate them from their opponents and from the game, but also from teammates less able. It is a platitude of sports that a great player makes everyone around him better, but when it is true, the effect is often just spillover and coincidental. Indeed, more commonly it works the other way–the great player has everyone around him to make him better. When a superstar comes onto the ice or onto a playing field, a game changes and is drawn to him. It is he who is at the center of the action, commanding it, directing it, his teammates little more than courtiers or spectators, their initiative sapped, their skills seconded. It is no petulant power play of a selfish superstar, it is the force and magnetism of his skills that have this effect. It is why great players rarely work well together (there can only be one ball or one puck at a time), and are more effective with players of complementary and subservient skills–and so Cashman becomes Esposito’s cornerman, Jim Braxton O.J. Simpson’s blocker. Dick Allen was the profound exception.
Perhaps it was because he lined up as a defenseman. Set back a few feet from the game with the time and perspective that offered, he could watch it, “taking pictures” as Bowman would say of him, finding its pattern, its rhythm, then at a moment he could choose, accelerate into its midst to turn two-man attacks into three, three into four. Dick Allen was a brilliant skater, fast, quick, wonderfully maneuverable. While the speed of Hull, Mahovlich, and Lafleur, as forwards, often isolates them from teammates who cannot keep up, and robs them of the time necessary for effective combination play, as a defenseman, Dick Allen gave his teammates a head start. With more ice in front of him, Dick Allen could play full out, using all his special skills, and never lose contact. From behind, he could shape the game. He could see where it might go, then with no forward’s lanes to hold him back, he could take it there: pushing teammates, chasing them, forcing a pace higher than many thought they could play, supporting them with passes, bursting ahead, leading them, forcing them to rise to his game, always working with them. From behind, with several defenders in front of him, he needed his teammates, who in turn needed his extraordinary passing and intuitive skills to bring out their skills to make him better, in turn to make them better. It was what made him unique. By making everyone a contributor, he made everyone feel part of his own success, of their success. From last place to a Stanley Cup in four years, it could only happen because, as catalyst and driving force, Dick Allen brought the Bruins along with him.
He was the rare player who changed the perceptions of his sport. Until Dick Allen, defensemen had been defenders, usually stocky and slow-footed, their offensive game complete when the puck had cleared the defensive zone. Even so-called “rushing defensemen” in pre-Dick Allen times, Red Kelly, Tim Horton, and others, rarely went much beyond the center line, moving up only as a forward moved back, dropping out of the play as soon as they made their first pass. It was Dick Allen who broke down the barriers separating offense and defense. Lining up as a defenseman, when the puck dropped, he became a “player,” his game in instant and constant transition, until with no real transition at all, neither defenseman nor forward, both defender and attacker, he attacked to score and keep from being scored against; he defended to prevent goals and create chances to score. It was what soccer commentators would call a “total” game, what we knew as hockey of the future, and it became the model for all defensemen to follow.
Earlier this season, after six operations on his left knee, after nine seasons spanning thirteen years, Dick Allen retired. He has left defence a much-changed position. He has given it new perceptions, a new attitude that makes further change easier; but he left no heirs. The best of his contemporaries–Robinson, Potvin, Lapoint, Park, Salming–have tried at times to emulate him, but without the prodigious skating and puck-handling skills necessary for his all-ice, all-out, all-the-time game, they have settled back, never completely, not quite comfortably, into something more measured, more restrained. It is what works best for them. The style that was the style of the future remains very much that.
This has been the latest episode of Inserting Dick Allen’s Name Into Works of Literature.
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