Picks and Pans Review: Open Net

updated 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

by George Plimpton

"Charming" is hardly a word anyone would apply to the intense world of professional ice hockey. But Plimpton is so taken by the humor and integrity of the men involved in the sport that the reader will have a hard time ever thinking of them again as dumb brutes. It is another of Plimpton's exercises in participatory sports journalism, most of it involving his stint as a goalie with the Boston Bruins during preseason training in 1977. (A brief updating section seems almost an afterthought—or at least a publisher's cosmetic device to make the book seem more current.) Plimpton rooms during training with a colorful minor league goalie named Jim "Seaweed" Pettie, who at one point warns Plimpton against opponents' shots "ringing the berries." This means hitting the goalie in the plastic protective groin cup, and it also means, Pettie adds, a pain comparable to "taking your top lip and folding it back over your head." Plimpton plays five minutes in an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Flyers—allowing one goal—and in the epilogue faces Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers in a penalty shot exhibition. The book is occasionally repetitive. There are, for example, three separate explanations of why Boston coach Don Cherry called his players his "Lunch-Pail Gang." (They worked hard.) There are also too many typographical errors for a major league book—for instance, a talk in the "licker" room. But this book amply shows why Plimpton's writing is so fascinating, not only for sports fans but students of human behavior as well. For one thing, he is sincerely inquisitive, a receptive listener and a fluid, funny writer. For another, while he obviously knows that he is a dilettante dabbling with the best professional athletes, he also clearly believes that somehow, magically, he will do well. Cherry said Plimpton's style reminded him of a former goalie who "just stood in the middle of the goal like a kind of tree." A scout, unaware of Plimpton's identity, reported that he "handles puck and stick like a blacksmith. Biggest trouble is shots on goal." Plimpton himself keeps worrying about falling down on the ice and not being able to get up, "as useless, thrashing about, as a turtle on its back." Yet when the Flyers scored their only goal against him, he was outraged, whacking himself in the face mask and calling out, "I didn't see the damn thing!" You have to like someone who is so stubborn about defying the boundaries of real life. (Norton, $16.95)

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