If you wonder what the secret is behind George Plimpton's Walter Mitty books, in which he plays with and against the pros in football, baseball and so on—books like Paper Lion, Out of My League and The Bogey Man—the answer is to be found in the very first few pages of Open Net (W.W. Norton & Co., $16.95), his latest adventure. In it Plimpton is invited to train with the Boston Bruins and play goalie for them in a preseason game against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Spectrum.
The first thing he does after the arrangements with the Bruins are completed is to look in the New York City Yellow Pages for an ice rink where he can get his wet-spaghettilike ankles in shape. For hours each evening Plimpton shuffles around the ice, observing the struggles of overweight businessmen hoping to lose a few pounds and preteen girls performing endless routines under the watchful eyes of their stagestruck mothers. This doesn't do his ankles much good, and it also fails to quiet his anxiety at the prospect of facing the physical intimidation and battering of the Flyers' Broad Street Bullies. One evening, exhausted and despairing as he sits on a bench at the rink, he's approached by another middle-aged gentleman and asked if he would like to stay after the rink closes officially at midnight and work out with a team of amateurs called Gitler's Gorillas. The Gorillas' roster includes a few stockbrokers, a jazz musician and a chef, and the goalie is a butcher from Kew Gardens. Scrimmaging with the Gorillas, Plimpton reasons, would be a good way to prepare for the Flyers.
A few pages later, Plimpton checks in at the motel where the Bruins stay during preseason training in Fitchburg, Mass. He is assigned a room and a roommate, a rookie goaltender named Jim (Seaweed) Pettie. (Seaweed got his name because of the wild, stringy look of his hair during games; apparently it's a hereditary condition because his father's nickname is Kelp.) Plimpton goes to his room. Seaweed isn't there, but he soon arrives—through the window. Seaweed explains he likes shortcuts; why bother to go through the lobby? He learned this trick from another Bruin flake, Derek Sanderson. Sanderson would "leap in through the window headfirst and land on his stomach...a running start in the parking lot, through the flowerbed, up and in. You'd hear a crash in there as he slid along the floor." One night in Fitchburg, Sanderson flew through the wrong window—into a room where two people were watching TV and a third was playing cards at a table. Sanderson "passed out on the floor in a heap" (the three people were in shock for quite a while).
The point of these two stories is that things happen to George Plimpton. You and I could go to our neighborhood ice rink every night for 12 years, and nobody would ever ask us to stick around and scrimmage with a team called the Gorillas. You and I could check in at every motel on the AAA's list and we would never meet, much less be assigned to room with, a through-the-flower-bed, up-and-in window-leaper. That's why Plimpton writes these books and we read them.
He survives the training period and avoids the traditional hazing (being pinned down and shaved all over) by inadvertently bleeding on the ice in defense of his goal. He retells some wonderful hockey tales he hears in beery bull sessions. And while playing against the Flyers, he even defends against a penalty shot by Reggie Leach that his Bruin teammates conspire to set up. He also ventures some opinions about the toughness of NHL players—out of his own experiences—that are not going to sit well with his NFL friends. Some may argue over his estimate of the skill demanded to play top hockey as compared with other sports.
Two caveats. First, the straight-man style of questioning Plimpton uses in most interviews tends to get tiresome. One knows Plimpton is not that naive. Second, it seems obvious that he planned to end the book with the climactic Flyer game, discovered he was short, and wrote an additional few chapters; though pertinent and interesting enough, they have the feel of anticlimax. On the other hand, what more satisfactory anticlimax could a hockey book have than a description of how you defended your goal three times against Wayne Gretzky, one-on-one? Plimpton does that, too.