Ken Dryden, Hockey's Lonely Forerunner

The existential boys’ book hero

JACK LUDWIG February 1 1973

Ken Dryden, Hockey's Lonely Forerunner

The existential boys’ book hero

JACK LUDWIG February 1 1973

Ken Dryden, Hockey's Lonely Forerunner

The existential boys’ book hero


Last April while I was looking for Ken Dryden up on the Montreal Forum press-box catwalk I ran into an NHL goal judge who told me that if I wanted to find Dryden I should “look for someone who doesn’t look like a hockey player.” The man went further: “He’s so unlike a hockey player — you’ll see. That isn’t all,” he added. “He doesn’t look like an NHL goalie. He’s six-footfour. When he stands up we have to crane around him. Every shot’s a screen shot.” Just recently, however, I spoke to Ray Picard, who coached Dryden or managed teams in Toronto’s Humber Valley which Dryden played on from the time he was seven. “At seven,”

Picard said, “Kenny looked like an NHL goalie.” According to Picard, Dryden had “all the moves and all the poise of a pro” at seven: Picard remembers Dryden as being small for his age. Murray Dryden, Ken’s father, had built a goal out of two-by-fours for his two sons, Dave (now sharing the Buffalo Sabres’ goalie work with Roger Crozier) and Ken: Ken, as Picard recalls, barely rose as high as the crossbar. His brother Dave was six years older and a confirmed goalie.

Neighbors remember seeing the Dryden boys taking turns in that net hour after hour day after day summer and winter. Then Ken began to grow and grow and grow.

He’s still growing.

When I finally found Ken Dryden I understood what the goal judge had been trying to tell me. Here was this tall young man with slightly shaggy hair not severely sprayed in the best NHL way. I had a theory after spending some time with the Boston Bruins last season stating that Derek Sanderson and Carol Vadnais were in actuality one and the same person, Sanderson being the after “dry look” and Vadnais the before “wet look.” Sanderson’s spectacular leap into the World Hockey Association Etna proved that I was abominably wrong. But here was Ken Dryden who somehow avoided looking like a gently lacquered “dry” or a recently-showered sleek seal. Any NHL security cop should have barred him entrance to any league rink.

Dryden looked more like the Ivy Leaguer he had been at Cornell University for four years, or a Law School student on Interview Day. His brown twist suit, however, had slightly flared trousers, banned in all stores dedicated to

regulation Ivy League issue. Off the ice he wore horn-rim glasses and looked something like Clark Kent, that unCanadian Superman. To disqualify himself further from NHL possibilities, Dryden listened intelligently and was shockingly grammatical in speech. When I found him he was answering some sportscaster’s question about “your greatest thrill” or “biggest moment” — or maybe it was “biggest thrill” and “greatest moment.” From Dryden’s gracious response one might have thought the sportscaster had invented those momentous questions on the spot. On occasion, however, when the interviewer consulted his flash cards and broke in on an unfinished sentence, Dryden gently insisted on concluding the statement, assuming, I suppose, that the unprogrammed tape recorder, if not its wielder, was listening. Dishonoring The Interview further, Dryden didn’t use chummy Dale Carnegie sales techniques such as mentioning the interviewer’s first name every third or fourth word: he seemed devoid of athletic nothing talk, or other Method actor tricks such as the modest mumble or the blushing mutter. And yet, of course, nobody could have conformed to the Gee Whiz sports star myth better than this same Dryden.

His story was one the writer of those super - sport Frank Merriwell tales—in which the hero is always doing the last-ditch and/or snatching victory with only a second to go — would have rejected offhand, so compounded was it of high improbabilities. He clearly was a civilian Clark Kent who, once in uniform, turned out somehow to save the day for Superman U. One could even think of him as a form of Hockey Hustler who, dressed in that suit and wearing those hornrim glasses, dropped in on the Montreal Canadiens one practice morning, leaned over the boards to say “What’s this game you’re playing fellows, hockey?” That’s how it must appear to Rogatien Vachon, who was Number One Goalie for the Canadiens one March day in 1971 when Frank Merriwell-Clark Kent-Dryden happened to drop by to spend a few days in goal, giving Vachon an instant title for a rather depressing autobiography — A Funny

Thing Happened To Me On The Way To The Forum.

Vachon should be forgiven for not suspecting a Frank Merriwell finish to the career of someone like Ken Dryden. Up to the time Dryden became Montreal’s goalkeeper there were two ways of guaranteeing a player permanent exclusion from the National Flockey League. One was to play on the Canada team that specialized in losing to Czechs, Russians and other international usurpers of Canada’s game; two was to play American Ivy League college touch hockey. One could, of course, put in a stint with a Big Ten jock school like the University of Minnesota or a Michigan Tech Tony Esposito played for. Cornell was another thing. As if being twice-buried weren’t enough, Dryden had gone for three by attending Law School at the University of Manitoba while playing for the national team out of Winnipeg. He read books in plain wrappers not because he was hiding porn but because that’s the way textbook publishers delivered their wares to students. Unlike a true NHL player, Dryden didn’t have himself a pile of paperbacks girlied up or severely bloodied; nor did he mark off an entire season by lip-synching his way through The Godfather.

What undoubtedly faked Vachon out further was Dryden’s immediate hockey past. From Canada’s national team he came to the Montreal Voyageurs, Canadiens’ farm team, because he was continuing his education at McGill’s Law School. He was the third goalie for the Voyageurs, almost exclusively a practice goalie. In training camp the fall of 1970 Dryden showed up exceptionally well, playing better than any of the other men, Canadiens or Voyageurs. But at the end of camp he was out of The Big Time and off The Big Club. Worse, the first time he started in goal for the Voyageurs he lost, 5-3. After Christmas that year the Voyageurs played half their home games in Halifax: Dryden decided that, no matter what, he would stay in Montreal and not give up his law studies.

In addition, of course, here was Dryden not only an anglais but an anglais from Ontario, born in Hamilton, brought up in Toronto, this when the separatist movement was seemingly quite strong. This anglais, unlike a confirmed Canadien, had small cussage, and less French. He spoke too softly, and didn’t carry that big a stick. So what was to worry, eh, Rogatien?

And the way the Canadiens treated Dryden when he reported on March 7, 1971, the last call-up date for minor leaguers that season, must have faked Vachon out too. The first game Dryden might have played he didn’t even dress for. He sat in the stands like a draft choice, or a third cousin of the Molson family (then owners of the Canadiens). Dryden remembers that night as one of the low points of his life.

But then came a game with Pittsburgh, a trounceable expansion club, and Dryden got his chance. Canadiens, not unexpectedly, won, and Dryden played well. The question remained, though: how would he do against real NHL clubs?

Dryden could only play six games without being classified as an NHL player for that season. He did. And Montreal won all six. Except for Pittsburgh and one game with Buffalo, all others were against the pre-expansion teams: twice with Dryden Montreal beat the Rangers, and once beat Toronto and once Chicago. What had begun as a perfunctory tryout turned into a confirmed take-over.

But Vachon surely had been saved by the bell. The regular season ended. The Canadiens now had to play Stanley Cup hockey. Two or three sports clichés converged, conflicting: one said play-off experience always counted in the play-offs—and gave points to Vachon: another said streaks must end sometimes, and are quite often flukes — this was at best a standoff for Dryden: but by far the most compelling sports axiom is that you must always “go with the hot man,” which Dryden most certainly was. So there was Dryden when Stanley Cup play began, at least for that game Montreal’s number one goalie. The goalkeeper he kept on the bench was daring, acrobatic, talented, and young, not some floundering faltering faded flubber. Rogatien Vachon, as any hockey fan with credentials knows, sat out all the Stanley Cup games, 20 of them, which ended with the Canadiens winning the Stanley Cup and Dryden winning the Conn Smythe Trophy (and $1,500) as the most valuable player in the series. In addition Dryden won:

1. A car presented by Sport magazine to the outstanding player in the finals.

2. A complete home entertainment unit as Lifesaver-ofthe-Month award winner.

3. An MG sportscar as the winner of the Lifesaver-of-theYear award.

4. The Calder Trophy as rookie-of-the-year for 1971-72, because, continued on page 78

KEN DRYDEN from page 27

as someone who had played no more than six regular season games in 1970-71 he still wás, by league definition, a rookie (he began the 1971-72 season with everyone remembering, and clearly, his spectacular play in March and April of 1971).

What interested me in Ken Dryden, I must confess, was not his hockey credentials or even his ability to stand in as a boys’ book hero in a novel I’ve no desire to write. I was fascinated by what he did the summer of his Stanley Cup success. Instead of using sports, as many Ivy League stars of football and basketball and even hockey do, to set themselves up in business or practice or politics, Dryden worked in a Ralph Nader project dealing with the consequences of pollution.

Spending most of his time in Nader’s Washington office but scooting south to Virginia to study firsthand the problem Nader’s men were attacking — the effects of pollution on the life and livelihood of commercial fishermen in Virginia — Dryden was as much of a lonely forerunner in the practice of law as he was in his “profession (other),” hockey. When I met

him in Montreal on April Fool’s Day, 1972, we talked about his summer and about his hopes and plans for Nader work in Canada. As I remember it, we didn’t say one word about hockey, though right below us an NHL game was in progress (with Phil Myre in the Canadiens’ goal). We talked instead of the backing Nader projects needed in order to support the kind of research Dryden himself had done, hard unglamorous digging to come up with the facts more valuable than opinion. Community involvement was part of the Nader revolution: the kind of law degree

translation Toronto has seen, for instance, in the dedication to community problems by a brilliant lawyer like Alderman John Sewell or, in Winnipeg, where a lawyer like Roland Penner has made a commitment to civil liberties and other unpopular causes or, for instance, the commitment to populist government made by the recently elected premier of BC, David Barrett. Dryden, of course, does not have the political stand of any of these people — that is not the point.

Hardly a city in North America operates now without its lonely fore-

runners in what used to be strictly career categories — law, medicine, architecture, teaching. A few years ago, when I was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, I found myself repeatedly on various committees of concerned women and men addressing themselves to urban, ecological and political problems their energy and imagination frequently help solve. And if not solve, then spotlight. Doctors, in addition to their full-time jobs, set up free clinics or spent time in mobile units: lawyers worked with the poor and the uneducated to inform them of their neglected rights: architects turned their minds to the consequences of superhighways slitting the neighborhood ties that alone can hold a city together. Ken Dryden could have worked with all these people and added something to the dimension of their understanding. He is not a radical or a militant. But what we have seen in the past four or five years is a concerned coalition of people with widely differing political and economic points of view who have united to make something or save something, be it a huge project such as a city, or an almost unobserved phenomenon, the

damming of a stream.

But it would be foolish to ignore the hockey side of Ken Dryden. It is not at all incidental. It has its existential place in his life. In days to come Dryden will identify himself with what he wins or loses in the practice of the law: hockey is his existential arena at this moment, and, I would think, will continue to be that for some time. And when I say “existential arena” I’m referring to a specific test, one with a beginning, middle and end no less fantastic than Dryden’s entry into NHL play. This, of course, was his fabulous downer beginning and over-the-moon end in the Team Canada-USSR series.

This so-called “Match of the Century” featured many players, but nobody’s graphed fall and rise so matched the fall and rise of Team Canada as Dryden’s did. I’ve referred to the Team’s staggering recovery in the December Maclean’s, but Dryden’s personal fix needs further detailing.

Dryden had had some experience with the USSR teams before. In December of 1969, playing for the national team, he was given a rough, rough ride by the USSR in Vancouver, losing 9-3. He also gave up four goals to the Czechs in a game the Czechs won 4-0. But anybody hearing of that series would not think “The USSR and Czechoslovakia must be very good.” The common response was “Sure, but that was the Canadian national team,” which, as everyone knew, was made up of schoolboys, guys too small or too slight or too slow to make the NHL, or a few broken-down ungolden oldies. Few doubted that the NHL All-Stars playing under the rubric of “Team Canada” would beat hell out of the USSR and avenge all previous Canadian losses with a bonus here and-there for good measure.

I’ve already described — in my book on the series — the tumultuous cheering that Dryden got from his people in Montreal as he was introduced the night of the first game on September 2, 1972. There he was, the most popular of the home boys — applauded for the C a 1 d e r rookie award, applauded for his play as a Canadien, applauded, too, I’m sure because he represents Canada the way most fans would like to see us represented. There he was, gliding around the ice, smiling, chatting with his teammates, doing his warm-up stretches and reaches while skating. And then into the nets for the warm-up, more serious now, the anticipation and the tension starting to build higher and higher.

No Canadian has to be told what happened. Few have to be told what

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KEN DRYDEN continued

happened to Ken Dryden. Seven times

— seven — he saw the USSR score against him. Not only that: he knew he had looked bad on a couple of goals, and took small consolation that his teammates looked bad on all seven. “Next day,” Sunday, September 3, “was the worst,” Dryden told me. “In Vancouver” — where Team Canada again lost, 5-3 — “I didn’t play well but I didn’t look that bad.” But that next day, in practice, instead of getting most of the work, as befits the “starting goalie,” Dryden got the least

— less than even the Number Three goalie got, Eddie Johnston. Nobody said much, Dryden recalled. Everybody was nice — which was chilling. The whole team and its coaches were understandably in a state of shock: each man was probably concentrating on self-rescue.

A goalkeeper, like a quarterback in football or a pitcher in baseball, has no way of not being involved in a game’s won-or-lost summing up. Even if a goalie’s team scores seven or eight goals there’s always the possibility that he’ll let in that number, and maybe one or two more. One is surprised to check a game summary and see that Phil Esposito didn’t figure in the scoring. But one doesn’t have to assess a forward or a defenseman every game. Pluses are assigned players who contribute to a goal, and minuses to those on the ice when a goal is scored: but all that is mere abstraction compared with the goalkeeper’s goals-per-game

average — an official statistic which, in NHL league play, determines who (or what two or three men) will win the Vezina Trophy. A soccer goalkeeper playing for a superior team might not see the ball cross into his half of the field all game, but a hockey goalie rarely experiences that kind of breather. At any moment anybody is capable of letting go a shot from out far as well as from in close that might well decide a game.

TV instant replay multiplies analysis and assigns error: in the press boxes, after a goal has been scored, sportswriters and sportscasters rush to the TV screen for the instant replay, usually shown in slow motion. When a goalie looks bad on a goal now, he looks bad over and over again. Instant replay might pick up the forward who missed his check, or the defenseman out of position: what it never fails to pick up is an awkward miss or a faked-out drop to the ice or the nightmarish sight of a puck lurching forward frame by frame to bulge the goal netting with a sudden but slow inevitability. The goalie, more than any other sports figure, is technology’s patsy: his one goof may stand recorded in athletic perpetuity as the crucial mismove in a 1-0 game.

Dryden’s reaction to a scored goal is interesting. He never says a thing. Other goalies always claim the shot came from inside the crease, or the other team was offside, that the puck didn’t go in, etc., etc. Or they glare

at a teammate to indicate who really let the goal get by. Dryden has none of these tricks. When we were in Moscow together he told me he hated playing hockey in Sweden because the Swedes were such “actors,” always slumping to the ice like Italian soccer players, claiming they were tripped, clipped, gypped.

Not long ago, when Wes Parker, the first baseman of the Los Angeles Dodgers retired, Arthur Daley, in a New York Times column, constructed a conversation in which Maury Wills, the Dodger shortstop, asked Parker if he would trip an opposing player, were the pennant to depend on that play. Parker said, simply, “No.” Not even if Parker knew the other guy, in Parker’s position, would trip him? Again Parker’s answer was “No.” There’s nothing soft or namby-pamby about Wes Parker, nor about Ken Dryden. Dryden at all times, though serious about hockey, has human priorities and personal standards which are more important than winning. He clearly couldn’t think he had “won” a game which had been “won” by his tripping someone. Dryden dearly loves to win. In Moscow he told me he hated to have a puck get past him, even in the easiest-going practice. Not from Ken I learned that at least twice, while playing for Cornell, he had left his net with play still in progress to throw himself across a felled injured opposing player. It could be he’s a lonely forerunner in this too — a man who is competitive but not combative. In all his hockey-playing years he has never been in a fight. Nor, for that matter, has his brother Dave. When one speaks to Margaret Dryden, Ken and Dave’s mother, or Murray Dryden, their father, one isn’t at all surprised. The Dry dens all seem to be lonely forerunners.

Which makes Ken’s role in NHL hockey something of an anomaly. Recently I came across a perfect description of “stare” signals in rhesus monkeys which tallied with what I had been saying about hockey zoos for some time. Hockey players can buttend each other, perform near scalpings, crush elbows into opposing cheekbones, knee groins and spear bellies, but a fight will follow only if the players look at each other. Mayhem and murder can go unchecked if only the simple convention of looking the other way be followed. I do not mean to imply at all that NHL players are monkeys but merely that hockey shares signs and conventions often found among swinging hostiles. The passage comes from a recent article by Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson, called Animal Communication. I suggest you

read it aloud to someone who has recently been to a junior hockey game:

Rhesus monkeys in the wild frequently threaten one another not only with stares but also with additional displays on an ascending scale of intensity . . . The new components are added one by one or in combination: the mouth opens, the head bobs up and down, characteristic sounds are uttered and the hands [here read “gloves”] slap the ground. By the time the monkey combines all these components, and perhaps begins to make little forward lunges as well [here introduce the interceding linesman], it is likely to carry through with an actual attack. Its opponent responds either by retreating or by escalating its own displays. These hostile exchanges play a key role in maintaining dominance relationships in the rhesus society.

Commercial prime-time TV hockey, a branch of Show Biz, has encouraged Primitivism at all times. Which accentuates Dryden’s differences from the mass of hockey players. When he lost that game to the USSR in Montreal it didn’t occur to him that the whole team could and should have been blamed for its part in the debacle. It was his inadequacy he thought about. It never occurred to him that he might have tried to behead Valeriy Kharlamov or Aleksandr Yakushev. What did worry him was whether he was capable of playing his best hockey against the USSR — and, even more importantly, if Sinden would give him that chance. The Sunday after the loss, Dryden told me, “It was almost like you were gone.” Departed, that is. Disappeared. Not to be counted in. It took almost 24 hours for him to realize that “things do go on,” that he wouldn’t be forever fixed in the amber cooked up by lousy statistics.

In the games that followed in Toronto and Winnipeg, Dryden tried to expunge the bad night in Montreal from his memory. That was made mandatory when he got the call to play Game Four in Vancouver. Vancouver, we should recall, was the site of Dryden’s 9-3 loss to the USSR three years earlier. Vancouver, as everyone now knows, was the low point in the Team Canada experience. The team was booed, Dryden heard phony applause for easy saves after the USSR scored two quick powerplay goals. The game ended with the USSR winning 5-3 and, more dismally, leading the series by two games to one with one tied.

In Sweden Tony Esposito played

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KEN DRYDEN continued

well, Eddie Johnston played exceptionally well. From the moment the team left Canada Dryden had been preparing himself for the likelihood that he wouldn’t play again in the series. After two games he had the terrible average of six — he, a goalie who rarely strayed from the impressive two-goalsa-game average. He began to think, Dryden told me, of the coming season. In Moscow when Tony Esposito got the call for Game Five that seemed not only fair but deserved. The USSR pouring five goals past Esposito to win 5-4 didn’t change Dryden’s estimate of his own prospects. Sinden might well have decided to give up on both Dryden and Esposito and try, instead, to win with his old Bruin goalie, Johnston.

But Sinden didn’t. To Dryden’s surprise he named him to start Game Six. Too much has been written about the Team Canada-USSR series for me to repeat how well Dryden played in that 3-2 win. I will say again, however, what he and I spoke about just recently: that the two fast saves he made at the beginning of the game set him up not just for the rest of that one but for the last game, which followed. I’ve already written how shaky Dryden was before Game Six, and how beautifully those two hard shots put him back into his best playing mood. One could see the tenseness fall from him. The two days that followed Game Six were the ones he and I spent investigating the Army Sports Club and the Institute of Physical Culture and Sport in Moscow. Ken was totally relaxed now. In practice he was easy and with it. The night before the Big

Game he watched the Bolshoi Ballet company do Anna Karenina with no tragic analogy to remind him of bad days past.

Game Eight was a team Frank Merriwell performance, complete with Peter Mahovlich’s challenge to the cops of the Soviet Union to come on the ice, I’ll take y a all on. From losing 5-3 at the end of the second period to winning 6-5 with 34 seconds left is the hockey story of the century, of course, and the man who played a fantastic last period in goal was Ken Dryden. Paul Henderson’s winning goal lifted all the burdens the series might have loaded on to Dryden’s shoulders. The game — and the series — was won, and won well. “You’re not going to forget that series for a long time,” Dryden told me. “And you couldn’t really care if you played that much or not when you got back. It took a while. Then everything fell in place.” When that winning goal was scored, Ken’s sister Judy was working the cardiac ward at Kingston General Hospital: the doctors kept slapping blood-pressure sleeves on their heart patients, afraid that all the excitement would do them in.

Margaret Dryden, Ken’s mother, said she had to keep walking out of the room. She couldn’t take it. “Other mothers can take this,” she told me. “I can’t.” What she hated most, she said, was having Ken and Dave play against each other. Their most recent encounter in December ended with Dave’s Buffalo team — for the first time in Dave’s life — being victorious over Ken in goal for Montreal.

In keeping with her role as a kinder-

garten teacher and innovator, Mrs. Dryden spaced her three children so she could spend time with them growing up. The thought of injury chills her. Dave was once hit in the eye by a puck and had to stay immobile for almost a month while doctors worked to save that eye’s sight. His seeing was affected. And so too, I gathered, was Mrs. Dryden as a hockey fan. She tries not to watch her sons in a stadium but prefers — if she has to — to see them on television and be free to walk out of the room when things get tense. She’s proud of both her boys because of what they’re like, rather than because of what they’ve accomplished. She told me that Ken didn’t relish working for a demolition crew one summer, because he “just doesn’t like destruction.” The next Cornell summer he got work building. A library, she said, which pleased them all. Mrs. Dryden says of hockey: “If the boys are happy in it, I’m happy.” What’s unsaid is that when the boys aren’t in hockey she’ll be even happier. Dave started teaching school when he was 18; Judy, as I’ve already indicated, is a nurse; Ken has just recently passed his law exams. They’re lonely forerunners all, these Drydens. Their legends are full of happy endings.

And as for Ken. It’s not simply education. It’s a commitment to thought and thinking about consequences. Nothing is more difficult, I submit, than being your own man in professional sports. The fans are after you, teammates are after you, opponents, media people. Clichés are shortcuts, terms of surrender, prompt cards, easy ways out. Communication in athletics is most easily done through buffoonery or boozing or cussing or slam-banging. Dryden chooses none of these ways. I should remember, as I vividly do, his rink-length dash to congratulate Paul Henderson who had just scored the winning goal in the Team CanadaUSSR series: I’ll remember much more pointedly how Dryden smiled as we were pulled into a group pose with the hockey faculty at the Soviet sport institute. He didn’t have anything but an open generous attitude to these people who were our hosts. No “star” puffery. No touch-me-not stiffnecked pride. But what stays with me even more is Dryden on the ice with only Red Berenson and Peter Mahovlich after that first game 7-3 loss to the USSR, standing there and waving his stick in salute at the victorious Russians. Frank Merriwell characters are rarely shown losing the big ones. It’s the lonely forerunner who does the most serious things well. Dryden is such a one as to build countries on. ■