“… numéro vingt neuf, number twenty nine …”

I wanted to make a post earlier in the week about the retirement of Ken Dryden’s #29 jersey by the Montreal Canadians, but the day of the retirement ceremony was also the day I posted my tribute to the late Gump Worsley, and on that day I felt strange about bumping Gump down the page, even in favour of a goalie as great as Dryden. In fact, I have a feeling Dryden himself might appreciate the desire not to stealGump’s thunder, even on such an important day for him.

Ken Dryden from his playing days … in classic pose, waiting for action … getting ready for the play … Dryden in classic puck-stopping form. Pictures fromCouchmaster.ca, and Legends of Hockey (the last two) respectively.

It was nice to see Ken Dryden on Peter Mansbridge’s One on One interview program this weekend, as it was the perfect excuse to make the post about Dryden I wanted to make this past Monday, and also a good chance to make a comment about the show itself. Before I get into talking about Dryden, I just wanted to make a quick comment about One on One. In today’s world of sound bites, interviews are often of very little value. Typically, interviews these days are little more than re-affirmations of already understood ideas. The idea of learning something new in an interview seems a big stretch often today. Shows likeMansbridge’s One on One (and for the record, BBC’s Hardtalk is another example) actually delve deep below the surface, using their extended time formats to explore subjects and people in great detail. Further, the experience and knowledge of interviewers likeMansbridge make a good interview show like One on One a wonderful exploration of idea and personality. If you enjoy exploring interesting and famous people, and you have access toNewsworld, I highly recommend Mansbridge One on One, no matter who his guest is.

This week’s interview with Ken Dryden was a fairly good example of the show, though I will admit there were a few lines of questioning I would have liked to seeMansbridge pursue a bit more vigorously. Listening to Dryden speak is always a wonderful experience … he has a command of language, and an ease with it, that lets him express complex ideas very understandably and succinctly, yet in a style that is invariably “Ken.” Its not his voice,ofc, that make him so recognizable though, and not even really his face … instead, its that red, white, and blue mask, the brown leather pads, and the over-sized Canadians’ jersey, standing calmly at one end of the ice, his chin resting on the butt of his stick (showing his great height, for one, in a day when goalies were often the smaller men of the game), as he watched the action at the other end of the ice.

When I write about hockey, I tend to come back to the notion of “images” because that’s largely what hockey is to me. Like many Canadian children, I played hockey as a kid ofc, but also like the vast majority of us, I was mediocre at best, and there’s never really been ANY time in my life that I’ve truly been under any delusion of ever skating around the Montreal Forum holding the Stanley Cup. While I have some memories of playing the game, the real memories that fire my imagination are the images of boyhood heroes playing the game at the highest level. And the irony is in every other case, the image I have is an active one … Bobby Orr, if not sprawled in mid air while still managing to control the puck and his stick and score, uses his skating skills to cut through opposing defenders like a knife through butter; Guy Lafleur streaks down the wing before cutting in to slide a backhand past a hapless, sprawling goalie; Gerry Cheevers skates out to challenge the shooter, catching the puck early and passing it up to a breaking Orr, becoming the third defenceman, redefining his position, and allowing Orr to shine offensively in many ways.

And yet, my image of the man who is, perhaps, the most shining example of the “Canadian hockey player” of the 70’s isn’t an image of action at all. Like many fans, our image of Ken is standing there, doing nothing, watching, waiting.That’s NOT a comment on his skill in any way … along with Cheevers and Parent, Dryden was the pre-eminent talent at his game in the decade of the 70’s, and there’s no shortage of footage of Dryden kicking out a pad at the last second to stop a certain goal, or throwing his body across the ice to make an inhuman poke check on a player who was sure he had an empty net to shoot at, or taking a puck square in the face during a save in a day when, mask or no, there was very little head and face protection for goalies. There are any number of active images that would characterize Dryden’s skills, his courage, his strength. But its that image of his quiet patience, standing around waiting while he wasn’t needed, that really sticks in people’s heads, because in many ways, its the perfect symbol of the hockey goalie.

When I DID play, the only position I played moderately well was goal. Its an odd position where, in many cases, long periods of intense boredom are punctuated with short bursts of intense activity. Managing those two states is key for a professional goalie, and the Dryden pose, chin resting on hands draped casually over the butt of his long goal stick, is the perfect picture of patience from a man that in a split second could be throwing his body into a crashing Phil Esposito, or trying to follow the puck on Orr’s stick as he zigged and zagged into the zone. From the perspective of opponents, I doubt Dryden’s apparent ease and casualness was any comfort, at least not after they got to see him play … instead, the casualness is a reminder of skills that are demonstrated when required, and the quiet patience and confidence can only come from a man supremelycomfortable in his skills and his position. Looking down the ice to a casual Dryden staring back, casually leaning on his stick, must have been one of the more daunting sights in the NHL of the 70’s, I’d imagine, a reminder that the last line of defence for Les Canadiens was a man in complete control of his crease, and a man who knew he was in his zone.

You can speak of specific games and series to talk of Dryden’s greatness. Coming into his first season with 6 games left, going without a loss, and capping the ’71 season with not only a Stanley Cup, but also a Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player in the finals, is certainly one example. His stellar play with Team Canada in the ’72 series is worthy of note as well … Tony Esposito was Team Canada’s official “#1 goalie” for that tournament, but its no mistake that everyone remembers Dryden’s name. Dryden was instrumental in several of Team Canada’s victory, and while a goalie can never win you a game (only people who score goals can TRULY win a hockey game for you), the right goalie keeps you from losing, and gives you that chance to win … without Dryden, the Soviets may very well have run away with several games, but Dryden’s solid play gave the Canadian forwards the chance to win the games.

I’ve talked in the past about my impressions of that series, and of the NHL in the 70’s, and I make no bones about my disdain for the violent side of it. One of the things that ALWAYS struck me about Dryden was his ability to stay above all that and remain a positive role model both on and off the ice. In fact, more than just your average “local boy makes good” story, Dryden should be the example we hold up to EVERY young hockey player today. Drafted by the Bruins in the mid-60’s, Ken made the then un-heard of decision to turn down a pro contract and complete his undergraduate degree. It was only after he finished that degree that he got a chance with the Canadians, and he had close to a decade at the top of his game. But just as remarkable as the start of his career, is the end. In 1979, he hung up the pads, really at the height of his skills, to go back to school for his law degree. In a time when many players are putting all their eggs in the very fragile basket of professional hockey, the example of Dryden, a supremely talented player who chose to pursue his education before his hockey career, should be placed in a spotlight, on a pedestal, as an example for today’s players.

I do wish Mansbridge had pushed a bit deeper into some of the issues I’ve raised surrounding the league in the 70’s. I, for one, would like to hear him speak about the violence in the game at the time in general, and even specifically about the Clarke slash on Kharlamov in the ’72 series … he seemed, to me anyway, always above the fray. It was interesting to hear him speak about the clutching and grabbing in the recent modern game without ever speaking of the sort of slashing and cross-checking that ended up sending Bobby Orr to the showers so early. He seemed to imply that the modern game doesn’t allow its skill players to shine, but surely, that classic picture of Bobby Orr, post goal and post cross check, sprawled in mid-air, is an example of precisely the same problem in the league in Dryden’s day as well. I would have liked to hear him speak more about that aspect of his career, but I also understand that in an interview to honour the retirement of his fabled #29 jersey,Mansbridge may have wanted to focus on more positive questions. Regardless, I think it was a missed opportunity to explore the issue in greater detail, an opportunity Dryden himself gave toMansbridge by talking about clutching and grabbing in today’s game.

But beyond that small criticism, I frankly loved the interview. Dryden has always been a personal favorite of mine … as the geekiest guy on any hockey team, I have always been able to identify with Dryden, and I wish his example was one that was held up for praise more often. In my post about Bobby Orr, I spoke about how he really was the first managed star, the first Sydney Crosby … Dryden, in many ways, was his antithesis, choosing the route of education rather than straight into a hockey career, and that sacrifice, and thebenefits that it has CLEARLY had on his life after hockey, should be more highly valued, IMO. Young hockey players today could learn a lot from Dryden’s example, both in terms of his focus on his long-term goals, and in terms of his patience and humility … certainly those of us who watched him, who idolized him as children, learned from that. Its a lesson that seems increasingly lost on today’s generation … Dryden serves as an example of how to be better at whatever you do.


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