In all the big four sports – football, baseball, hockey and basketball – it’s hard to think of another athlete like Ken Dryden. That’s because there isn’t one. And because of something that happened nine years ago last Friday, I’m thinking about big #29.
Dryden seemed to come out of nowhere in 1971 when he backstopped the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup championship over the heavily favoured Boston Bruins, who only had the likes of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito playing for them. The young goaltender was the best player in the playoffs, utterly indispensable to Montreal’s success, and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as a result.
What was particularly remarkably about the achievement was that the 23-year-old Dryden played only six games near the end of the season for the Habs, then led the way during the playoffs. The following season, he won the Calder Trophy as the game’s best rookie, even though he was already a Stanley Cup champ.
Dryden would win five more Cups with les Glorieux. And that surely would have been enough for one athlete for one lifetime.
But not for Dryden. In some respects, it was only the beginning. He went on to pen perhaps the best sports book ever written: The Game, published in 1983. (More than two decades later, I wrote a book about hockey entitled The New Game, in large part as a tribute to how much I liked Dryden’s memoir).
Dryden next beat a well-worn path between Montreal and Toronto, becoming president of the Maple Leafs. While the Leafs never won a Stanley Cup while he was the boss, it was a good, entertaining team to watch. One year, after the Leafs were eliminated in the semifinals, TVO had Dryden in for an interview on Studio 2, and I asked him whom he hoped would win the Cup now.
“I don’t care!” came his reply. He spoke for me as well.
Even that wasn’t enough for this brainy, driven ex-athlete, who enjoyed a successful fourth act as a politician. Dryden was the MP for York Centre from June 2004 to May 2011, becoming a cabinet minister and candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada as well.
But on Jan. 29, 2007, this Torontonian found himself back in Montreal to receive one of the greatest honours to which any athlete can aspire. His number was retired by the Canadiens in a memorable ceremony at the Bell Centre.
“Our first grandchild was 24 days old and was out on the ice with our daughter, who shares her birthday,” Dryden, now 68, recalled in an email to me last week.
“[She was] wearing the same Canadiens knitted jersey that a fan, whose name we never knew, had knitted [and] that her mother had worn. It was a very nice night.”
Dryden’s political and sporting worlds actually collided around this honour. Some months earlier, on Sept. 5, 2006 – the day he launched his "A Big Canada" platform to replace Paul Martin as federal Liberal leader – he was scheduled to do an interview with CBC-TV’s Don Newman.
As he sat waiting on Newman’s set with just a few minutes to go before the interview was about to begin, Dryden got a phone call. It was Canadiens owner George Gillett telling him the team intended to send his #29 jersey into the rafters – in effect, sharing an immortality reserved for only the greatest stars such as Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Howie Morenz.
“My eyes start welling up,” Dryden recalled. “Don notices this and thinks there must have been a death in the family or something.”
Sworn to secrecy, Dryden could only tell Newman that everything was all right, not to worry, that it was good news. The two then proceeded with the interview.
Dryden didn’t win the party leadership. So he will have to be satisfied with only being a Hockey Hall of Famer, lawyer, educator, researcher, author, politician and living legend.
Life has been a “kick save and a beauty” for Kenneth Wayne Dryden.
Image credit: Montreal Canadiens and the National Hockey League/canadiens.com
Correction: This article was updated from an earlier version that incorrectly stated the date Ken Dryden appeared on Don Newman's television show. He appeared the day he launched his platform "A Big Canada," Sept. 5, 2006.
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