The only thing Ken Dryden ever really set out to do in life was become a lawyer. When he was playing Jr. B hockey in Etobicoke, Ont., in the 1960s, he certainly didn’t envision becoming an NHL goalie. Yet he not only did that, he became one of the greatest of all-time. That opened myriad opportunities for him after he stopped playing, and he seized each of them with passion. Now, almost 40 years after his Hall of Fame career ended, Dryden finds himself taking on another unforeseen role as the game’s conscience.
From the time he burst into the NHL with his heroics in leading the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1971, Dryden has been a man of surprises. He was one of the first players in NHL history to hold out, opting to take a year off to article as a lawyer in 1973-74 rather than play under a deal in which he felt underpaid. He retired before his 32nd birthday after helping the Canadiens to their fourth straight Cup and was prepared to play for a year in the former Soviet Union until he was shut down by the Soviet federation. That led to careers as a university professor, youth commissioner in Ontario, president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and a member of the federal cabinet in the Canadian government as well as being a best-selling author. The most interesting man in the world has nothing on Dryden.
All of it seemed so unreal for Dryden as a kid in the suburbs of Toronto playing the game for all the right reasons. “I never imagined I was going to play in the NHL,” he said. “Growing up in Toronto and playing for Humber Valley, the NHL was just a different world. It was one that I loved to follow and watch, imagine and fantasize about and pretend that I was an NHL goalie, and all the rest of it, but never with the idea that I would be one. I just kept playing because I wanted to play, and no coach ever said, ‘Sorry, you’re not good enough,’ so it just kept going.”
It seems strange that someone as meticulous, intelligent and talented as Dryden wouldn’t have a detailed plan that mapped out his career well in advance. But then again, that perception of him is something Dryden has had to counter most of his life. In one conversation, when it was suggested he was different than most of his peers, including fun-loving former teammate Pete Mahovlich, Dryden bristled. “Stop right there,” Dryden said. “In reality, there was about a five-percent difference between me and Pete Mahovlich.”
Which is to say that they were both hockey players with the same dreams, the same otherworldly level of ability and an equal affection for being around a team that won a lot and was extremely tight. And oh boy, were the Canadiens good. With Dryden in net, they won six Stanley Cups in the 1970s. Dryden’s numbers are mind-boggling: in his seven full seasons with the Canadiens, he lost just 57 games, an average of eight a season. Dryden remains the only player in NHL history to win the Calder, Conn Smythe and Vezina/Jennings Trophies.
It’s hard to believe it all started when Dryden, who had graduated from Cornell University, was without a place to play when the Canadian national team disbanded in 1970. While attending law school at McGill University, he agreed to be a part-time goalie for the AHL’s Montreal Voyageurs in 1970-71 and earned a late-season stint with the Canadiens in which he went 6-0-0 with a .957 save percentage. It was at Dryden’s first practice that Mahovlich and John Ferguson were chatting and agreed that Dryden, and not Rogie Vachon or Phil Myre, had to be their goalie in the playoffs.
What followed is the stuff of legend. The Canadiens upset the defending champion Boston Bruins in seven games en route to the Stanley Cup, with Dryden capturing the Conn Smythe. And that was before he was even considered a rookie.
Dryden and the Canadiens won five more Cups before he left the game in 1979. The Canadiens were willing to allow Dryden to be a part-time player while he took a pre-bar exam course in Ottawa, but it was tantamount to driving a square peg in what had become a round hole. In the end, Dryden had nothing left to prove, and he and the Canadiens were beginning to lose their edge. It was over.
“It just felt like it was time to go on to the next part because I was going to have to go on to the next part in the next few years anyway,” Dryden said. “And I just wanted to give myself the time to maybe like something and become good at something else.”
Ironically, he practiced virtually no law because of all the other intriguing options that presented themselves due to his career with the Canadiens. And Dryden doesn’t dabble. When he devotes himself to a pursuit, he gives all of his mental and physical efforts to being the best he can be. Now, as he enters his eighth decade, he finds himself in the middle of a critical hockey issue. Dryden has become a leading advocate for changing the culture of hockey to protect players from the blows to the head that are causing post-career problems for some NHLers.
To that end, Dryden’s latest book is titled Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey. He realizes his stance on head shots and fighting pits him against many in the hockey establishment, but as always he’s prepared to swim upstream. It started when Dryden proposed a symposium on head injuries and concussions involving all the game’s stakeholders. The purpose was to identify the problem and see if steps could be taken to improve the game for the players. As much as he tried, however, he couldn’t get the NHL on board. (Among Dryden’s proposed changes is to penalize any player that makes contact to another player’s head with no exceptions.) Right around that time, former NHLer Steve Montador died, in early 2015, and when his brain was examined it was found to be afflicted with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Dryden’s crusade became personal, and with access to Montador’s family and medical records he published the book.
The night before it was to go to press, Dryden bolted up at 2 a.m. because he needed to make a change to the text to reflect exactly how he felt about the issue. The last line of the book now reads, “Not fair, not right, not necessary.”
“The ‘not fair’ and the ‘not right’ is where somebody’s life is being affected,” Dryden said. “The ‘not necessary’ is the one that is key. There are a lot of things in your life and my life that aren’t fair and aren’t right that we just can’t do anything about, so you just somehow find a way of living with something that isn’t fair and isn’t right. But when it is also not necessary, that is the inexcusable part.”
The biggest takeaway from Dryden’s book is that it’s not about concussions or whether repeated blows to the head bring on symptoms of CTE. (Dryden himself said he has had only two concussions in his life, neither from playing hockey.) It’s about a game that sometimes puts players in danger because of the way it’s played, and some of those players are horribly impacted later in life. People are dying. To put a label on it isn’t nearly as important as recognizing the problem and doing something about it.
“I was a little surprised that CTE became so much the focus,” Dryden said. “And I think it did because people are looking for certainty. They weren’t able to put their finger on something so definitive. The attitude is that if they can come up with CTE and it is present, there’s a problem. And if it’s not present, that’s not a problem. No, no, no! Look at the cases of depression, the anxiety, the memory problems, the difficulty making decisions, the difficulty of controlling emotions and anger management. These are not things that happen in somebody who is 30 or 31 or 35. Something is happening here.”
Dryden sees his book as a starting point, not an end point, for discussion. Not surprisingly, he hasn’t had much response from the NHL. But that’s fine. Almost a half-century ago, Dryden never thought he would be part of the NHL. He’s willing to keep trying until he cracks it again.
Born: Aug. 8, 1947, Hamilton, Ont.
NHL Career: 1971-79
Stats: 258-57-74, 2.24 GAA, .922 SP, 46 SO
All-Star: 6 (First-5, Second-1)
Trophies: 7 (Vezina-5, Smythe-1, Calder-1)
Stanley Cups: 6
DID YOU KNOW?
Dryden was well into his career before he discovered he had been drafted by Boston, not the Canadiens. The manager of his Jr. B team told him he had been drafted by Montreal and he never checked. In reality, Boston took Dryden in the third round, 14th overall, in 1964, then immediately traded him to the Canadiens for defenseman Guy Allen, whom the Habs had taken 12th, and Paul Reid, whom they had taken 18th.