For each one of the 8,068 players in NHL history who have appeared at least one game in the best league in the world, the journey to get there is unique and compelling. But some of them are a little more unique and compelling than others. Some are a lot more. And one of the most remarkable careers in hockey history began 50 years ago Sunday night.
March 14, 1971 marked the first time a complete unknown by the name of Ken Dryden skated to the Montreal Canadiens’ crease to play a game. And it set into motion a chain of events that not only led to one of the most brilliant careers in NHL history, but also a late- and post-season run that the league had never seen before, nor likely will ever again.
At the old Civic Arena - better known as ‘The Igloo’ - in Pittsburgh, Dryden stopped 35 of 36 shots in a 5-1 win over the Penguins to pick up his first NHL win. Called up the week before by the Canadiens, he had watched his first three games from the press box before Canadiens coach Al MacNeil elected to give him a start. The Penguins were a middling team just four years into their existence and were on the way to missing the playoffs for the third of those four seasons.
“It wasn’t a safe start, but it was one that if I was fine, then the night had a chance to be fine,” Dryden told TheHockeyNews.com. “It may have been 35 saves, but I can tell you there were not a whole lot of really tough ones.”
Not to worry, plenty of those would come later. Dryden started five more games in the regular season and won them all, posting a .957 save percentage. And what happened after that was the stuff of legends. Despite have two veterans in Rogie Vachon and Phil Myre at his disposal, MacNeil decided to start the playoff with Dryden, who had started the 1970-71 season as a part-time player for the Montreal Voyageurs of the American League and a full-time law student at McGill University. Backed by Dryden’s brilliant play, the Canadiens defeated the juggernaut Boston Bruins in the first round in one of the most stunning upsets in NHL history. They went on to defeat the Minnesota North Stars in six games before pulling off another upset, beating the Chicago Blackhawks in seven games. It was one of the rare times in their history that the Canadiens won the Cup despite not being one of the top two teams in the NHL and, while they had a formidable lineup, the vast majority of the credit for the unlikely victory goes to Dryden, as evidenced by the fact he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs before winning the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. In the next eight years, Dryden would win the Cup five more times.
As the world watched this big and unique player lean on his stick during stoppages in play, it would have been easy to assume that he exuded confidence and poise. Even though Dryden didn’t doubt himself, he certainly didn’t see his success in the NHL as a given. After all, he had been drafted – ironically, by the Bruins – seven years prior out of Jr. B hockey and was playing the previous season for the Canadian national team.
“I think I’ve always been somebody who, facing something new…I was never sure I could do it,” Dryden said. “I didn’t have the kind of bravado of, ‘Yeah, piece of cake, just go out there and do it.’ I never felt that. But what was the case was I never felt I couldn’t do it, either. Allow the situation to decide whether I can do it. I don’t need to know whether I can do it. I just need to know that it’s not impossible, that I can do it. So you just go out and play.”
Fifty years ago Sunday night, Ken Dryden just went out and played. And he did it for the rest of that season and for the eight that followed it. And things turned out pretty well for him.
(If you want to read more about the spectacular run by Dryden and the Montreal Canadiens in 1971, we’ve done a deep dive on it in our Trade Deadline issue, which will be on newsstands March 22.)