Ken Dryden, also known as "the Giraffe" and "the Monster," used to run around suburban Toronto wearing a Boston Bruins sweat shirt and an improvised goaltender's mask that looked like a miniature bird cage. "Where's that kid from, ma'am?" the milkman asked Dryden's mother one day. "Mars?"
No one has asked the question lately. Ken Dryden, "little" brother of Buffalo's goaltending Dave Dryden, was hauled out of the minor leagues late last hockey season to perform for the Montreal Canadiens. When the major league season was over, Les Habitants had won everything in hockey that really counts—the Stanley Cup—and Dryden had been named most valuable player in the playoffs. In a city that usually reserves its praise for men with names like Jean-Claude and Rogatien and Michel, a distant descendant of poet John Dryden was king. As Montreal hockey writer Gilles Terroux wrote after the opening Stanley Cup series against the Boston Bruins: "La victoire du Canadien était signée de so main."
If, indeed, the victory was signed by Dryden's hand, it must have been his mitt hand. After one early game, Boston's Johnny (Pie) McKenzie said: "That hand of his is something else. We've caught him out of position at least a dozen times and shot for three-quarters of an empty net. Zap—that big mitt comes out of thin air. Twice I've had my stick in the air and was breaking into my goal-scoring dance when he's done that." Phil Esposito, the superstitious Boston star who cringes at the sight of crossed hockey sticks and old ladies in black, claimed half seriously that Dryden was using voodoo against him, and converted many a Boston fan into a believer. The 6'4" Dryden, playing at a lean 210 pounds, bounced up and down on the ice like a levitated spook and tormented the Bruins with prestidigitorial glove saves and ballerina kick saves that drew praise from such eminent goaltenders as Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante. The high level of his play continued through series wins over Minnesota's North Stars and finally over the Chicago Black Hawks in a torturous seven-game war that was decided on Chicago ice.
To many it seemed that Dryden had come out of nowhere to vex the other cup contenders, but in fact the Canadiens' front officers had been well aware of the 23-year-old goalie's ability from the beginning. They had hidden him away with the minor league Voyageurs, conveniently stationed in Montreal, and watched him combine good grades at McGill Law School with one of the lowest goals-against averages in the American Hockey League. Before that, Dryden had played goal for Canada's national team, and before that had made All-America three straight years at Cornell, losing only a handful of games in his entire college career. He was never a flash in the pan, although to many he must have seemed so.
October 18, 1971
In person, Dryden is not exactly the embodiment of the bold, supermasculine sports hero. He is shy and soft-spoken, gentle almost to excess. The intellectuality that he exudes is heightened by horn-rimmed glasses that he exchanges for contact lenses on the ice. His brown hair sprawls in anarchy about his head and is medium long, a la mode in professional sports. His face is framed in heavy pork-chop sideburns, and over the summer he grew a floppy brown mustache—since razored off. At times he is reminiscent of a young hirsute Alastair Sim playing the role of a kindly schoolmaster. His harshest epithet seems to be "Jeez Murphy," used only for extreme emphasis. He is not the sort of person who instills nervousness in his fellow man, at least until he puts on his skates, and a conversation with him can be a relaxing and rewarding experience.
Q. If you had to describe the last year of your life in one word, what would the word be?
Q. Satisfying! You're the envy of every Canadian and millions of Americans and at least one sportswriter, and it's only satisfying?
A. Well, everything happened so fast; maybe I haven't assimilated the whole experience yet. Maybe I could call it very satisfying.
Q. That's better. Ken, you just finished the year of years. You just did what no hockey rookie ever did before, and the most puzzling thing is that you kept right on studying for your law degree as though you weren't even playing hockey against the toughest teams in the world.
A. Well, it's easy to overestimate the difficulties. In the first place, hockey is fun for me. It's not work to play hockey, even against the Boston Bruins or the Chicago Black Hawks. Law school is mostly memory work, and if I didn't do anything but study law I'd go nuts. I couldn't spend all my time in the library; I'm just not made that way. So when I found that I could do them both, study law and play hockey, I jumped at the chance.
Q. I realize that you're the original cool hand, but weren't you just a little nervous when the Montreal Canadiens called you up from the minor leagues toward the end of last season?
A. Well, maybe, but looking back on it I realize now that Coach Al MacNeil handled the situation very wisely. I admit I was a little worried when he didn't even dress me for the first three games. I watched from the press box, and I felt like an idiot.
Q. Is that a comment about us sports-writers?
A. No, but what was the point of calling me up if it wasn't to play? After three games I went to Al and I said, "Hey, can't you at least dress me for the game, make me feel like a part of the team?"
Q. What did he say?
A. He didn't say anything. He just started me in the next game.
Q. At Pittsburgh?
A. Right, and it was a very intelligent move. First off, it relieved the pressure of breaking in at The Forum in front of the Montreal fans. Even at Pittsburgh I was nervous. My knees were jelly, my legs were shaking so hard I thought everybody in the place could see it. For the first time in my life I stayed nervous through a whole game.
Q. You won. right?
A. Yes, 5-1, but no great credit to me. Pittsburgh's not the toughest team in the league, and our players had a good night against them.
Q. That's something that has been commented on many times—the way a hockey team will play extra hard when it has a rookie goaltender in the net.
A. It's very true. They will play extra hard, because they feel that they have to—especially defensively. I stopped 35 or 36 shots that night, a good average game, nothing sensational. But it was better than breaking in at Montreal and giving up eight goals and being totally demoralized.
Q. As I recall, you played a couple more of what you would call "good average" games, and then the New York Rangers really socked it to you, or tried to.
A. Right. That was my first big test. It was the first game where my goaltending was a factor, the first game we might have lost if I hadn't done my job. In the earlier games all I had to do was avoid making any terrible mistakes and just be very very average. The game was in Madison Square Garden, and the Rangers played well. I wound up stopping 49 shots.
Q. And winning 6-2.
A. Yeah, on some good saves and some lucky ones. But the big thing as far as my personal development was concerned was that each save bolstered my confidence, whether it was a smart save or a stupid one. I felt none of the nervousness that I had in the earlier games. And I came out of that game with more of a personal feeling that I belonged in the NHL, that I could play in the NHL. I said to myself, "Well, all right! Well, good!"
Q. It always puzzled me that Al MacNeil held you out of the two games against Boston in the last week of the season. He knew you were going to have to play Boston in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and he knew Boston was the team to beat. So why not give you the experience?
A. I wondered, too, but later I found out that was part of Al's master plan for breaking me in. He said to me, "Don't worry about the fact that you're not starting against Boston. It doesn't have anything to do with who'll start the playoffs." You see, we didn't need to win those Boston games to get into the playoffs, and our guys were relaxing a little just then, and Al was afraid I'd go out and get bombed by Boston and lose my confidence. Our last game of the year was against Boston, and once again I watched from the press box. That was the night they scored their 399th goal of the season, a record for the NHL.
Q. Beating the Bruins in the playoffs was one of the big upsets in recent sports history. What do you remember about it?
A. Very little. I can remember the series, but I can't put specific events into specific games. It's all a blur.
Q. Did you know that you went 90 consecutive minutes of playing time without allowing a goal?
A. You're kidding!
Q. No, you did. Phil Esposito scored on you at the 29-second mark of one game, and it was 90 minutes before any Bruin scored on you again, and then it was Bobby Orr on an impossible baseball-type shot from an impossible angle.
A. Yeah, I remember that shot. Bobby Orr does impossible things routinely.
Q. Did you have a personal plan against Boston?
A. I had all kinds of plans, and I had some very good advice. Our goalie, Rogatien Vachon, took me aside before the opening of the series and he said, "Whenever the Bruins pass the puck in front of the net, take it for granted that it will wind up on Phil Esposito's stick and it is already on its way to the goal. Don't bother studying the puck inch by inch; assume it is going to Espo and assume he is going to shoot. Be ready for him, anticipate him, move into him and you'll be ahead of the game."
Q. Phil's still running around telling people you put some kind of black magic on him, because you made so many miraculous stops.
A. Well, Rogey's advice helped, and our defense played very well. And anyway, Esposito got three goals on me in seven games. Anybody but him would think that's a pretty good average. But then he is such a great player, it must have been a letdown for him.
Q. What was your approach to the rest of the Bruins?
A. Well, I didn't have any particular approach till after the first game. We lost 3-1, at the Boston Garden, but we could just as easily have won. It came to me in the dressing room: Jeez Murphy, we lost, but we could have won! And I said to myself, "This is encouraging, this is exciting! We played well. It could have gone either way. We can win this thing."
Q. I think you were seriously disoriented. I don't understand where you got the courage even to go out on the ice against the Bruins. They were the highest-scoring team in hockey history, and everybody figured the Stanley Cup playoffs were just a formality.
A. I know it, but everybody was wrong. The Boston team isn't all strong. I mean, they're a good team, but so are the Canadiens, so are the Black Hawks, so are some of the others. Boston is a good team plus one great player, Phil Esposito, and one unbelievable player, Bobby Orr.
Q. How did you handle Orr?
A. Well, nobody handles Orr in the ordinary sense. You don't try to nullify Orr, because you just can't. All you can do is cut down his effectiveness to some slight degree. We talked about forechecking him in his own end, but he is too good to be manhandled that way. If you put two men on him in his own end and really forecheck the heck out of him, he is gonna wind up beating those two guys and getting away from you. We just decided to relax on him up to our blue line, just token forecheck him, and then put the heavy pressure on him in our own end, favor his side and stay all over him. Strangely enough, Orr seemed to get into a shooting pattern for the first three or four games, although I didn't really notice it until it was almost over.
Q. A shooting pattern?
A. Yeah. After three or four games, I looked back and realized that every shot that he took was low on the glove side, in the corner. It was uncanny. I'd almost be willing to bet that every shot he took in the first four games was low, about six inches off the ice, in the corner and on the glove side. In the fifth game he broke out of the pattern, and then he became more effective.
Q. What was the turning point of that Boston series?
A. Well, all the sportswriters seem to think it was the third period of the second game. We were behind 5-1 in the second period, and we scored five goals in the last period to win the game and even the series. But in my opinion the turning point came in the dressing room right after the first game. That was when we all seemed to realize that the Boston Bruins were just another hockey team. We talked it over and we agreed that except for Orr their team wasn't a bloody bit better than our team—that was the real turning point.
Q. How were your nerves during the Boston series?
A. They were fine until the last game. Of course, I was dreaming at night; I was making about a thousand saves a night. But I've always done that. Once at Cornell I lurched in my sleep and my roommate said, "Hey, Ken, nice save." It wasn't until the Boston series was tied at three games each that I got hit with a bad attack of nerves.
Q. Where were you?
A. We all were in our motel at Boston the night before the final game. I was watching television, calm as could be, when what do they put on but a show called Bruin Hi-Lites. This was only the second time in my life I'd ever seen myself on television, and it shattered a lot of illusions. I look like a big stiff.
Q. No, you don't.
A. Well, I do to myself. What a sobering experience! I'd always thought of myself dipping and darting across the goal mouth with all the grace of a wood nymph, while violins played in the background and everybody in the stands went "ooh" and "ahh" at my performance. I thought of myself as Nureyev on ice. But on TV I realized that I was a dump truck. I was an elephant on wheels.
Q. And of course since the show was called Bruin Hi-Lites all you saw was a bunch of Boston players bearing down on you.
A. Right! And scoring! Watching that show, you would have thought I never made a save in the whole series. It really demoralized me. Butterflies started swirling around in my stomach, and my legs felt like they wouldn't even carry me to the restaurant.
Q. What'd you do?
A. There was a little lake near the motel, and I went out there and thought pleasant thoughts.
Q. Ann-Margret doing the Dance of the Seven Veils?
A. No, nothing like that. I said to myself, "Look, you're only nervous because you're afraid, and what are you afraid of? Losing, and looking bad, right? Well, why should you lose and look bad? You've played six games against the Bruins now, and you haven't been looking bad. Things have been going well. Why should they change now? You've shown you can do the job. All you have left is one bloody game, and if you stay nervous you're gonna blow the bloody game."
Q. That solved your nervousness problem?
A. Nope. It didn't solve a thing. What solved my problem was the face-off at the beginning of the game. For some reason, all my nervousness ended when the game began. So my worrying had been for nothing.
Q. It usually is. You won the final game 4-2.
A. The Canadiens won the game 4-2.
Q. And then you went up and beat the Minnesota North Stars in the second series, which was kind of predictable, and then you beat the Chicago Black Hawks, which was much less predictable?
A. The Black Hawks were trouble. They are a different team from Boston, and they present entirely different problems. Against the Bruins you don't worry if you let in a goal or two, because the Bruins are very offensive-minded. You know that in any game involving them there are gonna be a lot of goals for both teams. The best proof of that is the game where we got down 5-1 and won.
Q. You'd never do that against the Black Hawks.
A. Right. The Hawks have a few fine players—the Hulls, Mikita, maybe one or two others—but essentially they are a balanced team at both ends. They don't present those waves of attackers like the Bruins, so that pressure is relieved, but in its place there is a steady kind of pressure that comes from knowing you don't dare give them a goal. A single goal becomes far more important. If you give them one, you're at a big disadvantage. If you give them two, you have a good chance of losing, and if you give them three, you're in really bad shape.
Q. Which makes it all the more amazing that you won the seventh game on Chicago ice after getting behind. When Danny O'Shea scored on you in the second period to make it 2-0 Chicago, I said to myself, "Bye-bye, Canadiens." Were you thinking similar thoughts?
A. Well, I wasn't saying "Bye-bye," but I was really discouraged.
Q. How did you manage to shut them out for the rest of the game?
A. Our whole team just pulled up its socks. I paid special attention to the Hulls, but then you always have to do that. They had been responsible for Chicago's first goal: Bobby took a hard slap shot and Dennis knocked in the rebound. So I just kept telling myself to keep my eyes on the Hulls and Mikita. The Hulls can score on you from the red line in. And Mikita is so quick he moves like a greased snake. I gave those three a little bit of extra attention and it all worked out fine.
Q. You made 31 saves, you won the Conn Smythe Trophy for most valuable player, and you won a brand-new car.
A. But we won something far more important. When we got back to Montreal, there were 7,000 people at Dorval Airport. It was really touching to see the way they swarmed over us. My phone didn't stop ringing for weeks.
Q. It didn't help that you had a listed telephone number.
A. No, it didn't. We'd get long-distance calls from people who got our number from information. There was a 10-year-old boy, I remember his name was Edward Breuer, who kept calling up and asking the most intelligent questions. After a while the phone just got to be too much for Linda and me to handle. We began answering and telling people that the Drydens were not at home. One day Edward called and without thinking I said, "Ken Dryden's gone for the summer." Later he told my wife, "I phoned a few minutes ago and your husband said he was gone for the summer."
Q. I've always wondered what it would be like to be idolized by a whole town.
A. Well, it's nice, but not all that nice. You appreciate it, because the people mean well, but after a while you become aware of certain phony aspects.
Q. What do you mean?
A. Well, for example, a guy'll come up to you and say, "You're the greatest!" And you realize, first of all, he's just plain incorrect, and secondly you know that he doesn't mean you're the greatest, anyway. It's just that you happen to be there at the time, and he thinks you're pretty good, and he wants to make an impression on you, so he upgrades the whole thing and says, "You're the greatest," even though he doesn't really mean it. Pretty soon you're overwhelmed with the silliness of things like that, and you just want to get away. The worst part of it is these people mean well. They like you, they admire you and they have your best interests at heart, but after a while it makes you tired of yourself and your sport. I went through about two weeks of hero worship in Canada, and it was almost enough to make me want to quit hockey.
Q. Then you went to Washington to work for Ralph Nader over the summer, and I'll bet things were different.
A. After a few weeks in Washington I began to regain my old love for hockey, and I began to miss Montreal. I used to call Montreal information just to hear the operator answer the phone in French and English.
Q. What did you do for Nader, and what did you learn?
A. I worked on a program to organize sport and commercial fishermen into a national arm to combat water pollution. What I learned was that there is a tremendous inertia in the people, and there are many many serious problems involving government and bureaucracy. I'm writing an article on the subject right now.
Q. Yes, I suppose that your writing keeps you from being bored when you're not studying law or playing hockey. A fellow has to fill in his free time.
Q. Do you think that you might go into some sort of public service after you get your law degree?
A. I hope so, but I also hope I can stay involved in public service in the meantime. Of course, I don't intend to quit hockey for a long time. At least until hockey quits me.
Q. Does goaltending offer enough of an intellectual challenge to you? I mean, a guy who's worked for Ralph Nader might get a little bored trying to stop Bobby Orr's slap shot.
A. It's anything but boring. It's a constant challenge. Even when you have stopped Bobby Orr in one situation, the game's patterns are constantly changing. You never meet exactly the same challenge twice, and so everything is always new and interesting. Boredom is never a problem when you are tending goal.
Q. I think you'd have to be bananas to become a goaltender. It's too dangerous, for one thing. You must be a masochist at heart.
A. But you don't realize the danger until it's too late, until you're already a goal-tender for life. Goalies start playing goal when they are little kids. None of the other kids has a shot hard enough to hurt them, and the job is kind of enjoyable and relaxing. It isn't till you get a bit older that the puck begins to come in harder and it begins to hurt, but by that time you're a goaltender and it is too late to change. Deep down, though, I guess you play goal because you enjoy the challenges.
Q. Yeah, but the puck travels at 120 miles an hour in the NHL, and I would think you'd begin to wonder about your health and safety out there.
A. Well, once in a while I stop to think about it, and I say to myself, "Jeez Murphy, this job hurts. Why am I out here? It's not fun anymore. Why go through the whole bloody thing?" But then comes the reward: a stopped shot, an impossible save, a shutout, a Stanley Cup, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoy my work.
Q. And you enjoy the money that comes with it?
A. Sure, money is nice, but nobody plays just for the money. You would have to be crazy. After you've satisfied your pride by getting the salary you think you deserve, then you tend to forget about money. The real motivating factor becomes the challenge of the job. A lot of athletes put on a superficial hardness about playing only for money, but if they were really honest with themselves, they'd find it is personal pride that motivates them, not the dollar.
Q. Your pride makes you challenge other men to prove that you are better?
A. Something like that. It is like Sandy Koufax throwing his fastball to a great fastball hitter. There are psychological implications to challenging somebody and defeating him.
Q. Aren't you ever afraid out there?
A. No, but I would be if it weren't for the mask.
Q. Somebody told me a long time ago that it wasn't fear that made goalies wear masks, it was something more subtle and complex.
A It's something very simple. It's fright.
Q. Nothing more?
A. Nothing more. That puck can flatten your face. Sometimes I get hit in the mask and it hurts even then. Dennis Hull shot a puck at me this year from about 25 feet out and it hit me in the chest. Oh, shoot, did it hurt! Then it bounced up and caught me on the chin and cut me for three stitches. That's how much momentum it had.
Q. Would you play without a mask?
A. I doubt it, and I think most of the goal-tenders in the league feel the same. When Bernie Parent lost his mask at New York, he refused to play the game, and I would have done exactly the same thing. It is a sensible fear. Nobody in the league plays without a mask except Joe Daley and Gump Worsley, and they will be the last two, I'm sure.
Q. How would you describe your own style of goaltending?
A. Stand-up, I hope. When I get into trouble, it's usually when I'm off my feet. When you're six four and over 200 it takes a bit to get you back on your feet once you go down. I'm a little like a derailed train when I'm on the ice.
Q. Throwing modesty to the winds, what is your big strength?
A. Most people say my glove hand, but I have to guard against overusing it. I used to catch pucks right off the ice, but now I'm trying to block them with other tools of the trade. I used to do a lot of backhanding of the puck, but in the NHL you've got to watch that. You find that the puck is traveling too fast for you to get your hand around into the backhand position. I've learned that my best weapon—my glove hand—has to be used more intelligently in the NHL, and I have to develop the other aspects of goaltending: skates, pads, stick and the body.
Q. I suspect that you must be a good baseball player. What position do you play?
Q. Bobby Orr's old position?
Q. How good were you?
A. I let a few go through my legs.
Q. Do you have any particular weaknesses in the nets?
A. Any number of them.
Q. Such as....
A. I'm not giving away my own weaknesses. They'll be discovered soon enough. A sportswriter was interviewing me the other day, and he asked me this question very shyly and hesitatingly, as though he was half afraid to bring it up. He said, "The word around Montreal during the June hockey meetings was that you're weak on the low stick side. What do you have to say about that?" I laughed. I said, "Well, maybe so." I hope all the opposing players shoot on my low stick side this season. That would make my job easy.
Q. Now that you've finished your summer with Ralph Nader, how do you feel about going back to hockey and McGill Law School?
A. I can't wait. Some people have suggested that I'm sort of using hockey, that it doesn't mean much to me, and as soon as I get my law degree I'll quit and do something else. That's not true. I love playing hockey.
Q. What is there to love about it?
A. The simplest answer I can give you is this: what I love about hockey is hockey. The whole game. The esthetics. The rhythms and the patterns; it's a beautiful thing. I enjoy playing for the Canadiens, but I also enjoyed playing in the minors and back home on the street-corner rinks. The only thing I can't imagine is not playing at all.
Q. I guess if you didn't like the game you'd have quit after Cornell?
A. Sure. And a lot of people would have said, "Too bad about Dryden. If he'd only gone on, he might have been great." I had to find out for myself; I had to play. And I haven't found out yet, not by a long shot. One Stanley Cup doesn't make a career.
Q. But what's left for you now? You've been to the mountain, what more can you do? You did it all in less than two months; you did things that other players don't do in a career.
A. Sure, but I never did it over a season. You see, the playoffs were easy for me because nothing was expected. The Canadiens had hopes for me, but not great expectations. If I'd have failed, people would have said, "What'd they expect, bringing him up at the end of the season and throwing him to the lions like that?" I had nothing to lose. If I'd made a complete idiot of myself, everybody would have blamed the front office. So no matter what I did, I had the people with me.
Q. Won't the people still be with you this year?
A. Not automatically. This year will be much more difficult. Technically I'll still be a rookie, but everybody will be looking to see if I'm really any good. Much more will be expected of me than of the average rookie. So it'll be exactly the opposite of the Stanley Cup playoffs. I'll be a little like Vida Blue. Nobody expected anything from him in the first half of the baseball season, so he relaxed and won 17 games. But after the All-Star Game everybody's eyes were on him and he began to find it a little tougher. It took him another month to get up to 20 wins.
Q. Does it ever enter your mind that you might be a flash in the pan, that you might be another one of those rookie goalies who come up and stun everybody with their clever style and then spend the rest of their lives in the Maritime Provinces?
A. Sure, it enters my mind. The hazard exists. I could be a flash in the pan, no doubt about it. I've proved myself over six regular games and 20 playoff games, but I haven't proved myself over 30 or 40 games, or a whole season of 78 games, or more than a whole season. You have to take all the knocks and bruises and bad spells and the whole scene, over and over again, and I haven't done that yet in the NHL. That's why the pressure will be on me this season—to see if I con do it.
Q. And if you fade under the pressure?
A. Well, Jeez Murphy, then obviously I never had the talent to begin with, and I should quit and stick to law. But until it's proven to me that I can't do the job, I'll figure I'm right where I belong—in the NHL.
Q. Now seriously, Ken, do you think there is the slightest possibility that your fine play last year and all that poise and skill you showed—do you think there is any chance that it was all an accident, that you are up in the big leagues and you don't belong there?
A. Well, we'll find out pretty soon, won't we?