Everywhere Ken Dryden has gone, success has embraced him like a
lover returned from war. Three-time All-America goalie at
Cornell. Six-time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal
Canadiens. Five-time first-team NHL All-Star. McGill law school
graduate. Member of hockey's Hall of Fame. Author of four
books--artfully written, meticulously researched, two of them
Canadian best-sellers. Three-time Olympic commentator.
Documentary filmmaker. Former Ontario youth commissioner.
Educator-in-residence at the University of Toronto's Faculty of
Education. Married 27 years to Lynda, his college sweetheart.
Children: Sarah, Harvard '97; Michael, Harvard '01. Friends call
it the Dryden magic. Everything he touches turns to gold.
But to have seen him on Nov. 19, his bespectacled 6'4" frame
perched high above the ice at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens,
watching in tortured angst as the Leafs--his Leafs--tried to
protect a 3-1 lead over the potent Philadelphia Flyers, you
would have thought the Dryden magic had finally encountered a
spell it could not break. A spell woven by 30 years of failure,
the length of time since Toronto's first love and greatest
disappointment won its last NHL championship.
"Oh, brother," Dryden mutters miserably as a Maple Leafs
defenseman turns over the puck. His face turns increasingly
deepening shades of crimson as Toronto becomes tentative while
the clock slowly ticks down. Named president of the Leafs last
May, Dryden, 50, knows that if this victory slips away it will
be a setback not easily forgotten by his young team or its fans.
"Every game you lose is 30 years plus one," he says. "That's the
mire of it. Dealing in an environment of a history of failure.
The biggest challenge is breaking the back of that history. You
don't do that with one good year. You need two or three or four
years in a row. There's such an atmosphere of hope here and
expectation, which is wonderful. But hope turns on its ear very
quickly. And frustrated hope is destructive."
A man of towering, restless intellect, Dryden speaks in
analogies, cross-referencing among his multiple careers. He
describes the goaltender and the writer as natural outgrowths of
each other, two figures immersed in the action but also
distinctly apart. He characterizes hockey as Canada's national
theater, an exaggeration of the real world, with subplots
involving money, power and intrigue played out before millions
of people. Dryden is the anti-sound bite: He relishes the
complexity of a subject and using his extraordinary powers of
language to explore its subtleties and implications. Toronto
broadcasters joke that you can ask Dryden one question, go play
nine holes of golf and return in time to hear him wrap up his
point. Dryden doesn't do shortcuts, which may be one of the
reasons he does so many things so well.
December 8, 1997
His fatalistic misery in the closing minutes of that
Flyers-Leafs game is palpable. Another Toronto turnover, and his
baritone voice, full of foreboding and anguish, sighs, "Oh, my
god." He's used to having creative control but has discovered
that once the puck is dropped, an NHL executive has no more
control over the outcome of the game than any other spectator.
As the Leafs hang on for the victory, just their third in 11
games on home ice this season, a tight, strained smile creases
Dryden's lips. "This is agonizing," he says. "Absolute torture."
Yet he loves it. Loves it enough that on Nov. 4 he couldn't
resist flipping on the radio for the 10:30 p.m. start of a
Toronto road game against the San Jose Sharks. He thought he
would listen to the first period before going to sleep, but
three hours and two baths later, he was still tuned in to the
conclusion of a 0-0 tie. "It's a very stimulating and varied
job," he says. "The interesting discovery for me is that it's a
lot like what you do with your own kids. Try to make them
better. Try to help them out. That's the puzzle, the challenge,
the wonderful part. It's a whole lot better than I imagined it
When Dryden accepted the challenge of taking over the Leafs, who
finished 23rd in the 26-team NHL last season, he insisted that
he would be only a part-time president. Since retiring from the
Canadiens in 1979, at age 31, Dryden has explored horizons
beyond hockey. He followed the NHL from afar, and his two
best-sellers on hockey, The Game and Home Game, classics of the
genre, delved into the sport's hold on Canadian culture. But
Dryden's third book, The Moved and the Shaken, a novel, portrays
the life of an ordinary Canadian workingman. His most recent
work, In School, scrutinizes the dynamics of a classroom,
attempting to explain why some kids learn while others don't, a
subject Dryden probed after spending a year attending classes at
a secondary school in Mississauga, Ont. He still gives lectures
on teaching methods at the University of Toronto. "Ken sort of
operates on five-year plans," says Art Kaminsky, Dryden's agent
and a friend since they attended Cornell together. "Every five
years he launches a new career."
Two members of the Leafs' board of directors, Brian Bellmore and
Larry Tanenbaum, are longtime friends of Dryden's. They often
called Dryden, who has made Toronto his home for the last 16
years, to discuss the team. Several times they informally
inquired about his getting involved, and Dryden always turned
them down. When Toronto president and general manager Cliff
Fletcher was fired last May, that possibility arose again, and
this time Dryden accepted, signing a three-year deal.
He planned to hire a hockey man to be the general manager, which
would enable Dryden to stick to his plan of being a part-timer.
He would oversee everything from the nature of Toronto's
television coverage to the construction of a new Maple Leaf
Gardens. Meanwhile he could continue to teach and, when the
spirit moved him, to lecture and write.
"The timing was right," Dryden says about getting back into
hockey. "Michael was going off to college. Plus, Toronto's in an
arena-building phase, and to have an opportunity to influence
something that will be a legacy for the next 30 years mattered.
The Leafs are one of the reference points in this community, and
that mattered too. Toronto's big enough and rich enough to
compete at the top of the league if we do things right, and if I
was going to get involved, I wanted to have a chance. Toronto is
this great, unrealized franchise. For 30 years things have not
gone well here, and that shouldn't be."
Dryden tried to hire his old friend and teammate Bob Gainey,
general manager of the Dallas Stars, to be the Leafs' general
manager, but Gainey decided to stay where he was. Dryden then
interviewed David Poile, Mike Keenan and John Muckler, all of
whom had previous general-managing experience, but none of them
panned out. So in mid-August, after he had taken a battering in
the Toronto press for his failure to make a hire, Dryden said
goodbye to his fantasy of being a part-time president and named
himself general manager.
Dryden's vision of what a franchise should be is taken from his
years with Montreal, the most successful franchise in pro
sports, with 24 league championships. "The essence of what made
the Canadiens great still holds true," Dryden says. "You need
strength in your organization through and through. In the
scouting. In the farm system. In the coaching. In the front
office. So the players don't feel they're being compromised."
Can Dryden succeed in returning the Leafs to their former glory?
Even those who know him best wonder if he can make the
transition from insightful, dispassionate observer to
bottom-line pro executive, capable of firing a coach or trading
a friend. "I have a lot of respect for Ken," says Edmonton
Oilers president and general manager Glen Sather, who played
briefly with Dryden in Montreal, "but it's a different racket
he's in now. The primary goal [at general managers' meetings] is
screwing the guy next to you while not letting it hurt the game.
Sometimes you have to be a street fighter to do that, and Ken
has to learn some of that. I don't know if Ken has that
Dryden's meandering, if eloquent, speeches at the meetings have
also elicited some rolling of eyeballs. During one particularly
rococo soliloquy, one general manager muttered loud enough for
Dryden to hear, "Do we have to listen to this s---?"
"Ken has a way of circumventing what he wants to say," says
Sather. "He gets his point across, but not right away. Maybe
"Will he be accepted by all [general managers]?" asks Doug
Risebrough, the Oilers' vice president of hockey operations and
former general manager of the Calgary Flames. "No. But will he
be blocked out? No way. Remember, he's in a powerful position.
They're going to be forced to listen to him."
"I saw in the last few G.M. meetings how much respect there is
for him," says Rejean Houle, the general manager of the
Canadiens and a longtime teammate of Dryden's. "If his way of
talking is a problem, he's smart enough to adjust."
He'll need those smarts if he's to turn around the Leafs, who in
1992-93 and 1993-94 enjoyed a brief resurgence, advancing to the
Stanley Cup semifinals. A series of bad trades for veteran
players, coupled with an already aging roster, brought Toronto
to its current state of misery. At week's end the Leafs were at
the bottom of the Central Division (8-13-3) and last in the
league in scoring, averaging a pitiful 1.96 goals per game.
Toronto lacks a star, and the farm system--the rebuilding of
which Dryden calls his first priority--is threadbare. The Leafs
didn't have a draft choice until the third round last summer and
haven't had a first-round pick since 1995. "The problem when you
miss the playoffs is not only do your players miss that
important development time, but also the teams that make the
playoffs get better," says Dryden. "Our goal in the short run is
to make the playoffs."
To help in that regard Dryden signed a pair of workmanlike
unrestricted free agents during the summer, forwards Derek King
and Kris King, both over 30. But their impact has been minimal.
In fact, the two Kings (they're not related) have combined for
two goals. Dryden also signed talented restricted free-agent
defenseman Mattias Ohlund to a five-year, $10 million offer
sheet, but the Vancouver Canucks matched it. Dryden is reluctant
to go after star restricted free agents such as Anaheim Mighty
Ducks right wing Paul Kariya and Detroit Red Wings center Sergei
Fedorov because, even in the unlikely event that their teams did
not match, either player would cost Toronto five first-round
draft picks as compensation.
"In this league five or six teams are at the top," says Dryden.
"The other 20 teams aren't a heckuva lot different from one
another. The addition of one special guy might push our team
toward the top of the pack, maybe as high as the top nine. But
how do you get from ninth to first? First-round draft choices.
We need to improve a little bit in a lot of areas and add
another special player or two."
That takes time, though free agency has made it possible for
teams to acquire one of those special players. "We may be at a
point where a new formula can get you to the top and keep you
there," Dryden says. "I don't know that Detroit had one of those
special singular players who generate Stanley Cups. Every team
can't have a Gretzky or Lemieux. So you need to find another way
to win. There are always going to be different ways of winning."
If Dryden knows anything, it's winning. The challenge of
unlocking that new formula is what he finds so stimulating,
though whether he'll have the patience to ride out the
inevitable bumps in the road remains a question. "The key is
Year 3," says one friend. "If in three years the Leafs are not
Stanley Cup contenders, I'll be surprised if he stays around."
Dryden dismisses any such talk. "My time frame is to make it,"
he says. "If we're competing for the Stanley Cup in three years,
that's only step one. This team has had a couple of teases
before, when it got close and then fell back. They're cruel, and
in the end they make things harder." He smiles. "It will be a
struggle, but an interesting struggle."
When magic is required, it usually is.