There is an old hockey adage that goes something like this: "A team is only as good as its goalie."
Ken Dryden ranks among the greatest goaltenders not only in Montreal Canadiens history, but in hockey history. Dryden follows in the Habs footsteps of Georges Vezina, George Hainsworth, Bill Durnan, Jacques Plante, Gump Worsley and followed by Patrick Roy as great goalies to wear the "CH"
But try to imagine this - Ken Dryden wearing a Boston Bruins uniform.
Unthinkable right? Well what many people don't know is that Boston actually drafted the 6'4" 225lb "octopus" of a goalie in 1964, 14th overall. Days later he was traded to Montreal with Alex Campbell for Guy Allen and Paul Reid. The trade wasn't even an after thought at the time. The other three never appeared in the NHL, and no one really expected Dryden to, either.
Ken Dryden was far from the stereotypical NHL goalie. The average goalie is always edgy and a little nervous, and you really can not blame them for that. But Dryden was as cool and confident as could be. He never played junior hockey. Instead he went to Cornell University in 1965. It was very uncommon for a US college player to make it to the NHL at that time.
Ken loved hockey as a kid, but since he was one of the youngest kids in his neighborhood, the only way he could play in the pick-up games was to be a goaltender. That was fine by Ken, as he wanted to emulate his big brother Dave. Dave, 6 years older, often played goal too, and like Ken would enjoy a lengthy professional career as a puck stopper.
Ken Dryden made a spectacular and unsuspecting NHL debut. He spent the entire 1970-71 season in the American Hockey League, but received a late season call up in what was expected to be a chance to give a young goalie some apprenticeship behind established starter Rogie Vachon. It was standard with the Habs back then to serve a lengthy apprenticeship. It was part of their tradition. It was a big part of their success.
Dryden watched the first game from the press box, and then played in 6 games, only allowing 9 goals. People still expected Vachon to start the playoffs, but to everyone's surprise, the Canadiens started the rookie at such a critical point. The first round series against Boston is now considered a classic. Dryden made spectacular save after spectacular save against the likes of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk. The Habs upset the defending champs 4 games to 3. Propelled by this feat, they went on to win the Stanley Cup themselves. It is hard to believe that any of this could have happened with Dryden, a veteran of only 6 games. He had a GAA of 3.00 in 20 games, and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
The rest, as they say, is history. The following year he was named top rookie after posting a 2.24 GAA in 64 games. Dryden is the only player in NHL history to be named MVP of the playoffs before proving to be the best rookie. Dryden was named five times to NHL All-Star teams, and won or shared the Vezina Trophy five times. He played every game in helping Montreal win six Stanley Cups, four of them in succession. He finished his career prematurely with an all time record of 258 wins, 57 losses and 74 ties in 397 games. He won 86% of the games he participated in, easily the best mark in hockey history. Four times he led the league in wins, including a career high 41 in 1976-77. He had a career goals against average of just 2.24 per game, and led the league in GAA in 4 seasons. He had 46 career shutouts, leading the league 4 times in that category. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983.
Following his spectacular debut, Ken was asked to play in the 1972 Summit Series against the powerful Russians. It was one of his most memorable moments and a true career highlight, even though at times it proved to be a huge nightmare as well. Attimes Ken was at times outplayed by backup Tony Esposito and Soviet counterpart Vladislav Tretiak, and seemed to have trouble with the quick passing, criss-crossing Russian offense. Canada almost fell flat on their faces, but Dryden was the victorious goalie in the deciding 8th game.
Dryden was far from your one-dimensional jock-type. He had always expressed a desire to practice law and was willing to sacrifice hockey to do it. In 1973, with the sky as the limit for the young goalie, the toast of the hockey world announced his retirement at the age of 26 to work with a Toronto law firm. Dryden had been unhappy with contract talks with Montreal and shocked the hockey world with his announcement.
That season the Canadiens struggled with three different goalies, and quickly gave in to Dryden's contract demands, and he would return the following season. Dryden played 5 more years, leading the Canadiens to 4 straight Stanley Cups.
Of all the Stanley Cup victories, Ken chooses the 1976 victory as the sweetest moment in his hockey career.
"It was a Stanley Cup of triumph, of revenge, of setting things right, of responsibility self imposed." he wrote in Dick Irvin's great book In The Crease. The Habs defeated the two time defending champion Philadelphia Flyers to regain the Cup. The Flyers of course were known as the Broad Street Bullies and supposedly represented all that was bad in hockey - the violence and trapping defensive schemes. Many feared that the Bullies success was giving hockey a bad perception, and many cheered for Montreal in this battle of good guys vs. bad guys. The Habs - supposedly representing all that is good in the game - were victorious in a convincing 4 game sweep. With their artistry on ice, and Dryden in net, it was the first of 4 consecutive Cups for the "good guys."
Still considered at the top of his game, Dryden again retired, this time for good, after the 1979 season. Ken couldn't have picked a better time as it marked the end of the Habs dynasty. The Habs wouldn't win another Cup until 1986 when a young Patrick Roy put on a Ken-Dryden-like show.
More than any of his dazzling moves, big saves or stolen games, it was his "thinker's pose" that most people vividly remember about Ken Dryden. When the puck was cleared from his zone or when the play was whistled dead, Dryden would coolly dig the tip of his blade into the ice and fold his arms across the top. He simply relaxed until the puck came back down to his end.
When he retired it was expected that Ken would put his passion for law to good use. However Ken initially packed up his family and moved to England and wrote perhaps the greatest book in hockey history - The Game. The best selling author also penned Face-Off At The Summit, Home Game, which was also turned into a television mini-series, and the non-hockey book In School: Our Kids, Our Teachers and Our Classrooms over his writing career.
He returned to Canada in 1982 and served as the Ontario Youth Commissioner, his first hint of interest in the world of politics.
But political ambitions would have to wait. In 1997 Ken returned to the National Hockey League to be named as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs - the arch rivals of the Montreal Canadiens. He oversaw the return to glory of the Leafs, although Stanley Cup success remained elusive in Canada's largest city.
Following the turn of the millennium Dryden was twice elected as a member of parliament. During his first term he served as a caucus member of the minority Liberal government where a national day care program was his main focus. In 2005 he was re-elected even though the Liberals lost power. In 2006 Dryden announced he would run for the leadership of the Liberal party. Perhaps this goalie-turned lawyer-turned best selling author-turned executive-turned politician will one day be Prime Minister of Canada.