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100 Greatest Players

Ken Dryden: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Canadiens goalie won Stanley Cup six times, Vezina Trophy five times, captured Conn Smythe Trophy year before being named top rookie

by Wayne Coffey / Special to

As the 1971 Stanley Cup Playoffs approached, no team in hockey was more feared than the Boston Bruins. They had the greatest player in the sport, Bobby Orr. They had the most prolific offensive force in the game, Phil Esposito, who had just scored 76 goals in the regular season. The defending Stanley Cup champions had rung up numbers as if they were playing pinball, averaging 5.1 goals per game and counting four players with more than 100 points, led by Esposito (152) and Orr (139).

Paired against the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round, the Bruins seemed to have little cause for concern, having won five of the six meetings during the season, including two blowout victories -- by a combined score of 13-5 -- soon before the playoffs. When Al MacNeil, the Canadiens coach, announced that he was going with a 23-year-old kid out of Cornell University, Ken Dryden, as his goaltender, more than a few observers figured the Bruins would pummel Dryden, a veteran of six NHL games.


Video: Ken Dryden won Conn Smythe before he won Calder


All MacNeil's bold decision did was launch the remarkable career of a man whose wide-ranging impact on Canadian life has endured for decades, going far beyond his gift for stopping pucks.

The Bruins scored a 3-1 triumph at home in Game 1, and when they went up 5-1 in Game 2, the rout sure seemed to be on. And then the Canadiens pumped in six unanswered goals and took the 1-1 series back to Montreal, where the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Dryden didn't just stand tall; he morphed into a fortress in pads.

Esposito beat him in the opening minute of Game 3, and then Dryden clamped down on the Boston attack. He stopped a wicked drive by the Bruins' Wayne Cashman. He turned away an Orr blast from 25 feet that seemed a certain goal. At one point in the series, he held the Bruins scoreless for 90 minutes, aided enormously by the counsel of Rogie Vachon, a big-time goaltender who suddenly found himself as Dryden's understudy.


Games: 397 | Wins: 258 | Losses: 57 | Ties: 74 | GAA: 2.24


"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," Vachon told Dryden. "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."

Dryden listened well. Again and again, Dryden stymied the vaunted Bruins, and was extra mindful of the hulking presence of Esposito, never more so than in the third period of a tight Game 7 in Boston. Esposito rocketed a low hard shot to the right corner, a missile that was going to be a vintage Espo goal until Dryden and his 42-inch left arm reached out and snagged it. Esposito slammed his stick against the glass behind the goal in frustration.

"A bleeping giraffe," Esposito called Dryden later.

"Dryden was better than we had ever dreamed," Orr said.

Some saves have as much psychological value as they do numerical value. This was one of them. 

"I looked at the faces of the Bruins," Dryden said "and I could see it all so clearly. They all looked defeated."

The Canadiens would go on to win that Game 7 and upset the Bruins, defeat the Minnesota North Stars in the semifinals and then capture the Stanley Cup in seven games over the Chicago Black Hawks. Dryden was in the net for all 12 Montreal playoff victories that spring, earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and sweet vindication for former Canadiens coach Claude Ruel, who drafted Dryden, younger brother of NHL goaltender Dave Dryden, in 1964.

Video: 1971 Cup Final, Gm 7: Dryden wins Conn Smythe

"They all thought I was crazy," Ruel said. 

From his size to his Ivy League pedigree to his dazzling playoff debut, Ken Dryden was not remotely out of central casting for NHL goaltenders. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 1971-72, and then the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender the season after that. Dryden was no less productive in the offseason, studying to get his law degree, manifesting an intellect as towering as his body. Already a major star at age 26, he took a hard look at his contract -- reportedly worth $80,000 per year -- and decided it wasn't nearly enough for a person who had won the Stanley Cup twice in his first three years in the League.

"It's a matter of pride," Dryden said at the time. "I could name six goaltenders that were higher paid than I was ... That bothers me and I can't see why this should be the case."

Dryden pushed to rework his deal, the Canadiens pushed back, and after a protracted impasse Dryden handed in his No. 29 sweater and retired a few weeks before the 1973-74 season, finishing his legal studies and joining a new team -- the Toronto law firm of Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt.

Occasionally, he got back on the ice, playing defense for Vulcan Industrial Packaging of the Toronto Lakeshore League.

Dryden has called it the hardest decision he ever made, but it all worked out. The Canadiens lost to the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs, and at the outset of the 1974-75 season, Dryden was back, the recipient of a handsome new contract. If you think it was a coincidence that the Canadiens would go on to win four straight Stanley Cup championships between 1976 and 1979 -- a run accompanied by four straight Vezina trophies for No. 29 -- you weren't paying attention. 

Apart from his long wing span, Dryden was as cerebral and technically gifted as any goaltender in the game, qualities he showed in abundance in 1976-77, when he recorded a League-high 10 shutouts, had a goals-against average of 2.14 and went 41-6-8. A year later, Dryden's GAA fell to an NHL-leading 2.05, and as he once observed, there was a palpable spillover of his stinginess.

"A goalie's job is to stop pucks ... Well yeah, that's part of it, but you know what else is? You're trying to deliver a message to your team that things are OK back here. This end of the ice is pretty well cared for. You take it now and go. Go! Feel the freedom in order to feel [like] that dynamic, creative, offensive player and go out and score. … That was my job. And it was to try to deliver a feeling."

Dryden retired for good at 31 in 1979, with six Cup titles on his resume, the Hall of Fame in his future (he was inducted in 1983) and a singular standing as perhaps the brightest and most thoughtful professional athlete in his sport, or anyone else's.

Beyond his McGill law degree, Dryden would become an Olympic commentator, documentary filmmaker, college professor and member of Parliament. He wrote or co-wrote two hugely acclaimed hockey best-sellers, "The Game" and "Home Game," works that explore all facets of hockey and its unique hold on Canadian culture, and later wrote a novel, "The Moved and The Shaken." The Etobicoke, Ontario, product served as Youth Commissioner in his native province and in 1997 took over as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, presiding over a striking turnabout in which the Leafs went from one of the worst teams in the League to a conference finalist in four years.

He spoke with typical erudition about the task of shedding the franchise of its losing culture in an interview with Sports Illustrated. 

"Every game you lose is 30 years plus one," Dryden said. "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."

Whatever he has taken on his life -- as a goaltender or a club president, as a writer or a thinker or a Parliamentarian -- Ken Dryden has done it with keen insight and his own style. There's a famous bronze statue of Dryden in his trademark goaltending pose, standing straight up, with his arms propped on his stick, and his helmeted head propped on his arms. He looks at once relaxed and pensive, as if he were savoring a moment to take everything in. It is what Ken Dryden has spent a lifetime doing.


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