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Deadline recall started Dryden's road to glory

Went from 'goalie insurance' for Montreal to six-time Stanley Cup champ

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist/Historian

MONTREAL -- The news, if you can call it that, was reported in three paragraphs of the March 8, 1971 edition of the Montreal Gazette, on the fourth page of the sports section, tucked beneath a collegiate hockey playoff roundup and beside the Old Country soccer standings. It was buried well behind coverage of the title fight that night between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, the first of three times they would fight.

"Habs bring Dryden up," the brief was headlined, reporting the import of the goaltender from the Montreal Canadiens' American Hockey League team, the Montreal Voyageurs.

Written without a byline by Pat Curran, the Gazette's veteran hockey writer, the item was datelined Detroit, where the Canadiens defeated the Red Wings 4-1 the night before.

"Sunday was the deadline for trades and recalls from the minors and Canadiens reacted by calling up Ken Dryden from the Voyageurs," it began.

"The McGill law student joins Canadiens as goalie insurance for the rest of the season and the playoffs."

(Some insurance.)

"The move raises the question on the status of Phil Myre, who hasn't played since Feb. 6 when he was beaten four times in a 6-3 loss at Los Angeles," the story concluded.

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

That Dryden was in the Canadiens system remains to this day a stake through the hearts of Boston Bruins fans, the future Hall of Fame member having been Bruins property for a short time seven years earlier.

Worse still, perhaps: Dryden had been a Bruins fan as a youth.

The 1964 NHL amateur draft was held at Montreal's Queen Elizabeth Hotel on June 11. Twenty-four players not already on "sponsorship lists" would be drafted over four rounds by the six NHL clubs. Dryden, age 16, playing Junior B goal for Toronto-suburban Etobicoke, was among those available.

The Bruins chose forward Alex Campbell with their first-round pick (No. 2) and selected Dryden in the third round (No. 14). Among the Canadiens' picks were defenseman Guy Allen in the second round (No. 12) and forward Paul Reid in the third (No. 18).

Boston had the Canadiens draft Allen on their behalf, then traded Dryden and Campbell to Montreal for Allen and Reid.

"It was a very private draft, not like the universal draft of today," Dryden said in 2003 when we discussed his Bruins roots. "It was only a couple weeks later that our (minor) teams would inform us we had been drafted. I always thought I had been drafted by Montreal."

Dryden skipped Canadian major-junior hockey, the usual route for Canadian players to reach the NHL, to play four years at Cornell University and one season with Canada's national team. 

In fact, at Cornell, Dryden wasn't even certain he'd continue playing hockey, having been accepted at Harvard Law School.

Dryden went so far as to investigate housing at Harvard, and inquired about playing for the Framingham Pics of the Massachusetts Senior League.

"But do I regret not playing in Boston?" he asked playfully. "No, I'm happy the way things turned out."

Dryden's road to NHL glory began on this day in 1971 with the call-up to the Canadiens, having played the entire season with the Voyageurs, going 16-7-8 with a 2.65 goals-against average in the minors.

Canadiens coach Al MacNeil wasn't quite sure what to do with his goaltending that deep into the season. Rogie Vachon was his No. 1 and Phil Myre was getting a healthy bit of action as the backup.

So up came Dryden as insurance, as the story went. The Canadiens were 34-18-12 and headed toward a record of 42-23-13, good for a third-place regular-season finish in the East Division.

Following Dryden's call-up, Vachon played two games, a win at home against the Vancouver Canucks and a loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs on the road.

With Vachon having played 15 straight games, MacNeil decided to give his workhouse a break and have Dryden make his debut away from the Montreal Forum. The lanky goalie made his first start on March 14 against the Pittsburgh Penguins at The Igloo.

Wearing his unique pretzel mask, Dryden turned aside 35 of 36 shots that night, beaten only by Penguins rookie John Stewart's first career goal late in the second period of a 5-1 Canadiens victory.

"They had very few real good shots," Dryden said after the game. "Sure, I made a couple of reasonably difficult saves but I was warmed up to them after easier ones on the same shift.

"Sometimes you feel it in your stomach, other times in the legs," Dryden said of his maiden-game nerves. "Tonight it was in the legs, but certainly not as much as before those games in training camp."

His McGill law studies now resigned to hobby status, he said, Dryden turned his sights on the remaining 10 games of the Canadiens season.

He would play half of them, winning them all, busiest on March 21 at Madison Square Garden with a 47-save effort in a 6-2 victory. In six games, his save percentage was a stunning .956.

Famously, in his third NHL game, Dryden would face his brother, Dave -- in net for the Buffalo Sabres -- at the Forum.

It wasn't planned, at least not by MacNeil. Sabres coach Punch Imlach saw the history to be made, brothers never having played at opposite ends of an NHL rink, so he started Dave Dryden, hoping MacNeil would start Ken.

But MacNeil stuck with Vachon, prompting Imlach to yank Dave two minutes into the game and replace him with Joe Daley.

The Canadiens were ahead 2-0 in the second period when Vachon took a shot roughly between the thighs and the belt and was unable to continue. In came Ken Dryden, and Imlach immediately made his switch to Dave.

"I thought starting the brothers right off the bat would be a helluva deal for the crowd," the Sabres coach said later. "But MacNeil didn't want to give the fans a run for their money until he had to."

With their father, Murray, watching his sons at both ends of the ice, Dave was beaten on an 85-foot shot by Jacques Lemaire.

"Not very good," Ken said, describing how he felt when he saw his own team go ahead 3-0 on that shot.

But Dave settled down, making 17 saves while allowing two more the rest of the way. The Sabres rallied to make it 3-2 midway in the third before the Canadiens scored twice for their 5-2 win, Ken making 13 saves on 15 shots.

The brothers shook hands at center ice as they left the rink. History had been made, though Ken Dryden has forever said he'd have been happier had the siblings left their head-to-head duels on their backyard boyhood rink.

Everyone expected MacNeil to go with Vachon to start the 1971 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Canadiens drawing the Bruins in the first round. But he played a hunch and went with Dryden, who would face an average of 41 shots per game in Montreal's seven-game victory.

Bruins center Phil Esposito, among the many Boston snipers stymied in that series, resorted to calling Dryden an octopus, a backhanded compliment to the goalie's long, puck-stopping limbs. He also said Dryden had arms like a giraffe, displaying his full admiration of the goaltender, if a sorry misunderstanding of a giraffe's anatomy.

Dryden led the Canadiens to a six-game semifinal series win against the Minnesota North Stars, facing an average of 33 shots per game. Then, in one of the NHL's greatest Stanley Cup Finals, he carried Montreal to a seven-game victory against the Chicago Blackhawks for the Canadiens' 17th Stanley Cup championship.

Of the thousands of saves Dryden would make in his career, none was finer than the Game 7 stop he made on Chicago's Jim Pappin. The Canadiens were up 3-2 and the Blackhawks were coming at him in waves.

"Chicago had the puck behind our net and passed it in front," Dryden said when we talked at length about this save. "For some reason, (Chicago defenseman) Keith Magnuson was in the slot, which seems odd to me in that he was not an offensive player at all. Why he found himself there, I'm not sure. His shot went right at me, along the ice, and it hit my stick and deflected out to my right.

"Literally between the moment he took the shot and the moment I stopped it, I knew I'd have to make the save and already be moving to stop the rebound. Usually they're separate and discreet, but this was one movement, where the first part of the save was blocking Magnuson's shot and the second part was throwing out my right leg for what I knew had to come next.

"The puck deflected out to Jim Pappin, but I was already in the process of moving to stop his shot before he had taken it. He shot it into my leg.

"What I remember, vividly," Dryden said, "was the strangled sound, first of 'Yaaaayy…' and seeing his arms start to go up in the air -- and then his arms and voice stop.

"It seems to me there was some moment (later) that Jim and I were together, with someone else, and he made a passing comment like, 'I've had to talk about that shot and that save all my life.' And then he laughed."

Dryden won the Conn Smythe Trophy that season, voted the most valuable player of the playoffs. In three series, he faced 711 shots, stopping 647 of them for a .910 save percentage, an almost pedestrian statistic which means nothing next to the 12 victories that brought his team the Stanley Cup.

From that understated late-season call-up in 1971 until he retired in the spring of 1979, toward election to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983, Dryden was a huge part of six Stanley Cup titles for the Canadiens. Along with the Conn Smythe, he won the Calder Trophy in 1971-72 as the NHL's best rookie, and the Vezina Trophy five times as the League's finest goalie, earning first-team All-Star honors in those five seasons.

The Bruins might still be wondering "what if?" about the 1964 draft when they remember Dryden's 1971 playoff heroics and how he stood before them like a brick wall for most of that decade.

As for Boston's Guy Allen and Paul Reid, whom the Canadiens sent to the Bruins in that lopsided trade? Neither ever got called up to the NHL.

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