MONTREAL -- It was 14 years ago that Ken Dryden, who turns 70 today, was talking about comic strips. Specifically, about a memorable panel of the brilliantly skewed The Far Side.
"I enjoy (cartoonist) Gary Larson's slightly off-center take on the world, seeing it straight on -- with a little twist," Dryden said, his voice brightening with laughter. "I remember a Far Side strip with one deer talking to another. One has a bull's-eye on his chest and the other is saying, 'Bummer of a birthmark, Hal.' "
We were having a wide-ranging talk on the 20th anniversary of the 1983 release of "The Game," Dryden's landmark book that remains widely viewed as the most thoughtful and insightful book ever written about hockey.
Video: Ken Dryden won Conn Smythe before he won Calder
I go back a long way with Dryden, having written many features about one of the most interesting men I've met in any walk of life. As busy as he's probably ever been, I asked him last week for a chat about his milestone 70th birthday for a little reflection about where he's been, and about his path today. He politely declined.
"It is very nice of you to think about me and to do a story," he replied. "But I really don't want to talk about matters of the past -- they are already there and in the record -- and there's too much interesting in the present to focus on. I hope you understand."
And then we almost instantly slipped into conversation about something other than himself, our attempt to identify a mystery goaltender in a 1970 Montreal Canadiens training-camp photo, a search that's ongoing.
Through his eight-season career with the Canadiens through the 1970s, leading to his 1983 Hockey Hall of Fame induction, Dryden won the Stanley Cup six times, goaltending's prestigious Vézina Trophy five times, and the Conn Smythe and Calder trophies, respectively awarded to the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the NHL's top rookie.
He was still wet behind the ears when he famously led the Canadiens to an upset championship against the Chicago Black Hawks (then two words) in 1971; he won the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe not just before he was awarded the 1971-72 Calder, but before he had lost even a single regular-season NHL game, having gone 6-0 as a late-season call-up from the minors.
"I never saw a goaltender before who, when the play became ultra-confusing in front of him, stretched out across the goal like a lady on a chaise lounge," Toronto Telegram columnist Scott Young wrote of Dryden's 1971 playoff debut. "Low shots plunked into his pads and the high ones he caught. Resting all the time. That is a very engaging habit he has, too, no matter how hot the action has been, of greeting each stoppage of play by folding his arms over the top of his stick and leaning there like a streetcleaner resting on his broom."
Indeed, Dryden was never a conventional goaltender. Not with his lanky, even gangly body type, accentuated even more by his stand-up style of play, and certainly not with how he viewed or analyzed the game, as he often proved in post-game comments offered in sportswriter-baffling paragraphs rather than tidy, clichéd sound bites.
Of the Canadiens' 1976-77 season, during which the team won an NHL-record 60 games, tied 12 and lost just eight, Dryden (41-6-8 that year) has been quoted as saying, "There were an inordinate number of games we won without a reasonable amount of difficulty."
A collector of baseball cards as a schoolboy growing up in Toronto, Dryden recalls having had a Mickey Mantle in his shoebox. But he is more finely tuned to a couple of cards well off the beaten path:
"I had a Virgil Trucks card. He had two no-hitters for the Detroit Tigers, but his name was so interesting for a 7-year-old," he said.
"And there was Sibby Sisti," he added of the 1940s and '50s utility infielder. "I thought that was a fantastic name, too."
Dryden didn't know until we spoke last week that Sisti had a small role as the Pittsburgh Pirates manager in the 1984 Robert Redford baseball movie "The Natural." He replied with some wonderful trivia about a minor-league ballpark in Pittsfield, Mass.
On the swashbuckling, brash Canadiens of the 1970s, Dryden was never one of the boys, so to speak, a studious, bespectacled figure who chose to sit out the 1973-74 season over a contract dispute, earning a relative pittance that year articling for a Toronto law firm. He would return to anchor the Canadiens' run of four consecutive championships from 1976 through his final game in 1979.
That last game was the only Stanley Cup Dryden won on Montreal Forum ice. He had the game's precious last puck in his glove at the final siren, though soon it would be in the hands of linesman Matt Pavelich.
"Matt and I will see each other once a year and we still talk about 'our puck,' " he joked in 2003. "We have a survivor's understanding. If Matt survives me, he gets the puck, if I survive him, I get it."
Before we had ever met, our paths sort of crossed in 1978 in a movie theater -- I didn't know it was Dryden until the house lights came up -- with his annoyed scolding for laughter that he thought was too loud. We were a group of four among a handful attending a weekday matinée of the frat comedy "Animal House" and perhaps Dryden, a law graduate of Montreal's McGill University, wasn't as amused as we were about John Belushi's character, Bluto, bemoaning his "seven years of (Faber) college down the drain."
The next joke Dryden tells, a former teammate says with a chuckle, will be his first.
Which isn't true at all, for no one is better at poking fun at Dryden than he is himself, usually with parched wit. Famously careful with his wallet, I once asked him how he spent his first dollar as a professional hockey player. He paused, then replied evenly: "There are a few ungenerous people … who would say that this question is yet to have an answer."
At the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles, I took a Staples Center elevator from the suites down to ice-level with Dryden and Stinger, the mascot of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Before I had them pose for a photo, Dryden playfully congratulated Stinger for the Blue Jackets' fine season while telling him -- it? -- that for years he has been great friends with Carlton the Bear, the Toronto Maple Leafs mascot. Of course, Stinger said nothing in reply.
Dryden's Hall of Fame career merely set the table for his full, rewarding life after hockey. Post-retirement, he has been a three-time Olympic hockey analyst, author or co-author of a half-dozen books, newspaper and magazine columnist, elected member of Canada's Parliament, the Youth Commissioner for his native province of Ontario and president of the Maple Leafs.
He has also been a professor at McGill University and a television producer, most recently having co-created and co-produced the six-part CBC TV series "We Are Canada," showcasing young, innovative Canadians to help celebrate the nation's 150th birthday in 2017.
Dryden will mark his 70th birthday on Tuesday in typical low-key fashion, saying only that he will be "somewhere in Tennessee driving around" with his wife, Lynda.
Chances are good there will be no rear-view mirror in his car, every moment of his life today spent looking ahead, not back.