The erudite goaltender from the powerhouse Canadiens of the 1970s had his No. 29 retired Monday night prior to the club’s 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators in a moving 48-minute ceremony at the Bell Centre. Alternating between French and English as he addressed the sell-out crowd, the 59-year-old thanked the fans and people of Quebec for accepting a young goaltender from Toronto who joined the team in 1971 and went on to greatness.
“How do I thank you?” Dryden asked after receiving a long standing ovation. “Sometimes when you’re lucky you get really lucky.
“I was lucky to be here in Montreal, in Quebec, to play at the Montreal Forum and to be a member of the Montreal Canadiens. You gave me a gift. Thank you.”
Dryden was joined on the ice by his wife, Lynda, his two children and a three-week-old grandchild, while his older brother, Dave, a former Buffalo Sabres goalie, and his first coach, Al McNeil, addressed the crowd.
A banner with Dryden’s name and number was raised from just in front of the Canadiens’ net, brought out by captain Saku Koivu and the two current goalies – Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer. The Canadiens, all wearing jerseys with No. 29, applauded from their bench.
“This is that final piece,” a visibly moved Dryden said later. “Who would ever dream of having their number retired by the Montreal Canadiens? It’s just great.”
Former coach Scotty Bowman, teammate Larry Robinson and former Boston Bruins star Wayne Cashman offered taped testimonials on the scoreboard.
Dryden was introduced at centre ice by his opposite number in the pivotal 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union – Vladislav Tretiak – who received a standing ovation almost as warm.
“I played against Team Canada in 1972 and in 1975 against the Montreal Canadiens – the best hockey I ever saw,” said Tretiak, now president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. “Ken Dryden played unbelievable.
“He was a fantastic goalie and a great man.”
Dryden won six Stanley Cups, two Vezina Trophies, a Conn Smythe Trophy and was a first-team all-star five times in an eight-year career from 1971 to 1979.
In the regular season, he won 258 games, lost only 57 and tied 74 as part of a spectacular Canadiens dynasty that included such legends as Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt and the Big Three on defence – Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe.
A lasting image of that decade was of the six-foot-four Dryden casually leaning on the end of his stick while his gifted teammates terrorized the opposing goaltender for minutes at a time.
But when a key save was needed, Dryden would sprawl his big body across the crease to stop the puck.
“Watching, waiting, not doing much of anything,” Dryden joked to the crowd about his signature stance. “That is pretty much what the 1970s were all about – that and a whole lot of Stanley Cups.”
Dryden is the 12th player and his No. 29 is the 11th number to be retired by the Canadiens. It is the second this season, as Savard’s No. 18 was raised to the rafters Nov. 18.
Others are No. 1 Jacques Plante, No. 2 Doug Harvey, No. 4 Jean Beliveau, No. 5 Bernard (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, No. 7 Howie Morenz, No. 9 Maurice (Rocket) Richard, No. 10 Lafleur, No. 12 for Dickie Moore and Yvan Cournoyer and No. 16 Henri Richard.
The Canadiens, who had not retired a number since Plante’s in 1995, began last season with Geoffrion, Moore and Cournoyer in a round of annual jersey retirements leading up to the club’s 100th anniversary in 2009.
Those still to come likely will include No. 19 for Robinson, No. 23 for GM Bob Gainey and No. 33 for goalie Patrick Roy.
Some question whether Dryden’s eight seasons were enough to merit the honour, but there was always more to him than wins and saves. He is also one of the brightest and most multi-dimensional personalities in NHL history.
A lawyer, former university professor and Ontario civil servant, Olympic hockey TV analyst and a former president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was also the author of four books, including “The Game,” perhaps the best hockey book ever written.
Currently, he is the member of parliament for the Toronto riding of York Centre, where he was elected in 2004 and re-elected in 2006 and served as social development minister. Dryden was an unsuccessful candidate for the Liberal Party leadership.
In the House of Commons on Monday, Liberal leader Stephane Dion called on all members to congratulate Dryden.
“Who could forget the 1972 Summit Series?” Dion said. “He was the calm giant who stopped the formidable Soviet machine.
“And the four-storey goaltender is guarding another net for Canada now – that of our country’s social conscience.”
When he joined the Canadiens organization after attending Cornell University, Dryden made a special arrangement to split time between playing for their top farm team, the Montreal-based Voyageurs, and finishing his law studies at McGill University.
He was called up to the NHL club late in the 1970-’71 season and played well enough in six games, all wins, that management chose him over their excellent starter, Rogatien Vachon, for the playoffs against one of the league’s greatest scoring machines of all time – the Boston Bruins, featuring the likes of stars Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito.
Dryden was a rock in the net, not only ousting the Bruins in seven games, but then beating Minnesota and Chicago to win the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the best player in the post-season.
The next season he played 64 games and won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
Then came the Summit Series of 1972, when Dryden played a key role while sharing goaltending duties with Chicago’s Tony Esposito as Canada defeated the Soviet Union in the defining eight-game series.
Never one to settle for the norm, Dryden took off the entire 1973-’74 season in a contract dispute, opting to do his law articling with a Toronto firm at C$7,500 per year.
But after Montreal was knocked out in the first round of playoffs that season by the Rangers, the club cut a deal and brought Dryden back.
The climax was four straight Stanley Cups from 1976 to 1979. After the last one, he abruptly retired at the age of 31. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983.
Dryden said this week his greatest memories were the Summit Series and the 1976 playoffs, when Montreal ended the two-year Stanley Cup reign of the Philadelphia Flyers, who won games as much with thuggery as skill.
The win was seen at the time as a victory for talent and finesse over intimidation.
“I hated the Flyers and we took it as a mission to beat them that year – and we did, in four straight,” Dryden said. “And we beat (anthem singer) Kate Smith too.”
Dryden accepted the honour even though he opposed the retiring of jerseys while he was president of the Leafs, who prefer to “honour” players with banners rather than take their numbers out of circulation for good.
Two teams, two traditions.
Dryden was drafted 14th overall by Boston in 1964 but traded that same year to Montreal with Alex Campbell for Guy Allen and Paul Reid.