What a treat it was last Saturday night to come across Ken Dryden being interviewed on MSG’s post-game show. He’s well into his 60s these days, still boyish and bookish even decades removed from that magical spring of 1971. That’s when the Cornell graduate suddenly appeared in the Montreal Canadiens net, just in time to lead them to an improbable upset of the Boston Bruins on their way to the Stanley Cup. Dryden won the Conn Smythe Trophy in the process and launched a Hall of Fame career that was as brilliant as it was abbreviated: six Stanley Cups in just seven years--during which he took a year off to prepare for the bar exam--before walking away from it all, after his final championship in 1979.
Always thoughtful and cerebral in his playing days, Dryden was a terrific post-game interview and, it turned out, an even better writer. In 1983 he produced a book called The Game, which gave readers a fascinating insiders look at that final championship season of 1978-79 as well as the demands and challenges he faced on and off the ice. Sports Illustrated ranks the book, which really reads as a soulful memoir, as one of its Top 10 of all time. Dryden is making the rounds these days to not only celebrate the 30th anniversary of the book, but also mark the publishing of the commemorative edition of what is truly a hockey classic.
He weighed in on a variety of topics during his appearance, most impressively regarding today’s game, which Dryden suggests is played so much faster now than ever before because of the lengths of each shift.
“It was two minutes in the 1950s,” Dryden said on Saturday night. “And so the game had to be played coasting, bursting if you had a chance or a problem, coasting, watching, circling, coasting, bursting. That’s the only way you could play a two minute shift.”
By the time Dryden came into the league in the early 70s, the concept of going full-out on a shift--no more coasting or circling--was in vogue and the typical shift was around a minute.
“Now it’s 35 to 40 seconds,” he continued, “and it’s full sprint, the second you go on the ice, the second you go off. And no excuses for anything else. And it just means more players chasing the puck, chasing at higher speed, chasing with greater force. When there are collisions, the force of it is that much greater than it was in the past. And the frequency is that much greater because the players are that much closer together because they’re playing at a sprint.”
The result of it all, bigger and stronger bodies hurtling into each other at never before seen high rates of speed, is what Dryden referred to on Saturday night as the “cringe factor.”
“All of us have different levels of cringing,” he explained, “and in every game there will be a couple of plays where somebody just takes a run at somebody and they are so vulnerable and they’re three feet from the boards and it is there but for the grace of God you have a broken neck or you don’t. Almost every time you don’t but it’s who knows kind of thing.”
So what’s the solution to the problem? Dryden suggested it’s not as daunting as some might think.
“If I was trying to figure out how to play football in a way that’s just as exciting to play and watch but in a much safer way, I’m not sure what I’d do,” Dryden said. “In hockey I think the answers are absolutely there. It’s only the really few stupid plays and if we really identified where really most of those concussions happen and find strategies to deal with those, then I think most of the concussions would end up disappearing. I think there are absolute answers for it and that’s the next step--going from the doctors and researchers side of things to the coaches and players side of it to develop those strategies. Those are things that are absolutely possible to take out of the game.”
They ran out of time before Dryden could explain how. Which is where the league office needs to step in, please. Give this guy a call. Listen to what he has to say. Who knows? Maybe a blue ribbon panel of some sort comes out of it all that can complement and even enlighten the efforts of chief disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan. No matter what, Saturday night’s appearance on MSG reminded me that Ken Dryden has been too silent for way too long.
The man who wrote so eloquently about the game also has a lot to say about it. And all of us should be listening.