Ken Dryden discusses the rapid growth of U.S. hockey
Within the culture of hockey, retired Hockey Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden has always been a transcendent figure.
Dryden first became one of the most prominent figures in the sport when he broke into the NHL in 1971 and led the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup as the team’s playoff MVP. He continued to build his legend by leading the Canadian national team to a watershed victory over the Soviet Union at the 1972 Summit Series, before going on to win five more Stanley Cups in a career that last just over seven seasons.
But as much as he earned recognition for his on-ice abilities, his intellect and interest in things outside of hockey also attracted attention. This attention became more substantial when he once sat out an NHL season during the prime of his career to finish his law degree at McGill, and when he abruptly retired at age 31 in 1979 to pursue other interests.
Dryden pursued a wide variety of activities following his playing career. First, he became an accomplished lawyer in the 1980s. He also worked as a TV commentator, serving as Al Michaels’ color commentator during the “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Dryden has also enjoyed careers as the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a Liberal politician who served seven years in Canadian parliament and even an accomplished author. He has written about everything from his own hockey career, to education in public schools and Canada’s identity and place in the world in the 21st century.
Photo: Triumph Books
NBCOlympics.com: The book you’ve written that has received the most critical acclaim is “The Game”, which you wrote shortly after your playing career and have produced multiple rewrites of over the last few decades. In one of those rewrites, you discuss the subject of the U.S.' rise as a hockey power, touching on the tremendous increase in top-level American players over the last 10-20 years. Now that you recognize that the U.S. is indeed a top hockey power when it wasn’t always one, the question is ‘how did it get this way?’
Dryden: It’s one of the absolute top, top stories of the last 25 years. Whether it’s the top story—it’s certainly in the top five—is how good the U.S. has become at hockey. That was ‘not’ going to happen 40 years ago.
Hockey had considerable support in certain parts of the country. College hockey was a big deal in some parts of the country, but that was pretty much it. As a spectator sport, it did pretty well in different parts of the U.S., but that was as a spectator sport.
The U.S. Olympic team in 1980 helped and the Wayne Gretzky trade to Los Angeles helped.
But what those things did is that they got ‘that’ many more kids involved in hockey. It was just enough more that it allowed for that many more facilities. And with that many more facilities, it gave the U.S. a chance to develop some very ‘good’ players.
But to really make your breakthrough, you have to feel that you’re actually good, and that it’s not just a matter of being able to develop some players to be marginal players in the top league.
Once you start to develop a few players that are stars, and you demonstrate that you can develop stars—and that’s not just a matter of generating some interest for kids to have something to aspire to—it actually helps a kid and help their parents understand that this isn’t just a game that ‘other’ countries play, but that this is something ‘we’ can play really well.
And once you realize that you can be really good at something, then the ceiling just gets blown away. It’s really quite remarkable to see that development in the U.S.
NBCOlympics.com: Not many people would have predicted this rise in U.S. hockey decades ago. Given that you played at a time when U.S. hockey wasn’t thriving and were in an NHL as a player that was made up almost unanimously of Canadians, can you shed some light into what the perceptions of American players were when you played?
Dryden: That they just weren’t good enough.
For decades, there were either no NHL players from the U.S., or there was one or two.
Just before I was in the NHL, there was a player named Tom Williams. Year after year, he’d be the only American in the NHL. And he was an ‘all right’ player, but he wasn’t a special player.
And that was the state of U.S. hockey, and the understanding that Canadians had of U.S. hockey. For Americans, that was where ‘we are’, and for Canadians, that was where ‘they are’ and will continue to be. And because that’s where they are, their aspirations as players is to play on the Olympic team.
If you are ever, ever good enough (as an American), you play on the Olympic team and that’s pretty much it before you go on and do other things with your life. That career path did not touch on the NHL, and it never was going to.
NBCOlympics.com: Along those lines, there was also a stereotype when you played that college hockey players weren’t good enough to play in the NHL. It has also long been perceived that college is the path American players take, where junior hockey is the path that Canadians take, despite the fact that both Americans and Canadians now play both junior and collegiate hockey. As someone who was a collegiate star yourself at Cornell who had to break through those perceptions of college players, can you share some insight as to what had to happen for those barriers to be broken?
Dryden: Traditionally, the way to the highest professional leagues in the U.S. was through development in the schools.
In order to make it to the NBA, you played high school basketball, which turned into college basketball and then the NBA.
The same with football. The football development route was through the schools.
That isn’t the history in Canada in terms of hockey. With hockey, the development path was through teams that were not school teams.
NHL teams, the way they would look at college players was that they were these guys that didn’t play many games. They played a high school schedule and what is that, 20 games? Our (Canadian) kids of an equivalent age have played twice as many games, so they know how to play and the American kid doesn’t.
The other part, and this was almost the biggest barrier, was the assumption of NHL general managers that was almost universal that said if you have a choice (at a career in something other in hockey), we don’t want him. If they have a choice, they are not going to be so dedicated to us.
And if they don’t have that dedication, why should we be dedicated to them, where at the first sign of difficulties, they’ll quit and take their other option? The Canadian kid who went that non-school route has no choice, and he has that love, commitment and dedication to hockey, so we will be dedicated back to him.
Instead of what is an equally credible scenario is that now, in fact, that the kid who has a choice is really more dedicated because of instead of being stuck where they are, they are ‘choosing’ to be with us.
That took a long time for general managers in the NHL to see it that way.
NBCOlympics.com: If the U.S. is indeed an elite hockey power, perhaps the most remarkable part of it may be that it has gotten this way while only peripherally starting to develop players from nontraditional hockey markets like California, Texas and the American South. However, these places all have immense population bases, and are starting to develop a few players. You’d think that they’d develop more as the years go by. If the U.S. is already a top hockey power without utilizing these population hubs a whole lot, what can be the future of hockey in the U.S. if it can capitalize on these population hubs, as the trends in 2014 seem to indicate that it’ll be able to?
Dryden: There’s no ceiling to that.
When you look at all of the things that generate outstanding players and that generate real success—individual and team success—they are there.
You have rinks. You have the understanding of the importance of off-ice training. You have all of the basic infrastructure of medical and scientific research people. All of that is there in terms of the study of a game and the study of performance. You’ve got increasingly high levels of coaching that’ll only get better.
And above all that, you have an understanding that we do not need to understand ourselves as a hockey backwater or secondary forever to Canada. That we have in us all of the elements that can bring us to the top, and leave us at the top.
It allows you to be one of those countries that year in and year out is always competing for a medal—and a top medal—at any major competition.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Get to know the faces of the U.S. men's hockey team