Ken Dryden discusses hockey's meaning to Canada
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: In 2010, you wrote the book “Becoming Canada” and examine both Canadian stereotypes and the country’s place in the world. In your opinion, what are traditional Canadian stereotypes, and what is Canada’s place in the world?
Dryden: A lot of the book is about how that traditional understanding of Canada as a small, fairly inconsequential, northern country of people who are relatively nice and polite, and compromising and inoffensive and fairly innocuous in terms of the world scene, how that this isn’t Canada in 2014, when Canada is larger and more prominent in all different kinds of fields.
NBCOlympics.com: With the Olympics coming up, the Canadian men’s hockey team is favored to win gold medals, and throughout the country’s history, the way it’s played hockey has never been ‘compromising’ or ‘innocuous’. In your opinion, is hockey’s place in the country a paradox to the country’s traditional global identity? And, if so, why does this sport take on such a deeper importance in Canadians’ understanding of themselves?
Dryden: Hockey is a game that we started, and that we had a several decade head start on the rest of the world.
Hockey started in the 1870s, and until post World War II, it was a game—except at the NHL level—that was played outdoors. If it’s outdoors, you need a northern climate. And that gave Canada not only the initial advantage, but the ongoing advantage.
So, it’s a game we’ve ‘always’ been the best at. We’ve kind of been the teachers to the rest of the world. So, there’s that kind of proprietary feel that one has.
NBCOlympics.com: If ‘being the best’ at hockey is such a point of pride for Canadians, does the Olympic competition take on added importance since NHL players—since 1998—are now included in the competition? After all, since the country’s ‘top’ players never used to be allowed in the Olympics, it doesn’t seem like the results without the ‘best’ players competing would be as consequential to the national psyche pre-1998 as they are now.
Dryden: Yes, very much. The Olympics are a defining competition now.
Before, when there was a division between professionals and amateurs, in all international sports in summer and winter Games, in a sport like hockey where you had the best players all playing professional hockey—at least the best players in North America were—then the Olympics were kind of this ‘odd’ competition of the best in the rest of the world, and the best available under the circumstances from North America.
Now, the Olympics are a ‘limited’ defining competition because it’s only over two-and-a-half weeks.
But at the same time, it does have the best against the best. So, whoever wins, that ‘does’ say something.
NBCOlympics.com: If being the best at hockey is Canada’s national identity, you’d think that the country would win every Olympic and international competition. It wins ‘the most’, but still does get beaten sometimes, when 30 and 40 years ago, the ‘best’ Canadians never really lost. Is this a sign that Canadian dominance is slipping? And, if so, what would the impact be on the nation's sense of itself if it suddenly wasn’t the best at hockey anymore?
Dryden: The problem over time is if the game is attractive enough—and you hope it is—and others take it on, then others may take it on in ways that may be different. In the end, they start to catch up.
The question is if it’s like England (in soccer) where the world catches up and then leaves England behind? Or does Canada adapt and take the advantage we have and apply those new learnings and create an even different way of playing that can still be the best?
The impact (if Canada cannot maintain its hockey dominance) would be much less now than would have once been the case.
The stories the next day, the next week and the next month would be a tremendous gnashing of teeth. But I think that the impact on most people over time will be much less now than it would have been the case 10 years ago, 20 years ago or 40 years ago, in part because Canada’s a very different place now.
Now, there are lots of dimensions to Canada.
NBCOlympics.com: The 2010 Olympics might be the best example of one change in the Canadian mindset. In the Vancouver Olympics, Sidney Crosby scores the gold medal-winning goal. It was one of the top two goals in Team Canada history. But despite helping the country maintain its sense of hockey dominance and pride, Crosby is still someone who gets booed in a lot of Canadian NHL rinks. On the other hand, Canada’s other biggest goal—Paul Henderson’s goal to defeat the Soviet Union in the closing moments of the 1972 Summit Series—is so glorified now. Henderson is an undisputed national hero who you’d never picture getting booed. How do the opposite manners in which Crosby and Henderson are viewed reflect a change in how Canadians view their hockey heroes?
Dryden: Sidney Crosby is a dominant player in a way Paul Henderson wasn’t, except for that 1972 series.
So, if Sidney Crosby is coming in wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins uniform, if you’re a fan of the home team in Calgary or San Jose, you boo Sidney Crosby.
Sidney Crosby is going to be a focal point in any game he is a part of, where with Paul Henderson, you wouldn’t have noticed him as much as a fan of an opposing team.
So, I think they have different circumstances.
NBCOlympics.com: So, what is the legacy of Crosby’s gold medal-winning goal in 2010?
Dryden: It’s the first-hand experience of anyone who is Canadian and was born after the year 2000.
You’re 10 years old, you’re taking that in in a different way than someone born in the year 2000 and hearing about a goal 28 years before and hearing that from your father or grandfather.
The Crosby goal is one that will certainly be long and fondly remembered by Canadians.
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