Dryden leaves complex legacy with Leafs

Updated: May 19, 2004, 8:07 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

It was sometime during the 2001 playoff series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils, the end of Game 5 in New Jersey if memory serves.

Ken Dryden
Ken Dryden's tenure in the Leafs' front office is difficult to define.
In the press box, Ken Dryden, then the Maple Leafs president, let out a sharp cry of celebration at the end of the game, a Leaf victory. Then, seeing a Devil take a cheap shot at one of his players, Dryden called out, "shame, shame on you."

Shame?

Earlier this week, the Hall of Fame netminder stood at center ice at the Air Canada Centre and announced he was leaving hockey to run for federal politics in what is expected to be a summer election in Canada.

He leaves the Maple Leafs after seven seasons, his input and influence having dwindled from the significant to the virtually inconsequential.

And yet, as with all things that enter Dryden's orbit, there is nothing simple about his legacy with the Leafs, just as there was nothing simple about his Hall of Fame career with the Montreal Canadiens. One imagines a similarly complex future as a politician.

And as he exits one arena for another, one can't help but feel the game has lost a rare personality.

"It was a feeling inside me it was time to go," Dryden told reporters and well-wishers who gathered for the announcement.

In the end, pushed unhappily into his final title of vice chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the umbrella company that owns the Maple Leafs, NBA Raptors and the Air Canada Centre, Dryden seemed a cardboard cutout, the familiar face of an organization and indeed of a sport, but with little real connection to the team, in many ways isolated from the foundering team he'd helped right seven years ago.

There are those who would argue it has always been so since Dryden's surprising arrival from academia and book-writing in May 1997.

But that is both unfair and untrue.

It was Dryden who helped sign Curtis Joseph, the first major free agent of the team's rebuilding phase that has seen them make the playoffs for six straight years. He is also the man who hired Pat Quinn to coach the Maple Leafs after firing incumbent Mike Murphy. That Dryden waited for most of the summer of 1998 to do so speaks not to Dryden's indecisiveness or cruelty but to his ponderous thought process. He knew he needed a new coach -- so, too did Murphy -- but rash is not part of the Dryden vocabulary.

He helped bring the Leafs back to the Eastern Conference, and their renewed rivalry with the Canadiens, Philadelphia and Ottawa has been dynamic.

The Leafs' stunning new building, apart from the fact the best seats remain empty for great portions of most home games while corporate suits wolf down overpriced chow in suites below the stands, has been a success and has played host to an All-Star Game and a draft.

There is more than a passing nod to the team's rich history in the building itself and the former players who are once again part of its fabric. On the night former captain Darryl Sittler's number was honored, a celebration that had been delayed while Sittler's wife was losing a long battle with cancer, it was Dryden who penned the touching tribute read aloud as Sittler's No. 27 fluttered into the rafters with those of the other team's legends.

There is more than a little Greek tragedy (or comedy, depending on your sense of humor) in the boardroom shenanigans that followed Quinn's hiring. There were the shifting loyalties that saw Mike Smith and then Anders Hedberg both aspire to the general manager's post before Quinn assumed both duties in July 1999. At least twice Dryden tried, without success, to hire his old Montreal teammate and friend Bob Gainey to take over as general manager. Had he been successful, there is no telling what Dryden's future and that of the team might have been.

Although the team prospered, twice reaching the conference final and winning at least one playoff round in five of the past six years, Dryden's sphere of influence gradually was reduced, a phenomenon caused in large part by the man he'd chosen, wisely as it turns out, to turn the franchise around.

But lest anyone think that this is merely an illustration of the sometimes dirty, often cutthroat nature of hockey politics, Dryden's tenure in the upper halls of Maple Leaf Gardens and then the Air Canada Centre represents so much more.

From the time he arrived in Montreal as an unheralded rookie late in the 1970-71 season and guided the Canadiens to a storybook championship, on through the five more Stanley Cups he won in Montreal, four in a row on a team that is as good as any that ever played the game, and on through his best-selling books, there has always been something undeniably different about Dryden.

When it was revealed shortly after Dryden took over that venerable Maple Leaf Gardens had been the site of a series of sexual assaults on young boys during the Harold Ballard era, Dryden became the conscience of an organization that was prepared to ignore the entire issue. While ownership hid behind legalese and denial, Dryden stepped forward. When one of the victims committed suicide by jumping off the Bloor Street Viaduct in downtown Toronto, Dryden called the family and asked to attend the funeral. He helped set up conferences and clinics that shone a light on the issue of abuse instead of tucking it away in a dark corner.

"That was the worst moment," Dryden, 56, told reporters as he reflected briefly on his time with the Leafs. "It was the worst because of what had happened. It was the worst because I had no idea what to do and I knew that I had to do something."

Teammates and co-workers and the media often made fun of Dryden's distinctive, measured way of speaking and his immense vocabulary, which always seemed more than a little out of place in a locker room or arena. But it merely reflected a mind that saw the game and its place in Canada, indeed the world, in a different way.

People talk about thinking outside the box, well, Dryden talked outside the box as well.

During that same New Jersey series, after Tie Domi was suspended for elbowing Scott Niedermayer in the waning moments of Game 4, it was Dryden not Quinn who spoke on Domi's behalf during an emotional press conference in New Jersey. Dryden was eloquent, as usual. He also spoke for about half an hour, prompting another torrent of jokes in the press box that night, not to mention a run on tape recorder batteries.

But if a writer wanted someone to try to put the game into some sort of context, whether it was the Leafs and the meaning of the Original Six or fighting or goaltending, Dryden was both accommodating and erudite.

A year ago, a reporter asked Dryden about playoff goaltending and he had this to say:

"The goaltender is the guy that can give the rest of the team wings," he said.

It was always so talking about the game with Dryden.

And so it was earlier this spring, against the backdrop of the Todd Bertuzzi attack on Steve Moore, that Dryden spoke passionately, eloquently on the plight facing the game, how it is in danger of becoming an "extreme sport" and that those who love the game have to take a long, hard look at making changes to ensure its survival.

The fact that the Leafs had in their employ among the most physical, some would say dirtiest, players in the NHL, did not dissuade him from his stance, although in many ways it reflected his alienation from the team itself.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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