Everywhere Ken Dryden has gone, success has embraced him like a lover returned from war. Three-time All-America goalie at Cornell. Six-time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens. Five-time first-team NHL All-Star. McGill law school graduate. Member of hockey's Hall of Fame. Author of four books—artfully written, meticulously researched, two of them Canadian best-sellers. Three-time Olympic commentator. Documentary filmmaker. Former Ontario youth commissioner. Educator-in-residence at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Education. Married 27 years to Lynda, his college sweetheart. Children: Sarah, Harvard '97; Michael, Harvard '01. Friends call it the Dryden magic. Everything he touches turns to gold.
But to have seen him on Nov. 19, his bespectacled 6'4" frame perched high above the ice at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, watching in tortured angst as the Leafs—his Leafs—tried to protect a 3-1 lead over the potent Philadelphia Flyers, you would have thought the Dryden magic had finally encountered a spell it could not break. A spell woven by 30 years of failure, the length of time since Toronto's first love and greatest disappointment won its last NHL championship.
"Oh, brother," Dryden mutters miserably as a Maple Leafs defenseman turns over the puck. His face turns increasingly deepening shades of crimson as Toronto becomes tentative while the clock slowly ticks down. Named president of the Leafs last May, Dryden, 50, knows that if this victory slips away it will be a setback not easily forgotten by his young team or its fans. "Every game you lose is 30 years plus one," he says. "That's the mire of it. Dealing in an environment of a history of failure. The biggest challenge is breaking the back of that history. You don't do that with one good year. You need two or three or four years in a row. There's such an atmosphere of hope here and expectation, which is wonderful. But hope turns on its ear very quickly. And frustrated hope is destructive."
A man of towering, restless intellect, Dryden speaks in analogies, cross-referencing among his multiple careers. He describes the goaltender and the writer as natural outgrowths of each other, two figures immersed in the action but also distinctly apart. He characterizes hockey as Canada's national theater, an exaggeration of the real world, with subplots involving money, power and intrigue played out before millions of people. Dryden is the anti-sound bite: He relishes the complexity of a subject and using his extraordinary powers of language to explore its subtleties and implications. Toronto broadcasters joke that you can ask Dryden one question, go play nine holes of golf and return in time to hear him wrap up his point. Dryden doesn't do shortcuts, which may be one of the reasons he does so many things so well.
His fatalistic misery in the closing minutes of that Flyers-Leafs game is palpable. Another Toronto turnover, and his baritone voice, full of foreboding and anguish, sighs, "Oh, my god." He's used to having creative control but has discovered that once the puck is dropped, an NHL executive has no more control over the outcome of the game than any other spectator. As the Leafs hang on for the victory, just their third in 11 games on home ice this season, a tight, strained smile creases Dryden's lips. "This is agonizing," he says. "Absolute torture."
Yet he loves it. Loves it enough that on Nov. 4 he couldn't resist flipping on the radio for the 10:30 p.m. start of a Toronto road game against the San Jose Sharks. He thought he would listen to the first period before going to sleep, but three hours and two baths later, he was still tuned in to the conclusion of a 0-0 tie. "It's a very stimulating and varied job," he says. "The interesting discovery for me is that it's a lot like what you do with your own kids. Try to make them better. Try to help them out. That's the puzzle, the challenge, the wonderful part. It's a whole lot better than I imagined it would be."
When Dryden accepted the challenge of taking over the Leafs, who finished 23rd in the 26-team NHL last season, he insisted that he would be only a part-time president. Since retiring from the Canadiens in 1979, at age 31, Dryden has explored horizons beyond hockey. He followed the NHL from afar, and his two bestsellers on hockey, The Game and Home Game, classics of the genre, delved into the sport's hold on Canadian culture. But Dryden's third book, The Moved and the Shaken, a novel, portrays the life of an ordinary Canadian workingman. His most recent work, In School, scrutinizes the dynamics of a classroom, attempting to explain why some kids learn while others don't, a subject Dryden probed after spending a year attending classes at a secondary school in Mississauga, Ont. He still gives lectures on teaching methods at the University of Toronto. "Ken sort of operates on five-year plans," says Art Kaminsky, Dryden's agent and a friend since they attended Cornell together. "Every five years he launches a new career."
Two members of the Leafs' board of directors, Brian Bellmore and Larry Tanenbaum, are longtime friends of Dryden's. They often called Dryden, who has made Toronto his home for the last 16 years, to discuss the team. Several times they informally inquired about his getting involved, and Dryden always turned them down. When Toronto president and general manager Cliff Fletcher was fired last May, that possibility arose again, and this time Dryden accepted, signing a three-year deal.
He planned to hire a hockey man to be the general manager, which would enable Dryden to stick to his plan of being a part-timer. He would oversee everything from the nature of Toronto's television coverage to the construction of a new Maple Leaf Gardens. Meanwhile he could continue to teach and, when the spirit moved him, to lecture and write.
"The timing was right," Dryden says about getting back into hockey. "Michael was going off to college. Plus, Toronto's in an arena-building phase, and to have an opportunity to influence something that will be a legacy for the next 30 years mattered. The Leafs are one of the reference points in this community, and that mattered too. Toronto's big enough and rich enough to compete at the top of the league if we do things right, and if I was going to get involved, I wanted to have a chance. Toronto is this great, unrealized franchise. For 30 years things have not gone well here, and that shouldn't be."