He twice made educational commitments because he was not sure if a sporting career would last. Yet once Cornell legend Ken Dryden tried the NHL, he dominated and worked his way into the Hall of Fame.
When it came time for Ken Dryden to decide whether to go to college or try for the NHL, he partly chose college because he didn't think he was good enough for the NHL. "Montreal wanted me to go to Junior 'A' Peterborough," explains Dryden, "but I didn't think I was good enough." But also "neither parent had gone to university, and the goal was for the kids to go." At the time "they could imagine no greater achievement."
Fielding scholarship offers from the University of Minnesota and Michigan Tech — where he was offered a basketball scholarship as an inducement to play behind future Hall of Famer Tony Esposito and Rick Best — Dryden soon focused on Cornell and Princeton. Friends from minor league hockey — John Ritchie and Rick Peterman from Princeton, and Mike Doran from Cornell — recruited him for their respective schools, and he says he "liked both schools a lot," but the choice was ultimately Cornell because it "has a hockey ambition."
At Cornell he "started taking things seriously as a player and as a student. It made me start to have greater ambitions." Curiously, these ambitions still didn't run to the NHL even after Dryden's sophomore year, when he was named All-American and Cornell won the NCAA championship.
"The [Cornell Daily] Sun has an April fools issue," remembers Dryden, "and there's this big headline, something like 'Big Kid Signs with Habs,' about how I signed with the Canadiens. I was surprised this was credible on the Cornell campus." He had another surprise awaiting him. "People were calling my parents, who had no idea of the joke. They were upset I would make such a big decision without telling them."
Academically Dryden found Cornell "really easy. It's a 24-hour life. Night is day, play is work. I had no conflicts with classes. We'd practice, eat, and by 8 pm be in the library. I discovered what a library is like. It became the pivot of everything else." This life also led him to his future wife, Lynda. "My freshman roommate's sister was Lynda's freshman roommate," he recalls. "We had a blind date the summer after sophomore year."
The possibility of playing in the NHL became more real senior year. "I started reading in the newspapers quotes from scouts, and I knew that [Montreal head coach] Toe Blake went to games." His record was also a pretty good indicator. His three-year record as goaltender was a phenomenal 76-4-1, as he was named first-team All-America all three years and team MVP in 1967 and 1969.
Even so "I didn't think I was good enough to play for the Canadiens," says Dryden, so he instead went to play for the Canadian National Team and study law at the University of Manitoba. It was only when the team folded after Canada withdrew from international play that Dryden decided to try the Canadiens — and even then, he wanted the to keep the law as a fallback career.
"I would see if I could play for the Voyageurs [the Canadiens top minor league team] and finish law school," he explains. "[Montreal general manager] Sam Pollack allowed me to try. No other GM would have."
Pollack would not regret his decision. By Christmas Dryden would be starting for the Voyageurs, and he would play in the NHL by the end of the season. Becoming the Canadiens starting goaltender in the playoffs he helped lead them to a Stanley Cup title, winning the Conn Smythe trophy — awarded to the playoff MVP — in the process.
This would be the momentous start to a spectacular career. Over the next eight seasons Dryden would help the Canadiens to five more Stanley Cups, winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1972, as well as five Vezina Trophies (awarded to the NHL's best goaltender). A five-time NHL first-team All-Star, he would retire in 1979 with a .758 winning percentage — the best in NHL goaltending history. He would be elected to the NHL Hall of Fame in 1983.
In the process Dryden was gaining experience for a future political career. "There was a terrific byproduct of being an athlete," he explains. "You'll get invited to go everywhere. I'd be in a town with a mine, and I'd go into the mine. How many people have a chance to go into a mine? I went to an airbase in Germany, and got to fly in an F-18."
There was another byproduct of being an athlete, one he's found to be "unbelievably good preparation for anything, especially politics. In sports — as well as music, dance, theater — you're almost always getting things wrong. People with only an academic background never got anything wrong. Sports lets you develop the ability to deal with getting it wrong, which happens in life."
In retirement Dryden's been applying these lessons. He's written four books, including "The Game," a memoir named by Sports Illustrated as the best sports book ever written by a former athlete, and listed by the University of Toronto Press as one of the top 100 Canadian books of the 20th century. He's also been a sportscaster, and was on hand for the famous "Miracle on Ice" U.S. victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics.
He returned to hockey as Toronto Maple Leafs President in 1997, and had the chance to observe another another Cornell NHL great — Joe Nieuwendyk. "I got to see him play toward the end of his career. Even then, he was an amazingly good skater," says Dryden. "If you didn't know anything about hockey you'd pick put his skating stride."
In 2004 Dryden took on a new career — politics. Elected to Parliament from York Center, he became Minister of Social Development in the minority Liberal government and soon talk began of him becoming prime minister. "Dryden is already being talked about as a possible candidate for prime minister, although he has been in elected politics for only about 15 months.," noted USA Today in 2005.
That hasn't happened yet — the Liberal government was ousted shortly
thereafter — but Dryden was re-elected and his stint as minister just whetted his appetite. "Being in government's more fun," he says. "I really enjoy it, more than I thought I would. It's a full-to-bursting day, an incredible variety of things to experience, to deal with. Incredibly testing." He points out that "chances are there will be another election in the next year," and while he wouldn't say what his plans are, one has got to assume his aspirations embrace more than
just a parliamentary seat.
Through it all he hasn't forgotten his college roots. "It was a fantastic experience. It's one of those choices you get right for perhaps not the right reasons."
— Stephen Eschenbach