Nerve Centre: This morning’s edition of The Washington Post’s Express supplement reflects a nervous CapitalNation heading into tonight’s Game against the feisty young Toronto Maple Leafs. Inside columnist Thomas Boswell considered the possibility of the President’s-Trophy-winning Washingtonian making an early playoff exit yet again. “This,” he wrote, “would be the biggest failure in, maybe, NHL history.”
As Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price prepares to play the 500th regular-season game of his NHL career tonight, is it worth recalling Ken Dryden’s debut, on this day in 1971? Of course it is. Dryden, who’d end up playing 397 regular-season games for Montreal along with another 112 in the playoffs, started with a 5-1 win in Pittsburgh. He’d play five more games that year before the regular season ended, and he won them all, including an impressive 2-1 victory in Chicago over the Black Hawks after which Canadiens’ coach Al McNeil said he rated “no lower or higher” in the pecking order than the team’s other two goaltenders, Phil Myre and Rogatien Vachon. But it was Dryden, 23, who played every game once the Canadiens started their playoff campaign two weeks later. By the middle of May, he had a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy to his name. (He’d have to wait another year to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.)
In the Pittsburgh win he made 35 stops. “They had very few real good shots,” he told Pat Curran of The Gazette. “Sure I made a couple of reasonably difficult saves but I was warmed up to them after easier ones on the same shifts.”
Was he nervous before the game? He was.
“Sometimes you feel it in your stomach, other times in your legs. Tonight it was in the legs but certainly not as much as those games in training camp.”
A rookie Pittsburgh winger named John Stewart took the only shot that beat him on the night. “Maybe some goalies don’t think of shutouts but I do,” Dryden said. “Trouble is it’s just when you start patting yourself on the back that you get beaten.”
(Image: Ken Dryden, A-1 Goalie by Aislin, alias Terry Mosher, December 6, 1975;
ink, felt pen, marker, film on paper; © McCord Museum)
Lanky law student was an epithet applied to Ken Dryden in 1971, the year he burst into the NHL by way of the Montreal net, helping the Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup. Phil Esposito was one prolific shooter he stymied that spring and he’s the one generally credited as the first to call the 6’4” Dryden an even-toed ungulate. Stan Fischler told the tale in Boys’ Life in 1972:
Somehow, Dryden managed to blunt Esposito’s best shots with his 42-inch arms or block them with his enormous chest. At one point the enraged Esposito crashed his stick against the protective glass, glared at Dryden and shouted: “You thieving, four-story giraffe!”
Born on this day in 1947, Dryden turns 69 today. That seems like reason enough to excerpt an interview he gave in 1976 to an unnamed writer for Maple Leaf Magazine, Toronto’ game-day program:
Q: Is there anything about hockey that is not so much fun?
A: Practices are not much fun. The least fun of all is being inactive. There is very little satisfaction in being a non-participant; those games I can do without. I watched a couple of games from the press box this year and I couldn’t stand it. Jeez, I felt like an idiot.
Q: Is that a comment about sportswriters, with their hot dogs and beer?
A: What I’m saying is that I felt uncomfortable, partly because I don’t enjoy sitting out hockey games and partly because the press box has got to be the worst place in the world to watch a hockey game. It is so far removed from the action. Very few customers, I think, would pay to sit there. You can’t blame the club owners for sticking the press way up at the top, back out of the way. You wouldn’t want all the press guys taking the expensive seats. But I have never yet seen an exciting game from the press box. You’re so far away that the game is slowed down to nothing. Cournoyer looks like a dump truck idling down the ice.
Q: You seem to be the original Cool Hand Luke, one of hockey’s great unflappables. Don’t you get just a little nervous down there, or are you good at hiding it?
A: Cool Hand Luke. You gotta be kidding me. He ate 50 hard-boiled eggs. Are you trying to say I’m one of hockey’s great egg-eaters? Or do you mean I play hockey with egg on my face?
Q: No, no. I was just trying to find out if you get nervous.
A: I rarely get nervous anymore. Very infrequently. Sometimes a bit nervous during the day of an important game. Most of the time I feel like I’m prepared, ready to play, without the physical elements such as butterflies or throwing up that are a part of being nervous. The most nervous I’ve ever been in my whole life was a few minutes before the end of Game Seven in Moscow in 1972. Paul Henderson had just scored the goal that had put us ahead of the Russians 4-3. I was watching from the stands. I already knew I had the starting assignment for Game Eight. The seconds ticked away. I realized that if we could hold on, Game Eight would be the decider. Were my knees jelly? Were my legs shaking? You bet they were. I had no idea what it was like, even though I’d already played in the Stanley Cup playoffs. From that point on and for the next two days I began to feel worse. My stomach started to churn. My legs got weaker by the hour. It stayed with me right up until game time.
(Maclean’s cover painting by Peter Swan)
There’s lots you could say about Bill Durnan. Maurice Richard volunteered that he was one of the nicest guys in the whole world — “He had a smile for everybody and never said a word against anyone” — not to mention that he was said to be the best softball pitcher in Canada during the time he was minding the nets for Montreal in the latter 1940s. He did that exceptionally well, of course, winning Vézina trophies in each of his first four campaigns, as well as two more subsequently: an amazing six in the seven NHL seasons he endured. He won two Stanley Cups with the Canadiens, in 1944 and 1946. In 1964 he ascended to the Hall of Hockey Fame.
And yet: they used to boo him at the Forum, hound him with jeers. After some games (Richard was one to recall), he’d return to the dressing room crying. “We want Bibeault,” the fans would holler the year of that second Cup, calling for Paul, the Montreal back-up. Another year, Dink Carroll reported, “the fans would deride him … with mock applause when he made a stop.”
All of which is to say, it’s no wonder the man had nerves. Not so shocking either that he sought to calm them with a post-game smoke. From our modern-day perspective, it is surprising, just a little, to find one of the man’s post-game cigarettes preserved in photographs: that’s something you do sometimes see in hockey scrapbooks and archives, but not so much.
La Presse ran the one above in the spring of 1947. It’s not a great reproduction, but if Durnan’s face is obscured, that’s largely due to the cloud of smoke he’s just exhaled. You can just see the cigarette in his right hand. It’s more obvious in the photo below, from the same night, wherein Durnan poses alongside teammates (from the left) Butch Bouchard, Roger Léger, Richard, Billy Reay, and Buddy O’Connor. The caption for the former reads:
The first thing he did upon entering the locker room was to take a cigarette and light it. He removed his pads only after his relaxation was complete.
It was the first game of the 1947 Stanley Cup final and not a particularly stressful one for Durnan, by all accounts. He’d shut out the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Forum by a score of 6-0. Tame, Montreal’s Gazette called it. “The boys got that for me,” the goaltender said — or in the paper’s telling grinned. “I had a good seat.”
Something else he’s supposed to have said (according to Dick Irvin, Jr. in his 1991 oral history, Habs), “How did the Leafs get this far?” They were eager to demonstrate, of course, and won the next game 4-0 and three more after that, too, to take the Stanley Cup. “I think it’s by far the toughest series I’ve ever played in,” Toronto’s Howie Meeker recalled, citing Turk Broda’s goalkeeping as the key for the Leafs. “I think when it’s all over and you have won the Stanley Cup, your goaltender has to be the best guy on your team. That year Broda was. I thought he was head and shoulders above Durnan, and Durnan was good. We were outplayed and outchanced in scoring chances, I would think, by about three to two. Turk Broda was the guy who won that series.”
Also worth a note is the C adorning Durnan’s sweater. The accepted wisdom is that he didn’t become a Canadiens captain until the 1947-48 season, specifically assuming the role in January of 1948 when the incumbent, Toe Blake, suffered the ankle injury that would prove the end of his playing career. That’s the timing suggested, as well, by modern references, from the Habs’ own historical website at Our History and the Hockey Hall of Fame’s to Wikipedia and Hockeyreference.com. From the photographs here, it’s clear that he was co-captaining the team a season earlier, too.