Dryden stands tall
Past meets present: Ken Dryden shakes hands with Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer, the two men now protecting his old stomping grounds.
MONTREAL - Just as he so often did during his days guarding the Canadiens' crease, Ken Dryden brought Habs fans from their seats on the night his No. 29 took its rightful place high above the ice at the Bell Centre.
The crowd erupted once Dryden appeared in the Canadiens' dressing room wearing his trademark bull's-eye mask and holding his classic Sher-Wood stick.
"Once I made my way out of the dressing room and arrived at rink side in the darkness, I couldn't see the 21,000 fans, but I could sure hear them," said Dryden, who received his fair share of standing ovations from Canadiens fans in his heyday. "I wasn't sure what to do while they cheered. It was important to me to find the right words to describe what I was feeling at that moment.
"It was my last chance to say thank you," added Dryden, who saw the Canadiens cap off his special night with a 3-1 win over the Senators. "For over 35 years the fans have been there for me and now I have my own banner bearing my number which will hang here as a constant reminder for the rest of my days."
Dryden was joined on the ice by his brother Dave, wife Lynda, his children Michael and Sarah, and even his three-week old granddaughter Khaya, who was wearing the same hand-knitted sweater his children wore their first time at the Forum.
Also among Dryden's special guests was the man who gave him his first big break back late in the 1970-71 season, former Canadiens coach Al MacNeil.
"If starting the playoffs with a rookie coach and a rookie in goal sounds scary, believe me it was," admitted MacNeil, Dryden's first NHL coach. "But this wasn't just any goaltender, this was Ken Dryden."
MacNeil saw his hunch pay off with the unproven 23-year-old netminder leading the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1971.
"We beat the favored Bruins, then the North Stars before defeating the Blackhawks in seven games to win the Cup. And that was only the beginning for Ken."
It certainly was, as Dryden's brilliant career would see him win the Calder Trophy, Conn Smythe Trophy, and five Vezina Trophies to go with his six Stanley Cups in only eight NHL seasons.
Joining Dryden on his special night was an opponent. Not just any rival, but none other than Vladislav Tretiak.
Despite having been longtime rivals in the most intense hockey rivalry the game has ever seen, Dryden and the Soviet goaltending legend have always shared a mutual respect that lives on today. Their epic battles, including their first showdown in 1969, the 1972 Summit Series and a memorable encounter on New Year's Eve in 1975 between the Canadiens and Red Army, did nothing but draw the netminders even closer.
"I'm both happy and proud that Ken wanted me to be here," said Tretiak, who received a warm ovation from the Bell Centre crowd on a night when he even spoke a few words in French. "As soon as I got the call, I didn't hesitate one bit, even though it's a long way from Moscow to Montreal.
"Ken was an incredible goalie and a great man. It means a lot to me to be able to be a part of this memorable day."
Having Tretiak on hand was no accident, as Dryden knows his legacy is tied to the classic battles that marked his career.
"Looking back at all of our success, you also must be grateful for your opponents, the toughest ones," said Dryden on the presence of Tretiak, as well as, the Canadiens' grueling battles with the Bruins. "It's getting through the games that were the hardest to play that are the most rewarding and those that stay with you.
"Ali needed Frazier. Frazier needed Ali. The Yankees need the Red Sox and the Red Sox need the Yankees," explained Dryden. "For us it was the Bruins. Rising to the occasion and defeating a rival is what makes winning all the more special."
Only the second Canadiens goalie to have his number retired, joining Jacques Plante was not taken lightly by Dryden, who understands the legends his number now hangs among.
"Guy Lafleur had his hair flowing in the wind, Jean Beliveau has such as presence on the ice, Maurice "Rocket" Richard was so powerful and as for me, the enduring image everyone has is of me leaning on my stick, not doing much and watching the game," shrugged Dryden with a smile. "That was what the 1970s were all about - that and a whole lot of Stanley Cups."
Dryden recognized all those who made his career possible, from Forum staffers, to the training staff and even the ushers.
"Thank you all for this gift which will last a lifetime."
Judging the crowd's reaction, the feeling is mutual.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com