Goalie-turned-author Ken Dryden offers keen insights on hockey

As a hockey goalie, Ken Dryden was an uncommon athlete for the Montreal Canadiens. In his first literary venture, he's proven to be an uncommon sports author as well.

Canadians obviously agree, judging by the way they've been snatching up his book ''The Game.'' It is a best-seller in that nation - a testament to the book's insightful, analytical content.

Many people undoubtedly are attracted by the author's ''household'' name, which was one of the most prominent in hockey throughout the 1970s.

It burst onto the scene at the tail end of the 1970-71 National Hockey League season, when as a rookie up from the minors Dryden became the key player in Montreal's drive to the Stanley Cup. He went on to mind the nets on five more Cup champions, including four in a row, even though he took a bold one-year sabbatical from the league in 1973 in order to work for a law firm and prepare for the bar exam. He also played for Team Canada in its 1972 victory over the Soviet Union, and secured a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame after retiring in 1979.

Dryden's name, then, may open book jackets, but it's his thoughtful treatment of hockey that is winning readers. He uses locker room anecdotes with restraint and purpose, avoiding the cheap shots that often masquerade as sports literature.

''There were lots of points I wanted to make in the book, and I didn't want people to be distracted by gratuitous gossip,'' he says. ''I wanted to be fair, so I realized I couldn't say things about other people as a detached observer unless I was willing to tell more about myself than them.''

Presently he's kept busy fulfilling the promotional responsibilities of a successful author as well as preparing to serve as an ABC commentor at the Winter Olympics, an assignment he also held in 1980.

In an interview with this reporter, he shared many of his thoughts and perspectives on hockey, including why the game has not been fully embraced - and may never be - in the United States.

Mostly, he feels, hockey is faced with a huge body of uninitiated American fans who didn't grow up playing the game. ''There hasn't been the natural infrastructure because of the climate, nor the artificial one because of the cost (indoor arenas) to make hockey a national sport.''

So even though hockey, with its fast action, ''makes terrific sense on paper, '' he expects it will remain a sport which has major appeal only in certain areas in this country.

To a lesser degree, Dryden feels the NHL's brawling image has short-circuited the league's potential popularity. He concludes that fighting degrades the game, turning the sport into dubious spectacle.

Dryden's comments on playing goal for the powerful Canadiens are revealing.

At 6 ft. 4 in. he was one of the largest men to barricade an NHL goal, a veritable octopus with pads who had the league's lowest goals-against average five times.

Even so, his job grew mentally tougher as Montreal became stronger. ''The role changed,'' he explained. ''At first, with more shots on goal, I was playing a position that was visibly important to the outcome of the game. Later it was much less obvious and much less visible, which led to a sense of wonder about what role I played. Instead of winning a game, you became a custodian to it, someome who's there to see that it's not lost.''

He recalls one game against the lowly Colorado Rockies in which he played about as poorly as he could, yet the team still won. ''That was a bad feeling,'' he says. ''I had been completely irrelevant.''

By nature, a goalkeeper waits and watches, responding to the action initiated by others. A goalie on a good team, therefore, generally sees less action than one on a bad team, which is why Dryden draws a distinction between the two.

''A bad team goalie doesn't have to stop every shot,'' he observes. ''He can let in goals that he shouldn't, but he has to be able to make the spectacular save because it becomes the emotional drive of his team. That he lets in bad goals doesn't matter, since the team's likely to lose anyhow, only by a higher score.

''The good team goalie, on the other hand, has important games to play in which there is no margin for the bad goal. Such goals are unforgivable, and the circumstances unforgiving.''

The challenge is to stay alert through stretches of inactivity. Sometimes this could be a problem, yet once mentally immersed in the game, Dryden seldom felt jolted by the sudden flurries of activity.

''The observer not involved in the game may sense abrupt changes,'' he points out. ''But to someone on the ice these are just moments that flow back and forth. And even though there may be a relaxed concentration for a bit and then very intense concentration, they are all parts of the same continuum.''

As for the exhilaration a goalie feels, he says it comes more from a sense of command than the physical act of blocking a shot. ''You're out there to control the situation around you,'' he says, ''and when you succeed, you have the terrific feeling of being invincible.''

A graduate of Cornell University, Dryden was one of the more scholarly NHL players and one of the few to play on an American college champion. After retiring from pro hockey at 31 he passed the Canadian bar exam, and is currently a non-practicing lawyer who lives in Toronto with his wife and two children.

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