When it comes to matters of hockey few can offer more articulate commentary than the Member of Parliament named Ken Dryden.
His book, The Game, remains as the foremost piece of writing on Canada’s favourite sport. His opinions, on what is right with the game, wrong with the game, needs to be changed, are often unique, always thought out, certainly distinctive and informed.
Which is why I’m puzzled today. I contacted his Ottawa office and inquired about doing an interview with Mr. Dryden on the possibility, and maybe probability of American NHL teams moving to Winnipeg, Quebec, and who knows, maybe even Toronto. The NHL has rarely had so many wonky franchises in need of both ownership and fans. Both the Phoenix Coyotes and Atlanta Thrashers operate from moment to moment not knowing where they go next.
Once, six NHL teams in Canada seemed enough. Now eight or nine seems like a possibility. As both a Canadian politician and a hockey intellect, I wanted to hear Dryden’s views on the changing state of the NHL and the possibility of more teams in Canada.
So what happened: I got this from the Office of the Hon. Mr. Dryden. “Unfortunately, Mr. Dryden will not be commenting on this issue.”
Not, Mr. Dryden isn’t available. Not Mr. Dryden is busy. Not Mr. Dryden is out of the country. No, not commenting. Ken Dryden, one of hockey’s foremost commentators, not commenting on a hockey issue? The same man who wouldn’t know a short sentence if he wrote one?
I hope this response came from Dryden’s staff, not from Dryden himself. If it came from Ken Dryden, maybe he should take a moment and look in the mirror and remember just who he is and where he came from.
The above blog was posted online at just after 1 pm on Thursday afternoon. At 1:37 my telephone rang. Ken Dryden was on the phone. He wanted to explain why it is he doesn’t want to talk hockey much anymore.
“I saw the blog,” he said quietly to a familiar voice. “I thought I should explain.”
It isn’t that he’s lost his love or his passion for the game. Far from it. “I’ve learned something in this job,” the Hall of Fame goaltender said of being a politician. “Once I start, it’s hard to stop. If I answer one call, I’m going to get lots and lots of calls. And sorry, but I don’t have the time to do lots and lots on hockey. Much as I’d like to. So when I get requests, I turn them down. If I do (all the interviews) it doesn’t leave time for all the other things that I have to do.”
Then I explained why I was calling. This is a fascinating time for hockey in Canada. The trade deadline just passed and hundreds of thousands of people watched nothing happen on television, with the hopes something would happen. That’s what we do in Canada. Like it or not, care for it or not, we get all wrapped up about hockey in this country.
And in a National Hockey League with troubled franchises in Phoenix, in Atlanta, in Florida, in Dallas, and who knows where else, the appetite for more teams in Canada has never been greater. Winnipeg is salivating for the first NHL team on the move. Quebec City is on the way to getting its arena built with the hopes of attracting the NHL. Toronto, despite protestation from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., is a market that could easily handle and succeed with a second NHL team. Which is why I called Dryden: Because no one I know can capture the essence of Canadian hockey better than he does.
“This isn’t about last night’s game,” said Dryden. “This is something Canadians have on their minds and it means something to them. I probably should have thought of that (before I turned you down). This is something that matters to us.
“I don’t know if the NHL changes a lot if it has eight Canadian teams rather than six, but you know and I know this absolutely, that Winnipeg feels better when Winnipeg has a team in the NHL and Quebec feels better when Quebec has a team in the NHL and that doesn’t mean life doesn’t go on without them.
“I never played an NHL game in Winnipeg or Quebec but I experienced them. I remember going to a game in the Forum in around ‘82, a Nordiques-Canadiens game. I couldn’t believe the atmosphere . It was great. Quebec was great, they were this terrific underdog. They were the great little guy who knew how to play the little guy. That’s what the Nordiques did. (Michel) Bergeron and the players knew exactly who they were and they played it to perfection.
“My impression of Winnipeg? I think in some ways when Winnipeg lost the Jets it was like Brooklyn losing the Dodgers. It had a huge affect psychologically. When you’re playing with the big guys, you feel like a big guy. And if the big guys say you can’t play with them anymore, it’s a blow. That’s not a nice thing.”
Dryden had no inside knowledge of whether any of this is possible — teams moving to Winnipeg or Quebec — but like most Canadians he has hope.
And what about Toronto, where he once served as president of the Maple Leafs, once promised contending teams and actually provided them?
“I don’t know what’s possible,” said Dryden. “In 1965, did you foresee an NHL with 30 teams? Did anybody? I don’t know. You can’t predict the future.
“These are decisions made by others and you can’t predict what others are going to do. All you can really speak to is what you know. The appetite for hockey in Southern Ontario, with more rinks, more teams, more leagues, is almost limitless. By far, more than any other place in the world. You can talk about that, how that will play up. But that’s up to other people. In the end, it’s other people’s decisions.”