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Backchecking: Dave Dryden

Dave Dryden played for the Rangers, Chicago and Buffalo in the NHL, plus the Edmonton Oilers in the WHA. (THN Archives)

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Dave Dryden played for the Rangers, Chicago and Buffalo in the NHL, plus the Edmonton Oilers in the WHA. (THN Archives)

By Todd Denault

Punch Imlach was not the type of man to let a golden opportunity pass him by. Never was this more apparent than on the evening of March 20, 1971, when Imlach’s expansion Buffalo Sabres travelled to the Montreal Forum.

Imlach penciled Dave Dryden into his lineup with the intention of creating the first brother-against-brother goalie matchup in NHL history. “Punch knew that it had never happened before and was sure that (Habs coach Al) McNeil would feel the same as he did,” Dryden said.

McNeil didn’t, turning to Rogie Vachon as the Canadiens goalie. A disappointed Imlach pulled Dryden from the Sabres net after only 90 seconds and replaced him with Joe Daley. With the brothers sitting on the end of their respective team’s benches it appeared history would have to wait. But then, halfway through the second, a twist of fate and a dash of destiny converged.

Lunging for a shot, Vachon felt a twinge in his groin and McNeil was forced to use Ken Dryden. Imlach seized the opportunity, removing Daley and reinserting his Dryden.

The scoreboard read “Canadiens 5, Sabres 2” when the final siren blared, but very few remembered the result. Instead they committed to memory the sight of the brothers, masks lifted and resting on the top of their heads, making their way to center ice and shaking hands as a phalanx of cameras captured the moment.

Ken Dryden became the greatest goaltender of his generation, retiring with six Stanley Cups. At the same time, Dave Dryden – six years Ken’s senior – largely became a footnote in the wake of his brother’s success.  “Today,” Dave said, “when Ken and I talk we quite often laugh about the two different paths that our hockey careers took.”

Dave debuted in the NHL as a 20-year-old emergency goaltender with the Rangers in 1962. He re-emerged as a backup with the Black Hawks in the mid-’60s before joining the Sabres in the fall of 1970, culminating in an appearance in the 1974 All-Star Game.

He then made the jump to the WHA, where he unexpectedly became a player/owner with the Chicago Cougars for one year before joining the Edmonton Oilers in 1975. In the WHA’s final season of 1978-79, Dryden enjoyed his finest year, claiming both the Gordie Howe (MVP) and Ben Hatskin (top goalie) Trophies. A year later, and only a season after his famous brother, the older Dryden retired to little fanfare. In the ensuing years, he went on to serve as an assistant coach in Detroit and an equipment consultant for the NHL, among other pursuits, but left his biggest imprint on the game before he hung up his pads in 1980.

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“In the summer of 1977, I was sitting at home one day,” Dryden said in February at St. Michael's College in front of a combined gathering of St. Mike's alumni and members of the Society of International Hockey Research. “Even though it was the off-season, I couldn’t stop wondering how I could combine the cage front while at the same time having the weight of the mask anchored to my face. Working with a homemade mold, created in my bathroom, I came up with the idea of taking my mask and inserting a cage on the very front that would completely protect the front of my face from my eyes down to my mouth.”

The new mask made its debut in an Oilers exhibition game in Europe that fall. “I remember when I first brought the mask out,” Dryden laughed, “a lot of guys were looking at me kind of funny. In that first game, almost right after the opening puck drop I took a hard shot right to the face. Right away I realized that I hadn’t felt a thing. After that some slowly started believing in this new type of mask.”

But it wasn’t until spring of 1986, when a rookie named Patrick Roy sported a “combo mask” during an amazing run to the Stanley Cup, that the concept took root. Roy was soon joined by Edmonton’s Grant Fuhr and Philly’s Ron Hextall and the floodgates opened. The vast majority of goalies around the world now wear the style of mask. Yet Dave Dryden’s status as an innovator remains largely unknown.

Todd Denault is the author of Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey. His second book, The Greatest Game: The Montreal Canadiens, the Red Army, and the Night that Saved Hockey will be released this fall in a paperback edition.

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