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MONTREAL — Listen carefully at the most storied corner in Canada, right here where Atwater Avenue meets Saint-Catherine Street. Every hockey fan knows the intersection once was the site of the old Montreal Forum, the Wimbledon of the winter sport, 31 times the site of the Stanley Cup Final, the place where for 44 years the home team dressed beneath the words of the Canadian poet John McCrae: “To you from failing hands we throw the torch/Be yours to hold it high.”
Listen carefully and you might hear the echo of the thunderous cheers that greeted Canadiens stars from Maurice Richard to Patrick Roy — or maybe the profound silence that met the procession of 10,000 to view the casket, placed lovingly on wooden boards at center ice in 1937, after the great Howie Morenz, the first true NHL star, died as a result of an injury in a brutal game against the Chicago Black Hawks.
Listen up, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, as you prepare to toss the torch of your sporting greatness, for the cheers are about to turn to silence. As the roar of the crowd fades, listen to the lessons of one of your predecessors in excellence. Listen to how Ken Dryden, who won six Stanley Cups in nine seasons in goal for the bleu, blanc et rouge of the beloved home team, views retirement and came to peace with life when the cheering stopped.
“Retiring from sports is a real retirement,” he told me the other day. “And that’s the surprising thing. You enter retirement at a younger age than everybody else does, but you feel the same effects. In my case, I was 31, and for Roger Federer and Serena Williams, in their 40s, you are moving on from something you have done all your life. And even as you have done other things, your sport has been at the center of what you do. And you’re very good. And there was always a place for you to be and a place for you to go.”
Dryden now is 75. He has been retired from hockey for four decades. He’s revered at Cornell University for being the centerpiece of the last undefeated college hockey team (29-0, in 1969-1970) and here in Canada for being the winning goaltender in the famous Summit Series against the Russians 50 years ago, the subject of his ninth book, now the top Canadian nonfiction bestseller. He’s served in Canada’s Parliament and is enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He might be regarded today as a man for all seasons, but for two decades he was primarily a man for the hockey season, and the rink provided him with that place to go.
“Then, just like the person who retires from an office job, up until that last Friday all of those things were true,” he continued. “But Monday comes, and most of those things aren’t true anymore. You are moving to something that you’re less good at, and you know you are less good at it. And over time, although you don’t focus on it, you enjoy the fact that you were good at something and that people looked at you in a special way. Where does that come from now? What are you going to be good at — very good at?”
That is the question Federer and Williams face.
Dozens of athletes (Tony Romo, for example) and coaches (Bill Cowher) face it by becoming broadcasters. Minor league pitcher Blake McFarland faced it by becoming a sculptor. Pitcher Don Schwall, a 1961 Rookie of the Year with the Boston Red Sox, became a Pittsburgh investment specialist. (When I asked him why so many athletes lose their fortunes, he said, “Money talks. It says ‘goodbye.’”)
Dryden faced it after dominating his sport the way the two retiring tennis aces have. “He was impenetrable,” recalled Rusty Martin, who scored two goals against him for Dartmouth in losing games against Cornell. “He gave you nothing to shoot at. He was quick, he was smart.” Eddie Johnston, the Montreal-born goalie and Pittsburgh Penguins coach, called Dryden “one of history’s greatest goalies” and added, “He had great perspective on life.”
Here is the perspective Dryden has about retirement from sports:
“It’s not the money you miss, it’s the specialness you miss. That’s the problem. You’re going on to another thing and whether you’re 31 or 65, you go through the same thing.”
The two retiring tennis players personified specialness.
“If he wasn’t the greatest tennis player in history in terms of grim statistics, he was certainly the greatest tennis presence of our lifetime,” Globe and Mail columnist Cathal Kelly said of Federer. “He altered the way we think about tennis and, in turn, all sports.”
Williams may be the greatest player in terms of statistics, and she had the same effect, plus this: As the bookend to Althea Gibson (11 Grand Slams in a career ending a quarter-century before her successor was born), Williams (23 Grand Slams) was a pioneer as a Black woman in sports.
Retirement technically may occur on a specific day, but the searing effect of it may come on another day entirely. At least it did for Dryden.
“The September after I retired, I studied for the bar and the Canadiens started training camp,” he said. “That’s when it hit me. I was doing what I was doing — and I wasn’t doing what they were doing. In a way, that was the day I retired.”
So, you tennis champions familiar with Centre Court the way Dryden was familiar with watching his teammates at center ice: Stand here, at the site of the old Montreal Forum. Listen up here, where Dryden, an outsider from Toronto, became one of the Habs, the Canadiens’ nickname that is a shortened version of “habitant,” the early French settlers in Quebec. Hear the silence from the swaying of the half-dozen Stanley Cup banners he helped contribute to the old rafters.
Stand here, listen as the echoes ring, and imagine the torch of tennis supremacy being tossed to Iga Swiatek, who at age 21 has three Grand Slams, and to Carlos Alcaraz, who at 19 already has one. For soon you will rest, in sporting’s Flanders Field.
(David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)