Canadiens-Maple Leafs a rivalry of culture, Dryden says

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The Hockey Hall of Fame goalie has seen the duel between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs from each side, a legend in goal with the Canadiens during their glorious 1970s, a president of his hometown Maple Leafs from 1997-2003.

“All of a sudden now, Toronto and Montreal are playing a whole pile of games against each other,” Dryden said. “There’s a pretty good chance they’re going to end up playing each other in a playoff.

“That hasn’t existed in a long time. When together you’re good and in sync and you add the circumstance of possibility… when preparation meets possibility, things can happen.”

Because of issues crossing the Canada-United States border due to COVID-19 concerns, the Maple Leafs and Canadiens are playing in the Scotia North Division, grouping the seven NHL teams based in Canada. They are scheduled to play each other 10 times this season as part of the NHL’s condensed 56-game schedule. That the Maple Leafs and Canadiens are as good as they have been in recent memory has set ablaze a historic rivalry that for decades has been mostly a flickering ember.

Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich is outnumbered by Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante, defenseman Tom Johnson (center) and forward Bernie Geoffrion during an early 1960s game at Maple Leaf Gardens.

 

For the first time since the 1960s, Toronto and Montreal are among the best teams in the NHL at the same time. Dryden, an educator, author and historian, has been an important player in the rivalry and now, in a conversation with NHL.com, observes both its present and past with a learned eye.

Dryden’s former teams played each other for the 750th time in Toronto on Saturday, the Canadiens scoring two third-period goals for a 2-1 come-from behind victory in Toronto. When they play in Montreal on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, CBC, TVAS, SN, CITY, ESPN+, NHL.TV), the rivalry will take the No. 1 rank for most regular-season games played between two teams, passing the Canadiens versus Boston Bruins by one.

The Maple Leafs and Canadiens are in a spirited battle in the Scotia North Division, Toronto (11-3-1) in first with 23 points, Montreal (9-4-2) second with 20 points.

Montreal holds a 360-290-88-12 lifetime edge in the rivalry, dating to their first game in 1917; the Canadiens have an 8-7 series advantage, 42-29 in games, in their 15 Stanley Cup Playoff series matchups. Almost incredibly, the two oldest teams in the NHL have not met in the postseason since 1979, a Quarterfinal sweep for the Canadiens on the way to their fourth consecutive championship.

Dryden played all 397 of his regular-season and 112 NHL playoff games for the Canadiens between 1971-79, having sat out the 1973-74 season to study law. He faced the Maple Leafs 34 times in the regular season and eight times in the playoffs, his lifetime record against Toronto a stunning 22-2 with nine ties, three shutouts with a 2.16 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage. In the postseason, he was 8-0 with a shutout, 1.90 average and .926 save percentage.

Canadiens defenseman Guy Lapointe carries the puck out from behind Ken Dryden’s net, watched by Toronto’s Dave Keon and Montreal’s Jacques Lemaire during a 1970s game at Maple Leaf Gardens.

 

“Neither the Canadiens nor the Leafs were great in the first couple of decades of the NHL,” the 73-year-old said. “They were good, they would win the Stanley Cup sometimes but not that often and not with any more frequency than some other teams.”

Indeed, Toronto and Montreal won the championship three times each between 1917-39, but they would soon flex their muscles.

The rivalry flourished in the 1940s, Dryden said, “when the Canadiens became good and the Leafs became really good,” Toronto winning the Cup five times that decade, Montreal twice.

It grew stronger in the 1950s, he said, “lots of the elements of a rivalry there even if it wasn’t one in terms of the level of the teams – the Canadiens became great (winning the Cup six times) and the Leafs had a bad decade (winning once).”

And then came the 1960s, when the Montreal-Toronto rivalry was as strong and heated as any in NHL history, before or since.

Video: Keon, Cournoyer discuss historic TOR-MTL rivalry

During that decade, the Chicago Black Hawks’ title in 1961 was the only one not captured by the Canadiens, who won five, or the Maple Leafs, who won four, including their most recent in 1967.

“It was a linguistic and cultural rivalry, a business rivalry, a university rivalry — McGill (in Montreal) or the University of Toronto,” Dryden said. “It was at every level, a rivalry that was at the top of things as far as Canada was concerned.

“For a sports rivalry to be really intense, the teams have to be at the same level. You’ve got to be in sync. Montreal and Toronto were almost but not quite in sync in the 1940s, out of sync in the 1950s. And then came the really great decade that was the ’60s. That was the defining decade of the rivalry in every sense.”

Growing up in Toronto in the 1950s, Dryden barely had a taste of the bitter feud that would simmer to a boil between teams whose arenas were separated by 335 miles, a provincial border and a gulf of politics, language and culture. The Maple Leafs and Canadiens each played at home on Saturday nights, Toronto’s games telecast in that market and into the Canadian west, the Canadiens seen in Quebec and east into the Maritime provinces.

Game 4 action between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens during the 1967 Stanley Cup Final at Maple Leaf Gardens. Montreal won the game 6-2 but Toronto would rally to win the Cup, their most recent, in six games.

 

“The Canadiens were the least familiar team of any NHL team to us as kids growing up,” Dryden recalled. “And Montreal was always at the lead. It had the bigger population, it got Expo 67 (the world’s fair in Canada’s 1967 Centennial year), it got baseball’s Expos (in 1969). For those of us in Toronto, Montreal had the slight upper hand and sort of the annoying upper hand. By the time I was old enough to follow hockey, they had the upper hand in hockey, too.

“But in the 1960s, Toronto was becoming a city almost as big as Montreal. Things like Expo 67 were possible for Canadian cities. There could be competition at that level. It was getting close to the time when there might be a Canadian major-league baseball team. Toronto was getting that much bigger and more prominent as a business center in the country. 

“Everything was going full blast in terms of the rivalry of the cities. In hockey, it was amazing. It was the rivalry of coaches Toe Blake (of Montreal) and Punch Imlach (of Toronto). It really was the decade that defined the rivalry in every way.”

Dryden suggests the bitterness mellowed coming out of the 1960s “for a number of reasons.

Stanley Cup banners hang from the rafters of the Montreal Forum, the Canadiens’ 1993 championship their most recent.

 

“Linguistically and culturally in the ’70s, Quebecers turned much more inward,” he said. “Toronto and the rest of Canada mattered less in terms of the day-to-day focus and emotions and rivalries that Toronto might represent.

“The Canadiens became a great team in the ’70s again and the Leafs were pretty good,” said Dryden, who that decade won the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the NHL, the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Vezina Trophy as the top goalie in the NHL five times and the Stanley Cup six times. “I remember playing through that time and wanting the rivalry between Montreal and Toronto to feel like the way it felt to me as a kid. But it didn’t quite feel that way because we were that much better than the Leafs.”

Toronto sagged badly in the 1980s, consistently near the basement of the Norris Division, the Canadiens winning the Stanley Cup in 1986, then again in 1993, their most recent title.

“Pretty much since that time, neither the Leafs nor the Canadiens have been that good for that long,” Dryden said. “The Leafs were good in some of the years of the ’90s and early 2000s. The last big chance to see the teams together could have been in 1993 – the Leafs were close to getting into the Final, which would have been against the Canadiens.”

Ultimately, Toronto lost a seven-game Clarence Campbell Conference Final to the Los Angeles Kings, the Canadiens defeating the Kings in a five-game Final.

NHL realignment in 1993-94 would put Montreal in the Eastern Conference, Toronto in the Western, their games fewer, their heat diminished and venom diluted.

Ken Dryden is legendary for his brilliant 1970s play in the Canadiens goal, later serving from 1997-2003 as president of the Maple Leafs.

 

“The rivalry felt its most intense and natural in the 1960s,” Dryden said. “The teams were not only in sync, but they were in sync at their best. It’s one thing to be mediocre together, which isn’t so interesting. But when you’re good at the same time, then you’ve got a chance for something.”

In a 2003 interview, six years after having been named Maple Leafs president, Dryden considered the reaction he was getting from fans on each side of this storied rivalry; some in Montreal suggested he was a turncoat, virtually all of Toronto were delighted to welcome him home.

He said he was heckled “less so by Montreal fans about my association with Toronto. It’s ‘How could you?’ That doesn’t surprise me entirely. The other team is the great rival. What I say, and what I most strongly feel, is that they’re the two most similar teams to each other in the League. They have the same kind of history, the same intense following locally and across the country. The team matters the most in the two cities of any teams anywhere. I say to people, ‘If you like one, you’ll like the other.’ “

Which isn’t entirely true, of course. It’s been joked that a unifying force in Canada is Montreal’s general dislike of Toronto, and vice versa. 

Now, once again, with the Maple Leafs and Canadiens playing exciting hockey, and seeing each other a lot, Toronto-Montreal games seem quite like the 1960s showdowns of Dryden’s youth.

“And that,” he said, “is why we watch.”

Photos: HHoF Images / Getty Images

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