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This article was published 9/11/2017 (1049 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The name Bob Kraemer is, in all likelihood, unfamiliar to you — and you’re not alone.
I’d never heard of Kraemer either until last weekend when he was formally inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. But his story is pretty remarkable.
Kraemer went into the hall as an "all-around athlete," and that doesn’t even begin to describe a sporting resumé that saw him compete in national championships in six different sports — junior baseball, junior handball, university football, racquetball, masters slo-pitch and senior golf.
As a guy who has just one skill — and, even that, just barely — people such as Kraemer, who seem to excel at everything they pick up, have long fascinated me.
What is it, I’ve always wondered, that separates people like that from the rest of us? They clearly have an extraordinary work ethic, but lots of people work hard, so it has to be more than that.
Is it nature? Nurture? A combination of the two? Or is there just some magic elixir that only a handful of us are born with?
I had all those questions still rattling around in my head Thursday morning as I sat down with another extraordinary Canadian, Ken Dryden, at McNally Robinson Booksellers.
Now, full disclosure is necessary at this point: I was a very big Ken Dryden fan when I was a kid. I wore his replica jersey — everywhere. The walls of my room were covered in posters of the man. And I played goal — three underachieving seasons for the Luxton Falcons — because Dryden played goal.
All of which is to say two things: first, I’m hardly objective on the subject of Ken Dryden; and second, meeting my boyhood hero for the first time Thursday was a lot more memorable for me than it was for him.
Where Kraemer was exceptionally good at every sport he attempted, Dryden’s extraordinary accomplishments in sport — as the six-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s — are just the start of the man’s remarkable resumé.
Having wrapped up his career in hockey, Dryden turned his attention to writing and promptly authored a book in 1983 called The Game that the New York Times hailed as "the best book written about the sport, and perhaps any sport, in the English language."
Now, that’d be plenty for most guys — six Stanley Cup rings, five Vezina trophies, a Calder, a Conn Smythe, a victory in Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series and authorship of one of the greatest books in the history of sport.
I’d have been settling into a cushy armchair at that point and savouring both the fruits of my labour and a life already well lived, and I told Dryden as much.
But not Dryden. In addition to a career in law, he went on to become a sports executive as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs; a member of Parliament and federal cabinet minister; and the author of four other books, including his latest: Game Change — The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock — or in Saskatchewan, which, let’s face it, is kind of the same thing — you’ve probably heard by now about Dryden’s book.
Dryden has been pretty much everywhere for the past month as part of a high-profile book tour, talking to anyone who will listen about concussions, hockey and the tragic life of Montador, a one-time NHL enforcer who died prematurely at age 35 of a drug overdose and whose brain was later found to be racked with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the brain-wasting disease caused by repeated head trauma that can lead to everything from depression to early onset dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Dryden thinks it’s long past time that hockey paid more than lip service to eliminating head hits entirely from the sport. If you’re skeptical about whether that’s possible, Dryden says you need look no further than the NHL’s current crackdown on slashing for an example of how quickly and dramatically the league can change player behaviour if it starts to take a problem seriously.
He makes a compelling argument.
But for our purposes here, I was more interested in hearing about Dryden’s brain than Montador’s and, in particular, what it is about this remarkable man that has allowed him to achieve excellence in such a diverse range of occupations.
He talked a lot about his parents — his father, Murray, is from here, born in the tiny hamlet of Domain, just south of Winnipeg. He says his parents were big on giving their three kids — Dryden has a younger sister, Judy, and an older brother, Dave, who was also an NHL goaltender — exposure to as many things as possible growing up.
Dryden also talked about the indelible impression playing hockey in Montreal in the 1970s left upon him. Surrounded by one of the greatest teams hockey has ever seen and some of the sport’s most iconic players, he describes an environment where excellence was not only expected, it was demanded.
He talked about the overlap between what otherwise seem like divergent occupations, noting, for instance, how both a goaltender and an author spend huge swaths of their workday gazing at their subject from afar before taking what they’ve learned and diving in and fully immersing themselves.
"All of these things that I’ve done that can seem so different to people, to me are all the same. They’re just different applications of the same thing," he told me.
But when I asked Dryden about the role work ethic has played in his success, he gave an answer that, to me, was most revealing of the unique way people such as him see the world.
Dryden, you see, insists he’s never worked a day in his life. "All of this stuff I’ve loved to do and it doesn’t seem like work," he said. "It’s stuff I want to do and because I want to do it, I want to do more of it. And because of that, if you start to do something well, you want to do it better and you like the feeling of doing it well.
"And once you have that feeling in one thing, you want to have it in other things."
I asked what he regards as his greatest professional accomplishment. I wanted to know if a man with six Stanley Cup rings would point to something other than that. But what I didn’t realize was that I was asking the wrong question.
"I don’t think of it in that way," Dryden said. "You just ‘do’ — and you try to ‘do’ things well. And, yeah, there are things that feel good. I’m proud of playing for the Montreal Canadiens. We were really good.
"I’m proud of being a part of Team Canada in 1972. I do like writing these books. I enjoyed being a member of Parliament. I’m supposed to say I didn’t, but I did. And I really liked it when we were the government and I was the minister of social development. I was proud of what we did in terms of child care and bringing things as far as we did at the time.
"But it’s not something where you sit back and just sort of ‘feel’ these things. It’s too interesting to do them — to do the next thing, than to feel the last thing."
In the end, what I got from my boyhood hero was that the difference between guys such as him and the rest of us is both absolutely everything and absolutely nothing.
A magic elixir? There’s no such thing. The real magic, he said, is all around us every day if we’re just paying attention.
With that, a childhood idol had a very grown-up lesson for me. On a frigid November morning in an empty book store, Dryden insisted it was me — not him — who was missing the big picture.
"You started this interview by saying, ‘You’re 70 years old — why aren’t you back sitting in an armchair and just smelling the roses?’
"These are the roses."
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.
Updated on Friday, November 10, 2017 at 6:22 AM CST: Edited
7:26 AM: Videos added.
7:30 AM: Photo added.
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