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For Ken Dryden, Question Period is 45 minutes of daily torture and banality. So he invented a game.

When he sat on the government side of the House of Commons, his seatmate was former public works minister Scott Brison, who is now a competitor for the Liberal Party leadership.

Mr. Dryden, then social development minister, noticed there was a rhythm to the way in which Mr. Brison repeatedly stood up, casually set his earpiece for French-English translation close to the edge of his sloped desk, and answered the barrage of questions about the sponsorship scandal.

The earpiece would slowly slide down the desk, so Mr. Dryden would grab it and place it where his colleague could easily pick it up and listen to the next question.

"Well, this is getting a little bit boring," Mr. Dryden recalled thinking. "I'm a goalie here. I should try to turn this into something."

So the 6-foot-4 hockey great let the earpiece slide right off the desk and then, making use of his long arms and a wingspan that reportedly exceeds that of Muhammad Ali by seven inches, tried to catch the earpiece in midair just before it hit the floor. Over and over and over again . . .

Mr. Dryden, 59, the legendary Montreal Canadiens goalie, winner of six Stanley Cups, a member of the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame, hates to lose at anything, even at his own Question Period game.

But he may now be playing one game he cannot win: the Liberal leadership.

Mr. Dryden has emerged as the candidate with the heart and the passion and the enthusiasm about Canada and its future. However, he is considered by many Liberals as at best second choice and possibly even their third or fourth choice.

And this is the anomaly of Ken Dryden.

On paper, he should be winning: best name recognition of any of the candidates (better even than many prime ministers), a revered hockey star in a country that adores its hockey stars, a lawyer, father, educator and successful cabinet minister.

Well loved, well liked and considered honest and credible with none of the baggage from the Chrétien/Martin years, Mr. Dryden is still viewed as a second-tier candidate.

Maybe it's because he is not your typical politician.

"I think he's more prophet than politician," said Scott Reid, former PMO director of communications, who is not supporting any of the 10 candidates but who worked closely with Mr. Dryden in the short-lived Martin government. "He says things that are insightful and leaves an impression with people. He writes with a poet's pen as well. He is definitely a politician of a different breed."

Certainly, some Liberals say, his difficulty in speaking French has hurt him. In fact, his French is so bad that the francophone media used clips of him struggling through the leadership debate last Sunday in Quebec City as an example of how poorly the majority of the Liberal anglophone candidates handled themselves in French.

In a recent interview, Mr. Dryden said he was working on his French, but he has something else to offer the campaign -- some "really strong reference points that unless you have lived in the province [Quebec]very intensely for a period of time, you may not have."

He was referring to when he lived in Montreal, playing for the Canadiens from 1970 until his retirement in 1979, and the turmoil created by René Lévesque's separatist Parti Québécois.

His campaign has been hurt by money woes. In late July, Mr. Dryden had to lay off his paid staff because he could no longer afford to pay them. He has been relying on a loyal group of volunteers.

Figures released by the Liberal Party of Canada in late August showed that Mr. Dryden had raised only $49,174, just under the $50,000 deposit he had paid through personal loans to enter the race. However, his campaign manager, Mark Watton, said Mr. Dryden had actually raised nearly $130,000 in donations but delays in submitting cheques and the party's ability to process them meant they were left off the list.

And there is the charisma (or lack of) factor. Wooden and verbose when he arrived in the House of Commons after winning his Toronto riding of York Centre in 2004, Mr. Dryden was notorious for not being able to answer a question without first giving a lecture.

He does takes a long time to get to his point, but if you listen carefully, the journey is usually fascinating, entertaining and filled with enthusiasm for the possibilities he sees in solving a problem or coming up with an idea.

The first time he answered a question in Question Period, his microphone was cut off because he exceeded his 35 seconds. He said part of the reason was that the congratulatory applause ate into his time. Still, he never really got the hang of it after that.

But his strategists say he has changed. They say his speeches are more dynamic.

Others say the improvement is with the delivery of his stump speech, a speech that he is simply more comfortable with, and the riff he does on the narrow view of the Harper Conservatives.

It goes like this: "I am mad. And when Harper doesn't attend the world AIDS conference, the international Outgames, I get madder.

"That is not my Canada. A prime minister is to govern for 100 per cent of Canadians, not just those who elect him. It's Kelowna or it is not.

"It's Kyoto or it's not. It's early learning and child care or it's not.

"The Conservatives have a divisive, pinched, ungenerous vision of Canada.

"I believe in a big Canada, one of great ambitions, one that connects Canadians and one that represents them regardless of their social or economic status."

His vision statement, "A Big Canada: Politics with a Purpose, Politics with Passion," talks in part of his plan to rebuild, enhance and develop the Kelowna Accord for aboriginal Canadians. The Harper Tories are dismantling it.

It talks about recreating a new national early-learning and child-care system, another program the Tories are taking apart.

But one of the clear themes in the statement is about learning and the importance of education and an educated society. It's a theme that was part of Mr. Dryden's upbringing, drilled into him by his father, Murray, a high-school dropout.

Mr. Dryden said it was his father's belief that "whatever Canada is today, it will be so much more tomorrow and just as with us, where we high-school dropouts were able to create this world, imagine what our university-educated sons and daughters will be able to do. And that was absolutely the understanding."

Mr. Dryden's Big Canada begins on a small street in Etobicoke, Ont.

There is the old elementary school with the big tree in the yard, under which for a "treat" teachers allowed students to read, Mr. Dryden said.

Just down the hill is the Dryden home that Ken moved into in 1953 when he was six years old. The Dryden nameplate still hangs on a post by the curb, although the house is now occupied by the charity his father founded: Sleeping Children Around the World.

The charity distributes bed kits -- a mattress, groundsheet, mosquito netting, blankets or sheets -- to poor children around the world. Mr. Dryden's older brother, Dave, is still involved in it.

Murray Dryden received the Order of Canada for his efforts; he died two years ago at age 92.

A salesman who sold bricks and locks but could really sell anything, he paved the backyard of the Dryden's modest bungalow so the Dryden boys could play ball hockey year-round.

The backyard is still paved in that red asphalt, although the colour has dulled to a more pinkish hue over the years.

"Always my parents would say these are the best schools around because all of the teachers want to come here because of the new schools with all of the new facilities," Mr. Dryden said on a recent tour of the old neighbourhood. "So the complete [view]that they had and we had was that this was an incredibly privileged place and we were as lucky as it gets."

Family is important to Ken Dryden. His parents, his siblings, his wife, Lynda, and his two children, Sarah and Michael, have all helped to inform his view of the world. It's a view in which education and learning plays a huge role.

His mother, Margaret, who died in 1985, was once a teacher. His brother, Dave, is a former high-school principal, who also played goal in the NHL. Mr. Dryden considers Dave his mentor and hero.

(The Dryden brothers do not swear or drink, although Ken is addicted to extra-thick chocolate milkshakes.) They have a younger sister, Judy, who is a public-health nurse on the West Coast.

Lynda Dryden is a retired schoolteacher and their daughter, Sarah, is studying for her PhD in education at Harvard University.

By now, Mr. Dryden's story is well known: First, there was hockey (he said he never really believed that hockey would become a career for him, that he thought he would be lucky if he even played in university).

After hockey, he became a lawyer. He wrote books, substantive books, about hockey, education and even one about the ordinary life of a guy from Scarborough. He served as Ontario youth commissioner and for a time was president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He became hooked on politics in 1956, watching TV as Adlai Stevenson secured the Democratic presidential nomination at the convention in Chicago. He was captivated by the speeches and the excitement of the delegates from the various states.

He dreamed of being a politician, but felt that it was a career one did later in life -- the "ultimate career if you had the chance." He came to the House of Commons at age 57, after Art Eggleton gave up his safe Toronto seat for him, and instantly became a cabinet minister.

He was promised nothing by Paul Martin and did not expect anything in return. However, he was appointed to cabinet and asked to put together a child-care program that could be sold to the provinces. Mr. Dryden, who hates to lose, succeeded in crafting a national program that was acceptable to the provinces.

That program is being dismantled by the Harper Tories.

Mr. Dryden missed skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa last winter because of the federal election campaign, a campaign that he never thought the Liberals could lose.

It took a couple of weeks for him to deal with the disappointment of the loss.

He hadn't thought about running for the leadership until the faxes, phone calls and e-mails started flooding in.

Many Canadians, and not just his friends, wanted him to run, he said, because he was a good listener and because he was connected to the country through his hockey and his work as an educator and writer.

He thought about it. He thought very hard about it. And he wrote about four or five pages of notes to himself about how much he wanted the job, and if he got the job, how he could contribute.

Jotting the notes to himself, he said, revealed holes in his logic. He asked himself several questions, including, "Do you really want to do this?" and, "Would you be really good at it?" and, "What is the reason to do it?"

He came away feeling he had a good story to tell: that Canadians are successful people, that the biggest achievement of our next prime minister over the next decade will be for Canadians to have a "bigger sense of ourselves," that in this global world we have to be good listeners and that compromising is not always a bad thing.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson says she and her immediate family were not surprised by his decision to get into the race. She said her father likes to "make a difference."

Politics, she says, is an extension of his public life that began with his hockey career and continued with his books and advocacy for children.

And there are some members of the Liberal caucus who like Mr. Dryden's message and what he represents. Although he doesn't have the caucus support in the same range as that of Michael Ignatieff or Gerard Kennedy, Mr. Dryden has several MPs on his team, including Manitoba's Anita Neville and Tina Keeper and Thunder Bay's Ken Boshcoff. A handful of senators, including former hockey star Frank Mahovlich, Manitoba's Rod Zimmer and Sharon Carstairs and Ontario's Mr. Eggleton, are part of the Dryden team.

Mr. Dryden says he is in this race until the end although he is coveted by the other camps, considered the prize "get." That's because Mr. Dryden is a national hero, an instantly recognizable figure and viewed among Liberals as honest and credible.

But it is not clear who he would align himself with if he were not to succeed past the first or subsequent ballots.

There are certainly ties between some of the Dryden strategists and members of the Gerard Kennedy team. But no camp, including that of Bob Rae or Mr. Ignatieff, has closed any doors on Mr. Dryden.

Whatever happens, however, Mr. Dryden says the most critical decision delegates will have to make at the leadership convention in December is to elect a leader who they believe can win the next election. He doesn't buy the view of some commentators that the next election has basically been conceded to the Tories.

The Tories drive him "nuts," he says. He disparages what he considers their pinched and ungenerous view of the world.

It's that view he aims to change.

"A positive voice for Canada sounds Pollyannaish," he says. "It sounds insubstantive . . . but in effect, and it's true of foreign policy and it's true of environmental policy and it's true of the ambitions of a learning society . . . all of those things -- in order to really deliver on any of them -- you've got to have a sense of yourself that you are a significant country . . ."

Mr. Dryden truly believes what his father said so many years ago in that, "whatever it is we are today we are going to be that much more tomorrow . . ."

*****

At a glance

Name: Ken Dryden

Age: 59

Born: Hamilton, Ont.

Personal: Wife Lynda and two children: Sarah, 31, a PhD student in education at Harvard University, and Michael, 28, an investment banker in New York City.

Political History: First elected to the House of Commons in 2004 in York Centre. Considered a political catch and part of Paul Martin's efforts to bring new blood into the Liberal Party. He was appointed social development minister and, in just 18 months, put together a national childcare program that was acceptable to the provinces, something no other government had been able to achieve.

Quote: He calls the Conservative view of the country "small, pinched, ungenerous, rather unhappy."

"If you're gay or lesbian, aboriginal or a student, you do not fit into Harper's Canada."