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Ken Dryden's campaign going down to the final buzzer

Ken Dryden, the LIberal candidate in the federal riding of York Centre is photographed in a local coffee shop and canvassing his riding meeting constituents.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

On Pecan Court in Toronto's northern reaches, a bitter wind is the only noise dogging Ken Dryden.

You wouldn't know the three-term Liberal incumbent is in a fight for his political life in York Centre, a safe party seat since 1962, well before Mr. Dryden won six Stanley Cups in eight seasons with the Montreal Canadiens.

"We've had a few days when the wind picks up," Mr. Dryden, 63, said between door knocks on Tuesday, "but mostly it's been good."

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"Mostly good" is not how political observers have described the Liberals' chances of holding on to York Centre in the May 2 election. The Conservatives, via rookie candidate Mark Adler, have targeted the riding for an upset, and escalated their effort Tuesday by accusing Mr. Dryden of taking credit in a recent debate for creating a seniors' income supplement in place since 1967.

No matter that a recording of the allegedly offending remark suggests Mr. Dryden took credit only for boosting the supplement, not creating it.

From behind his mask of thoughtful circumspection, it appeared to be just another gust of artificial politico-media controversy, obscuring all that might actually matter.

"It's the political parties and the media, and the media and the political parties, back and forth, that have established a kind of rhythm and ritual that is their own," Mr. Dryden said, "and it has almost nothing to do with the public."

Voters who don't turn their backs entirely are left to stand and watch as each new mini-scandal emerges, often before the last one has been sorted out, he said.

"If they don't give you time to check, then everything that is said is right," Mr. Dryden said, his vocal pitch rising and a quiver creeping in. "Or if it's wrong, it fades into nothing; it's not really wrong because nobody pays any attention to the whole thing."

Maybe that's just politics as the game is played today. If so, don't expect to see Mr. Dryden swinging his stick at opponents, vulnerable riding or not.

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The numbers in York Centre might suggest a need to leave the high road for the incumbent, who has seen his margins of victory over the Conservatives shrink from 11,202 votes in 2004, to 9,640 in 2006, to 2,090 in 2008. The Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy describes the riding as "leaning Liberal," but others expect a closer result.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford won strong support from conservatives in the city's inner suburbs when he was elected last fall, and the Tories have been working to tap into his base. Mr. Dryden's Conservative challenger, Mr. Adler, enjoys considerable profile as founder and CEO of the Economic Club of Canada and in the riding's large Jewish community.

In a local version of rival leaders' attacks on Michael Ignatieff's attendance at parliamentary votes, Mr. Adler has reportedly assailed Mr. Dryden's voting record as the "second worst" in the House of Commons, behind his leader. In fact, Mr. Dryden was in 81st place among Canada's 308 MPs for missing votes.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Adler said he was unavailable late Tuesday due to the Passover holiday.

Mr. Dryden explained further that the Liberals had to routinely avoid votes to prevent defeating the minority Conservatives, thus increasing the absentee statistics.

Nonetheless, anonymous black-and-white flyers have surfaced in York Centre, calling him out for his attendance record, and the other day a voter awoke to a pile of 40 Dryden signs that had been pulled from other lawns and dumped on hers.

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If all of this appears to point to a need for Mr. Dryden to toughen his game, he suggests people are looking in the wrong direction.

"It's so the opposite of what the future is asking of us," he said in a coffee shop near his campaign office, over a chorus of banter from a group of retired Greek men.

Casting back to the Canadiens' 1976 Stanley Cup victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, who had won the cup in 1974 and 1975, he said, "We had to stand up to their game and win it with ours.… We were strong enough and tough enough to withstand the worst of them, and then we just buried them with us."

Playing one's own game, Mr. Dryden said, "doesn't make you any less competitive; you go for it, but there's more than one way of going for it … and there's not just one way to win."

Clean politics might look different from what has been highlighted during this campaign, he said, "but it's not different from what people out there are expecting" from their elected representatives.

Before he headed out for a round of door-knocking, Mr. Dryden drew on a familiar technique he uses when encouraging others to step back from the fray, to stop and think.

"I always try to imagine what it's going to be like 10 years from now, and how people will look back on something that happened 10 years before," he said. "Will the country be better? Better in what ways? What will be the impact of this government, of that government?"

He used the same method in a recent essay about head shots in hockey. He suggested people will ask, "How could we be so stupid?" when they look back on head injuries in sport 50 years from now.

Asked if we are living in a head-shot era of politics, Mr. Dryden demurred in trademark fashion, then said, "Head shots are really dramatic; they take your breath away and they take your attention away and almost nothing else that has happened really seems to matter so much … and that's not a good thing in either a hockey game or in politics."

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