Dryden makes case to end all hits to head
Ken Dryden didn’t want to write another article or essay on concussions, knowing it would merely generate more awareness on an issue that has become prevalent in professional sports. Why overstate the obvious?
Instead, the former Canadiens goaltender in the 1970s wanted to tackle a project that, he hoped, would lead to significant action. And he wanted the central figure to be someone the reader could relate to.
Two years later, Dryden has written his fifth book — Game Change, chronicling the life and death of NHL defenceman Steve Montador, and what Dryden believes the league, and commissioner Gary Bettman, must undertake to reduce brain injuries in the sport.
“To understand what concussions are about, you have to write the story of a person. Otherwise it’s an issue. I wanted the reader to feel a connection and contact,” Dryden said during an interview Monday morning, part of a whirlwind, daylong Montreal media tour promoting his book.
“What’s the impact of a concussion on somebody’s life? What does the moment feel like? The moment after? The next day, week, month? How does life change,” Dryden explained, saying he didn’t want to concentrate on a superstar player.
And so, although he never met Montador, he decided the story would revolve around someone who played nearly 600 games for six teams between 2001-12; a rugged blueliner found dead in February 2015 at age 35; a player who had been concussed more than once and whose brain showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
While Dryden and Montador remained strangers, the 70-year-old interviewed family members and friends. He had access to doctors’ records and journals Montador kept that didn’t paint a pretty picture.
“He was having big memory problems, not the kind you have when you’re 33, 34 or 35. Big depression problems. Anxiety. Big problems with executive functioning,” Dryden said. “The most revealing part is they became more frenetic, less understandable. It wasn’t what he said, it was how he was expressing himself.
“Whether he had CTE or not, it’s not a nice life to have.”
As the game has become faster, the players bigger and the shifts shorter, the equipment evolves and improves — except, Dryden fears, the protection of a player’s head.
“There’s no evidence from studies that a helmet reduces the incidents of concussion,” Dryden states. “The most dangerous instrument on the ice is the body
because of the speed at which the body moves. We’ve understood it makes a player vulnerable, especially the head. It’s not the danger of the stick or elbow to the head. It’s the body. The body’s a whole lot more formidable.”
Dryden doesn’t want checking abolished from the game. Not fighting either, although he finds it an unnecessary tool. Instead, Dryden wants hits to the head eradicated. Coaches and players, he said, eventually will adapt. Dryden has sent a copy of his book to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, but has received no response.
“You focus on no hits to the head. No excuses,” said Dryden, a former politician, McGill professor and president of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “Whether it was intentional or not, with an elbow or a shoulder or a stick or a fist. Whether the head was targeted. The brain doesn’t distinguish; it’s the same blow.”
While the book focuses on Montador, Dryden also has chapters on former NHL players Keith Primeau and Marc Savard, two who were forced to retire due to head injuries, to see what their lives are now like. Primeau, somewhat surprisingly, expressed relief to be told his career was over and has experienced recurring symptoms. Savard, meanwhile, said he only felt normal when he was playing, so focused was he on the task at hand.
Despite the game’s lucrative contracts, Dryden writes about 11 reasons why players feel compelled to play — everything from pressure and expectations from teammates, fans and coaches to the fear an injured player will be replaced.
“Players want to play. They want to find every possible way to play,” Dryden said. “They learn how to fake good and bad, you do the baseline test so often. When you’re tested again, you know how to fake good because they want to continue to play.”
The problem, Dryden said, is science takes time but there’s always another game to be played in a day or two. While the doctors are welltrained and their tests rigorous, Dryden intimated too many rely on their observations when they should be reacting to gut instinct. Dryden believes it’s often a team’s athletic therapist best equipped to know the state of a player’s health.
Any inaction by Bettman would be inexcusable, Dryden argues, because there are answers and solutions that would help the game extricate itself from the issue — unlike football, where the problem appears more deeply rooted.
And Dryden, who himself suffered one diagnosed concussion when he was a 12-year-old quarterback knocked unconscious on a hit from behind — “it was exciting, a badge of honour,” he said — believes Bettman will eventually respond, and act.
“Gary Bettman’s smart, capable and experienced. He has earned 24 years of authority. He’s far and away the central decision-maker,” Dryden said. “If these changes are going to happen, they’re going to happen with him as commissioner — because this is not fair, not right and not necessary. Because he’s in that position of authority.
“Yes, I absolutely believe these will happen.”
In Game Change, former Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden outlines the life and death of NHLer Steve Montador, who died in 2015 at the age of 35, to illustrate the devastating effects of concussions.
Game Change. The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey. By Ken Dryden Signal, McLelland & Stewart 357 pages