Dry­den makes case to end all hits to head

Montreal Gazette - - SPORTS - HERB ZURKOWSKY hzurkowsky@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/Her­bZurkowsky1

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.”

PIERRE OBENDRAUF

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

$32

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