Is here to fix hockey’s dark­est prob­lem

Sharp - - CONTENTS - By Alex Nino Ghe­ciu • Illustration by Chloe Cush­man

For­mer NHL goalie and MP Ken Dry­den takes on the sport that made him fa­mous in his new book about con­cus­sions and player safety.

NO ONE’S SPENT MORE TIME THINK­ING ABOUT HOCKEY than Ken Dry­den. As goalie for the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens in the ’70s, he ruled the NHL, win­ning the Stan­ley Cup six times. Shortly af­ter re­tir­ing, he penned The Game — an in­ti­mate look at hockey from be­hind the mask, widely ac­knowl­edged as one of the best sports books ever writ­ten. Since then, his CV’S been im­pres­sively var­ied — lawyer, busi­ness­man, Toronto Maple Leafs pres­i­dent, Lib­eral MP, cab­i­net min­is­ter — but one thing has re­mained con­stant: his ob­ses­sion with the game.

Lately, how­ever, that fix­a­tion has turned into frus­tra­tion. In re­cent years, Dry­den’s taken the is­sue of con­cus­sions in hockey head-on, writ­ing op-eds and call­ing on sports ex­ec­u­tives to catch up with the sci­ence show­ing a re­la­tion­ship be­tween head trauma and long-term brain dam­age. His new book, Game Change, fo­cuses on the story of NHL de­fence­man Steve Mon­ta­dor, who was di­ag­nosed with chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy (CTE) af­ter his death at 35 in 2015. Dry­den wants to know why Mon­ta­dor isn’t still alive when he should be, and why the NHL isn’t do­ing more to pre­vent other play­ers from shar­ing his fate. And he’s about done wait­ing for an­swers.

Back when you played hockey, were con­cus­sions on your radar?

You knew when you got knocked out. It was like in comic books, where a char­ac­ter is see­ing stars. Later on, the phrase be­came “hav­ing your bell rung.” But it was just as it is now: you’re in­jured, and most of the time you seem fine. You get a shot to the shoul­der, you’re sore, you get treat­ment, and a few days af­ter you feel bet­ter and life goes on.

Now con­cus­sions are some­thing you’re very vo­cal about. Why?

When you’re in­volved in sports for a long time, you start to see the changes. Most are ex­cit­ing — the level of what play­ers can do gets higher and higher — but there are also other de­vel­op­ments. The last num­ber of years, I’ve been read­ing more pro­files, and some­times obit­u­ar­ies, of for­mer play­ers suf­fer­ing from de­men­tia or Alzheimer’s or some kind of cog­ni­tive prob­lem. And of­ten these are pre­sent­ing at a young age. I’ve also seen the im­pact, in the present, of play­ers go­ing down with head in­juries, and then a year later go­ing down again — some­times on a hit that seemed rou­tine. So I re­ally feel this is the most sig­nif­i­cant ques­tion fac­ing sports today.

Is there a rea­son you’re fo­cus­ing on Steve Mon­ta­dor’s life in par­tic­u­lar?

It’s be­cause the full story about con­cus­sions is not just about sci­ence, or about an in­jured player who has to re­tire, or about the chang­ing na­ture of a game. The full story is also about the lives af­fected. Part of Steve’s life is play­ing in the NHL and go­ing to the Stan­ley Cup fi­nals with the Calgary Flames, but an­other part of it is head in­juries. What is it like to feel symp­toms an 80-yearold might feel, but at 34? What is it like to have mem­ory prob­lems, anx­i­ety, and de­pres­sion? In all ap­pear­ances, you have an­other 50 years of op­por­tu­ni­ties, be­cause you have a rep­u­ta­tion and some money. But you’re liv­ing with a di­min­ished self. Those are the real stakes.

Last year, the NFL ac­knowl­edged the con­nec­tion be­tween head trauma and de­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases like CTE. Why has the NHL been so re­luc­tant to take the same step? I mean, be­sides the fact that they’re fac­ing a class-ac­tion law­suit about it from hun­dreds of play­ers…

Well, they haven’t gone be­fore a court yet, but I think what the NHL is ar­gu­ing now, in prepa­ra­tion, is “you haven’t

proved cau­sa­tion.” The player may have this con­di­tion, but who’s to say it hap­pened play­ing in the NHL? It might have hap­pened when you fell down the stairs at two years old. So long as you can’t prove cau­sa­tion, you don’t have a case. And that was the on­go­ing de­fence for the to­bacco com­pa­nies and the lead com­pa­nies and the as­bestos com­pa­nies. It’s the nor­mal de­fence now in terms of cli­mate change.

There’s a cer­tain pat­tern of re­sponse for each of these ques­tions — it goes from an un­aware­ness of the sci­ence to a de­nial of the sci­ence to a play­ing down of the sci­ence. But I didn’t re­al­ize the next step would be to wrap your­self in the flag of sci­ence and say, “We are a mod­ern peo­ple. We are so­phis­ti­cated, ev­i­dence-based peo­ple. And so, we look to sci­ence. But sci­ence doesn’t have the an­swer yet.” In­stead of sci­ence of­fer­ing bet­ter in­for­ma­tion, it ends up be­ing the shield stand­ing in the way of you tak­ing the next step.

“The full story about con­cus­sions is not just about sci­ence, or about an in­jured player who has to re­tire, or about the chang­ing na­ture of a game. It’s also about the lives af­fected.”

I guess the prob­lem is the sci­ence on CTE is still in its in­fancy.

Sci­ence takes time. It’s deal­ing with the best un­der­stand­ing of some­thing at any par­tic­u­lar mo­ment. At one point, sci­ence wasn’t aware the earth re­volved around the sun. Of course, sci­ence learns. And yet, games are played to­mor­row — by pro­fes­sion­als, but also by eight-yearolds. Par­ents are wor­ried about what may hap­pen to their son or daugh­ter in hockey. And so, de­ci­sions have to get made ac­cord­ing to the best in­for­ma­tion we have at this point.

So what de­ci­sion should NHL com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman make right now?

The first thing is to start with the no­tion that a hit to the head is a bad thing. Then you say, “What steps can we take that are con­sis­tent with that?” That’s what rules are for. A hun­dred years ago, the rule for high stick­ing came from an un­der­stand­ing that the head is vul­ner­a­ble when you play hockey. We de­cided to pe­nal­ize high stick­ing and the game de­vel­oped ac­cord­ingly. Nowa­days, if a stick comes up and you strike your op­po­nent in the face, penalty! Au­to­mat­i­cally. At first, peo­ple said, “He didn’t re­ally in­tend to!” But now the coaches don’t ar­gue and the play­ers don’t ar­gue.

Same thing in terms of a hit to the head. And don’t ask me “Did he re­ally tar­get the head?” No. That’s not the is­sue. It’s not about the per­pe­tra­tor; it’s about the vic­tim. The brain doesn’t dis­tin­guish be­tween whether a hit to the head is ac­ci­den­tal or not. The ques­tion is about the ef­fect it has on the brain. Start with that and the rip­ple ef­fect will be sig­nif­i­cant. And play­ers will adapt be­cause they do all the time. Play­ers and coaches are among the most cre­ative peo­ple on earth be­cause they’re al­ways imag­in­ing their next move.

Peo­ple are wor­ried that chang­ing the rules will change the feel of the game. Hockey fans don’t like change. Just look at what hap­pened when they re­placed Ron Ma­clean with Strombo!

Well, if these fans were real purists, they would know the his­tory of this game. The game they think is un­change­able started with a few rugby play­ers from Mcgill in 1875. And that game was played the same way rugby was at the time: with­out sub­sti­tu­tions. Every­one played the whole game. Even more sig­nif­i­cantly, in the first 54 years of hockey, you couldn’t pass the puck for­ward. It had to be a lat­eral pass. If this game had never changed, today we’d be watch­ing a sport mov­ing at a snail’s pace. The fact is, this game has al­ready changed im­mensely, and for the most part much for the bet­ter.

But has our love of the game changed? Be­tween the con­cus­sion is­sue, the ug­li­ness over how the NHL is han­dling it, and the de­clin­ing num­ber of kids en­rolling in hockey, is Canada on the rocks with its na­tional sport?

When I was a kid, it was pretty nat­u­ral for boys to play hockey — in part be­cause it’s a ter­rific game but also be­cause we didn’t have any­thing else to do. Hockey won by de­fault. You know, Hockey Night in Canada be­came a na­tional tra­di­tion partly be­cause there was no com­pe­ti­tion. The CBC was all there was! So in terms of the mo­nop­oly of at­ten­tion to­wards hockey, yes, that’s changed. Now there are so many other forms of en­ter­tain­ment and sports to play and ex­cit­ing things to do. But how many other ac­tiv­i­ties in this coun­try in­volve the same num­ber of peo­ple with the same de­gree of ob­ses­sion? Maybe there are more kids reg­is­tered for soc­cer than there are for hockey now, but soc­cer has de­vel­oped in Canada as a very re­cre­ational game, where you play once a week for a cou­ple months. Hockey in this coun­try is 11 months a year of many games and prac­tices a week, of puck han­dling and skat­ing clin­ics, of trav­el­ling on week­ends to tour­na­ments. It’s a full fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ence. Name an­other ac­tiv­ity in this coun­try that in­volves so many peo­ple and so much com­mit­ment and so much end­less dis­cus­sion time like hockey does. I’m not sure I can.

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