Steve Montador never won the Stanley Cup. He won’t be in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was never even an all-star. And yet, his lasting impact on the game could be even greater than any of those accomplishments.
Montador had a long history with concussions in the NHL, a career that spanned 10 seasons with six different teams, but through hard work and grit, Montador always seemed to find a way to get himself back on the ice. As his career came to an end, he was not the “Monty” everyone remembered. After he died in 2015, the Montador family donated his brain to science, where it was revealed the 35-year-old had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.
To learn more about Montador’s life, how to fix the concussion problem in hockey, and who is the one decision-maker who can make that change, Maclean’s spoke with hockey legend Ken Dryden about his latest book, Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey.
Q: What kind of hockey player was Steve Montador?
A: He was a good player. He wasn’t great, which is uncommon for somebody who makes the NHL. Usually, when you’re eight or nine years old you’re a superstar in your own area, and he wasn’t. He went undrafted in the NHL but was eventually signed as a free agent by the Calgary Flames. He was a little undersized as a defenceman at about six feet tall and just over 200 lbs. He was a good skater and somebody who loved to be in the middle of the action—and he was the same way off the ice.
Q: And then concussions obviously had a large impact on his life. What kind of person was he after the concussions started to have their effect?
A: He changed. That’s what happens when you have brain injuries. We see it in people who are older and they start to lose some of their abilities, and then they start to lose their confidence. Well, a lot of these things were happening to Steve in his early 30s. He was always not only forgetting his keys but he’d forget where his car was. After he retired, he had a car dealer on speed dial who he would always contact to get him new keys. It’s the kind of things when they happen a little bit, they’re sort of funny. And then start to be worrying. And then they’re not funny at all. Anxiety. Depression. A lot of symptoms where you start not to be yourself. By the end, it was very much not Steve.
Q: I remember watching Steve Montador during the Calgary Flames Stanley Cup run. [The Flames lost in Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup finals.] People used to talk about him as the guy who would give his team his everything. How has giving everything changed from when you played hockey [in the 70s] to someone like Steve, who gave everything just to make the NHL? How has that “everything” changed?
A: Everybody at every stage will give everything. The question is, what is everything at that time? When I was growing up, we played 50 games a year, including exhibition games, regular season, playoffs. You couldn’t play more. You couldn’t play in the summer, the ice here was gone. There were no hockey schools. We would practice once a week—and we gave everything.
Then time passes. Technology allows rinks to stay open and keep their ice. Some people decide if there are camps, why shouldn’t there be hockey camps? We can play hockey in the spring. We can play a little bit in the summer. We can play in the fall. What is there to stop us? Quickly, what becomes the possible becomes the norm.
For somebody like Steve as a kid, he was playing most of the months of the year. And when he wasn’t playing there was off-ice training. And in the summer, there was off-season training. That everything is really an all-consuming life.
Q: Are players giving up more of their body—or in Steve’s case, his brain—to try and reach that everything?
A: To some extent yes. If you’re a 40-goal scorer, that everything is scoring 40 goals. Historically, if you’re a fourth-line player, it meant you were a guy who would give energy to the game. You’d go out as if you’re coming out the starting blocks, run around like crazy for 40 seconds and get off to try and generate a boost for your team. And on the fourth line, you’d [also] have the goons, the specialty fighter.
There’s a certain moment in a game when the team seems to be dragging and they need the temperature of the game to change, so you go out and start trouble and get into a fight. You do the everything that is there for you to do. Steve’s everything wasn’t to score goals.
Q: You played in the Summit Series of 1972, Canada against the Soviets. How did the tournament effect the way Steve Montador later learned to play the game?
A: Canadians always knew Europeans played differently, but that assumption was that it was inferior. Well then the ’72 series happens and that other style of play is showing itself to be really competitive. Historically in [Canadian] hockey, the focus was on the puck carrier. He was the great player who’d rush it from end to end. The teammates would be along for the ride to a great extent.
The Soviet style of play was the reverse. The most important players are those who don’t have the puck. They can go the fastest because they’re not held back by carrying the puck.
What happens when passing becomes the focus rather than puck carrying, the game starts to move faster. If you’re going to be moving faster, you’d better be in shape. Hockey has gone from the equivalent of running a mile to running a 100-m sprint. The players in the 1950s were playing 2-minute shifts. Now it’s 30 seconds. It’s a relay race.
Q: And for Steve Montador, who wasn’t even born in ’72, would that mean he’s hitting guys at higher speeds?
A: That’s part of it. For decades, the most dangerous instrument on the ice was the stick. It was lumber. It was a heavy instrument and you could do heavy damage with it. Everyone knew that and the rules reflected that: no high sticking, no slashing.
Now, the most dangerous instrument on the ice is the body. With the greater speeds, you have many more collisions and collisions at a greater force.
Q: Who are you writing this book for? The NHL player of today who has had concussions? The parent of a young player?
A: Is this a hockey book? Sure. It’s about a hockey player. Is it about science? It is. And it’s about the awkward juxtaposition of science and any activity. We are modern, sophisticated people. We like evidence-based things. Then we get to this very interesting place where we come to understand all those things then make the public and decision-makers aware of them.
We assume that awareness is by itself the answer, but it isn’t because we aren’t the decision makers. Somebody else is the decision maker. It drives scientists crazy. They’ll do all this [research]—why don’t people decide to do something.
Q: You wrote a book about concussions, but you are not a decision-maker. Who is the decider who can have an impact?
A: There’s really only one decision maker in hockey and it’s [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman. I know Gary Bettman pretty well. I was the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs for seven years during Gary’s time as commissioner. I’m sure when he started as commissioner in 1993, he’d never imagine that in 2017 he would be the singular decision maker in hockey—but he is.
To me, this is the good news. Gary is completely capable and has the ability, the status and authority to do what needs to be done. The basic problem all the way along with hockey and other sports dealing with head injuries is: what the heck do we do about them? I think what we need is to start at the essence: hits to head are a bad thing. Hard hits to the head and many hits to the head are very bad things. This is about no hits to the heads, no excuses—and you start there.
Q: If there were no hits to the head in the NHL, no fighting and no “finishing your check,” is that an NHL that Steve Montador would have been able to make?
A: Maybe. Maybe not. I think yes, but there are some players in the NHL now who wouldn’t be. It becomes one of the distracting arguments. They’ll say “if the rule changes this way, what about Fred? Fred’s a great guy and now he won’t have a career.” Yeah, Fred is a great guy. But if Fred isn’t there, there’s Tom. And Tom’s a great guy too.
Q: Your answer seems quite simple and there’s a decision maker you know personally to some extent in Gary Bettman. How come he won’t make these changes? Have you talked to him about this?
A: We’ve talked about it and we’ll see what happens. The idea of doing this book is when it’s done, it’s not done. No. To me, when the book is published, that’s the beginning.
Q: A lot of science is looking for a cure. There are helmets that look to reduce concussions. There are those looking at medicines. Is that the right approach?
A: When you’ve got a problem, you seek out every answer. As all of us do this, we seek out the most obvious and easiest answers first. The most obvious and easiest answer if you’ve got a head injury is a better helmet. The problem is there’s no evidence that it is the answer.
I’ve watched a couple equipment manufacturers make presentations. They’re very slick. They’re very well done. And they usually start with the same disclaimer: there is no evidence that helmets reduce the frequency of concussions. Then they’ll go on for the next 10 minutes about the new technologies and materials. You come away going “isn’t this amazing?” It’s so amazing you forget the opening line, that it doesn’t do anything. It has no impact on concussions.
Q: Is there something hockey moms can do to address this problem?
A: They watch. They live with their kids. If you’re a parent, you worry. That’s what you do, that’s your job. You can decide that you do know something about what’s going on, even if the message back is “what do you know? You never played the game.”
One of the things that comes to mind to me all the time is one of the great social public organizations of our time: Mothers Against Drunk Driving. For decades, who were the drivers? Boys and men. What do boys and men do? They drink. Then they do them together. And you’ve got drinking and driving, but boys will be boys. Until at some point, some mothers said that’s not good enough. There are thousands of people killed by drunk drivers and “boys will be boys” just is not good enough.
I wonder what would happen if you had an organization, and instead of being MADD, it was MAHH: Mothers Against Head Hits. I can see the T-shirts: “No head hits. No excuses.” And as soon as the men start offering explanations, they say: “No. Not good enough.”
Q: At the end of your book, you mention an unnamed 8-year-old who was on the ice at the same time as your grandson. He’s skating around and having the time of his life. What do you want him to get from the book—or what do you want his mom or his coaches to get from the book?
A: Every local arena has at least one of these kids. This kid could fly. He virtually could do anything he wanted to on the ice and you could see the excitement in his face that he could do all this.
You watch him and you think “wow, what is he going to be like two years from now? Five years from now? But you also know there will be setbacks along the way. He’s going to get injured somewhere down the line. Will some of the spark go out? Will some of that joy leave his body? It’s very likely at some point he’ll get a concussion.
What I would hope for his parents and for his coaches, is first of all to say: there is another way to play. It can be a game that is just as exciting to play and watch, but is also safer to play. For those parents, I hope they come away from this knowing what the stakes are.
Steve Montador was an everyman player who was getting everything out of playing a game that you could hope for your kid. Your kid could get all that, but without living with the kinds of consequences that Steve did. The choice isn’t “this game or no game.” Never allow your coaches or the officials in your league to forget that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.