Ken Dryden: The outrageous, embarrassing, unmissable problem with hockey

"Different decisions have to be made, and decision-makers have to be willing to make them."

Retired NHL goaltender Ken Dryden addresses the "We Can Do Better" Governor General's Conference on Concussions in Sport at Rideau Hall the official residence of the Governor General in Ottawa Tuesday December 6,2016. Finding the next generation of innovators who are shaping Canada's future is not that different than discovering hockey talent, says former NHL goaltender Ken Dryden. They are out there, you just have to look for them. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Retired NHL goaltender Ken Dryden addresses the “We Can Do Better” Governor General’s Conference on Concussions in Sport at Rideau Hall the official residence of the Governor General in Ottawa Tuesday December 6,2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

I heard about Steve Montador’s death on the radio on the day he died, February 15, 2015. I knew his name, and knew I must have seen him play, but I had no recollection of him. I wondered how, and why, a thirty-five-year-old recently retired hockey player had died.

In every era, there is some big thing that we have gotten wrong – tobacco, asbestos, drinking and driving. Something that twenty-five or fifty years later, history looks back on and says, What were they thinking? How could they be so stupid? I have come to believe that in sports this blind spot will turn out to be brain injuries. If blows to the head have resulted in punch drunk fighters in boxing, something we had known for decades, why would blows to the head in football or hockey be any different? But I also know that awareness of a problem isn’t enough. Different decisions have to be made, and decision-makers have to be willing to make them. Most often, as I have learned, in any field (not just sports), they haven’t been, and don’t.

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What would make hockey’s decision-makers change their minds? Why now?

I had tried and failed over several years to interest hockey’s central decision-makers, the NHL and Gary Bettman, the NHLPA and Don Fehr, in creating a global conference on all aspects related to concussions – on its career- and life-impact on players, on the state of our science and research into brain injuries, on helmets and the equipment we use, on the way we play. To bring together in one place the most respected people in all of these fields, the decision-makers and influencers, and to do this in an open forum, on-air and online before a public that doesn’t know what to believe or what to do, before parents and coaches who want their kids to experience the best of sports, but worry. For everybody there to puzzle this through, Gary Bettman and Don Fehr included, because nobody knew all that they wanted to know and needed to know to make decisions of this importance. And all this done together in the spirit of no finger-pointing, no piling on about the past, that it’s okay not to know, but it’s not okay not to act. This was about the future.

The conference didn’t happen. In the end, Bettman and Fehr were at least cautious; maybe they weren’t interested, maybe they thought there was a better way. So if not a conference, what? Brain injuries don’t go away, and efforts to reduce them significantly can’t either.

Maybe a book might be the right approach. A book could cover the complete ground. It would need, first of all, to be a biography, the story a life, because a concussion without a person is only a statistic. A person gives a concussion meaning. It lets us know, and never lets us forget, what is at stake. Dr. Lili-Naz Hazrati, the researcher who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in Steve’s brain, said about Steve after her finding, “This was a young person who shouldn’t be dead now.” What was this young person like? What had his life been? Where did he come from? What did he like to do? What about his parents? His brother and sister? His friends? His teammates? When they thought of him, what did they think? What came to mind? What do they remember? What makes them laugh, and scratch their heads, and cry? What stories about him do they tell? What seems important to them? So, when a person like Steve gets some concussions and forgets where his car is, when he gets so down and so anxious that he races his mind so he can’t think what he doesn’t want to think, and feel what he doesn’t want to feel, and can’t keep up even to his own train of thought, why should that matter to them? Why should they care? Why does it matter that he died when he didn’t need to die, fifty years before his time?

READ: Handling concussions is a team sport. And we all need to be in the game.

A book would also allow the opportunity to get into the awkward confluence of science and sport. I had once played on a team where, it was jokingly said, the person at the top didn’t like having doctors around because doctors might confirm what a player felt, and tell him not to play when otherwise he would. Now there are many doctors around a team, of greater sophistication and specialty, but this awkwardness remains. Players want to play. Who’s willing to tell them they can’t? Science takes time, but games are played tomorrow. Wonky knees are one thing; wonky brains another. A book could get at all this.

It could also get into the game itself. Purists love to talk of the timelessness and inviolability of the game. Any game. The game’s the game, they say. You can’t change the game. But these purists don’t know history. Once football players didn’t wear helmets; once baseball players wore small winter-sized gloves to cover their hands not the space around them, to take away the sting of a line drive, not an extra-base hit. And once hockey players had to advance the puck up the ice by rushing it. They couldn’t pass it forward. This was hockey, for more than fifty years. The game is always changing. It moves faster – the ice and equipment are better; player shifts are shorter. Players have less space, less time. There are more frequent collisions, at higher speed. Once sticks were the most dangerous instruments on the ice; now it is bodies. Once knees were a player’s most vulnerable body part; now it is heads. When change happens other changes happen, but sometimes not fast enough or completely enough.

A book could talk about this. It could go into where we are, and how we got here.

And a book could talk about all of these things together. It could separate out the pet theories that interrupt every conversation and distract it into nowhere. It could get at the real problem with concussions, in order to get at the real answer. Awareness is important. We need always to know more. So we study and research, and through articles, conferences, documentaries and movies make all this better known, and because we are now able to see that what is wrong is so outrageously, embarrassingly, unmissably wrong, we know that right will be done because how can it not be done? Except – often it isn’t. The answer to the problem of concussions is not about awareness, and more awareness. It is about decision-making and better decisions.

A few months after Steve’s death, I met with Dr. Charles Tator, an eminent neurosurgeon and researcher, whose team included Dr. Hazrati who had examined Steve’s brain, and told him what I was thinking. If I was to write this book, I said, it would require not only the participation of doctors and researchers, and of Steve’s family, but their enthusiastic participation. They had to want to get at the story, because they had a need to make something better. I asked him to introduce me to the Montadors.

READ: The damage done by concussions

I met first with Steve’s father, Paul, and then with the whole family together, with Steve’s mother Donna, his brother Chris, and sister Lindsay. This was only a few months after Steve’s death; each of them was dealing with their grief differently; all of them seemed in an emotional daze. But beneath their sadness, by the end of our talk one thing was clear: what they wanted more than anything was that something a little bit good come out of something so bad.

I decided to go ahead with the book.

It has been quite an experience. As is always the case in writing a book, it comes to be about lots of things you know, lots more you didn’t know you knew, and lots more still you didn’t know at all. And then it’s about putting together all of these things that present themselves to you, to discover what they say, and say it. For me, this was also about the weird little points of connection I found that I had with Steve that I could never have guessed. Jim Donaldson was Steve’s coach when he was twelve. Jim and I were teammates in junior B with the Etobicoke Indians. Steve played junior B at St. Mike’s with Kevin O’Flaherty. Kevin’s father, John, and I, and Jim, were all teammates together on the Indians. Steve’s teammate Daniel Tkaczuk went to the same high school as my son, Michael. Steve’s brother, Chris, went to high school at Father Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. The president of the school was Barry MacKenzie, one of the teachers and coaches was Terry O’Malley, both of whom I played with on the Canadian National Team.

But more than this, it was all of the surprises about Steve that emerged from the stories of his family and friends, from his teammates and opponents, from those outside hockey entirely. I had begun with an informational and statistical skeleton: He was a defenceman. He was undrafted out of junior and signed as a free agent by Calgary. He played all or part of ten NHL seasons, with Calgary, Florida, Anaheim, Boston, Buffalo and Chicago. He played 571 regular season games, scored 33 goals, accumulated 131 points, and had 807 minutes in penalty. From these details and stories, a picture of Steve began to come into view: he was, what is called, a “5-6,” or sometimes a “7,” defenceman. A “1-2” defenceman, with a difference-maker’s skills, plays on the powerplay and gets about 25 minutes of ice time a game. A “3-4” defenceman plays about 20 minutes. A “5-6” guy, like Steve, gets the rest, about 15 minutes a game. Not quite good enough or consistent enough to play more often, he has to do what his coaches ask, what his teammates want, what the circumstances of the game demand. He has to defend when he needs to defend, add offence when the team is behind, “change the temperature” of a game with a fight when his team needs a boost. I didn’t think about this when I decided to write about Steve, I only realized this later, but Steve was an “Everyman” player.

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What I also didn’t truly know was the effect of concussions. Here too, I knew the informational and statistical skeleton. I knew about feeling bad for a few days and being out of the line-up – I’ve probably had two concussions in my life (one in football, the other skateboarding). I knew about some of the lingering conditions with some people – the headaches, the light-sensitivity. I knew what had happened in some of the most tragic cases, in the players who died, and who were later discovered to have had CTE. I didn’t know, and I certainly didn’t understand, all the days in between. All the hours. What a concussion felt like. All the “sub-conditions,” as they have come to be gently called, that make a life lousy.

In other books I’ve written, after they’ve been published, after a few weeks doing interviews and on the road, the books sell, or they don’t sell, people get something out of them, or they don’t. Everything is over and done. With this book, before I had even written a word, I knew that when it was published and the book tour was over, that it was not done. The work is only beginning.

Ken Dryden is the author of Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey.