Ottawa International Writers Festival: Ken Dryden hopes to change The Game and save some lives

Ken Dryden's new book is calling for changes in the way hockey is played to prevent or at least reduce concussions.

Ken Dryden has had two concussions in his life. One happened when he was a 12 year old quarterback. He was blindsided when he dropped back to pass. He woke up on the sidelines. The other happened when he decided he would learn how to skateboard with his nine year old son. That one left him “feeling horrible” for a few weeks.

But he never was concussed because of hockey, even though he spent 13 years with the Montreal Canadiens as one of the best goaltenders of his generation, all the while sporting a thin plastic mask that was his signature on the ice.

The game Dryden played in was much different. It was slower, the players were smaller and the force of body checks was, as a result, not the same. In the 1970s, players were taught not to shoot high in practice and that carried over into games. As well, they did not crash the net routinely, as players seem to do these days, he said in an interview about his new book Game Change which tells the tragic story of NHLer Steve Montador, who died alone in 2015, afflicted by an injured brain.

The understanding of concussions was much different then too. There was no awareness of the condition produced by repeated brain trauma called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. You had your bell rung and were supposed to shake it off.

Today hockey remains the fastest game on the planet with large men playing within the confines of a small rink. When bodies collide in today’s NHL, people get hurt, careers are affected, lives may be ruined. Witness the concussion suffered recently by Ottawa Senators Mark Borowiecki when New York Ranger Brendan Smith “finished his check.”

It is the ruin caused by CTE that concerns Dryden. Certainly the most cerebral player of his generation, he is also a lawyer, a former president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and a cabinet minister who once considered a run at the Liberal party leadership. He is also the author of several books including the much-lauded The Game about his time in hockey.

Now he’s on a book tour for Game Change and will be in Ottawa on Nov. 28 at an event sponsored by the Ottawa International Writers Festival.

Montador was a plugger. Good enough to make the league and stick. But he was not a star. He made the grade and stayed with physical play. It’s a familiar story. And event though they know the dangers, the players will do whatever it takes to make the NHL. You can understand why … the money is great, the adulation is addictive and the accomplishment is tremendous.

But the book is just a beginning, Dryden says. He’s on a mission to convince the NHL to change its game to eliminate, as much as possible, hits to the head.

Dryden’s event comes at an interesting time. The capital is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NHL with a rink on the lawn of Parliament, a new monument to the game and outdoor games at Lansdowne Park with the Senators playing  the Montreal Canadiens followed by a match between the Ottawa 67s and the Gatineau Olympiques.

He hopes to change things, he says.

“Success for this book does not have to do with sales,” he said. “It has to do with whether decisions are made that fix the problem. If things don’t change it (the book) fails.”

Book sales are “not why I did book or why I am approaching it. This is the beginning (of this process) it isn’t the end of it.”

Dryden doesn’t believe that government should step in and enforce health and safety rules on the NHL.

“What I have tried to do, is not make it that discussion.” He would prefer the sport deal with it.

“What has traditionally happened with sports is that they have been kind of left alone … seen as something separate from other activities.”

But games can change. Look at baseball’s reserve clause, Dryden says. It was struck down and now free agent players in all sports are cashing in on their success.

“The public wants sports to be different. It is part of the pleasure of it. Fans want leagues and sports to govern themselves to the greatest extent.

In the case of the hits to the head that cause the concussions that lead to CTE, Dryden believes the league needs to take steps to ban them through the use of the penalty box and changing attitudes on the ice by ending mantras such as finishing a check.

“Take situation of the game, see where the problem is … hits to the head… and see when they happen, and see how we penalize them for the most part.” And then ask “do we discourage players enough given the potential severity of the problem.”

The key to halting CTE is, as much as possible, prevention.

He believes the NHL, even with its department of player safety and its concussion protocols, is frozen in place by the size of the problem.

“It is a mountain of a problem but they don’t have a clue about how to lessen the size of the mountain, let alone get rid of the mountain.

“That is why I have spent so much time in this book (explaining): where the game came from, how it got to be where it is, when these things happen and player behaviour.”

He says the game need not be afraid of change because, really, it changes all the time.

The NHL has created mandatory and automatic penalties for example one for delay of game when a puck is shot out of the rink by a defender, and for a stick to the face and head. This year referees are cracking down on slashing the hands and wrists of players.

“Is the game no longer the game because they are cutting back on slashing?”

Nor do violent hits to the head and violent body checks sell the game any more. He believes fans are turning away from those and enjoying much more the high speed artistry of today’s truly spectacular goals and play-making.

“The game is evolving into something more exciting than it ever has been. The creative mind and ability to handle the stick have caught up with possibilities of speed.”

He also believes the game is locked into its own mythology known to some as the hockey code.

“It’s time to start seeing the game again; the game that is really there. See it for what it is, then, I think if the NHL does that, it can go in a different direction.

“If the brain would only co-operate, but the brain is not impressed.”

This is the perfect time to take the steps he is urging.

“We are coming to the end of the 100th anniversary and celebration of the professional game. The best legacy of such a celebration is to guarantee the future.”

Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey
Ken Dryden (Signal)
In town: The author will be at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington St. on Nov. 28 at 7 p.m. The event is sold out.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.