Ken Essay Hockey

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, day-long 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 well-trained 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.”

Game Change. The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey. By Ken Dryden. Signal, McLelland & Stewart, 357 pages, $32


Then a Montreal trainer whispered, “They’re drinking mineral water,” as if the Soviets were dilettantes.

I was caught up in disrespecting the Soviets. The Montreal Gazette polled the journalists for predictions. My answer: “The N.H.L. team will slaughter them in eight straight.”

After I asked how good the Russians were, the Rangers’ feisty coach, Emile Francis, probably spoke for everyone in hockey when he blurted: “I’m sick and tired of hearing about them. They’re not in our league.”

The Canadians made fun of just about everything the Soviet skaters did, on and off the ice. Their cage helmets evoked laughter. Most of the Canadians did not wear helmets.

“Let’s see what happens to them when they get hit,” Rangers left wing Vic Hadfield said after I suggested that the Soviets were fast and strong.

Hadfield was part of the Rangers’ Goal-a-Game, or GAG, Line with Jean Ratelle at center and Rod Gilbert on the right wing. What did it matter that Team Canada had been assembled only two and a half weeks before their first game? The GAG Line was intact.

Harry Sinden, the streetwise former coach of the Bruins, came out of retirement to coach Canada. He assembled his players and set the tone.

“Canada,” he told them, “is first in the world in two things: hockey and wheat. In that order.”

It reinforced the image that we, south of the border, had of Canada and that many Canadians had of themselves.

My press-box seat for Game 1 at the Forum was directly over the Canadians’ goal. A rising roar greeted them as they took the ice in red-and-white uniforms with a huge maple leaf on the front of their jerseys. In a sense, they were skating in their country’s flag. I looked down at the figure of goalie Ken Dryden swatting away slap shots in practice. He stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed more than 200 pounds, a symbol that hockey players were growing bigger and stronger.

It was hot in the old arena, which had not been designed for late summer hockey, and the ice was rutted. The Soviets were skittering like bugs on a pond during warm-ups, skating those daffy circles, dashing around, passing, passing, passing.

Then the game began. Thirty seconds later, Esposito gave Canada the lead. The game was barely six minutes old when Paul Henderson made it 2-0. I felt sorry for the Soviets. Yet they didn’t hang their heads.

I remembered Sinden telling me that the Soviets would skate in the same methodical fashion whether they were up or down. It was as if they had no emotion, no memory of what had happened. They were out there doing the job they were trained to do. If someone belted them into the boards, they shrugged it off and continued skating. I began to admire their grit.

I watched the Soviets move the puck toward Dryden. They passed the blue line, and my view was extraordinary: the Soviets stopped suddenly and got into position — pieces in a chess match. Canadian skaters blocked the middle. But Alexander Yakushev sent the puck darting into the players in front of him. Somehow, as if guided by some out-of-this-world technology, it slithered through untouched to Evgeny Zimin, who was standing whispering distance from Dryden. Zimin swatted at the puck. It flew past Dryden, the prettiest goal I had ever seen.

The Soviets tied the score while short-handed. In the second period, they went ahead, and then they followed that with still another goal. Suddenly, the crowd moved to sullen from stunned, and damned Dryden with faint-praise applause whenever he did make a save. Final score: 7-3.

The result was a shock to Canada’s nervous system, front-page news the next day.

“We Lost” was The Sunday Express headline.

The French-Canadian newspaper headlines were just as mournful: “Une Leçon,” and “Le Canada Écrasé.”

On the train to Toronto for Game 2, I sat with Eagleson. He conceded that the scouts for Canada had not done their job well. He suggested, though, that the Soviets had known they were being scouted and did not show everything they could do. (That paranoia manifested itself repeatedly, from players to coaches to management, up to the closing seconds of Game 8 in Moscow.)

Dryden’s father, Murray, approached.

“You suckered us!” he shouted at Eagleson. “What kind of scouting did you have? You told us we’d kill them. You made us think the Russians were a bunch of fools.”

Eagleson, who looked like a high school science teacher in his wire-framed glasses, climbed over me to get face to face with Murray Dryden. They started to argue. Dryden accused Eagleson of not doing enough groundwork. Eagleson called him a sore loser.

The angst of Canada was being played out in front of me.

I went to Maple Leaf Gardens to see the off-day workout, where the Canadian left wing Frank Mahovlich was asked to rate the Soviets.

“Give them a football, and in two years, they’d win the Super Bowl,” he said.

Sinden stunned everyone by benching Ratelle, Hadfield and Gilbert for Game 2, and he sat Dryden in favor of Tony Esposito, Phil’s brother.

“Before this started,” Sinden said, “I was just a guy from Rochester with a million friends. Now I can count them on one hand.”

The Canadians won, 4-1, pressing and hitting repeatedly, dumping the puck in and chasing it, and receiving superior goaltending.

The series was getting interesting, but I left for home. New York’s flagship public television station, WNET, saw the value in showing the games, and I was asked to do commentary between periods of the broadcasts.

After a tie in Winnipeg and another Canadian loss in Vancouver, the series moved to the Soviet Union. I wasn’t there, but Phil Esposito told me that the Canadian players suspected that K.G.B. agents were spying on them.

The Soviets won their first home game, 5-4. Canada had one victory and a tie in five games, but the team had a wild party in Phil Esposito’s room that night. And somehow, the players pulled together.

Canada won Games 6 and 7 to tie the series at 3-3-1. The Canadians’ confidence was peaking, and when they trailed by 5-3 after two periods in the finale, they didn’t panic.

Canada tied the score at 5-5, but the goal judge did not hit the red-light switch. Eagleson charged over to argue. Soldiers pulled him away.

The Canadians rescued Eagleson and hoisted him over the boards to the ice. He slid his way to the safety of the Canadians’ bench. Yvan Cournoyer’s score counted, and that set the stage for the biggest goal in the history of Canadian hockey.

Henderson thrashed at a rebound of a shot by Esposito and finally scored. Thirty-four seconds later, the Canadians were not exactly champions. It was only an exhibition series. Maybe they were simply vindicated. Maybe they were the best team in the world, after all.

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