Outrage and Hope: “Game Change” by Ken Dryden
Book Review by Josh Brewster,Buffalo Sports Page NHL Expert
“This book, above all, is about outrage and hope,” writes author Ken Dryden.
The story of Steve Montador, the NHL defenseman who died suddenly at age 35 on February 15, 2015, forms the basis for Dryden’s challenging analysis of hockey’s past and future in Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey.
Montador spent his NHL career as a defenseman for the Calgary Flames, Florida Panthers, Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres and Chicago Blackhawks (in that order) from November 23, 2001 through March 27, 2012.
A 5th or 6th defenseman for most of his NHL career, Montador went undrafted, but was eventually signed by then-Calgary GM Craig Button during his days with his third junior club, the Peterborough Petes of the OHL.
Of average height (6’) but of limitless strength and determination, the broad-shouldered Montador worked his tail off from his earliest days, which Dryden recounts in great detail via extensive interviews with family, friends, players, physicians and medical researchers.
A first or second defenseman might get the power play minutes, play 25 minutes a night or more, and be counted on to win games. But a fifth or sixth defenseman is there “not to lose them,” writes Dryden. As time marches on, and age creeps in as a factor, players like Montador have to work even harder to remain in a league where younger and cheaper players are pressing for jobs.
Dryden delves in chilling detail into the posthumous study of Montador’s brain by Dr. Lili-Naz Hazrati, a Toronto neuropathologist, which proved that Montador suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or “CTE.”
Over the past decade, brain injury and CTE—which is at this time only detected after death—has ruled the public’s consciousness mostly in the case of the National Football League. The National Hockey League, however, is not immune by any stretch, and Dryden delves into the league’s response to the current crisis.
THIS IS NOT YOUR DAD’S NHL
Montador was the kind of player who knew that he’d have to, as Dryden notes, give “everything” to remain in the NHL.
“By the early 2000s, everything was a lot more than it used to be,” Dryden asserts.
Dryden also delves in detail into the cases of Marc Savard and Keith Primeau. Interviews with each offer a look into a hellish, career-ending concussion experience which has, and to some degree, will continue to impact the remainder of their lives.
The tentacles of concussion’s wrath are also examined in the case of none other than Sidney Crosby, the most famous of them all.
Dryden challenges the assumptions of the game’s caretakers, notably the assumption that every check must be “finished.” Dryden also suggests strongly that whether a player has his head up or not is irrelevant. If a player hits another player in the head with his stick, Dryden notes, there is no argument. He heads for the penalty box.
“If a guy’s got to be responsible for his stick,” wondered Montador’s friend Crosby, “why shouldn’t he be responsible for the rest of his body?”
“The traditionalist is blind,” Dryden states bluntly. “The game is much faster.”
He questions the now-famous Rule 48.1: “Illegal Check to the Head,” enacted in 2010-11 concurrent with the establishment of the Department of Player Safety, and what he describes as “misguided,” which he argues is a rule that “reflects a style of game and an understanding from another time.”
Dryden describes a modern NHL with its ever-shorter shifts, where all play is conducted at a sprint, as being vastly different than the NHL of prior decades.
As Montador’s head injuries piled up over the years, bouts with alcohol and drugs ran parallel, with long stretches of sobriety and recovery interspersed.
Montador is painted as a respected and loyal friend. Sadly, his brain injuries begin to sap his energy, change his personality, all recounted in exacting but compassionate detail. Through his life, Montador fights an internal struggle to power through his vexing illness from head injury, and as his career draws to a close, lives his final years terrorized by the notion that he may never be the same again, searching far and wide for remedies.
Through his career, he visits countless doctors, both employed by NHL teams and of the independent variety, who either declare him fit to play, or not, often in rapid succession and in seemingly contradictory fashion, the baseline tests for these injuries of curious usefulness it seems. Montador has “good brain days” and bad. His friends watch him slip and wish they could do more.
With an all-encompassing scope, Game Change is required reading for anyone who cares about the future of the game. Dryden’s candor about the attitudes of those “hockey guys” who are working under assumptions from another place and time are refreshing.
He implores NHL decision-makers, notably Bettman, to avoid waiting for science to offer a definitive path. Dryden argues that the decision-makers (Bettman, et al) must be bold enough to blaze a trail that strikes a compromise between speed and safety.
“When we think back a hundred years or more—to slavery, or to the absence of women’s rights—we now wonder, ‘how could they have been so stupid?’ In sports, it will be brain injuries. How could they—how could we—be so stupid?”
Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey by Ken Dryden (Published by Signal, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada, Ltd.)