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Ken Dryden’s anti-concussions mission

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Will there come a time when people look back and wonder why more wasn’t done to stop concussions? (Chaz Palla/AP)

By Stu Hackel

It was another bad week for concussions in the NHL. Sidney Crosby, who many hoped would be back in the Penguins’ lineup by now, is still unable to practice. Unsure of his return, he sought help from a specialist in Atlanta and is seeing another in California. Center Danny Briere was concussed in Saturday’s game against the Devils. He’s the sixth Flyer to suffer that injury this season.  Teammate James van Riemsdyk is still sidelined; Chris Pronger is out for the rest of the season, maybe longer, and his wife Lauren went public with their struggles (video). The Jets’ leading goal scorer, Evander Kane, joined the ranks late last week. The Bruins’ Marc Savard (photo above), whose career is in doubt after repeated concussions, disclosed the problems he’s having with headaches and memory.

When 28 players were concussed in December, we titled our post on the subject  “An Awful Month for NHL Concussions.” The way Hockey Hall of Famer Ken Dryden sees it, however, it would be a mistake to believe that this epidemic of head injuries is a temporary condition, and that the game will get past it the way one gets over a cold. We’re better off thinking that this painful situation is the way things in the NHL will continue to be.

“Everybody takes bad news and reacts in a certain kind of way,” he said over the phone from Toronto last week. “You ignore it, you deny it, you argue against it, all those sorts of things. But if it’s there and it doesn’t go away, eventually you need to confront it. Well, why not cut through the ignoring, the denying, the arguing back, and get to confronting it a little bit faster? Because it’s just a fact of life. Gary Bettman and (NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell know what next week’s headlines are going to be. They’re there.”

Dryden isn’t interested in fixing blame as much as starting to fix the problem. “It’s not a matter of pointing fingers; we know how difficult it is to deal with,” he says. “We can accept the fact that not much, and much less than should have been done, has been done.”

It seems as if Ken Dryden is on a mission. During the past four months, he’s written three articles urging the NHL to change its thinking about head injuries. His pieces were published simultaneously in The Globe and Mail and the online magazine Grantland (here, here and here). He’s appeared with Peter Mansbridge, the leading voice of CBC News — once as a member of a panel discussion on hockey violence with Scotty Bowman, Cassie Campbell-Pacall, and Elliotte Friedman (video), and earlier this month in a lengthy one-on-one segment (video). He’s spoken on high-profile radio programs, such as Prime Time Sports (audio), which is syndicated throughout Canada. All are excellent and well worth your time to read, watch or hear. You’ll get a full dose of Dryden’s thorough reasoning.

If your time is limited or your attention span is short, if the way you consume information is constrained by what you can gulp down between meetings or absorbed though social networks, Ken Dryden’s message may not penetrate. The problems he addresses are not simple and, my guess is, he’s not one to pretend that they can be resolved with a glib remark or a few 140-character Twitter posts. Nor can what he says be dismissed that easily. Really, it can’t be dismissed at all.

Dryden was hardly the first person to enter the head injury arena. TSN’s Bob McKenzie and NBC/SI’s Pierre McGuire have been talking about headshots and concussions since the middle of the 2000′s. And, as Commissioner Gary Bettman often reminds us, the NHL began researching concussions in 1997. But Dryden is hardly a neophyte on the subject of creating a safer sport. Fresh off his illustrious career in 1979, he wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated on why the NHL had not exploded as a major sport, as expected, in the 1970s — one reason being the league’s “passive attitude toward intimidation and violence.” So, Dryden was a forerunner, and in the articles and interviews above he speaks articulately, with a passion and urgency that few who’ve weighed in on this subject have matched.

Let’s back up for a second. Some readers may not know Ken Dryden, or at least the extent of all he has done and the weight he carries since he burst on the hockey scene over 40 years ago. If you do know, feel free to skip down a bit. But if you would like to play catch-up, start with this segment on his playing career from the award-winning series from the turn of the century, Legends of Hockey.

As if being a Hall of Fame goaltender, Ivy League graduate, and lawyer wasn’t enough, Dryden is also a noted writer. Having written the first examination of Soviet hockey by a Westerner, Face-Off At The Summit, while still a young player, he produced the best hockey book of all, one of the best sports books of all time, The Game.  Not confined to the written word, he was also the ABC-TV commentator for three Winter Olympics, including the 1980 Lake Placid Games, the home of the Miracle on Ice. In 1989, he produced an outstanding six-part TV series, Home Game, on the cultural connections between hockey and Canada, for which he wrote a companion book with Roy MacGregor.

Dryden became an executive with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he also moved beyond hockey, being named Ontario’s first youth commissioner in the mid-80s. In the ’90s, he wrote two other books, one on education, the daily life of an average family, and in both, he physically emersed himselves in the school and household of his subjects,. It ws the basis for his involvement in politics on a national scale, trying to determine how government can best serve average people. He was elected as a member of Canada’s Parliament and, as a federal Minister of Social Development, he championed early learning and child care.

So this is not your average former NHL goalie. Now out of politics, he’s teaching a course about Canada’s future at McGill University (and a more recent book is the baiss of that). “I’m not directly political the way I was for seven years as an MP,” he explains, “but I have an interest in the same kinds of public things. So the question is, how else do you do it?”

Teaching is one way, and acting on his concern for the game he loves is another.

“It’s just a question that’s bothered me a lot for a while,” he said about sports and brain injuries. “But more so in the last couple of years when there have been more stories about more players — and not in hockey, but in football – where you read of their after-career lives. And the ones that really got to me were the obituaries of football players, usually in their late 60s or early 70s.”

Dryden noticed a pattern in which far too many had suffered from dementia. He began to think there was a larger story that wasn’t being told. Eventually, it was but it didn’t sit well with him. Perhaps because he’d been a pro athlete in a contact sport, he could relate to that story. And perhaps because he’s been politically active in recent years and devoted to addressing various social problems, he felt moved to act once again.

“In the first article I did last March in The Globe, the tag line was ‘How could we be so stupid?’ All of us, when we look around at things like smoking, or women’s rights, or slavery, and things like that, we say to ourselves, ‘How could those people at that time not have known? How could they have been so stupid?’ We all know that 50 years from now, people are going to be saying exactly the same thing about us, about something. And I think in sports it’s going to be head injuries. It’s time to know and deal with that … to try to engage those who are the decision-makers and encourage them to see it in that same sort of way and just start acting on it.”

As Dryden sees it, what the leagues have done thus far is not aggressive enough. He does not buy the view that being tougher on head contact will somehow alter the character of the game, because hockey has always altered its character, and mostly for the better. “This was a game that was once seven players against seven players,” he said. “Once it was a game when there were no substitutions. For about the first 50 years of hockey’s existence, there was no forward pass. Somebody decided a game with no substitutions moved awfully slowly and maybe there should be to make it more interesting. Somebody decided that here we are in the 1920s and George Hainsworth is getting 22 shutouts in 44 games and most of the other goalies in the league have more than 10 and often more than 15.  ‘Well, this isn’t very good. There’s not enough scoring in the game. Let’s try a forward pass like football is trying a forward pass and see what it might look like.’ So games do change and they’re changing all the time.”

Dryden wants the NHL to be more “head smart,” with the safety of the brain central to the rules. “Immediately, Bettman can say, we need to treat any hit to the head as what it is: an attempt to injure,” Dryden wrote in his first Globe and Mail/Grantland piece. Under NHL rules, that’s a match penalty, a stiffer infraction than the current version of Rule 48 on hits to the head, the punishment for which can be as minimal as a two-minute minor. Match penalties call for automatic suspension pending review by the league.

The player with his head down — once considered an advantage in the era when stickhandling was the dominant mode of advancing the puck — is actually at a disadvantage in this era of passing the puck. “He can be easily stopped with no more than incidental contact,” Dryden writes. “The common explanations – ‘Because he deserved it’ or ‘Because I can’ – are not good enough in this age of concussions and dementia.”

Does he want contact out of the game?

“No one’s talking about that,” he said on Prime Time Sports earlier this month. ” That’s not it at all…You look at the best examples that you have. And how many serious cheap shots that lead to head injuries … or that happen in the playoffs. And we all say to ourselves that this is the best hockey that we watch all year long. And when is the other best hockey that we watch? It is World Cup championship games, Olympic games and so on, that’s when the best hockey is played … everyone else competes like crazy, fights like crazy, has contact like crazy but doesn’t have crazy contact.”

When Dryden says “fights like crazy,” he’s not talking about fighting. His third article draws the distinction between the fight in the game and fighting. It’s the fighting spirit that Dryden believes must be preserved. Fighting itself, however, has no place in a head-smart game. But he doesn’t want to indulge in the decades-long debate on the place of fisticuffs in hockey. “Like every old debate, what happens is the same old participants come out of the woodwork, play the same roles, use the same language and end up in the same unresolved situation. It’s like Medicare in the US. It comes up, what happens? The same arguments, from the same people in the same language, heard in the same kind of confused and noisy way by any audience and without anything really happening. The only way you break through any of these things is, let’s understand this in a different way, a way in which it really is…

“Fighting before was pretty much something that was not dangerous. You fought your own battles, they didn’t come up that often, you were inept at a fight, but happily your opponent was too, and you slipped and you fell until it was over. And you got on with the game again. At some point, coaches said, ‘Well, if fighting is going to be a part of the game, let’s fight well’ and ‘Why be inept?’

“So players started to train, they started to become good at it. It required a strategy and opponents started to do the same thing, and now you’ve got fighters who really know what they’re doing. Happily they can defend themselves really well, too, but not always. And these guys can give damage and be damaged. So the issue isn’t unseemliness or the rest of this — it may be to some, it may be to a lot of people — but at this particular point, what’s most critical is it also dangerous in a significant way….

The Times series on Derek Boogaard was revealing in lots of ways, and a little bit was what it’s like to fight on the ice. But a lot more was, what does that mean off the ice, what are the impacts off the ice, what is one’s life like off the ice? That to me is what was so powerful in those stories.”

And from the time you played, I asked, is that different?

“Yeah, it is,” he replied. ” The training is more systematic, the players are bigger, stronger, and so the specific skill being developed is greater. And so whether that’s passing, skating or fighting, with each generation, there are those kind of developments. Most of those guys who fight now are 220-plus. And they’re good at it. They can deliver a real blow.”

Dryden would like to see an annual conference on head injuries in hockey, to get all of the affected parties in one place. It’s not a new idea (Pierre McGuire proposed the same thing a few years ago in his radio segments in the U.S. and Canada), and it certainly merits doing. He’d like to start by having former players, like Keith Primeau, tell their stories of what it’s like to live with a brain injury that hasn’t entirely healed six years after suffering it. Dryden says Primeau, who has started an organization called stopconcussions.com, still suffers from what he calls “head pressure” and a lack of energy. It would give these players a chance to “tell their stories; very simply, this is what it’s like. This is the impact, these are the consequences, these are the stakes.”

(You can hear Primeau discuss stopconcussions.com in this recent interview.)

“The best brain scientists would be there to talk about what they know, and what they don’t know,” Dryden envisioned in his second article. “Players who have suffered brain injuries will provide their personal stories. League officials at different levels, in different sports, will talk about what steps they have taken, what’s worked and what hasn’t. The best coaches and best players, past and present, will be there to talk about what they’ve been trained to do and what they’ve done all their lives. Faced with an opponent, in this case a new ‘head-smart’ set of rules and way of playing that keeps you from doing some things one way, what do you do? What new creative answer can you come up with? What can you do that is even better than what you did before? Each year, there will be new findings, new ideas, and fresh challenges to players, coaches, officials, scientists, and entrepreneurs who, in their DNA, feed on fresh challenges.”

Will Gary Bettman and the owners see things this way? Dryden isn’t sure. He is sure that the belief some people hold —  that the league won’t do anything until someone dies – “isn’t good enough.” He believes we are capable of better and the time to act is before more players are put at risk and anyone dies.

“This is an ongoing thing,” he says. “It’s not something that’s random bad luck. This is tomorrow unless you start finding a way to make a better tomorrow.”

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  • Published On Jan 23, 2012
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