In GAME CHANGE, legendary player-turned-author Ken Dryden, looks at the life and legacy of former NHL player Steve Montador and the history of head injuries that lead to the unfolding crisis of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) plaguing the sport of hockey.
A few years back, I picked up both this and Ken’s critically acclaimed memoir THE GAME. While I immediately read and loved THE GAME, this one sat on my shelf for a few years before pulling it off the bookcase this summer looking for something different to read. While I knew it wasn’t going to be the definition of a “beach read”, I didn’t expect to be as shocked and horrified as I was.
Like many hockey fans (and wrestling fans), I’ve been concerned over the tragic consequences of multiple, repeated concussions. As Ken writes, hockey is without a doubt a tough guy’s sport. Whereas head injuries aren’t quite as noticeable as a broken limb, players chalk up a nasty hit to the skull as “having your bell rung”, and are willing to jump back on the ice as soon as possible with little regard to their health.
Steve Montador is as good a subject as any when examining the effects of countless concussions. A player seemingly consistently on the bubble of playing in the NHL, Steve would need to resort to physicality to prove himself useful to a general manager looking for that fifth or sixth defensemen; a player that could add intimidation and grit. Steve longed for making a difference on the score sheet, but knew his role, which unfortunately led to a mountain of injuries before hitting his thirties. To ease the pain and his mental struggles with self-worth, Steve had been a heavy drinker. While he was able to stay clean for many years, as his career wound down and the injuries began to mount, he turned back to the bottle. Drug and alcohol abuse tied to brain trauma is not a great mix, to say the least.
While the NHL has tried over the years to curb the concussion epidemic by instituting strict protocols to keep players off the ice to allow them to fully heal before getting back in play, the athletes still have that “grin and bear it” mentality that needs to be eradicated. I’m not putting all the blame on the players here as the NHL has repeatedly fought lawsuits as well as public opinion that the sport is to be directly blamed for the long-term effects suffered by retired players – too many of whom take their own lives when day-to-day living proves too difficult.
Two of the biggest highlights of the book – outside of the relentlessly tragic life of Steve Montador – involved Dryden’s discussions with retired players Keith Primeau and Marc Savard with Savard’s chapter being the first time he had spoken publicly about his concussion history. After retiring in 2005, Primeau lived with post-concussion symptoms for years with little hope he would see improvement. Seven years later, when the pain and frustration had begun to ease, he would hit his head on a low-hanging pipe leading to a complete return of his worst symptoms.
The tragic part of it all is that many suffer in silence with many taking their own lives to end their daily anguish and by then, it’s too late. There is no known cure for CTE and the treatments vary based on how a person’s brain reacts to therapy. Dryden does his absolute best to answer a very difficult question – “can hockey as we know it exist without the dangers of head trauma?” Right now, the answer is no, but like many others, I can only hope that more effective treatments become available and we can at least lessen the probability of long-term suffering.