Ken Dryden: We see what's wrong with hockey through the story of Steve Montador and others

Hall of Famer Ken Dryden continues to ask the tough questions. Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images

Jeremy Schaap recently conducted a phone interview with Hockey Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden, who is also a former member of Parliament of Canada and former president of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Dryden's newest book is "Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey."

Jeremy Schaap: Mr. Dryden, how are you, sir?

Ken Dryden: I'm good, Jeremy. How are you?

Schaap: The [book] really is in some ways kind of a bifurcated story, the story of Steve Montador, who died two-and-a-half years ago after about a decade-long career in the National Hockey League. And it's the story of how hockey, in your view, needs to change and what can be done to effect that change. First of all, who was Steve Montador?

Dryden: Steve Montador grew up in a suburb of Toronto called Mississauga. He played his minor hockey there. He was never the best player on his team. He was always a good player, and he was somebody teammates would describe as the kind of guy you wanted on a team. He did what the team needed, when it needed it. He loved the games, he loved the tougher games, he loved practices, off-ice road trips, [being] in the gym. He was somebody who made the team feel even more like a team, and he was that way all the way through his career, playing junior hockey. Then he was undrafted in the NHL draft. He played a couple of years in the minor leagues with the Calgary Flames' affiliate in the American Hockey League and then gradually played more and more and finally full time with the Flames and then with five other teams in the league. He played over 570 games in in the National Hockey League. The last year was with Chicago.

Schaap: How did he manage to make himself valuable for the teams for which he played?

Dryden: He was ... was described in hockey terms as a five/six defenseman, which means you play about 15 minutes a game. The top-pairing [player], a one/two, plays about 25 minutes, including power plays and killing penalties. The three/four defenseman [plays] about 20 minutes. And so, in your 15 minutes, that it is like a pitcher in baseball giving innings. I mean, you're the four or five starter on a team, you give your team innings until the ace of the staff comes in and is the winner. You try to keep the score even when you're out there, and you try to do what is necessary. At that moment, if you're down a little bit, you're a little more offensive; if you're up, you're a little more defensive. If things are going nowhere, you try to add some energy to the game. Sometimes that means a fight. But that's really what your role is, and that's what Steve's role was, and always with the promise or possibility of something more than that. Occasionally, it was more than that. But routinely, that's what it was. And there's a place for that kind of player on every team, including championship teams.

Schaap: How much punishment did Steve Montador absorb in his career?

Dryden: Basically, Steve would receive routine punishment. I mean, that would be in the nature of a game, whatever happens in the game. You're probably [getting] a little bit more because you're a defenseman. But mostly it's routine, the routine collisions that happen in the game. And one of the things that I point out in the book is that hockey is a game that has changed dramatically, especially in the last 50 years or so in terms of its speed. It was always a fast game. I mean, I remember as a kid it was described as the fastest game on earth. ... But it has gotten faster, and the reason being in part because of training and conditioning, but in greater part because of the length of shifts. At one time, hockey was a no-substitution game, like soccer. Well, by the 1950s and late '50s, when I was a kid and watching, the players would be on the ice for about two minutes every time for every shift, and it meant a game that was actually very slow. ... It was remarkably slow, but it was because of the length of the shifts. You would be kind of coasting, circling, looking for an opportunity, bursting and coasting and circling again.

By the 1970s, when I was playing, it had speeded up because by this time it was a dump-and-chase game. And so you can go really fast if you don't have the puck. So we would just dump it and head into a corner, race after it, and because you're racing after it, you get tired. So the shifts were now down to about a minute or so -- now they're down to 35-38 seconds -- and it's puck possession. It's not dumping ahead. You're controlling it, you're moving at the pace of the passed puck, and it's a full sprint. You go over the boards, you sprint for 35 seconds and then race until you're off. And then the next guy: 35-second sprint, and the next guy and the next guy.

And so it means there's less space, less time, more collisions, collisions of greater force because you're moving faster. And also a little bit because the players are slightly larger.

Schaap: Steve Montador died in 2015. He was only 35. He was only a few seasons removed from his last season in the NHL. How did he die?

Dryden: He died from a number of factors. He was having problems that were associated with concussions and with brain injuries. ... After his death, an examination of his brain showed CTE. After he stopped playing, he was having problems with alcohol and drugs. And so it was a mix of things that were part of his death. But the significant thing that relates to the hockey career and a sports career was in terms of the symptoms that he was feeling at the end, of even the time when he was playing. He was having real memory problems. And not just, "I can't remember where my phone is or my keys are," but it's happening continuously, so much so that he had multiple sets of keys made, and he was on speed dial with his car dealership in Toronto when he was living elsewhere, just to get new sets of keys and things like that. He was having problems with anxiety, of depression, of anger, of in terms of what's called executive function: putting a couple of pieces together that aren't necessarily that complicated, but sorting them out in a way in which he never had those problems before. And so much so that in the last couple of years of his life, increasingly he was not Steve. It was the kind of thing that unfortunately most of us experience in older family members, when they're in their mid-80s or so. Well, this was somebody for whom it was happening 50 years early.

Schaap: Over the years, Ken, we've heard ... of NHL players dying young, Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard, the links to head trauma. When you heard about what happened to Steve Montador, and how his life spiraled out of control in the last few years, what was it about his story that led you to write this book?

Dryden: Well, I had been writing about concussions for about the last, you know, five, six years. And I started to feel as if concussion and brain injuries are really the most significant issues that face sports now and face it in any kind of foreseeable future, that this is really tough stuff. Bad knees and having knee replacements and hip replacements, that's not a lot of fun, but a wonky brain is a whole lot different than a wonky knee, and it is living years and years and years and years of your life under those circumstances. And that's not a nice thing at all. And so I knew that if we were going to really come to grips with concussions in sports, it had to be through the story of a person and not an exaggerated example. I didn't want to write about the superstar because somehow it would come to be about the superstar-ness of somebody, rather than the nature of a person and of a life. The same if it was about a goon. That would be too much of a specialized experience. I wanted to write about somebody who others would kind of describe as kind of just a player, a journeyman, an everyman player, to get at what his life was like in writing a biography. What was his life like as a kid? What was he like as a person? And so what, really, are the stakes when brain injuries happen?

And I also wanted to write about the science of what we know, what we don't know, what we might know soon, what we're not likely to know soon. How much science is the answer for now, but how much of it is the answer for later? And knowing that science takes time. That's what science does. That's what it is. Science is never quite knowing. It's knowing the best we can at any particular moment. Science is a placeholder for what we will know later. But games are played tomorrow. Players play tomorrow. Players are affected tomorrow. So what do we do in that period of time? And also to write the story of a game because the first thing that happens when there's a discussion about anything like this is that, well, [the reaction is] "It's the nature of the game." "It's how we play." "The game's the game." "How can you change the game? You know that it's the way it is. And how dare you even imagine that the game could be played differently?" And what I wanted to do is absolutely destroy that argument by saying, "Do you want to know what this game is like? Let's go back. You purists and you traditionalists who think a game can't change. Let's go back to the beginning of this game in 1875 at McGill University in Montreal. And let's go through the stages of this game. And I'll bet almost none of you know that it took 54 years before even a forward pass was allowed in this game, let alone all the other changes, let alone the shift changes, let alone the speed of a game, let alone the implications of all of that." So this is a game that has always changed, will always change and can change again and can change in a way where it is just as exciting to play, just as exciting to watch and is a whole lot safer to play because now we know that much better the consequences and the stakes that are involved here. And to put all of those pieces together in this story and to lay out, then you know that there is a how to this. This isn't a matter of putting decision-makers into a corner where there [is] no alternative but to fight back. No, you're in a corner, but here's the pathway out because hockey has a very identifiable pathway out. There is a way. There are very, very doable answers in hockey.

Schaap: A lot of people will say football, American football, is fundamentally violent in a way that it will never be safe to play in terms of head trauma. Hockey, you just said, is different. Hockey is not different right now the way it is played, but how can it be made different?

Dryden: Hockey as it is played now is very different from football. It does move faster than football. And so its collisions can be just as violent and forceful. But there is much less routine contact. Football, there's contact between virtually every player, essentially every play, and often it is head-to-head contact. Look at a hockey game, and for your listeners and readers, the next game, watch and see how many head hits there are, and there aren't that many. And so that's the first part of it. And then ask yourself, well, if those that do happen were eliminated, would the game still be the game? And the answer -- I think that your readers and listeners will know -- is yes, absolutely. It will still be the game. And this is a game that even in the last couple of years -- and even this year -- it has changed a lot. It is getting more and more and more skillful. That is so interesting to see that in a sense, the skills have caught up with the speed. At one time, the speed was so great that it outpaced the skills. And so you had to do simple things like dumping the puck ahead and chasing it because otherwise it was too fast to pass it and pass it successfully.

Now the players have developed the skill to move at that same pace but also to make the passes and to make things move even faster. And it is a game that is becoming more and more exciting and where there are very few of these kinds of exaggerated head hits. Hockey has always recognized the problem of the head hit. ... You have this recognition that this was always a problem, but it's a different kind of problem now, where you know that that really is the full body that is the most dangerous instrument on the ice, not the stick and not the elbow in that way. It's the force of the collision of that body and often the shoulder. ... And so what you say is that you know the problem is a hit to the head. So that's where you focus your answer: No hits to the head, no excuses. And we already have in hockey, at least a couple of instances, where the NHL has said no, this is an automatic penalty: If you're in your defensive zone, you shoot it over the boards -- automatic penalty. Doesn't matter if the puck was flipping, the boards and the glass at some rinks is lower than others. There used to be all kinds of arguments. "This is a dumb rule." "I didn't intend to do it." All of this now, the player goes right to the box. No arguments. The player adapts, the team adapts, the game goes on. No big deal. ... You can do exactly the same thing in terms of head hits because of course you know that in terms of whether it is delivered by an elbow, by a stick, by a fist, by a shoulder, whether it's intentional or accidental, the brain doesn't distinguish, the brain doesn't care, the brain is affected by all of them. So you employ the rules and see things in that way. It's not about the cause, it's about the effect. It's not about the justice to the initiator. It's about justice to the person who has been hit.

Schaap: You suggest in the book that these are easy fixes. Where is the resistance coming from? Why is there resistance?

Dryden: I think it's the kind of resistance that exists with almost any public question, and whether it was seat belts at one time and whether it's climate change, the first resistance is, "Well, it can't be done." "It won't work." "It'll be too disruptive." "There's no way of making it work." And I think that's why it's so central to set out the how. This isn't about awareness. We always think that the answer is awareness, and when it isn't the answer, then the answer is more awareness and more awareness and more awareness. And at a certain point, there is enough awareness to generate the action, if in fact you believe there's an action that you can take in order to make it work. Otherwise, what typically happens is that we kind of run away, and we put straw men up in it. We know that we deny first, and then we create doubt, and then we have our own experts trying to refute and all the rest of it. ... But let's go beyond all of this. Let's see where exactly the problem is, and let's figure out, you know, how this can be done.

Schaap: You make it clear in "Game Change" that there's only one person -- as simple as you say the fixes can be -- there's only one person who can implement them. The person has been running hockey at its highest level for a quarter century: [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman. Where do you think Gary Bettman stands on the issue now?

Dryden: I don't know. ... I'm sure that when he started in 1993, he could never have imagined that he would hold the role that he does and he could hold the role as the commissioner, but to be really the singular authority in hockey in the world. That's something that doesn't just come with a job description of being the commissioner but has to be earned through the steps that you take, the decisions that you make, the reputation you develop, the status that you earn and the trust that you earn. And Gary Bettman is at this stage now where he is in that position, and given that hockey has these kinds of answers and given that as the commissioner, he has this kind of authority and is somebody who is smart, who is capable, who is experienced and who has earned this kind of authority, all of these things are absolutely doable. And that's the part that has been frustrating up until now. But at the same time, that is absolutely hope-generating and optimism-generating because it's there to be done.

Schaap: When you think about the careers that have already been cut short or deeply affected -- some of the greatest players in the game, Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya and, of course, Sidney Crosby now -- you would think when it can affect the bottom line, when it can affect the biggest stars of the game so profoundly, that that would lead to change.

Dryden: Yeah. Well, that was the hardest part, as you know, is that players will play. That's what we do. That's what we love to do. It is our pride to play, whether we're injured or ill or not. We want to play, and also we believe our team needs it, needs us. Our teammates expect it. Our coaches expect it. Our fans hope it. And in many ways, what happens is that we develop a certain relationship to injury and to pain, as if both are our opponents, and we treat them like opponents. And so we say to ourselves, we're not going to allow our opponent to defeat us, just the way we don't allow other opponents on the ice or on the field to defeat us. We're going to find a way of defeating them. We're going to go right at them. We're going to go around them. We're going to go out there and play. ... And it's why it's so crucial that there are voices around us that can ... it's easy to say, "These are adults, and they make their own decisions." Well, that's great except under these kinds of circumstances, you're often your own worst judge in them. You are going to go out there and play. That's why the doctor is so important. The coach is so important. The manager is so important. The owner is so important, to offer this other set of eyes that says, I know you want to play. I know you're going to do anything to go out there and play. But, not tonight, not next week. This is not the time to be out there.

Schaap: Ken, it's always a pleasure speaking to you. Thank you so much for spending this time with us.

Dryden: Thanks a lot, Jeremy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.