Game Change

Hockey and the brotherhood of bros. Meh. I’m pretty ambivalent on both these topics. I get it—hockey and fighting is Canadian blah blah blah. We’ve really done a revisionist history on the game, which Ken Dryden’s newest book does a good job of bringing to light. Facts, man. They really change emotional arguments about how hockey isn’t hockey without fighting and show how much the game has become more dangerous and way faster since the early days.

“…Our collective memory is dangerously wrong,” Dryden writes. “The legendary tough guys of the 1950s … fought a total of only four or five times a season.” By the ‘70s, tough guys were fighting 25 brawls a season. It’s only in modern times that fighting has been considered integral.

Dryden gets right into two major themes  with Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey. Hockey is a good sport. Brain damage is a problem.

It’s a sad book: Steve Montador was a hardworking, energetic hockey player. Middle of the pack; would die for his teammates; loves his parents, etc. He made it to the NHL, big dream achieved. He played hard, fought to protect his teammates and got a lot of concussions that lead to brain damage. This damage caused depression, lack of focus, anger issues and the end of his career. Ultimately, it killed him.

I’ve got problems with the hockey machine for so many reasons—reasons that are replicated in big sports from football to cycling. I’m not against hockey or sports in general. I played a lot of street hockey on roller skates as a kid. Fitness and team activities are great. Here are my problems:

Steve’s doctors cleared him over and over again to play, partially because players love to play and they know how to beat the tests, and partially because brains and the damage that can be done to them is not fully understood. (I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that money helps drive the decision to push a player back on the ice, but I’m a cynic).

Dryden writes: “It was a fighter’s chance to add emotion to the fight … If you weren’t fighting to right your own wrongs, you had to be fighting for your team, for your teammates. Literally. Risking life and limb for them. Literally …. If fighting wasn’t about anger, it had to be about honour.”

I’ve got all kinds of issues with this statement linked to sport and life in general. Sports, and most personal affronts, do not require fighting. Fighting, unless it’s a martial art or boxing, is not mandatory. If you’re going to fight, it has to be life or death. Let’s call it: fighting in hockey is only there for entertainment. Concussions cause damage to people’s brains. More than one hockey player has died with something called CTE. Entertainment is not worth dying over.

Anyone who says otherwise is out to lunch. You want to dramatically reduce brain damage in hockey players? No more fighting. Done. Get over it.

Here’s another terrifying fun fact. Helmets don’t solve as many problems as people think. Dryden writes that helmets lessen the risk of a fractured skull, but do almost nothing to prevent concussions. See my point above. Get rid of fighting. There’s a difference between purposeful fighting and an accidental crash into the boards or the ice.

Dryden tries to make the point that hockey is a compromise between performance and safety, and the sport has skated too far into performance and safety hasn’t kept up. Okay. See main point 1: get rid of fighting in hockey. Improve safety rules. Improve safety equipment.

Most of the book is about Montador’s life and career specifically, a handful of other players who have had concussions, the history and changes in the sport over the years, and a tiny chapter on the future. Dryden ends with an exhortation to Gary Bettman, NHL Commissioner, begging him to do better and do something about the safety/game speed balance.

The problem with professional sports is the problem with industries everywhere: the players (workers) are the labourers and the people to make money off of and/or otherwise exploit. The owners (employers) make the big bucks and use their resources how they see fit. And unless owners know for sure that changes won’t impact their bottom line, they’ll just keep finding new resources after one is all used up.

Unless that’s the paradigm that shifts, there won’t be any game changes—not even life saving ones.

Ken Dryden was at Event 17 (Game Changer) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.

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