“Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey” is the latest treatise by Ken Dryden, and a difficult book to categorize.
As the title implies, the book tells the story of former NHL defenseman Steve Montador, who died at 35 — but “Game Change” isn’t a traditional biography.
It explains how concussions and traumatic head injuries affect the brain, body and mind — but “Game Change” isn’t a scientific journal entry.
It also recounts how the NHL, over the past century, has reached its current level of violence and physicality — but “Game Change” isn’t a history book.
“Game Change” is more than the sum of its parts, and like its name implies, it may very well change the sport of hockey. Dryden, the former Montreal Canadiens goaltender and six-time Stanley Cup-winner, has written several other hockey books. “The Game,” Dryden’s seminal work, is widely-considered to be the best hockey book ever written. “Game Change” may became the most important hockey book ever written, as it thoroughly discusses hockey’s concussion problem — illustrating it with Montador’s biography — and how to fix it.
The book starts out in an unusual fashion for a biography: with the autopsy of Montador’s brain. After that, it changes its focus every chapter or so, between a typical, though unbiased biography — Dryden never knew Montador personally — to a thorough, but easy-to-follow explanation of how concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) affect the brain.
Montador’s numerous injuries are discussed, and demonstrate how he was able to be concussed multiple times without being a particularly reckless player — and how those concussions caused his untimely death. Dryden claims that the NHL is content with blaming everything else — the drug abuse, the depression, the symptoms, the victim — rather than its culture that is conducive for concussions.
Dryden spoke with Montador’s family, friends, teammates and coaches, as well as scientists who study the brain and brain injuries. Former NHL players Marc Savard and Keith Primeau, who both had their careers cut short due to concussions, also explain how post-concussion syndrome was a waking hell for each of them for many years.
But Dryden does not just explain concussions and the myriad of problems they cause; he also offers a practical, easy, common-sense solution that would mitigate head injuries without altering hockey.
In an article published on The Players’ Tribune last month, Dryden stated that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is the linchpin in solving hockey’s concussion problem. Should Bettman read “Game Change” and adopt Dryden’s strategy, then this book would succeed in changing hockey for the better.
Quote that epitomizes “Game Change”: The head injury story in hockey is long and winding. Once, head injuries were rare, the result of accident or outrageous actions by players; now they are more frequent. Once, their consequences seemed immediate and certain; now they are both immediate and long-term, certain and uncertain. Once, decision-makers were unaware of the science of head injuries, then they paid little attention to it, then disputed it, then accepted its role as paramount, pointing out that they will follow that science — when science knows. It is the same strategy employed in every industry under siege — tobacco, lead, asbestos, coal, oil — whether the issue is lungs, heart, nervous system, brain, or climate change. There is no need for those in charge to prove anything. They need only create doubt. Besides, smokers, coal miners, hockey players — they know the risks. For decision-makers, it is an issue to be managed, not a problem to be solved.
What I like about “Game Change”: Dryden takes a heavy subject and seamlessly interweaves it with an interesting, tragic biography. He thoroughly explains how hockey got to its current concussion problem and offers a solution.
What I do not like about “Game Change”: The only drawback, if any, is that the book does not have any pictures of Montador, other than on the front cover. Then again, I was nearly finished with the book before I noticed, so maybe pictures really aren’t necessary here.
“Game Change” was hands-down the best hockey book that I read all season. Ken Dryden may be best remembered for his Hall of Fame career with the Montreal Canadiens, but his biggest contribution to hockey might end up being this book. ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.