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Former Montreal Canadiens great Ken Dryden (Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Former Montreal Canadiens great Ken Dryden

(Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

A Legend Weighs In

Ken Dryden on hockey violence: How could we be so stupid? Add to ...

A few days earlier, there had been a story about the death of Bobby Kuntz. He had been one of my favourite players as a kid. During the late 1950s and 1960s, he played for the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, playing "both ways" as players of the time did - a running back on offence and a linebacker on defence.

He was small for the positions he played, and especially small for the way he played them. He'd put his head down and throw himself into the line or into the bodies of ball carriers, the sound of his collisions sharper and more resounding than any others - the kind that, as a fan, made you go "oooh" and laugh. He was fearless. In playground games, I used to pretend I was Bobby Kuntz, head down, fearless in my own mind.

Mr. Kuntz died at 79, having suffered from dementia the last 11 years of his life. The Kuntz family agreed to have his brain donated to a study of athletes and head injuries, the article said.

The myth of the 'nature of the game'

What is our answer to those voices 50 years into the future? We can only say that we didn't want to know. We thought - we hoped - there wasn't a problem, because if there were, something would need to be done, and we didn't want to do it.

To do something would change the nature of the game. It may be all right, or inevitable, for everything in the world around the game to change; but the game itself is "pure" and must remain that way.

Hockey began in Montreal in 1875 because some rugby players wanted a game for the wintertime, and they wanted to hit each other. But the rugby players couldn't skate very fast, their bodies were smaller than ours are today, and they were playing on a smaller ice surface where they had little room to pick up momentum. With no substitutions allowed, the game moved at coasting speed.

Bigger ice surfaces changed the nature of the game; so did the forward pass; so did boards and glass; so did substitutions, shorter shifts and bigger bodies. Helmeted players in today's game are far more vulnerable to serious head injury than helmet-less players were in generations ago.

We choose to ignore the fact that the "nature" of any game is always changing. Today's hockey - in terms of speed, skill, style of play and force of impact - is almost unrecognizable from hockey 50 years ago, let alone 100. Likewise, helmets, facemasks, 300-plus-pound players and off-field, year-round training have transformed football.

These and other sports changed because someone thought of new ways to do things, others followed and nobody stopped them. In many cases, sports have had to change for reasons of safety or economics. For the sake of the players and fans and the game itself, these sports will and do need to change again.

A few days ago, I read the story of Bob Probert. He was a "goon" whose ability to fight got him into the NHL, and gave him the extra years and playing time he needed to learn how to play an all-around game. It has been calculated that Mr. Probert was in 240 NHL fights - few of which he lost - and countless more in his minor hockey years. Before he died last year, his wife reported, he had been forgetting things and frequently losing his temper. In a post-mortem examination, Boston University's School of Medicine recently reported, Mr. Probert was found to have chronic-traumatic-encephalopathy cells in his brain. He was 45.

The voices of the future will not be kind to us about how we understood and dealt with head injuries in sports. They will ask: How is it possible we didn't know, or chose not to know?

For players or former players, owners, managers, coaches, doctors and team doctors, league executives, lawyers, agents, the media, players' wives, partners and families, it's no longer possible not to know and not to be afraid, unless we willfully close our eyes.

Max Pacioretty was only the latest; he will not be the last. Arguments and explanations don't matter any more. The NHL has to risk the big steps that are needed: If some of them prove wrong, they'll still be far less wrong than what we have now.

It is time to stop being stupid.

Ken Dryden is a former NHL goaltender, and is a lawyer, author and member of Parliament.

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