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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 ...

The brain weighs about three pounds. It floats inside a boney skull, surrounded by spinal fluid, not quite in contact with the skull. Except when the head is jarred.

Then, the brain moves, ricocheting back and forth, colliding with the sides of the skull, like a superball in a squash court. With hard-enough contact, the brain bleeds. And the parts inside it - the neurons and pathways that we use to think, learn and remember - get damaged.

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Why would we ever have thought otherwise?

Why would we ever have believed that when the dizziness goes away, everything goes back as it had been before? All the little hits, scores of them in every game, so inconsequential that we don't even know they've occurred - how could we not have known? How could we be so stupid?

I feel the same when I remember that the effects of smoking or of drunk driving were ignored for so long. I feel it when I think of women in the past having no right to vote and few rights of any kind, and when I think about slavery: How could people 50, 100 or 200 years ago not have known? How could they be so stupid?

I wonder what will make people say that about us 50 years from now. What are the big things we might be getting really wrong? Chemicals in our foods? Genetic modifications gone wrong? Climate change?

In sports, I think, the haunting question will be about head injuries. It wasn't until 1943 in the National Football League that helmets became mandatory; in the National Hockey League, not until 36 years after that, in 1979. The first goalie mask wasn't worn in the NHL until 1959.

And in a whole childhood and adolescence of playing goalie, I didn't wear a mask until 1965, when I had to wear one on my college team. How could I have been so stupid?

Smash, crash, bang, maim

A football wide receiver, 220 pounds, cuts across the middle of the field at 35 kilometres an hour; a linebacker, 240 pounds, cuts the other way at 20 km/hour. The wide receiver focuses on the ball; the linebacker focuses on the wide receiver, knowing that a good hit now won't just break up the pass but will break down the focus and will of that wide receiver for each succeeding pass in the game.

Two hockey players, almost as big as the football players, but going even faster, colliding with each other and with the boards, glass and ice exaggerating the force of every hit.

Boxers, snapping jabs and hooks at each other's head, round after round. (But no hitting below the belt; that's not fair.) Ultimate Fighting: Fist, foot, elbow, knee, bone against bone - get your opponent down, get him defenceless and pound away.

In addition, there are the countless mini-collisions that never make the "Highlights of the Night." They make players feel a little dizzy, but then seconds later, almost every time, they feel fine. So they must be fine.

Years later, they may not be thinking so clearly or remembering so well, at a slightly younger age than other people, perhaps. But in the randomness of everything else in life, who's to know why? It could be genes or bad luck. Hockey player Reggie Fleming, known as "Cement Head"; football players Mike Webster, Owen Thomas or Mike McCoy; wrestler Chris Benoit …

A few weeks ago, I read about the suicide of Dave Duerson, a former all-pro safety with the Chicago Bears. He was 50. In recent years, Mr. Duerson had worked with the NFL players' union, dealing with retired players and their physical ailments, head injuries among them, and reading their doctors' reports. He had begun to have trouble himself remembering names and putting words together. Then, one day he shot himself, not in the head but the chest, so as to preserve his brain intact for future examination, bequeathing it to the NFL's brain bank.

On the same day, in the same newspapers, there was another story about Ollie Matson, an all-pro running back in the 1950s and 1960s for several NFL teams. He was 80 when he died, and for the last several years of his life he had been suffering from dementia; over the last four years, he hadn't spoken. Mr. Matson's death and dementia, it seemed, had to do with the consequences of old age. No connection was made to football or Dave Duerson.

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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