Former NHL goalie Ken Dryden spoke to a crowd of approximately 50 people at the Calgary Central Library Nov. 13, about head injuries in hockey.
Dryden’s newest book, Game Change: The Life And Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, discusses how head injuries are viewed in the game. It was released on Oct. 17.
“There are some head hits that are completely unacceptable,” said Dryden.
The former Montreal Canadiens goalie said some of the distinctions between different kinds of head hits are “ludicrous,” recalling an event in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs, when Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang hit Marcus Johansson of the Washington Capitals.
The following day, a panel on the SportsNet cable channel discussed whether Letang would face a suspension for his actions.
Dryden explained that the panellists focused on Letang’s performance and how the possible suspension would affect his hockey career, instead of focusing on the matter of a head injury.
Dryden likened the exchange to a Monty Python skit in which Mr. Pralene, a customer, tries to return a dead parrot to the pet store, only to be met by denials that the bird has actually expired.
“To Mr. Pralene, this isn’t about a parrot who is stunned, dead, or pining. It’s not about a Norwegian blue with beautiful plumage. This is about a dead parrot,” Dryden said.
“For hockey, this isn’t about a player having his head down, an opponent with an intent to rock him, or getting a freebie, or about the importance of Kris Letang,” said Dryden.
“This is about hits to the head.”
Dryden explained how the speed and intensity of NHL play has been steadily increasing over time, due to rink technology, increased ice time and shorter shifts.
As a result, players have been seeing more ice time than ever before.
“When I was a kid watching the great Montreal Canadiens in the late 1950’s, they had these great stars and the game moved a thousand miles an hour and that’s to a 10-year-old,” said Dryden.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that Dryden went to the archives and realized how slow the game was in reality.
Over time, the speed of the game has gradually outpaced the ability of players to react.
As a result, players have to up their skill level, resulting in a game design that inadvertently increases the severity and threat of head injuries.
“Hockey was always the fastest game on earth. That’s what it always described itself to be,” said Dryden,
“But there’s fast, there’s faster and there’s faster still. When things speed up, often times what happens is that the rest of us can’t speed up – we get clumsy.”
During his talk, Dryden offered a few suggestions on how the league could remedy, or lessen the frequency and severity of head hits.
Shooting a puck over the glass, jabbing and high-sticking are all examples of automatic penalties and all are given without exception.
“When these [penalties] were implemented, there were all kinds of arguments,” said Dryden.
“What happened in a couple of weeks, maybe a month? No arguments. Coach knows it happened, player knows it happened. Everyone adapted, the game went on, no big deal.”
Dryden thinks that the same automatic penalties should be given for hits to the head, “whether the head was down, or up, targeted or not, intent to hurt or otherwise.
“The brain can’t distinguish between a legal hit and an illegal hit,” he said.
You can find out more about Dryden’s book here.