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There are two very complimentary pieces at work in Ken Dryden's return to the world of hockey books. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey, the Hall of Fame goaltender tells the rise and fall of Steve Montador, a defenceman who played in 571 NHL games with six teams; it's a tale on its own that maybe wouldn't have merited its own book. The parallel track is about concussions, how they happen, what the medical community understands about them, how it changes people – both the person with the concussion but also their friends and family.
With a less-skilled writer, it could have been a mess. Instead, Dryden has delivered a page-turner. The insight into Montador begins with cooperation from his family and ends with a harrowing journey into his personal journal during his last seasons in the NHL, his thoughts shaken and stirred by concussion after concussion.
Dryden's last book about hockey was Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada, published in 1990 with Roy MacGregor, before forays into running the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club and federal politics. But that doesn't mean he was away from “The Game.” For one thing, The Game, probably the most famous and most important hockey book in history, has been reprinted a few times since it arrived in 1983, and Dryden wrote extra chapters each time. “Usually it's kind of a bringing up to date the story, the changes in the game and things like that,” Dryden told SIHR. “I've written several concussion articles in the last five or six years, that would be in the Globe [and Mail], and they were in La Presse, and Grantland, so I'm not out of the habit of writing about hockey, it's just not very frequent.”
Concussions, and the broader picture of safety in hockey, has been of interest to Dryden for a while now, and he itched to write more. “I knew if I was going to do anything more about concussions, it needed to be a book, and I knew that if I was going to write a book that the core of it had to be the story of a player, because it had to be the story of a life. The concussion would be part of a life, but it's the life that gives meaning to the concussions, and it gives an understanding of what the implications are, really, of a brain injury. Without it, it's just something that's regrettable for a player,” he said.
As he was preparing for the project, Steve Montador died on February 15, 2015. His death shook the hockey world, for a moment at least, and Dryden saw Montador's tragedy as something he could work with. “I knew I didn't want to write about a star's end of career, because then it would somehow be about the star, about the star-ness of somebody,” said Dryden. “Steve was not a star. He was much more like most players, so it was just that timing that lead to it.” The project rolled from there rather quickly as Dryden's extensive network meant that he was closer to Montador than he knew, through Dr. Charles Tator, who knew Steve's father, Paul Montador.
The co-operation of the Montador family built through time. He met with them in person and made his pitch. “I needed their enthusiastic participation because I never met Steve. It's not like somebody else that you write a biography of, where there's a whole literature that is out to consult, that you can work off of,” he explained.
Likewise, he needed the support of an important physician, like Dr. Tator, who has studied concussions, to make the connections in the medical community.
Fortunately, everyone was on board. “It wasn't until I heard that from the Montador family and also from Charles that I finally decided to go ahead,” Dryden said.
The trust of the family really comes through when, towards the end of Montador's story, his personal journal is cited. The journal came into play very late in the writing process, as Dryden was unaware of its very existence.
And even when he got it, Dryden wasn't sure what to do with it. “Journals are tricky because ... I've not done a journal myself, but my impression is that journals are places to kind of dump out your feelings and thoughts, and they represent that freedom at a particular moment to get out everything. Then 15 minutes later, you may feel very differently, and tomorrow you may feel very differently,” said Dryden. The journal shows Montador's approach to games with the Blackhawks, his goals on the ice, whether it was hits, assists, goals, plus/minus.
After numerous concussions, the journal entries were not the same. “Then later on, just how the journals changed. So that was important, just to see the kinds of words, the legibility of the handwriting, those different things. The journals were very helpful in that way and could be misleading if used in a much greater way.”
From the hockey world, Dryden got to talk to numerous friends, teammates, coaches and management of Montador's, and they all help complete the picture of a man. They are open and honest, and at times it's a heartbreaking read.
On the medical side, Dryden steered away from some of the usual voices on concussions like Chris Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and Dr. Bennet Omalu. Whereas the movie, Concussion, had Will Smith playing Omalu as a thorn in the side of the National Football League, Dryden points out that the story really begins with the death of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, who becomes the first former NFL player diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
“The Mike Webster part of the story [in Concussion] was there, but really it was much more about the little guy jumping up and bloodying the nose of the big guy. That may be interesting, and it is interesting, but it's not the central story. The story is about a person. The story is about a person who has had, who has experienced, a brain injury, and what that life is like. Those are the stakes in it,” began Dryden, continuing on. “So that is the absolutely core and central story, and it's very easy to be deflected away from that story by lots of other stories, whether it's the story or the equipment or anything else. It's like, no, no, no, let's go back, that's why I started it with the examination of the brain. These are the stakes, unforgettably, these are the stakes, and the rest is joyous overtime goals and stories and everything, and the history and the evolution of the game and everything, but never forget the stakes, never forget what this is about, because it's only in that, that the answer of then what to do and how to do it, emerges. Otherwise it gets, again, distracted into where science plays the central role -- and it doesn't.”
The push and pull effect comes into play. Science takes time, and the NHL or NFL team wants their player in action for the game tomorrow. Dryden goes through many of the talking points on concussions, from helmets to in-game concussion protocol to a scientist slicing up a brain. He sees them all as a distraction to the bigger picture of player safety.
What will get a lot of attention are Dryden's two primary arguments / suggestions for changing the game: One, that “finishing your check” should be eliminated from hockey, meaning that only the player with the puck can be checked; and two, that all head hits be illegal, including fighting. It will get plenty of traditionalists up in arms, which is the whole point – let's talk about the issues.
The image of the retired goalie, forever in our minds leaning on his goalstick, his Canadiens teammates down ice on offence, lends itself well to his latest role as a good listener.
At the recent Vancouver Writers Festival, Dryden sat and signed books, and the stories he heard from book buyers were different than the usual, “I saw you play” or “My dad loved the Canadiens” or “Why can't the Leafs win?”
Personal stories of concussions came up again and again. “These are stories about their kids, stories about themselves and the impact of them. Parents worry, that's what parents do, and I think their biggest worry is that their kids are going to be okay. Well, they kind of know that their kids are going to be okay if they have a knee injury or a shoulder injury; it's not nice, and they wouldn't like it to happen, but they're going to be okay. That isn't necessarily the same thing if it's a brain injury, and they really do worry, and they really do wonder. The point is that it's personal, and there are a lot of things that aren't personal, but I think that concussions and brain injuries for people are understood in a very personal way. I think that's why they have such an impact.”
Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey is out now from Penguin Random House.
PICTURING 100 YEARS OF HOCKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
As much A Century of NHL Memories: Rare Photos from the Hockey Hall of Fame is about players and moments, it's also about photography and the photographers. While going through the book, I made note that photo geeks (and I mean that in a loving way) will love this book and its attention to detail. Photos keep whatever crop marks are on the original image, very little clean-up is done on the shot, and the source format—film, slide, glass!—is listed along with a credit for who took the picture. In today's world of instant gratification, an image can quickly get shared millions of times without crediting the source, so the painstaking background work is appreciated.
Though the book is credited to Phil Pritchard, the Hockey Hall of Fame's Vice President, Resource Centre and Curator, and more famously, the “Keeper of the Cup” in his white gloves and HHOF jacket, and author Jim Hynes (Saving Face: The Art and History of the Goalie Mask and other books), Pritchard says it was very much a team effort, from concept especially to selection of the photos.
“We have this one wall in the archives and every time we found an image, Craig Campbell [Manager, Resource Centre and Archives] would take a photocopy of it, put it on the wall, and we'd try to separate it into eras or into players or teams or moments. We didn't have enough space on the wall all of a sudden,” Pritchard said. “Everyone at the Hall had input into it, and I think from our point, that's what makes it pretty special.” Colleagues at the HHOF were asked, “Tell me your favourite shot” and the team just kept “pulling and pulling and pulling.”
The end result is a stunning 160-page hardcover coffee table book from Griffintown Media, and Pritchard relayed that the publisher played a part in the final product too. “The harder part was narrowing it down, and working with the publisher, and everybody, that's how we narrowed it down. I'm positive we could do another book, no problem.” (There is also a French-language version of the book, entitled La LNH : un siècle d'histoire - Des photos exceptionnelles du Temple de la renommée du hockey.)
In the foreword, Lanny McDonald, an Honoured Member and the chair of the HHOF Board of Directors, writes that the Hall team serves as “custodians of memories.” Pritchard agrees. “We obviously view ourselves as hockey historians, and as an archives and a museum, but what Lanny says is right—it's all about memories, and that's what hockey does so well and museums do so well. It's all about memories and what people remember growing up, or their heroes, or great moments they remember. I think we tie it all in, in this book.”
With a couple million original images to choose from, the goal was to not just show the usual shots, like Bill Barilko's winning goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs in April 1951, but also something different. Instead of the iconic shot of Bobby Orr's Stanley Cup-winning goal in the spring of 1970, two shots taken from different angles around the same time as the famed shot by the late Boston photographer Ray Lussier run in the book.
A small quirk, bound to bring a smile back to many faces, is the return of past arena names. The Corel Centre in Ottawa is a great example, and since the photo used of Marty Brodeur, puck in flight approaching his glove, is from 2006, that's where it is labelled as being from.
“That again goes back to the memories, because that's what it was then,” said Pritchard. “There's no sense calling it what it is now when that's not what it was. I think as you go through the book, going through the 100 years of the National Hockey League, a lot changed in hockey. People don't think that a lot has, but a lot has changed, not only on the ice but in the arena, the equipment and all of that. We tried to show all of that off.”
The photographic equipment changed too, from posed shots because the action was too fast for the speed of film, to remote-controlled digital cameras in the nets. Some of the most unique shots are of the photographers themselves, chasing down someone on the ice for a photo, or a posed self-portrait of probably the most important and influential hockey photographers in history, Nat and Lou Turofsky, who called Maple Leaf Gardens home.
“We list the specs and all that kind of stuff, because some of the photography that we have from these collections and photographers, that was their mindset going into to the game, because the game has picked up speed over the years, and technology, through images and photographic images has changed as well, so they've had to adapt their role as a photographer,” concluded Pritchard. “So we tried to show that in the book, in getting different formats out there, different viewpoints from photographers, different visions. .... The focus is on photos in that book. Yeah, there are stories and that, but it's the photography that is going to make that book what it is.”
A NEW ANGLE ON AN OLD TEAM
With the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrating their 100th anniversary in 2017, veteran Toronto Sun hockey writer Lance Hornby knew he wanted to do something in longer form. The concept he came up with, Toronto and the Maple Leafs: A City and Its Team, isn't strictly a hockey book.
“It's my White Album essentially. It's all over the place with a lot of things to do with the Leafs,” joked Hornby at the the book launch at Toronto's SPORT Gallery in October 2017 (referencing the final album of the Beatles for those who never leave the rink).
In its essence, it's an argument that the Toronto Maple Leafs are more than just a hockey team.
How all over the place is it? Some of the topics include how the Leafs both affected and were affected by:
“All these things touched the Maple Leafs, so that's why I think they are so special to Toronto,” said Hornby, reminding everyone the reach of the Leafs expanded across the country through “our fathers and grandfathers who listened to Foster Hewitt” meaning that there are still plenty of Leafs fans across Canada.
Leafs great Ron Ellis wrote the foreword; “I guess Sittler and Clark weren't available,” he joked, before showing his colours. “I bleed blue, very much so. The Gardens was my home for 20 years, if you count my years with the Marlies ... I've seen the impact the game has had on Toronto.”
The unflappable Ellis offered up a closing thought: “Its a good read.”
Toronto and the Maple Leafs: A City and Its Team is out now, from ECW Press.
Ron Ellis and Lance Hornby with Lance's new book. Photo by Craig Robertson, Toronto Sun
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