ZURICH Ė A few years removed from his days backstopping the Montreal Canadiens to Stanley Cups or minding the net for Team Canada in Game Eight of the Summit Series, former goaltender Ken Dryden has remained actively involved in ice hockey.
With the 4th Consensus Conference on Concussion in Sport taking currently underway in Zurich, Dryden has joined the list of attendees from all across the sporting world, to gain insight into a medical issue that has become a hot topic in hockey. IIHF.com caught up with Dryden to get his views on this growing medical issue in sports.
Youíve attended a few conferences on concussions prior to this one. What can you say about such events?
Each of them has been kind of an experimental one. There the ones where the purpose is to connect each of the different parties that are affected by this and have a role. Itís not just the medical professionals but also those who have suffered concussions, and they tell their story. And they tell it very clearly as to what are their life consequences. People who are unknown people and they share what happens in their daily life and the complications that emerge. You hear the story behind it, itís not just an elbow to the head and you canít play for a few days, but what happens after.
The question arises, how could we play differently? What changes can we make that keep the game as fun and exciting to play and watch but a little safer at the same time and more head-smart than what it is now?
What prompted you to attend this conference?
This is the first pure scientific conference that I have attended. What was really interesting is that you have a number of different sports participating, and clearly these are sports that have evolved their awareness and recognition of the problem. There is a gradual shift to the point where the concussion issue has become an ongoing question, and it affects how we play our games. So I am interested to hear about how the soccer people deal with this issue, and how the rugby or Australian-rules football people deal with it too.
There is also the fact that this conference has a wall-to-wall agenda. You have speakers going on one after the other, half hour after half hour, for two days. This is not a leisurely conference at all, and thatís great. You have a chance to be in the same space as the people who are doing the most advanced work in this field across all sports.
What got you involved in the concussion issue?
Because in just watching what was happening, it was clear for me that this is something that is genuinely serious. Certainly when I was a Member of Parliament in Canada, when you are in a position where you can influence significantly a decision being made, the matters that you are most sensitive to are the matters that have really big implications.
You can compare it with smoking, where in my lifetime the perception of smoking has changed so much. When you think about what people will think of us, you wonder if they will be saying ďhow could they have been so stupidĒ with this issue and the consequences. I think with sports, itís going to be head injuries. When you have the frequency of collision, the force and hardness of collisions, and the nature of the brain and what happens, itís hard to ignore.
Since you wrote the Grantland.com article about the concussion issue, have you been encouraged with recent efforts to address concussions in sport?
I donít get encouraged or discouraged. Articles like that help people understand the issue and the implications. People are much more aware of head injuries now.
One hopes that the answer is a straightforward answer that involves equipment, medical, or facilities that can be easily acted upon. But the more you talk to people who are involved in the field, the more they tell you no, these are only a small part of the answer, maybe ten or fifteen per cent. If we think answer is going to come from medical developments that can bring a player back faster and with a full recovery sooner, this wonít happen.
Concussions are not injuries in the same sense that a twisted knee or torn ACL is an injury. Doctors and equipment people may protect players better, but coming up with an answer where you can still hit someone as hard as you can but they wonít be concussed, no we canít get there like that. Itís the same with penalties and suspensions, these are all partial answers.
The 4th Consensus Conference on Concussion in Sport with Ken Dryden takes place at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich. Photo: Martin Merk
The IIHF has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to hits to the head. Do you believe this should be applied to all pro leagues?
You can start with that premise that the assumption that a hit to the head is an attempt to injure. Itís important to operate off that assumption. You donít allow the specific examples to deter you, like if somebody deliberately lowers their head into a check in order to draw a penalty. You can deal with these exceptions and reverse them with a penalty for diving. The most important thing is to deliver a mainstream message with the rules that a hit to the head is an assumed intent to injure.
What about rule changes?
Changes like these can help, but the question is what are people more likely willing to do and what are they less likely willing to do. Even if widening the ice surface would have a significant impact, itís still probably something that the NHL and other North American leagues would implement last, and if they are going to fight it all the way, then itís not really an answer. And if that isnít the answer, then it is more important to find out what can be tried that these leagues are more willing to try, and thatís where the push needs to be.
As a player was there a point when you realized how dangerous concussions could be?
Not really, I would have understood it first in terms of boxing. As a kid around 11-12 years old I watched a boxing match Emile Griffith and Benny ďthe KidĒ Paret, and Paret got knocked out by Emile Griffith and died. He was clearly badly injured in the ring and died days later. At that time also there would be certain movies or comedy skits depicting a ďpunch-drunkĒ boxer. As you got older and realized that there were lots of boxers that fit this description around.
But I never would have thought of this in hockey or other sports. If you go back now though and look back, the games were much slower and the players spaced wider apart. You would get fights but even fights were much less risky, each player fought their own fights and you didnít have the designate fighter on each team that fought for everyone. Nowadays fighting is more dangerous because you have guys who really know how to fight and can seriously damage another person. Even though they also are better at defending themselves, it just takes one shot from one of these guys can really deliver damage.
Where do you feel international organisations like the IIHF fit into all this?
I think that increasing awareness of what we know is important, and encouraging the best doctors to get involved, and to have those doctors involved with other doctors across different sports to share the knowledge and have them get together periodically and learn from each other and multiply the body of knowledge.
The next part, and this may well be the most challenging part, is what you do about it, not just medically but with rules and how can we play this game a little bit differently, which is where the biggest and most contentious challenge lies for international and local organisations.
We got the World Juniors coming up in Russia. What do you like about the tournament and do you see it gaining popularity in Europe?
I donít know, Iíve seen few World Junior games, but I remember playing in Montreal when the World Juniors were in town, and guys like Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Smith were playing. I think it was 1978 and they had a pile of players that ended up being very outstanding professional players. It was played at the Montreal Forum and there were only about 1,100 people watching it.
It was essentially a non-event at the time, but to see it grow from that to what it is now is something. It is very substantial in Canada, TSN has created a Christmas to New Yearís viewing habit for people in Canada, people know that it is coming along every year and they tune in, similar to the U.S. college football bowl games. Itís a remarkable achievement.