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Hockey Ken Dryden: Hockey’s concussion discussion is about more than just the game, it’s personal

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: THE GLOBE AND MAIL. SOURCE PHOTOS: CP/REUTERS/AP

This week, I visited the Vancouver Writers Fest to speak about my book, Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and The Future of Hockey, which was being released on Oct. 17. That night, I would be on stage to do a one-on-one interview about it.

I did several media interviews in the two days before. It wasn't until I had done a few of them that I began to sense something was different. My interviews always run long – I talk long – but these were longer: tightly scripted five-minute TV segments ran seven; seven-minute radio ones ran 10. One that was scheduled for five minutes went 15. And this time the hosts seemed in no hurry to end them. No matter what they were hearing their producers say in their headsets, their eyes said to keep going.

And these weren't sports shows. They were drive-to-work, drive-home and talk shows that let people know what was going on in their community, such as the Writers Fest. When a former player comes to town, it's usually the guys who do the interviews. (This may seem like a cliché, but that's been my experience.) But many of these hosts were women. Two mentioned that they have sons who play hockey. In one interview, with the program's female program host and the male sports reporter, I knew he would take the lead; except she did. She has two kids in hockey.

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Read more: Awareness isn't enough to stop head injuries in sports. We need action now

Read more: The Ken Dryden rule: No hits to the head, no excuses

Before when I'd done interviews about my hockey career, the hosts wanted to talk. This time, they needed to talk. It's as if together they were saying – I want to know about concussions and head injuries and hockey.

I want to know because it's my job as a journalist to know and to help my audience know. But really, here, now, I want to know because I have kids, or grandkids, or my friends or co-workers have kids, and I know this matters. And it doesn't matter that I didn't play as a kid, and I know nothing about hockey. I know hockey is there, all around me. And I know it's going to be there, and I know if my kids want to play it's not very likely I'm going to be able to stop them. They are going to play. So I have a stake in this game. A very big stake. It affects my life. It has to be wonderful; it has to be safer. It just has to be. The interviews were intense. Sometimes desperate. This was personal.

About 175 people were at the Writers Fest event. The CBC's Alison Broddle and I talked for more than an hour, about Steve Montador and his life, about his hockey life, about being a player, about injuries, brain injuries and CTE, about how we play and how hockey has changed through its history. We talked about the problems, about no head hits – no excuses – what can be done, the steps it would take, about the limits of awareness and the central importance of decision-makers. In hockey, one decision-maker – Gary Bettman. There were lots of questions, we went well beyond time. Alison Broddle needed to cut things off and end the night. Just before she did, I asked the audience: how many of you have had a concussion? About 40 per cent of the room raised their hands. I asked: how many of your kids? – this time, about 25 per cent. Finally, I asked, taking all of this together, you, your kids, your friends, and co-workers and their kids, how many of you feel a personal connection to concussions? About 80 per cent of the room raised their hands.

I signed books afterward. But again, this was different. It wasn't a signing line. This was a story line.

People handed me their books to sign, told me their names, and began to tell me about their kids, some now grown up, some still playing, and about their concussions. How lost their kids looked when their injuries happened, after they happened; as parents, how helpless they felt; how after that moment, these moments, some of their kids had regressed, or never progressed – it was as if these parents were living the experience again. Others in the line had been athletes themselves, until their injury. They had told their own postinjury story many times to doctors, but now, years since their injury, little enough had changed that nothing had seemed to change, and nothing would. They were there needing to tell their story again.

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On stage, just a few minutes earlier, they had heard me say how, in hockey, there are answers. Very doable answers. Answers that have to do with prevention – no head hits – no excuses – not with the limitations of treatment and repair, something they live with every day. After they had told their stories, many asked the same question: "Do you think Gary Bettman will do something?" Again and again, "Do you think … ?"

Gary Bettman is a public person. He is an easy target. Anything nasty that is said about him will bring laughter and applause. Yet this question wasn't asked with anger in their voices. It was hopeful. Generous.

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