Ken Dryden believes shining an intense spotlight on concussions is the way to spur meaningful prevention and treatment.
The Hockey Hall of Fame goalie, author and former federal cabinet minister is attempting to clear away the fog surrounding concussions by getting athletes, medical professionals, researchers, coaches and sports administrators in one room in front of the public.
“I think it’s the biggest issue of sports and not just hockey, but football, lacrosse and rugby and even soccer,” Dryden said Monday night at a sport concussions panel at the University of Calgary.
“I love the phase ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ But in an awful lot of very difficult, tricky questions, and this is one of them, it’s the reverse that’s more true. ‘I need to see some way before I’m ready to commit more will.’
“I think that’s where we are. This is a question that needs a lot more way, a lot more answers.”
Dryden hosted the event with what he jokingly called a “Johnny Carson” style. He interviewed his guests seated on couches in front of a live audience in a university theatre after moderating similar panels in Dryden, Ont., Guelph, Ont., and Regina.
The 65-year-old won six Stanley Cups and the Vezina Trophy — the award for the NHL’s top goaltender — five times while playing for the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983.
Post-hockey, Dryden authored several books, including The Game, and was a Liberal Member of Parliament from 2004 to 2011. He served as Minister of Social Development in Paul Martin’s government.
Dryden believes there will be catastrophic repercussions if the sports community doesn’t get to the bottom of concussions.
“I think that this is one of those big questions like cigarette smoking was 40 or 50 years ago that we look back on now and we wonder how we could have been so stupid,” he said. “I think this is the one, in sports, that 40 or 50 years from now, people will look back at us and wonder ‘What was wrong with them? How didn’t they get it? Why were they so stupid?’
“Even those who know quite a bit know that they don’t know a lot. None of us knows what we really need to know. And we need to get at it. That means scientists and coaches and players and parents and administrators, not separately so we can all point our fingers elsewhere.”
Dryden opened the forum by questioning athletes on their concussion experiences. Alpine ski racer Carey Mullen, hockey player Jeremy Colliton and long-track speed skater Kristina Groves were among those relating their personal stories with an injury that is so mysterious.
Colliton, who won silver and gold with Canada’s junior team in 2004 and 2005 respectively, has suffered five concussions during his hockey career. Two during the 2011-12 season while playing for the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers kept him off the ice for 11 months.
“I think we have to make it OK to finish a check and not hit a guy in the head,” Colliton said. “You can make a devastating hit and not put a guy out for months.
“That’s part of why I’m going to Europe, is because I don’t think I can play in North America and survive for a couple of years. I need to be concussion free for a bit before I go back.”
A concussion Groves suffered in her final season of racing didn’t force her to retire, but the four-time Olympic medallist has spoken with other winter-sport athletes whose lives have been forever altered by head injuries.
“We’re fundamentally changing who we are when we smack our heads that hard,” Groves said. “You’re not the same person as you were. That’s something we don’t talk about when we talk about the risks of concussions.”
While the medical professionals said there’s still much to learn about concussions, they added that recognizing and reporting symptoms and seeking immediate treatment has become standard knowledge.
The discussion turned quickly towards bodychecking in minor hockey when sports administrators and coaches joined Dryden on the podium.
Former Calgary Flames captain Jim Peplinski turned up the heat on Hockey Canada and Hockey Alberta representatives, pointing to a University of Calgary study that concluded bodychecking among peewee players (aged 11-12) more than triples the risk of concussion and injury.
“I’m with Jim,” Calgary Dinos coach Mark Howell said. “We need to be leaders in this. Hockey Canada, Hockey Alberta, we need to trust medical experts and stop waiting for opinions.
“A lot of people that run minor hockey, they care so much about the game of hockey, they care about the kids, they do, but they’re also clouded in their opinions. They don’t want to trust the medical knowledge that’s out there.”
Dryden concluded the panel by pointing to a worst-case scenarios, which is the recent lawsuit launched by hundreds of former NFL players against the league over brain injuries.
But it’s not the professional athletes that concerns Dryden the most.
“I got out of sport, and our kids got out of sports, everything that one could ever hope to get out of sports,” he said. “I hope for their kids and other kids that they will have that same kind of experience.
“Part of it is being able to play without extreme risks.”