Ken Dryden is known for many things: one of the most prolific eight-year careers ever by an NHL goaltender; a seven-year political career as a Member of Parliament for Canada’s Liberal Party; the author of The Game, considered one of the greatest and most insightful hockey books of all-time. Dryden is now making a new name for himself, as an eloquent and outspoken critic of the current attitudes toward headshots and player safety.
In March, Dryden wrote an editorial in the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national newspapers, lamenting the lackadaisical attitudes toward headshots and asking the pointed question: “How could we be so stupid?” Unfortunately electronic access to the article now requires a paid subscription to the Globe and Mail, but you can read excerpts at the blog Jewels From the Crown. Among Dryden’s more insightful points are his debunking of the “purity” or “essence” of the sport of hockey and his historical contextualization of the sport’s rules and style:
Hockey began in Montreal in 1875 because some rugby players wanted a game for the wintertime, and they wanted to hit each other. But the rugby players couldn’t skate very fast, their bodies were smaller than ours are today, and they were playing on a smaller ice surface where they had little room to pick up momentum. With no substitutions allowed, the game moved at coasting speed. Bigger ice surfaces changed the nature of the game; so did the forward pass; so did boards and glass; so did substitutions, shorter shifts and bigger bodies. . . . Helmeted players in today’s game are far more vulnerable to serious head injury than helmet-less players were in generations ago. We choose to ignore the fact that the “nature” of any game is always changing. Today’s hockey – in terms of speed, skill, style of play and force of impact – is almost unrecognizable from hockey 50 years ago, let alone 100.
I fully intend to explore on this blog the historical origins and present effects of physicality and violence in hockey, but Dryden’s statement gives some insightful hints toward the incongruity between the historical rules and contemporary reality of the sport.
More recently, Dryden has published very similar articles on this subject in the Globe and Mail and on the Grantland website. The latter post is particularly significant, given that it is appearing on a website that is owned by ESPN and features widely-read writers such as Bill Simmons, Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman. Clearly the topic of headshots in hockey is becoming more widely discussed and debated, and has entered popular sports discourse as an issue of debate. From the Grantland piece, one of the many strong opinions voiced by Dryden:
Immediately, [NHL Commissioner] Bettman can say, we need to treat any hit to the head as what it is: an attempt to injure. A hit to the shoulder, torso, or hip — depending — is understood as good positioning and good defense; not so a hit to the head. The head has always been thought of differently, requiring special protection with its own peculiar penalties. . . . The presumption needs to be that every hit to the head is an attempt to injure, with the onus on the player doing the hitting, through his actions and in the eyes of the referee, to defeat that presumption.
Dryden, it seems, is speaking a whole lot of sense. That he has taken on this public intellectual role should not be a huge surprise to those who know his biography: this is the same man who completed his Bachelor’s degree at Cornell University before beginning his professional hockey career, who took a year off from hockey to pursue his law degree at McGill University, and whose post-hockey careers included law and public service. Clearly Dryden cares a great deal about hockey, but also recognizes that an athlete need not be defined solely by his or her athletic identity. Similarly, he seems to have a genuine desire to see the sport he loves improve for the betterment of its players.
Dryden is but one person, and on his own will certainly not enact change. But he is a prominent, and important, voice in the growing movement to improve the safety of hockey players at all levels of the game, and to re-imagine the possibilities for the sport of hockey.