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Book Review: Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey

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Looking at Ken Dryden’s book on the life of Sabres alumnus Montador

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Buffalo Sabres v New York Islanders Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

"Athletes have their own kind of relationship with pain. They play because they are so absorbed in playing that they don't notice injuries when they happen. The soldier who is shot keeps on going because the imperative to go on is so much more important than the imperative to fall. The explanation for such a miraculous act is purpose more than courage.

So players play. And players expect other players to play. Someone goes down in a hockey game and is helped off the ice. 'He'll be back,' the announcer says. 'He's a hockey player.' "

This quote, from the pages of Ken Dryden's "Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey" is haunting, and rings true to heart.

Dryden's book, published in October, is a critical, investigative, look into former Buffalo Sabres defenseman Steve Montador's life, the culture of hockey, and how issues like concussions, CTE, and the resulting effects (including depression, anxiety, alcoholism, etc.) are - or are not - being handled. For those who saw Monty play during his time in Buffalo or any other time in his career, it's also a very humanistic, heart-breaking read -- but an important one for hockey fans, players, and those surrounding the game.

For the faint of heart, I give this warning: the book starts with a fairly graphic description of how Montador's brain was handled after his death and the process by which it was tested for CTE. Personally, I had a little trouble getting through that part, but once I did, the rest of the book was much less graphically descriptive, and easier to read on my stomach.

Dryden's book is, in some ways, a biography. Although it skips across different periods of his life, it discusses Montador's childhood and entrance into hockey, and his growing up in the sport; how he went undrafted, and the long process through which he eventually made it to the NHL. From peewee to training camps, the AHL, preseasons, offseasons, and through his NHL career and beyond, it’s as comprehensive a look at Monty’s life as we’ll likely ever get.

Underneath all of this is a deeper discussion of the multiple concussions Montador suffered during his career and their lasting impacts. Off the ice, Dryden discusses some of the issues Montador faced, including problems with alcohol and drugs (and how he started going to AA meetings and even checked himself into rehab over one NHL All-Star break); depression, anxiety, forgetfulness, vision problems, and dark moments in his life. He talks about how these issues are all intertwined, with the concussions and the hits, but how often, these things are talked about separately.

The book includes interviews with many of Montador's teammates, family and friends, which makes it a very personal, intimate conversation. Included, of course, are a few pages on Montador's time with the Sabres, as well as quotes from guys like Darcy Regier, Rhett Warrener and Mike Weber, all names familiar to the Buffalo crowd.

All the while, as I read this book, it broke my heart, because I knew the ending of his story, and eventually, I reached that part of it, when in February 2015, he was found dead at the age of 35 years old. It’s heartbreaking to read about him returning from one concussion, to get hit in the head again days later, and think about the ramifications of this; to think, if one thing was different, would he be alive today?

Beyond Montador's story, the book is about more than just him. Dryden carefully inserts several stories from other former NHLers who suffered multiple concussions, including Keith Primeau, Clarke MacArthur and Marc Savard. He talks about Sidney Crosby's history with concussions and shapes all of this into a bigger discussion about hockey, specifically the NHL, and what needs to change.

Dryden says:

"Hockey is a really good game. It has never been played and watched by more people in more different countries than it is now, by more boys and men, by more girls and women, by more people of more different racial and ethnic backgrounds. It has never been played better. Its players have never been so skilled and fit. The NHL has never been a better league. It is where the world's best players play. It is what kids in Moscow and Mississauga, Minneapolis and Malmo dream of. It is the world's league, the Stanley Cup is the world's hockey trophy."

Dryden discusses the legal ramifications of head hits and injuries, concussions and CTE, and how the NHL is, or is not, facing up to these issues. Things like the NHL's Department of Player Safety and revised rules can help. Concussion spotters can help. But it is also about the player who always wants to play - and who is going to stop him? And when?

For anyone who watched Montador play, whether with the Sabres or another NHL team, in the AHL or the KHL or in juniors, or for any hockey fan, anywhere, this book is an important look at Montador's life, not just in hockey, but outside of it, and how hockey shaped that, too. It's a touching look at the last several years of his life and a haunting reminder of how much more life he should've had. It's also a deep look at the culture of hockey, how it's changed over the years, and how it can be changed in the future, particularly when it comes to caring for the health and safety of its players - not just when they're on the ice wearing a jersey, but also during the offseason, and even three, five, twenty, or forty years after they've hung up the skates.

Dryden's book is available for purchase through Amazon.com here.