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What the NHL and NHLPA should learn from a year filled with tragic death

Sep 1, 2011, 9:30 AM EDT

Wade Belak Getty Images

There’s no way to be able to wrap your head around what’s happened off the ice in the hockey world this year.

Since the start of 2011 we’ve seen four tragic deaths. Sharks minor leaguer Tom Cavanaugh, Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, former Canucks tough guy Rick Rypien, and now recently retired scrapper Wade Belak. Of those four, three of them are believed to be suicides (Rypien’s cause of death is still yet unknown while Belak’s is suspected to be a suicide) and Boogaard’s came thanks to a toxic mix of painkillers and alcohol all stemming from being upset with missing time thanks to post-concussion syndrome.

We’re not here to hypothesize on what caused these young men to reach that dark place where killing their body with toxins or taking their own life seemed like the right answer to the situation they were in. Doing that is a folly. Trying to figure out if the life of an NHL tough guy or a concussion victim leads to being consumed by the saddest of sad thoughts is too much for people not in the know to speculate on. While you could draw conclusions with a guy like Rypien, using the same methodology for a guy like Belak doesn’t make sense. We just don’t know what made these guys tick and that’s part of the frustration in dealing with their untimely deaths.

What needs to be looked at is how the NHL and the NHLPA are trying to take care of their troubled souls. Former NHL tough guys Tyson Nash and Matthew Barnaby took to Twitter to point the finger at the NHLPA for not helping players prepare for their post-career lives. In Belak’s case, this makes some sense although Belak wasn’t lacking in opportunity post-hockey. Belak was set to be a rinkside reporter for Predators broadcasts and was also set to compete on CBC’s Battle of the Blades celebrity figure skating competition.

The fact here remains that pro hockey players are guys that have been playing since childhood and have known a professional schedule lifestyle that consisted of virtually nothing but hockey. When it comes time to retire or if you’re forced out of the game by injury, it’s a colossal culture change for players which sometimes leaves guys feeling lost.

It’s the sort of situation that makes you think of the character Brooks from the film “The Shawshank Redemption.” After so many years on the inside of prison, when he was set free he became a lost soul unable to adapt to a new way of life on the outside. That’s not to say that the hockey lifestyle is like a prison, just that when everything you’ve ever known is thrown into disarray, if you’re not ready for it you can be left feeling swamped over.

Whether it comes from preparing players for their post-career lives, helping them with substance abuse, or getting them help when it feels like there’s no way out of the darkness that’s enveloping their lives being proactive to let the players know there’s help when they need it is the absolute least they can do and it has to start early.

The NFL and NBA hold rookie symposiums for incoming players to help them better prepare for the perils of being a professional athlete. Having the NHLPA and NHL work together to let players know that there is a program in place to help (the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse & Behavioral Health Program) can get the word out early and let it be known that help is there if needed. Whether the problems stem from abusing alcohol or pain killers, the assistance is there.

With depression is one of the most personal and most private mental illnesses, teaching players early on what the signs of it are and that reaching out for help when it’s needed. That’s not nearly enough to help those who are depressed, but doing something is better than doing nothing. Depression is such a difficult thing because even with proper counseling and a great circle of friends, it still might not be enough to save someone from their thoughts. Ignoring it, however, is not an option.

With  so much sadness and so many questions left unanswered for those players and their families, the time is now for the NHL and NHLPA to work together and make sure that sadness and avoidable tragedy will not happen in the future. One death is one too many, four is a sign of a much larger problem that must be addressed.

  1. 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Sep 1, 2011 at 9:44 AM

    “One death is one too many, four is a sign of a much larger problem that must be addressed”

    It’s hard to agree that there is a larger problem here since there have been many players like these guys before them that have not gone down the same road. However, I agree more needs to be done in terms of offering support to current and former NHLers

  2. stanjonathon - Sep 1, 2011 at 1:26 PM

    Joe, read “Everyone’s All-American” for a good novel on a star SEC football player experiencing the end of his athletic identity.

  3. Kristenaux - Sep 1, 2011 at 3:47 PM

    The blame can be shared by more than just the leagues. Coaches & GM’s alike have to look at these players, realize there’s something underlying & make sure they have adequate time to heal. As well, the fans aren’t blameless either. They scream to see blood & marginally dirty hits, they want the players to make bodily punishing plays that the human body just wasn’t meant to make – plays that lay another player out, sometimes for months or sometimes forever. We share responsibility for *expecting* these guys to play that way or they “just aren’t fit for the league”. That takes it’s toll on a players head too…jmo.

    • 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Sep 1, 2011 at 5:31 PM

      “They scream to see blood & marginally dirty hits, they want the players to make bodily punishing plays that the human body just wasn’t meant to make”

      What hockey games are you going to? Or perhaps the more pertinent question, what kind of hockey fan are you? I go to a game expecting to be entertained, see a bunch of goals, a few good saves, and to watch my team win. A fight or a big hit is an added bonus but I could care less if neither happens as long as it’s a good game

      • icelovinbrotha215 - Sep 2, 2011 at 1:46 PM

        @1943mrmojorisin1971, well said. Real hockey fans want to see good hockey. Playoff hockey is the best hockey you’ll see all year round. And how many fights happen during that tenure? One or two if you’re lucky. Fights and big hits are part of the game. But real fans also appreciate 2-on-1’s and PP and PK. You like to battles in the corners and how the 4th line has a relentless forecheck. There is so much more to hockey than fighting and obliterating hits. If that is all you want to see, fights and hits that is, maybe one should consider UFC, MMA, boxing, etc.

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