Trying to understand the deaths of Wade Belak, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard is spurring a search for answers, but they may not be easy to find.
The recent death of Wade Belak, coming on the heels of Rick Rypien’s death in mid-August, Derek Boogaard’s accidental overdose last May, and the suicide of former NHL center Tom Cavanagh last January, has left the hockey world shocked and searching for answers.
Belak’s passing led to an outpouring of emotional reaction from fans, bloggers, pundits, as well as players past and present, all grappling to understand the reasons behind his death, and those who predeceased him.
It’s understandable. At every level, we want to find out if these deaths were preventable. We wonder if there were warning signs, if the NHL and NHLPA did enough to help these players, and if not, to find those responsible and levy blame.
We want solutions, and we want them fast, so we don’t ever have to see, read, or hear about another tragic passing again.
Sadly, there aren’t any simple solutions.
As Boogaard, Rypien and Belak were enforcers, the most obvious conclusion is their on-ice battles may have been to blame for their deaths. That’s led tothe inevitable calls for fighting, or the role of enforcer, to be banned from hockey.
Studies into the mental and physical stress placed on enforcers would certainly be worthwhile to determine if it worsens an existing condition like depression, or result in potentially life-threatening brain injuries.
The NHL has only recently begun to take the issue of concussions seriously, with the focus upon those brought about by dangerous checks to the head. It remains to be seen if the scope will be expanded to investigate possible brain injuries to enforcers.
Such studies, however, might not have applied to Cavanagh, who was an All-American college player and a Harvard graduate, whose dreams of an NHL career were cut short, not by brain trauma, but knee, shoulder and wrist injuries.
He considered following in his father’s footsteps and attending law school, and his style of player certainly didn’t fall into the category of enforcer.
Cavanagh was diagnosed with schizophrenia years ago, and in the last months of his young life, had been institutionalized several times. That would suggest hockey played no role in his condition.
Boogaard’s death was ruled an accidental overdose, the result of mixing alcohol and strong painkillers.
His family has donated his brain for study to determine what, if any, injuries it suffered during Boogaard’s career as an enforcer, and if they could be tied to his role.
Boogaard was considered one of the most feared fighters in the league, and drew flak a few years ago for running an off-season school for young players to teach them how to avoid injury in hockey fights, as his critics claimed it encouraged children to fight.
It’s unknown if Boogaard suffered from depression, and he appeared to relish his role as one of the league’s top fighters.
Injuries – concussion, knee and shoulder – apparently led to Boogaard’s addiction to painkillers, for which he sought treatment through the league, and had successfully completed by the time of his passing. Sadly, it appears it still wasn’t enough to get him off the drug which contributed to his death.
In recent days, former players have spoken out about the abuse of prescription pain pills among players at every professional level. It’s apparent this is an issue the NHL, and other pro leagues, shouldn’t ignore, lest they face more sad deaths like Boogaard’s in the coming years.
Rypien was known to have suffered from depression prior to his death. He’d struggled with the condition for a decade, which reportedly may have been the result of his girlfriend’s death in a car crash while she was travelling to one of his games.
He twice sought and received treatment through the Canucks and the league. Prior to his death, Rypien appeared to have responded positively to treatment, and this summer signed a contract with the new Winnipeg Jets.
It’s apparent his condition was not held against him by the Canucks organization or the league, as he was given all the time needed to receive treatment.
Rypien was still highly regarded by the Vancouver Canucks management and his former teammates, who were stunned by his sudden death. Several of his teammates, along with Canucks GM Mike Gillis, attended his funeral and were visibly distraught.
Following Rypien’s death, the NHL announced it would review its substance abuse and behavioural health program to determine if improvements can be made. It’s unknown if his condition was worsened by his hockey career, and it may be worthwhile to examine the possibility, but there shouldn’t be a rush to judgement before all the facts are known.
Belak’s depression, however, was hidden by his affable personality, which made his passing all the more shocking, especially for those who knew him well.
We don’t know if Belak had quietly sought treatment through the league in the past, but if he didn’t, the league and the NHLPA cannot be faulted. They’re not clairvoyant, and can only help those who seek help.
Belak’s passing led to accusations the league and players’ association does nothing to help retired players make the transition out of the hockey world, but that doesn’t appear to have been a problem for the recently retired Belak.
The Nashville Predators mid-way through last season placed him on waivers, but offered him the choice of demotion or joining their broadcast team. He chose the latter, and apparently had such a positive impact he was hired to continue full time starting this season. Even though he wasn’t a part of the active roster, the Predators management paid him the remainder of his salary for last season.
Belak was also slated to be a contestant in CBC’s popular Battle of the Blades show, which pairs former players with figure skaters.
Until recent years, the NHL had a poor history of helping former players transition to lives outside hockey. Far too many players, from former greats like Doug Harvey to former enforcers like Steve Durbano, fell on hard times, relying on the charity of family, friends or old teammates.
But as PA executive and former player Mathieu Schneider recently noted, the association has implemented programs in recent years to provide assistance at various levels for players financial or employment assistance, plus counselling on making the transition out of the game.
That’s not to suggest the system is perfect or shouldn’t be improved.
When former NHL players like Tyson Nash, Matthew Barnaby, Georges Laraque, Jim Thomson, Brent Sopel or Jarkko Ruutu claim there are problems, their comments shouldn’t be dismissed as sour grapes from bitter ex-players. Their words should carry weight. They’ve felt abandoned by the sport they loved, left to deal with the emotional and physical toll their careers have taken on their own.
Perhaps it would be helpful if more enforcers – past and present – were forthright about the toll their role has taken on them. Interestingly, the very people who don’t want fighting out of the game are those who participate in it the most, claiming it would cost them the very means by which they make their living in the NHL.
It’s also notable former enforcers like Thomson, Dave Schultz and Chris Nilan are speaking out about the toll their role took on their lives while calling for the banning of fights from the game, whilst current scrappers have either kept silent or defended their roles while calling those ex-scrappers selfish hypocrites.
Fighting remains in hockey because fans enjoy it. That means there will continue to be players whose main claim to hockey fame is their pugilistic abilities, rather than their hockey skills.
Boogaard, Rypien and Belak were enforcers, apparently took pride in what they did, and believed there was a place for their role in the game.
What we don’t know is what role, if any, fighting took in shortening their lives. Until pro hockey decides to take a serious examination of the topic, we’ll be left to guess.
As for those players reluctant to seek help, Greg Wyshynski makes an excellent point that there must be a shift in the sports culture to help those who need help without making them feel ashamed to do so.
Ultimately, however, it comes down to the player to overcome his fear, step forward and seek help, be it for addiction, depression, or transitioning out of the game.
Suicide, addiction, and depression touch every other sport as well, and every facet of life.
Today’s NHL players are fortunate to have the current support systems in place, but even with that help, not everyone finds what they need. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also reality, the same kind we fans also face in our lives.
Even with the best personal and professional help, some people sadly still fail to find what they seek. That’s not to suggest there shouldn’t be any way to help them, but it does mean we must understand that sometimes, all the help, love and support in the world might not be enough.
As hockey fans, all we can do is ask for the NHL and NHLPA to do its very best to help players in need.
In trying to come to terms with the deaths of these young hockey players, there are no easy answers, and those we find we might not like.