This article is going to be written in many forms in the coming days and this is just my take on it. With the tragic news of the death of Wade Belak coupled with the already devastating losses of Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard this summer one must ask the question; Does this have something to do with fighting? Is it a coincidence that all three of these players were considered "enforcers"
At this point with three deaths since the end of the regular season how can we not be at least considering a connection?
I'm not looking to assign responsibility. I want to explore the options however. I simply want to know where any organization involved can do more to prevent this. Three times in a summer is not a isolated incident. The first place people want to assign responsibility is on the league. Does the existence of the enforcer role and fighting in hockey produce these tragedies? I think to a minimal extent it could, but there is no real evidence to convict the league that fighters or enforcers are suicidal or substance abusers. I personally will contend that traditional, non-staged fighting has a place in the NHL. You can only shine so bright a spotlight on the league for this. The owners have a ton of say in the rules and if they want the rules changed they should press the matter with the NHL. To date I have not seen them do this. I would blame the Board of Governors more than the league, and that blame would be minor.
ESPN's Matthew Barnaby was quick this evening to point a finger at a different group, the NHLPA.
Barnaby suggests two things of extreme importance here. The first is that the culture in the NHL is understood to consider enforcers as "pieces of meat". I'm not involved in any NHL circle but if that sentiment is the widely accepted norm for tough guys it might shed some light on the bouts of depression that seem to be at the core, at least in part, of the problem here. The second point Barnaby makes is that the Player's Association and not the league bears the burden of preparing players for life after hockey. While this is only truly applicable to Belak's case as the only sole retiree in the group, it does merit the question: What is the PA doing to help its own members deal with depression during and after their careers? At this point is would seem the NHLPA owes an honest answer to that question at least to it's own members.
Theo Fleury also chimed in on the discussion. He wanted to hold another group accountable:
I at first took this statement to mean he considered the Belak death to be related to pain killers. As much has not been confirmed so I asked him. Much to his credit he replied.
Does Fleury have a point? He seems pretty confident that these sudden deaths are rooted in alcohol, drugs, or depression. Boogaard and Rypien's deaths were both due to those causes. While it is dangerous to assume why Wade Belak is dead tonight it does seem a fair point that there is a commonality in all of them.
In the end I think that this summer's tragedies have far less to do with fighting and far more to do with abuse and depression. I don't believe that the removal through legislation of fighting from hockey will reduce the risk of players becoming depressed or addicted to drugs or alcohol. I think that the NHL, the Player's Association, the individual teams, and yes the drug/alcohol makers all bear partial burden to properly educate players. Moreover teams need to be vigilant. A slide show presentation on depression and abuse isn't going to get it done. Teams need to be looking out for each other. There needs to be a trust that going to management with your problem doesn't mean you will be written off. Agents need to get involved too. Everyone surrounding these players needs to be looking out for them, including their own teammates.
I'll be frank. I've never written this down anywhere. In early 2005 I was in my bedroom. I was severely depressed for reasons I will keep personal. I went to the bathroom and grabbed a bottle of pills. I popped the lid. I looked at them. I put the orange plastic to my lips. I thought about it. I really wanted to down the entire bottle and end it. My wife was not home. The single thought that saved my life that night was a picture in my mind of my two small children (at the time 7 and 5) coming to look for me because they had woken up from a bad dream and finding my cold dead body on the tile floor before mom had a chance to come home and find me dead. The next day I immediately sought out the one person in my military unit who had spoken about suicide. I knew he was someone I could talk to. I knew I needed help. I went to him, he protected me the entire way through all of the military circus surrounding something like that. I got the help I needed. I got better. It was not fixed in a day. It took years for my head to get totally clear.
At the end of all of this that is what these players need. They need a system that will help them deal with whatever it is they are going through instead of feeling like ending it in a hotel room is the answer. It takes an amazing force of will to commit suicide and break an addiction. Everyone involved needs to be helping more than they are right now.