There is a new epidemic in the National Hockey League, one that officials and fans alike are praying is not contagious. Yesterday, it was announced that 35-year old NHL enforcer Wade Belak was found dead in his home, a victim of an apparent suicide. Just two weeks prior, Rick Rypien of the Canucks committed suicide, and in May, the Rangers saw their top fighter, Derek Boogaard, accidentally mix alcohol and painkillers, which led to his death. While it was not a suicide, his mental and physical health had fallen into severe disrepair in the months that he was out with injury. All of these deaths have one thing in common: the victim was a fighter. We all know of the toll enforcers take with constant bare-knuckle punches to the head every time they square off, but it was never really brought to light, at least until former player Bob Probert passed away at only 45 years of age, back in 2010. Slowly but surely, awareness and activism has been increased; is it time to ban fighting in hockey?
The question is not that simple, because if it was, why doesn’t every fighter suffer the same fate? I firmly believe that drug use in the NHL is fervent, and just ignored by the media, because they are too busy with football and basketball, however, these three recent deaths (not to suggest that Belak and Rypien were on any kind of illegal drugs) should really pressure league officials into being more involved with drug testing. Drugs, depression, or a mixture of both, is almost always fatal, because when a person thinks that they have no way out, no way to get better, there is always one surefire option that they see as reliable. Unfortunately, that option takes them from this earth, and leaves us all wondering if something could have been done.
Enforcers suffer the brunt of these issues, because their job is a lot less glamorous than the superstar scorer. They play maybe five to seven minutes a night, each time they are out there, wanting to chip in a goal, but more than likely not doing so. They live to fight, and without it, would not have a job in the NHL. When they win, they are revered. When they lose, they are washed up in the eyes of fans. Their careers are also much shorter, because normally, they are not very good skaters to begin with (because of their size), and with age, it gets worse. Then there are the punches to the head they have taken, and the smashed fingers that make it impossible to correctly hold a hockey stick—it’s almost as if these kinds of players age twice as fast as everyone else. No role players in the game of hockey are discarded towards the tail end of a career faster than enforcers. This applies to everyone: when you do something you love for so long, and all of a sudden, someone comes along and says that they don’t need you anymore, it hurts. While Derek Boogaard was not released, he saw himself being a fan favorite and king of the world in Minnesota, to experiencing a severe injury, and having to watch the rest of the season from home. Bright lights began to hurt him, and next thing you know, his world becomes one of darkness. There are people, I am sure, who tried to help him, but a lot of times, there is simply nothing that one can do. Depression is a fight that no one should have to battle alone, with support groups, family, friends, and medication available to them.
Being a hockey coach myself, of much younger kids, whenever my players get to a game or practice, I like to ask how they are doing. Naturally, we want to see a smile on their face because then we know they are ready to play. No coach or teacher wants a downtrodden child to work with, and that is something I look for, because a coach should care about his players. We are all taught to look for warning signs when we feel a child has been abused, or may be struggling with some kind of depression. As educators, we see it as something even more important than actually teaching or coaching, because noticing a problem in a child could save a life. If this is so important, though, why does it stop when our children move out of youth hockey and become adults and play professional hockey? Should this care and attention not continue?
The NHL needs to call an immediate round table discussion with team general managers and physicians. The league needs to invest in caring for the mental health of all players, not just enforcers. As fans, we would love to believe that these players have no stress, after all, they get paid millions to play a game that we love. But let’s get real here: constant travel, battling with injuries and slumps, dealing with unhappy fans, and the like, can wear down a player both mentally and physically. We know teams have psychiatrists, but perhaps a mandatory monthly visit from every single player on the team would be partly an answer to the solution. Players need someone they can talk to, and maybe, in getting a chance to spill their guts to a shrink would help to alleviate some of that stress.
It is said that hockey is as much mental as it is physical, but we have seen in the last few months that it may be even more than half the game. But is it time to ban fighting in hockey? The answer is no. It is something that has always been here, and something that should always remain. If we take care of the mental aspects that these players suffer from, than fighting will just go back to being that other exciting aspect of hockey that most of us know and love. We need to start caring for the mental health of our players, and if we do that, then fighting can remain. The only problem is, can the negative stigma be broken? As this next season winds on, for better or for worse, we will know the answer to that question.