Thursday, September 1, 2011

DBJ's thoughts on recent, tragic NHL-related events

A year ago, it was Bob Probert.  This spring, it was Derek Boogaard.  This summer it was Rick Rypien.  Yesterday, it was Wade Belak.

Wade Belak - husband, father of two - passed away yesterday
All four were tough guys in the National Hockey League.  All four are no longer with us.

To try to draw any additional threads between the four deaths is likely an exercise in futility.  These gentlemen all had their own lives, experiences, influences and physical/mental conditions with which to deal.

So when people use these events as platforms from which to spout exclamatories of Undeniable Truth, I roll my eyes.

No one factor killed these men.  It's never that simple.  It was a combination of influences, each differing in the combinations and influences.

The effects of fighting may have had an influence on their behaviors.  I'll go as far as to say that it probably influenced Probert's, seeing as it's been announced that he had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.  I've had plenty of say over fighting and concussions in hockey, and you can go read those thoughts by clicking here.  It's a little circuitous, offering up some uncertain thoughts and opinions at times, but I think you will see an evolution of thinking that is beginning to suggest that the National Hockey League needs neither the fighting nor the excessively rough play to be successful.

The NHL has to recognize that fighting, concussions and rough play is a serious problem.  Heck, they probably had an inkling of the problem before Probert died.  That they do nothing substantial about it (Rule 48 doesn't cut it in my book) says a lot about where they're at - and the demographic that they feel that they need to attract to maintain financial viability.  The NHL Players Association has been decimated by the League, so you can't really expect those folks to do anything until Don Fehr gets that house in order...and the imminent collective bargaining negotiations come first, I would think.

No, I think it'll take external legal forces - be it judicial through investigations like those of Zdeno Chara for his hit on Max Pacioretty or of Todd Bertuzzi for his career-ending hit on Steve Moore, or through politically-motivated legislation to "clean up violent sport" (It's happened before...) - to force change on the on-ice conduct of the NHL and organized hockey.

As for the players who partake in this behavior, they surely understand the risks of their work by now.  That they choose to do it...well, those are personal choices with heavily personal consequences.  It's a cold way of looking at professional sports, but no one's putting a gun to their heads and forcing them to play.  In fact, there are probably 20 guys waiting in the wings to take their place.  Cruel world, isn't it?

Yet those who adore fighting and rough play in hockey have once again taken to shadow-boxing with a mystical army of anti-fighting boogey-men (Yes, there are a few such advocates, but nothing requiring the ferocity of the response.).  Fighting must stay.  Brutal hits must stay.  Fighting and concussions - often but not always resulting from the same play - could not have been the cause of these deaths.

Therefore, to protect the sacred cow, there must be another reason.  There must be something else.  What is interesting is that such dogged distraction from one issue further peels back the onion and uncovers another matter for consideration.

Now we're talking about post-separation depression, as in the depression coming from the dramatic shift in lifestyle once one leaves the world of hockey that likely has been part of their lives since they were 4 or 5 years old.  Puck Daddy offers up a compilation of these thoughts on this in his "Faustian Bargain" article.  Take a minute and read it over, as I won't do the issue justice in this piece.

On one level, I understand and appreciate these players' feelings.  They've been lifted up like gods and, upon leaving the league or sport, they're not getting that which they've become accustomed to.  Some don't make the transition well.  Some make the transition in spectacularly poor fashion.  I get that.

But where do we as fans and society draw the line?  These players have been given The Golden Ticket of sport and - if you buy the Faustian Bargain argument - have blown it through lack of foresight and planning.  Where do we say, "You've been making hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, in a relatively short period of time.  Why have you not taken the steps to prepare yourself for life after hockey?  Why has your agent, significant other or family not helped you prepare?  Did you really think that this was going to last forever?"

Those are tough questions, and they temper my sympathies for ex-players.  I know that these guys are human beings with feelings and emotions, but they have access through their relative wealth to tools that the 52-year-old machine operator who's been displaced - be it by automation or a 50-cent an hour worker in China - or the single mom working two jobs to make ends meet couldn't fathom.  A little foresight from the player or his entourage can pretty much handle it.  The guys can afford financial planners, investment advisors...even top-flight therapists if that's what is needed.  But it appears that they don't always do so.

Insofar as hockey has been subject to four tragic events over the past year-plus, I grieve right along with other fans.  I really do.  No one wants to see a person go before their time.  I don't care what the reasons are.

What is frustrating is that - at least for the two overarching issues raised up as potentially contributing to these deaths - the reasons are largely avoidable.  So why aren't steps being taken to avoid them?

Permit me to wrap up with one last thought: How many such tragedies have to happen before we, as a public, become numb to that which is happening?


  1. An excellent post. The frightening thought is that we may have already reached that"comfortably numb" point and choose not to respond.

  2. Good post. People need to realize these guys don't start fighting when they get to the NHL. These guys fight through every level, we just don't see them on the TV. The fighting takes a toll on them.

  3. An ex baseball pitcher recently committed suicide. This not limited to former players, not to enforcers.


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