Enforcer Wade Belak (right) spent all or part of 15 seasons in the NHL often fighting on the ice and battling for his job, but he seemed to be a happy guy and untroubled by his violent role. (John Cores/Icon SMI)
By Stu Hackel
One hockey enforcer's death is a sad event. Two is a sad coincidence. But does the third establish a definite connection between them all?
Wade Belak, who at 35 had just retired after a hockey career that began so long ago that he was a Nordiques draft pick, died yesterday in a Toronto hotel. It has been only two weeks since Rick Rypien died and three-and-a-half months since Derek Boogaard passed away suddenly. It's macabre. A friend wrote on his Facebook page, "Wade Belak? This is becoming like an Agatha Christie novel." It's got people looking for patterns and searching for answers.
But first, you have to ask the right questions.
How and why each of these men died is essential to understanding if there are any connections, and all the information is not yet known. Boogaard's death has been established as accidental, the result of mixing alcohol with oxycodone. He did admit to bouts of loneliness and boredom when he lived in New York, although whether that played any role has never been established.
The cause of Rypien's death has never been officially announced, although some Canadian newspapers have reported that he committed suicide. It was widely known that he suffered from depression and had taken two extended leaves from the NHL to deal with his troubles.
Belak's death has also not been explained but, again, some Canadian papers and the CBC are reporting that he took his own life. Belak's makeup seemed unlike Rypien's; "friendly and outgoing" is how TSN's Bob McKenzie describes him, "the life of any party, quick with a quip, who regularly turned up on a Toronto radio station to poke fun at everyone, including himself. If he were conflicted about the job he did or the life he led, it never showed to so many who called him a friend."
Belak seemed to be making a successful transition to his post-playing life. Perhaps his outward demeanor and continued position in the public eye hid his inner demons. Right now, however, that is all just guesswork. UPDATE: Dave Feschuk of The Toronto Star reports Belak suffered from depression, for which he took medication, but very few knew about it.
It should be stated that the tradition of reporting on suicides in Canada differs from the one in the U.S. as Canadian medical agencies will not disclose them to the media. Medical and psychiatric professionals also have guidelines for handling such instances. “Years of research clearly indicate that when there are sensational news reports on suicides, there can be an increase in suicides, often by the same method,” Brian L. Mishara, a psychology professor at the University of Montreal and a former president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention, told Jeff Z. Klein in The New York Times. However, some Canadian newspapers now disagree with that tradition and the guidelines.
But even if we assume that the Canadian news reports are correct, it's taking a big leap to say that fighters are more prone than others in hockey to emotional problems, a leap that some are taking with increasing frequency, and one that may be an overreaction.
Sure, we can list the names of enforcers who have led troubled lives: Bob Probert, John Kordic, Marc Potvin, Louie DeBrusk, and Dave Semenko among them. But as we stated after Rypien died, it's just wrong to believe that skill players are somehow more immune from pressures and psychological imbalances. We mentioned three who came to mind immediately: Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich, who is now a Canadian Senator; Ron Ellis, who was the Big M's '60s teammate on the Maple Leafs; and more recently, Stephane Richer, the high-scoring winger for the Canadiens and Devils. All have spoken openly about their battles with depression. So has Theo Fleury.
And there certainly are others. Rick Blight, who was the Canucks' top scorer during his first three years in the NHL, committed suicide. So did former Star and Ranger Roman Lyashenko and North Star Dušan Pašek. Bill Heindl, a journeyman forward who played a handful of NHL and WHA games in the '70s, attempted suicide. None of them were big time fighters.
Goalies, too, have a long history of what were once called “nervous breakdowns.” Yes, being an enforcer carries certain pressures and demands, but so does playing goal. Guys between the pipes are considered weird for a reason. Terry Sawchuk, one of the NHL’s all-time best, was as strange as they come (and now it is believed that he suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder). My happy-go-lucky hockey hero, Gump Worsley, had a breakdown or two as well. The great Glenn Hall got so wound up that he vomited before every game. These were called “occupational hazards” in the ’60s. Evgeny Belosheiken, who was thought to be the heir apparent to Vladislav Tretiak as the next great Russian goalie and who later became an Oilers farmhand, committed suicide in 1999.
More recently, Ed Belfour and Ray Emery come quickly to mind as two netminders who had some occasional emotional issues, indicating the demands of NHL goaltending still can take a toll.
And it would be a mistake to brand all enforcers as having that dark component some allege comes with fighting. Ex-NHLer Mathieu Schneider, one of Rypien's former teammates who is now a special assistant to Donald Fehr at the NHLPA, said, "Typically, the guys I played with who were the enforcers throughout my career have been loosest in the dressing room, the funniest guys, the guys you just look to and count on. Great guys in the room. And they seem like the guys that are least likely this would happen to, I’ve found in the past.”
The gregarious Belak appeared to fit that mold, but it now seems there was more under the surface. But depression may not be linked to a specific role one plays on a hockey team. It is true that depression can be one outcome of enduring multiple concussions and that fighters may be prone to that because of what they do on the ice. But one needn’t be a fighter to suffer a concussion while playing hockey. And one can suffer from depression without ever having been concussed.
The Vancouver Province's Ed Willis, who wrote last week about Rypien and Boogaard, cited statistics from the Public Health Agency of Canada that say 20 per cent of all Canadians will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetimes. Willis also reported that in the U.S., the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 26 per cent of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from a form of diagnosable mental illness. Why should NHLers, or any pro athletes, be immune from these problems?
In fact, Willis lauds Major League Baseball's efforts to combat mental illness, and with the recent deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak causing the NHL and NHLPA to examine their Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, perhaps things can be learned from baseball's protocols for dealing with the affliction. (It wouldn't be surprising if the two hockey organizations have already made an inquiry.)
We know that both Boogaard and Rypien sought and got help from the NHL-NHLPA program, but we don't know about others -- players who were not enforcers -- because the program provides confidential assistance. “It’s helped an awful lot of guys in this league," Schneider said. "I’ve had friends that have used it for death in the family, someone to just talk to, and I know it’s gotten most publicity for alcohol and drug abuse, but it’s there for so many different purposes, whether it’s just problems at home and obviously a case like (Rypien's) as well."
There are some compelling reasons to consider arguments that fighting should be banned in pro hockey, just as there are some compelling reasons to argue that it still has a legitimate place. That debate has been ongoing for years and may go on for a while longer. Without question, some who abhor fighting -- and even some who don't -- will see these three deaths as evidence of its destructive nature. But fighters have been dropping the gloves in this game for over a century. Some have been self-destructive, but not all. And nothing like this has ever happened before.
There's a decent chance something deeper is going on here than the dots some have connected. What has changed to make three frequent fighters suddenly die? Is it something about hockey? Something about society? Or is it just the randomness of life and the specific lives of these three individuals? Those are the questions that need to be asked.