The designated hockey fighter should be permanently retired from hockey, at all levels of the game. The suicide of 35-year-old Wade Belak should be to the National Hockey League what last year’s head injury to its best player, Sidney Crosby, is – the point at which denial of a recurrent problem becomes impossible.
The NHL may wish to hide behind the impossibility of knowing why someone kills himself. There is no way to establish conclusively that fighting played a role in the death of the recently retired Mr. Belak, or the suicide on Aug. 15 of 27-year-old Rick Rypien, or the accidental death in May, from a mix of alcohol and painkillers, of 28-year-old Derek Boogaard. The cluster of deaths may be a matter of chance. There may have been deeply personal reasons, unconnected with fighting, involved in one or all of these deaths.
But hockey should err on the side of caution and common sense. Mr. Belak had an astounding 136 fights in his 14 years in the NHL. Mr. Boogaard had 163 fights in professional and junior hockey combined. Rick Rypien had 39 fights while playing professionally. These are bare knuckle fights among mostly huge men – Mr. Boogaard was 6 feet 7 inches and Mr. Belak 6 feet 5. Mr. Rypien, at 5 feet 11, fought giants.
The blows that all these men took to the heads have never been counted. But science has demonstrated definitively that there is a link between concussions and depression, personality changes and memory loss. A possible link between repeated sub-concussive blows and brain damage is now being studied. Mr. Belak told the CBC that he had never had a concussion. If he was being honest, this was probably all the more evidence that most hockey concussions are ignored or minimized.
Even if fighting in hockey is permitted to continue – in the heat of the moment – the designated fighter’s time should now be done. One way to do that, as The Globe’s Roy MacGregor has proposed, is to reduce the size of the roster by one or two players. It would then be a luxury to carry a player who, like Mr. Belak, gets just 33 points in 14 seasons. And the league should create a protocol that a doctor examine every player after a fight – skates off, in the dressing room, for balance, co-ordination, memory and cognition.
These were three Canadians who died young. Hockey needs to answer for their deaths.