He was an oversized, happy-go-lucky character with an infatuation with former U.S. president John Kennedy and a family that appeared to have everything going for it, yet he also seemed cursed beyond reason.
How curious, then, that this apparently contented member of a different sort of family – the close-bonded band of brothers known as NHL enforcers – now serves as the face of his professional family’s curse.
Wade Belak’s suicide is not easily dismissed. He was not obviously fighting personal demons, as was the case of Rick Rypien, the brother enforcer who killed himself two weeks earlier. Nor was he, apparently, caught in the snare of painkillers and alcohol that doomed yet another enforcer, Derek Boogaard, late last spring.
All three, however, were facing the reality of dying twice, a reality that comes to all professional athletes – Belak had recently retired, Rypien and Boogaard may not have been far behind – and all three raced to that second, final death with shocking speed.
It is a simple matter to draw spurious, even ridiculous conclusions – two came from Saskatchewan, one from Alberta; could it be a Western thing? But it is equally simplistic and wrong to seek no conclusions at all and dismiss all as mere happenstance.
“It goes beyond coincidence,” sports psychologist Paul Dennis, who worked with the Toronto Maple Leafs when Belak played for the team, told CBC Radio.
“Am I next on the list?” retired enforcer Georges Laraque asked in the Toronto Star. “What’s with all the tough guys dying or having problems?”
A day later, Laraque was telling the CBC that he knew of another 20 such players – yet would not name any – who are struggling with dependency and depression.
Dennis was careful to say we cannot know what lies beyond such coincidence without science and proof. This is true, yet it is also arguably moot given all the evidence gathered, so much of it recently, that argues that blows to the head in hockey, however delivered, are a bad thing for all concerned, including the health of the game itself.
One can only imagine the effect on hockey enrolment at the minor-league levels should Sidney Crosby, whose hit to the head had nothing to do with fists, not return to the game or, sadly, return to the game as a diminished presence, as previously happened to the gifted Paul Kariya, who was forced to retire last spring because of postconcussion syndrome.
The specific issue today, because of Belak, Rypien and Boogaard, is the hockey enforcer, a role that Laraque calls “the hardest job in the world.” Gladiators once presumably thought the same of their jobs, which were eventually declared redundant. Surely the same will one day happen in hockey, but the pace of change has fallen so far behind the science, and far enough behind public opinion, that it has made the NHL and much of its adjunct television support system seem badly out of step with reality.
Hockey itself is having its bell rung in a year that began with Crosby’s injury and now includes two recent suicides. There may be a thousand explanations that differentiate the incidents, but they all at some point have to include blows to the head, whether delivered accidentally, with purpose or in defence.
The reluctance of so many in the hockey world to accept that science and public opinion change – doctors, for example, once advertised the benefits of smoking – is a continuing mystery as the head-shot debate rages yet hardly crawls to a solution. The league itself has taken baby steps. Many of the league’s public faces seem reluctant even to look in a new direction. Their stand seems almost homophobic in its virulence – ridiculing those who would have the “pansification” of hockey – and reaches absurdity when considering one of fighting’s greatest proponents comes as close as the game has to a cross-dresser.
If the culture of a game demands that no weakness be shown or even admitted to, the burden on enforcers can be enormous. As Dennis put it, their role – sit on the bench, wait, perform when required, get off – requires “a completely different mindset, and it takes its toll.”
Hits to the head and fighting will never be eliminated entirely in hockey any more than they are in other contact sports. Yet hockey, as other contact sports already have, can act to prevent them as much as possible. Hits to the head will one day be declared illegal, even if accidental; it’s just a matter of time. If necessary, hockey enrolment will decide the issue, but the hope is it comes far sooner than that unfortunate, yet very real, possibility.
If hits to the head become illegal, then it logically follows that fighting, finally, must be declared illegal in hockey. It will require real punishment and consequences rather than today’s inane reward system that treats major penalties as the enforcer’s equivalent of goals and assists.
To those traditionalists who say you cannot tamper with the game, we say rover, forward pass, centre line, offsetting penalties, glass, delayed offside, tube skates, slap shots, curved blades, two-minute shifts, fitness, helmets, fourth lines, graphite and trapezoid, just for starters.
Laraque is calling for the league and the National Hockey League Players’ Association to come up with a counselling program to help enforcers deal with their problems. “We have to do something,” he said.
The easiest “something” would be to eliminate the position. Help those retired enforcers adjust but ensure that hockey says farewell to a job that may be the toughest but is certainly the least necessary. It today serves no purpose other than to embarrass the game and harm the participants in ways that go far deeper than knuckles and noses.
In that same interview in which Belak expressed his admiration for JFK, he was asked where he thought he would be in 10 years.
“Dead,” he said.
He thought he was joking.
No one today, however, is laughing at anything in hockey.