Known to millions as the host of Hockey Night in Canada, Scott Oake has been keeping something quiet for more than a year now: the loss of his eldest son Bruce to a fatal spiral of addiction.
Thirteen months ago, Bruce died in Calgary of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 25. After a brief leave to grieve, the CBC sportscaster returned to the broadcast booth to complete the 2011 playoffs and 2011-12 regular season. But the pain remains.
“That’s the one thing we learned,” Scott says, recounting the tragedy from the living room of his Winnipeg home, accompanied by wife Anne and their youngest son Darcy. “That addiction knows no socioeconomic boundaries. We’re just an average family.”
Bruce Oake was one of more than 36,000 people who died of a drug overdose in North America in 2011. His use of opioids, in particular, is part of an epidemic. One study on drug use among Ontario students found that one in five teenage girls admitted to using an opioid painkiller without a prescription. Canadian sales of the most popular such painkiller, OxyContin, rose to more than $240-million in 2010 from $3-million in 1996.
The Oakes have largely kept their grief private since March 28, 2011, the day Bruce overdosed. Now, to help raise awareness and money for an as-yet-unnamed addiction facility in Winnipeg (Darcy, an acclaimed illusionist, is performing a charity magic show at Manitoba Theatre Centre June 14 and 15), the family has decided to talk. In an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail, the Oakes say they want people to understand that while the lives of those dying from drug addiction may have a common end, their stories encompass every segment of society.
For Bruce, that meant growing up in the home of a high-profile dad in sports-crazy Winnipeg. He boxed, played music, got into mischief. “He was a difficult little boy,” recalls Anne, a trained nurse. “He had ADHD, and they diagnosed him with Tourette’s, and he had trouble in school. He was always acting out. He struggled his whole life.”
Any hopes that Bruce would grow out of his teenaged behaviour were dashed when he wound up in hospital one night in 2007. He had an OxyContin problem. “We don’t want to make it seem he was a poor put-upon kid,” Scott says. “He was running with the wrong crowd. We had to pull him back into the house and get help for him.”
Thus began a harsh education about drugs, rehab facilities and the perils of addiction that only ended in Bruce’s passing. “He was in detox here in Manitoba for a week,” Scott says. “We took him right from there to a private rehab facility just outside Toronto at considerable cost. He was there for 45 days. We were naive about this, thinking, ‘That’s all it’s going to take. He’ll need some time in this facility and he’ll be fine and we’ll go back to our happy little lives.’ That’s not how it turned out. After that, we came to the realization that we’re in for a long and protracted struggle.”
That struggle took Bruce to facilities in Winnipeg, Halifax, Toronto and, finally, Calgary. The drugs ranged from crystal meth to OxyContin and injectables like heroin. By Darcy’s count, Bruce was in detox eight separate times. “He’d go to rehab, get clean and then come out, get his swagger back and be right back at it,” Darcy says. “He’d think he could control it, have a drink, then it would spiral out of control.”
Bruce’s life became a continual search for drugs. “When he was in Halifax,” Anne recalls, “he used to buy OxyContin and hydromorphone from a guy whose wife had cancer, and he was selling her cancer painkilling medication.”
“He could always find what he needed,” Scott says. “It’s like addicts have radar. They can just tell.”
The last, best hope for recovery was Simon House, a non-profit facility in Calgary that Scott has visited and liked. “When he went to Calgary, we hoped the drug lifestyle was over with and he’d get out and make better decisions,” Scott says. “It seemed to help. Even up to the weeks before Bruce died he had a good job, a nice place to live, a car, a girlfriend who really loved him. It wasn’t like he was on the street. But inevitably, he got in with whatever people could give him what he needed.”
When Bruce died, Scott and Darcy soon found escape in their work. Anne, on the other hand, has only recently returned to her job as a palliative nurse. “We never lose any sleep over what we might have done,” Scott says. “Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve. We did every possible thing we could to save him.” Scott acknowledges that there was a likely genetic contribution to Bruce’s addiction – “We don’t deny there has been an addiction problem in my family,” he says – but that in the end, his son could not be saved unless he wanted the help. “He wanted it to an extent,” Scott says, “and he wanted a better life, but he just couldn’t conquer [the addiction]”
When NHLer Derek Boogaard died of an overdose seven weeks after Bruce’s passing, Scott felt his private grief intersect his professional life. “Young men that age can kid themselves into thinking they’re going to be alright no matter what. Why else would he come out of rehab and start using right away?” he says of Mr. Boogaard. “He thought he was cured. He could handle it. In the end it cost him his life.”
The problem for NHL stars and average people alike, Scott says, is “you have no hope of recovery as an addict if you don’t do the right things for the rest of your life. And those are pretty difficult decisions for a 23- or 24-year-old. For someone that age to say, ‘I can never have a drink like my buddies, I can’t party the way they do. I have to put myself in better situations, make better decisions.’ Derek Boogaard couldn’t do it. And Bruce couldn’t do it.”