The National Hockey League and its players’ union are promising to investigate off-ice deaths and examine ways to support players during and after their careers, as the hockey world reels from the second suicide of a tough guy in less than three weeks.
The death of Wade Belak, found hanging in a Toronto hotel room Wednesday, preceded by the suicide of Rick Rypien and a drug overdose that killed Derek Boogaard earlier this summer, has heightened scrutiny on the level of violence tolerated in the NHL.
It comes as the sport is already grappling with the troubling issue of head injuries, as personified by one of its brightest and most marketable stars, Sidney Crosby, who remains sidelined by a concussion. Now, the crisis has moved to the other end of the NHL bench, focusing on the enforcers who grind out a living with their fists, and raising new questions about whether hockey fights are breeding mental illness. A growing chorus of critics from both inside and outside the league is calling for it to re-examine its love affair with violence, leaving the game facing one of its darkest hours.
“We’re understanding a lot more about the physical component of blows to the head, short-term effects and long-term effects. Do we understand the emotional part of that?” said Craig Button, who served as general manger of the Calgary Flames when Mr. Belak played there. “We talk about the role of the enforcer, that guy’s the one who’s supposed to protect teammates and look out for everybody’s back, so to speak. I ask the question: Who’s looking out for the enforcer? Who protects his back?”
In a joint statement Thursday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said their organizations will examine “in detail, the factors that may have contributed to these [deaths]” and determine “whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare” by improving substance-abuse and mental-health treatment programs.
Some of the tough guys are also speaking out. Kurt Walker, who hard-knuckled his way into the NHL in the 1970s, underwent 17 hockey-related surgeries and became addicted to painkillers, said he fears the deaths will continue if officials don’t take action.
“I hope this is just the beginning, not only for the players in the game but for all the guys who played before,” he said. “There are hundreds of guys in the U.S. who have no medical coverage and who feel as if they’ve been treated like a piece of meat.”
Retirement can be particularly hard on enforcers. Besides having to find a new line of work, there is the psychological decompression after being trained to fight.
“You kind of have to lose the traits that were beneficial for the game of hockey, which is a contact sport,” former NHLer Cam Connor said. “Now I’m in the real world I don’t need those kind of characteristics in my personality any more. I’ve got to learn to just let things go and relax.”
But if Mr. Belak was battling any demons, they remain a mystery. There was no suicide note with his body, nor any sign of drugs in his luxury hotel suite in Toronto’s financial district when a housekeeper discovered him dead late Wednesday morning, a police source said.
Nor did his personality offer any clues. From the time he was a child, recalled his father, Lionel Aadland, he was passionate about hockey and would cry when other kids weren’t taking it seriously enough. But off the ice, he was an easygoing, affable man who knew how to get along with people.
“His strength was not in the scoring of goals, it was in looking after his teammates and I guess trying to keep people in line. And he tried to do that as best he could but I know he didn’t like the fighting, to him it just came with the job,” said Mr. Aadland in an interview from his home in the British Columbia Interior.
A native of Saskatoon, Mr. Belak was drafted into the NHL in 1994. He played for several teams, including an eight-year stretch with the Toronto Maple Leafs. His last three seasons were spent with the Nashville Predators.
His ebullient personality was vital in the locker room, where he helped keep spirits up and motivate the team. His people skills translated to the screen, and he liked to joke around during interviews and film humorous television segments.
When he retired from playing earlier this year, he was offered a new job with the Predators, reporting from the sidelines during televised games on a statewide Fox affiliate. The job would allow him to stay in Nashville, where he had settled with wife Jennifer and young daughters Andie and Alex. Mr. Belak was also scheduled to appear on the top-rated reality show Battle of the Blades this fall. He was in Toronto over the summer practising for his stint.
“He was everything you would hope a retired player would be in making the transition,” said a source affiliated with the Predators, adding that Mr. Belak had also been in talks with national sports media in the United States about job prospects. “He had options.”
Anabelle Langlois, a figure skater competing in Battle of the Blades, recalled socializing with him during training and how he liked talking about his children.
“We actually saw him on Monday again and he was actually skating with his partner. And we were skating right after him and he seemed to be having such a great time and in a great mood as I’ve seen him every single time I’ve seen him,” she said.
Others reported spotting him outside an Italian restaurant in the upscale Yorkville neighbourhood Tuesday night. No one, it seems, noticed anything amiss, which deepened the resolve to search for answers.
“Is it the job? Is it stuff that's happening outside the rink? We need to talk about it, and we need to support our players better,” former teammate Denis Gauthier said. “Maybe this stuff has been happening for a long time and just hasn’t been as visible.”
A private funeral will be held Sunday at Woodmont Christian Church in Nashville. In lieu of flowers, his family is asking for donations to a scholarship fund for his children. In a statement, his wife remembered him as “a big man with an even bigger heart.”
“He was a deeply devoted father and husband, a loyal friend and a well respected athlete,” she said. “This loss leaves a huge hole in our lives and, as we move forward, we ask that everyone remember Wade’s infectious sense of humour, his caring spirit and the joy he brought to his friends, family and fans.”
With reports from Allan Maki, Sean Gordon, Timothy Appleby and Beverley Smith
Head-trauma researchers studying Boogaard’s brain
Researchers at Boston University are studying the brain of deceased NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard to determine whether he suffered from a degenerative brain condition associated with repeated hits to the head.
Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University's School of Medicine, confirms Mr. Boogaard's family donated his brain. Dr. Cantu leads a research team studying the long-term effects of head trauma in sports.
Mr. Boogaard, whose results won't be released without his family's approval, is one of three NHL enforcers found dead since May.
The 28-year-old former New York Ranger died in May due to an accidental mix of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone. Winnipeg's Rick Rypien, 27, was discovered in August at his home in Coleman, Alta., after a police official said a call was answered for a “sudden and non-suspicious” death. And 35-year-old Wade Belak, who played with five NHL teams before retiring in March, was found dead Wednesday in Toronto.
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