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Nashville Predators hockey player Wade Belak works the phone bank during the "Music City Keep on Playin'" benefit concert at the Nashville Convention center on May 16, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images) (Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Nashville Predators hockey player Wade Belak works the phone bank during the "Music City Keep on Playin'" benefit concert at the Nashville Convention center on May 16, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images) (Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

The Usual Suspects

Belak's death should not be a soap box Add to ...

The voice was clear and composed as he talked about the churn among his fellow hockey enforcers.

Less than a week before he lost his own life, Wade Belak told Sportsnet Radio – Fan 960 in Calgary he had none of the concussion issues, drug dependencies or depression that had haunted Rick Rypien or Derek Boogaard. Instead, the former Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs player talked last Thursday about losing a member of the family when Rypien killed himself.

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“It made me sick to my stomach,” Belak told radio show host Dean Molberg. “We all feel the pain of losing a fellow hockey player. … For myself, I feel pretty good.”

Yet within less than a week, Belak, 35, became the latest member of the NHL family to die young. He was found hanging in a Toronto hotel. Police are saying the death was not suspicious, and will not be releasing any further details.

An uncomprehending hockey culture has roiled with rumour and skepticism since the announcement of the boisterous former player’s death. It wants answers it’s unlikely to get in the short term.

In that void, Belak’s death is being used as a soap box for a range of hobby horses. Without full details, there were media calls within hours to link the deaths of Belak and Rypien to the drug overdose of Boogaard in an unholy trinity of blame and finger-pointing at hockey’s embrace of fighting.

Fighting was a common denominator, but the circumstances of each death were markedly different – a point lost on some early “analysts.” (Such was the early media pressure that the NHL and NHL Players’ Association felt compelled to – finally – issue a joint statement about caring for retired players.)

Hockey is not alone in dealing with such grim facts. The sports world has had its share of self-inflicted deaths in the past 15 months, including former baseball player Mike Flanagan, U.S. freestyle skier Jeret (Speedy) Peterson, NFLers Kenny McKinley and Dave Duerson, and LPGA golfer Erica Blasberg. The more common link in all these cases is the insecurity of post-athletics life, not fighting.

A good king is poorly served by bad soldiers, and using the imponderables of Belak’s death to prop up even worthwhile arguments diminishes their importance.

ROLE OF THE MEDIA

Ironically, this column was originally meant to deal with the media coverage of Flanagan and Rypien, who had both killed themselves in recent weeks. Even as it was being written, the Belak news broke in ragged fashion across social media, outlets rushing for a scoop with fragments of the news.

As is the fashion in the Twitter.com age, Belak’s family was caught up in the tumult, learning of his death from media reports. (Informing the family first looks to have become a throwback to a simpler time, a balm few grieving parties will receive any more.)

In the hours that followed, the family also heard the steady drum beat of innuendo that his death was a suicide. The Toronto Sun reported early, via Twitter, that the 15-year NHL vet had hanged himself (or “hung himself,” as @Simmonssteve called it). The CBC waited a few hours longer before making the sad confirmation of suicide.

By day’s end, everyone was calling it such, even though full details have not and may never become public.

What is the role of the media in reporting suicide? Should it attempt to protect the family and friends by withholding detail?

Citing sources, Baltimore TV station WBAL reported Flanagan, a former Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays pitcher, had killed himself before any police report confirmed the cause. In addition, WBAL suggested reasons for Flanagan’s suicide, even though there was no note. That set off concerns that media should at least wait for a medical confirmation to report suicide. Or that family should be told first.

At the other extreme was coverage of Rypien’s death, which rarely mentioned the word “suicide,” opting for softer language – “depression killed him” – to convey the awful truth.

Which approach is preferable?

Howard Bernstein, a former TV producer at CBC, CTV, Global and TVO, told Usual Suspects: “Pretending the suicide never happened helps no one. The method of their suicide and the gruesome details should be left out, but the causes are both fair game and allow for open discussion of a serious societal problem.”

If the person is well-known (such as Rypien, who had signed a one-year contract with the new Winnipeg Jets in the off-season) and the suicide is confirmed by police or a family member, The Globe and Mail does report suicides. But it’s a grey area, and the newspaper looks at the unique circumstances of each case.

Clearly, discretion was trampled by some media in haste to promote a cause. There will be a good day to discuss the enforcer’s role in hockey. This just isn’t it.

In the absence of full details, we are left with only the tributes from Belak’s brethren in the NHL fight club, such as George Parros of the Anaheim Ducks, who tweeted: “Can’t believe I have to tweet another memorial … Wade Belak was a great guy, tough SOB and honorable on the ice … RIP brother.”

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