This past summer has but a dark cloud over the hockey word, with the tragic passing of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and recently Wade Belak. In each of the three cases, they certainly were preventable deaths, but unfortunately the signs were not there for anyone to see, at least not soon enough.
As sad as all three cases are, the NHL and NHLPA is centering around one common thread, all three were "enforcers" in the NHL. Enforcer is a word that has gone by the wayside in the league. At one time the enforcer, a roll that came along when the late John Ferguson played the game, was capable of two things: fighting or intimidating opponents to protect his teammates along with being a competent hockey player at the pro level.
A lot has changed since Ferguson played his first game on October 8, 1963. Twelve seconds into the game he took on the Boston Bruins Ted Green, considered one of the toughest players in the league at the time. Ferguson laid out the Bruins tough guy, and sent a message to the opponents, "Don't mess with my teammates." Fergie also had two goals and an assist in his debut alongside linemates Jean Beliveau and Bernie Geoffrion.
These days, thanks largely in part to the instigator rule, players cannot fight to defend someone. Before that, fighting, though considered barbaric by many new fans in the 70s, resulted from the heat of battle on the ice. It was a part of the game that is now only seen in small glimpses of a game. But it is part of the game.
The fighting era of Belak, Boogaard and Rypien is part of the Gary Bettman era that now involves a majority staged fights between opponents who throw harder punches than those of 20-30 years ago, and quite frankly posses very few true hockey skills. But either way, fans rise to their seats when a fight, staged or not, breaks out on the ice between an pair of hulking fourth-liners who would never make the NHL a generation ago.
The majority of them love it as much as they do a boxing or MMA match or even the more-less controlled environment of the WWE. At least the latter has a "don't try this at home" policy. Maybe the NHL should look at that avenue to control fighting amongst younger generations of hockey players.
Bettman won't admit it, but his ultimate goal would be to get fighting out of the game completely. These three deaths give him something to use as a possible way to get that accomplished. What makes it sad is that he has no proof to connect them, and on initial reaction appears to be overlooking any other connections to these tragedies.
"While the circumstances of each case are unique, these tragic events cannot be ignored. We are committed to examining, in detail, the factors that may have contributed to these events, and to determining whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare and minimize the likelihood of such events taking place." - Joint statement from the NHL and NHPLA 09/01/2011
The next move by the NHL and NHLPA is to investigate this trio of tragedies and see if there is any solid connection to it.
The Toronto Sun's Steve Simmons made a valid point, for a change, suggesting that the investigation,"needs to be conducted independently and by those with no affiliation or connection to either the league or the players’ union. Otherwise, it will have little meaning." Simmons also suggested that players should vote on whether or not to keep fighting in the NHL and, also suggests that, "The Players’ Association would also be wise to take a long and hard look at the culture of mixing alcohol with prescription medication that is evident within the sport."
The "enforcers" aren't the only ones to deal with prescriptions for pain killers and alcohol issues, during or after their NHL careers, it's a problem amongst non-fighters as well.
Theoren Fleury is clear proof that consistently fighting in the NHL is not the only path to alcohol and drug issues or depression.
Brian "Spinner" Spencer was an aggressive player, though not considered a goon in the '70s, but his hockey career was highlighted and ended in an alcohol and drug fueled life that wound up in his death during a drug deal. Many felt that the bizarre shooting death of his father, in his rookie season, was the trigger. Those around him said he hid it well from them rather than come forward with his problems, and teammate Darryl Sittler said he had a "Jekyll and Hyde" type persona. Clearly there are other factors to consider outside of fighting.
Outside of their playing time, and what the media writes about them, we have no ideas what can be going through a player's head away from the game, or what personal issues he may have do deal with. It's generally the same in all aspects of life. Many people saw Wade Belak no more than 24 hours before he died, and saw no evidence of a man depressed.
"There is no evidence that this had a damned thing to do with the fact that Wade Belak fought more than 100 times in the National Hockey League. We've been told his death did not involve foul play, and that he took his own life, even if the police have not confirmed how it happened. But everything we know points to a man who was happy, who had a sunny future in front of him, who seemed entirely untouched by the darkness that hovers around a great number of NHL enforcers. Nothing points to Wade Belak being a tortured soul. Nothing." - Bruce Arthur ,The National Post, 09/02/2011
Based on tweets by former NHLers Matthew Barnaby and Tyson Nash, the NHL and the NHLPA needs to create or strengthen a better entry/exit and support program for players leaving the NHL. Based on their opinion, this is an issue that needs to be addressed and very soon.
For many players, hockey is their life and their escape from the "real world". Having to hang them up in their early to mid-thirties may not be as easy as it is for a player of 39 or older. They've taken and given out thunderous body checks, punches to the head, incurred and played with numerous injuries. The adrenaline of the next game, or the next shift, carries them through another day and escapes the pain and other problems in their lives. But one day that adrenaline is gone. There's no contract for the next season, as much as they want to play, and after a lifetime of hockey, painkillers are the only assist to help now.
It basically comes down to the poor relationship between the NHL and the NHLPA. While the two sides battle over dollars and cents, they lack the sense to deal with their most valuable asset, the players themselves. It's only until a tragedy such as this, or a sudden surge in head shots and concussions, that the two sides decide to buddy up and work together.
Hopefully the two sides, and likely with help from the NHL Alumni association, can work together to help the players from their start into the NHL and through and after their careers, and at the same time look beyond the fisticuffs of hockey ,if they want to give this issue some real support.