There’s not a whole lot that can be said about the death of Wade Belak right now.
It is known that he was found dead, early Wednesday afternoon. Beyond that, things are unclear. Speculation has abounded regarding Belak’s cause of death, misinformation that unfortunately found the ears of his family before the proper authorities could do so. There are rumours going around that Belak committed suicide or that his death was related to misusing narcotics. Regardless, Belak’s death is tragic and is yet another instance of a young man dying way before his time.
There is going to be a lot of talk in the next few days regarding enforcers, the state of fighting in the NHL and what the NHL, the NHLPA and the respective teams should be doing to assist players. Again, I feel that this is an important discussion and is something that needs to be addressed and, time permitting, I will attempt to share my thoughts on that specific issue if I have the opportunity to do so.
That said, the ‘enforcer problem’ is a symptom of a bigger issue in the NHL. Bruce Arthur for the National Post notes that there aren’t 40 goal scorers or puck moving defencemen dying with regularity. While it’s hard to dispute that, I would argue that there are issues affecting non-enforcers in the NHL, it’s just that their behaviour and how they handle it has manifested in different ways.
The problems with fighting in the NHL and the toll it takes on enforcers has long been an ongoing problem and only now that there have been a rapid succession of deaths are people willing to discuss it. I’d suggest reading the aforementioned linked article, on former enforcer Brantt Myhres, another player who had substance abuse issues but also sought help and got it. The following quotation was rather eye opening for me:
Myhres said his stomach was churning before that Oilers game. He knew he’d have to fight Laraque, who, ironically, is also represented by Winter.
“I was in bed, sick in the afternoon.
I didn’t even eat a pre-game meal. I knew I was over the edge,” said Myhres, who started fighting in junior, in Portland in the early ’90s.
I’m probably going to come across as a grumpy, curmudgeonly old man who is hopelessly out of touch with reality here, but I think it needs to be said.
Nothing is really said about Patrick Kane’s drunken exploits which resulted in him assaulting a cab driver. Rather, Patrick Kane’s drunken escapades are, at best, laughed off or seen as ‘boys being boys.’ Ditto for whatever was going on with the Philadelphia Flyers and their locker room. Flyers GM Paul Holmgren was concerned enough with certain members of the team not taking care of themselves before games that he spoke out about it. Whether this had to do with the departure of team captain Mike Richards or Jeff Carter has been left up for debate, but again, these are rather high profile players whose off-ice behaviour has been a topic of criticism and, at least in Kane’s case, legal problems.
There’s been rumours (and I stress that word, rumours) regarding what exactly was going on with Ottawa Senators Ray Emery and Wade Redden. Grant Fuhr was an admitted cocaine user. Kevin Stevens was arrested in 2000 for possession of cocaine and had stated that he had been involved in the NHL’s substance abuse program prior to his arrest. Ken Daneyko was nominated for and won the Masterton Trophy for his efforts in dealing with his alcoholism.
Theo Fleury, perhaps the most widely known NHLer who had substance abuse problems had a long road to his recovery and Bryan Fogarty’s alcoholism claimed his life.
This isn’t meant to simply be finger pointing at other players, rather, it is to try and give insight into the larger NHL culture. All the players mentioned were the furthest thing from being goons and yet either had or were rumoured to have problems with substance abuse. I am sure there are many more that I am forgetting about at the moment, a fact which is more than a little disturbing.
What all of this indicates to me is that there is a larger problem within the NHL regarding substance abuse in general. I refuse to believe that Boogaard’s drug problems stemmed solely from his being an enforcer. Being a part of professional sports culture, which for some includes lots of partying, draws you that much closer to substance abuse and makes rationalizing such behaviour that much easier. If Patrick Kane can get a slap on the wrist and a writeup on DeadSpin for his antics, it’s probably okay for me, some 6′4 player making the league minimum to pop some Percocets or have a couple of beers after the game.
If NHL teams would rather ship players out for excessive partying than actually deal with the problems, how can they be expected to confront serious mental health problems or things like the ‘enforcer problem’? How do players, who are already on the fringe of the NHL as it is, feel comfortable speaking up and asking for help…particularly when they can be readily dumped into the AHL and be promptly forgotten about?
I’m not saying that the NHL or any team in particular is this callous. Keep in mind, the Vancouver Canucks organization stood behind Rypien 100% and gave him all the help he needed. The NHLPA also has their Substance Abuse and Behavioural Health program, along with, I’d imagine, other resources for players. But for vulnerable people, impressions can go a long way and can discourage folks from speaking up. As I wrote in a piece for Canucks Army, this is a sports culture where players are routinely praised for toughing things out and playing through serious injuries. What do you expect the response to be with personal issues like drug or alcohol abuse or mental health problems?
I liken it to the Sopranos, particularly the first season. Tony Soprano is incredibly anxious about seeing a therapist. For the old school Mafia crowd, it’s seen as a sign of weakness and Tony goes to great lengths to hide it from everyone he knows, simply because of the perceived attitudes folks have towards mental health. When Tony eventually sits down his crew and has the big revelation, they really don’t care or have idle curiosity (Christopher’s ‘Is it like marriage counselling?’) Unfortunately, Tony was so worked up about the perceived response that he kept it a huge secret. (Granted, there were a few extenuating factors, like the ultra-traditional Uncle Junior having a huge problem with his seeing a shrink or Tony’s mother using it as an excuse to try and get him killed, but my point is that the general mindset Tony has isn’t exactly an uncommon one for folks going through therapy…and most folks seeking therapy aren’t New Jersey mob bosses.)
The Patrick Kanes of the world slide by while folks that are lower on the NHL’s pecking order get the hairy eyeball. It’s not fair and is hypocritical when talking about the underlying problems in the NHL. It’s also ignoring the other suicides in recent years, folks like Tom Cavanagh, Trevor Ettinger, Roman Lysahenko or Terence Tootoo (whose suicide came off of a DUI arrest.) Cavanagh died earlier in this year and was dealing with schizophrenia, an illness he was incredibly tight lipped about. The latter three, Ettinger, Lysahenko and Tootoo all committed suicide within one calendar year of each other, with Ettinger and Lysahenko dying within weeks of each other.
The NHL will probably examine the ‘enforcer issue’ and try and make sense of an antiquated part of the game. However, the NHL has to look at how it deals with mental health and changing attitudes about mental health in the locker room. They also have to look at how they handle all of their players, not just the easily expendable.