Penalty Minutes: Hockey world reflects on youth player's death

Following the death of junior hockey player Terry Trafford earlier this month, the issue of mental health in hockey and other contact sports is once again in the spotlight. Among those reflecting on the subject, Nashville Predators forward Rich Clune discusses his own personal battles.

Predators forward Rich Clune, who has battled substance abuse during his career, found himself among those reflecting on the mental health issues facing hockey following the death of junior player Terry Trafford.

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The tragic death of junior hockey player Terry Trafford at age 20 earlier this month cast a spotlight on the issue of mental health and hockey.  

Trafford, who was said to be dealing with depression, went missing for eight days after his Ontario Hockey League team, the Saginaw (Mich.) Spirit, disciplined him for a violation of team rules. An autopsy indicated that Trafford died of self-inflicted asphyxiation.  

While over the last few decades the NCAA and, for Europeans, European leagues have made inroads as the feeder system to the NHL, the traditional path has been Canadian major junior. In that system, kids, usually at age 16, leave home and "billet" with another family while attending high school and playing more than 70 games a season. With a few exceptions, players are eligible for four years. In some cases, teams play in arenas that can rival those in the NHL, in terms of size, and travel can include 20-hour bus rides.  

Rich Ennis, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario who works as a sports psychologist with junior hockey players, was critical of the system.  

"I think not just hockey but almost all of our sports obsession, from my perspective, it's a concern," said Ennis, who gave a memorable eulogy more than 10 years ago at the funeral of Atlanta Thrasher Dan Snyder. "The premium we place, the pressure we place on 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds and it's going to have its victims. I don't know enough about Terry. For all I know, it could have been a girlfriend dumping, so I don't want to overstate the case at all. But I think it is an awful lot that that we place on these kids and a lot of the pressure is placed on the illusion of creating a future for them. This is the road to fame and stardom and National Hockey League or the NBA or whatever the case might be."  

Ennis was particularly critical of the OHL, but he did not spare the NCAA from criticism either.  

"I just keep thinking back, when I was that age, I couldn't have handled this (crap)," he said. "I mean, as mentally strong as I think I am, I admire most of the kids I work with and what they handle and what they deal with and I tell a lot of them that right to their face, too. Again, there's going to be those for whom it's too much. And the characters that play a role in this, there's definitely the Ontario Hockey League culture. I think they have gone along with -- I don't remember what to call it -- almost this propaganda of being the royal road to the NHL and 'if you don't make it in the OHL, you don't make it anywhere.'  

"And they really pump that. I mean, they sell it quite blatantly and openly. Whenever they get a chance they bash the NCAA as an alternative and so on. And that's marketing. They're in a business, they're a professional organization and they're using child labor and there's going to be costs for that. If it's not the suicide of Terry, it's still the emotional baggage of some of the other players."  

Ennis said he thinks that mental health often gets overlooked in hockey and other contact sports, as athletes have to project image of invulnerability. The death of Trafford hit Nashville Predators forward Rich Clune particularly hard. Clune, who came up through the OHL, has spoken openly in the past about his struggles with substance abuse. Last year the hockey writer Scott Burnside wrote of Clune that after a 2010 playoff series as a member of the Los Angeles Kings, he "decided he had had enough, decided he couldn't go on; not just in terms of hockey, not just in terms of pursing the dream of being a professional athlete, but could not go on. Period."  

Last Saturday, I asked Clune about whether he could identify with what Trafford went through.  

"Oh, yeah, no question," he said. "You never know how someone is. You know what I mean? You see a kid smiling all the time and you don't know what's going on inside."

While saying he is no expert, Clune said those in Trafford's circumstances need to reach out to someone they trust. Clune did so in his own case with family members.  

"Whether it's a parent, a sibling, a best friend, a boyfriend, a girlfriend and then you get the ball rolling," he said. "I know, I can imagine the kid was probably in a state where he didn't think he could trust anyone and he kept everything inside, probably thought his hockey career was over and didn't know where to turn. I think it's just opening up to the people around you and making the connection to professional doctors, rehabilitation counselors."

Ennis said some hockey associations are making progress. He cited the example of the Ontario Hockey Association, which governs junior hockey in the province at levels below that of major junior. He said mental healthcare professionals meet with every team in the OHA and go through, in particular, depression and suicide and how to access help. He said they're trying to make it acceptable to discuss the subject more openly.    

"I think that awareness, even prior to Terry, that kind of case now, it's just going to gain even more momentum," he said. "Hopefully."

Who's Hot: Boston Bruins  

The defending Eastern Conference champions appear to be peaking at the right time -- or is too soon?

Either way, it's impossible to argue that there's anything wrong these days with the Bruins, who won their 10th straight on Tuesday, a 4-2 victory against the New Jersey Devils, putting Boston two points behind St. Louis for the top record in the league. The winning streak ties the Bruins with Anaheim for the longest in the NHL this season. The Ducks lasted from Dec. 6 to Dec. 28.  

The Bruins will not have an easy task as they attempt to stretch it into the longest in 2013-14. Their next game is on Friday when they visit the Colorado Avalanche, who are tied for the sixth-best record in the league.  

Although Eastern and Western Conference teams have not played each other much in recent seasons, Colorado will be a familiar place for one Bruins player: Jarome Iginla. For years, as a member of the Calgary Flames, Iginla played in the same division as the Avs. The right wing has proved a big reason for Boston's success and, at age 36, is showing no signs of slowing down. Iginla leads the Bruins in goals with 26 and has scored in his past four games, giving him six total in that span. He also ranks fifth in the NHL with a plus-30 rating.

On Tuesday, Iginla scored the 556th goal of his career, tying Bruins Hall of Famer Johnny Bucyk for 25th in league history (incidentally, both Iginla and Bucyk were born in Edmonton, although 42 years apart). After being traded from the Flames to the Bruins last season at the deadline, Iginla came up short in his quest for his first Stanley Cup.

But the way the Bruins are playing lately, Iginla might get another crack at it this season.  

Could Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks be affected by Olympic fatigure in the playoffs?

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"We lose a guy we thought was going to be back with us when we talk about (Nathan) Horton last year," coach Claude Julien was quoted as saying in the Boston Globe of the wing who departed via free agency for Columbus. "That was a big hole to fill. (Iginla's) come in there and filled that hole really well. ... He brings us the same thing the other guy did with his size and his scoring ability. ... And, again, we're talking about a veteran here who has tremendous leadership qualities. Again, maybe not surprising to a lot of people what he's accomplished here, and certainly he's been a great asset to our team where, like I said, it could have been a lot different had we not gotten him."  

Who's not: Chicago Blackhawks  

To accomplish what the Chicago Blackhawks have over the past five seasons would rank as a signature achievement for any franchise, but it's even more impressive in the salary cap era. Having said that, the defending Stanley Cup champions just do not have the same look about them.

Following their 3-2 overtime loss on Tuesday to Philadelphia, the Blackhawks fell to 4-5-1 in their past 10 games.  

Most worrisome, however, is the fact that since the Olympic break ended, the Blackhawks have gone 0-3 in the Central Division (with two of those losses coming at home), allowing them to slip behind the Colorado Avalanche into third place. That means if those two teams' positions in the standings holds, the Avalanche will have home ice advantage against Chicago in the first round of the playoffs. And that is not good news for Chicago, as Colorado has beaten Chicago twice this month.  

In attempting to defend the Cup, the Blackhawks face a tall task simply in terms of battling fatigue. On top of playing 48 games in 99 days as all teams did in the truncated 2012-13 season, Chicago then played 23 additional playoff games. This season, the insertion of the Olympic break has caused more NHL games to be played in fewer days and for teams like the Blackhawks, top players had the added burden of Olympic participation. With 10 Olympians, Chicago was tied for the most in the league. On top of that, seven of them had their national teams advance to the medal round, meaning they played the maximum number of games possible in Sochi.  

Is it showing? It certainly isn't for the St. Louis Blues, who also sent 10 players to the Olympics. But a study whose results were released before the tournament could be relevant when it comes to Chicago.  

Writing in the "International Journal of Sport Finance," Neil Longley calculated that for each player a team has sent to the Olympics since the NHL began doing so in 1998, a team can expect its goal differential to be reduced by 0.088 per game. For the Blackhawks that translates into almost a goal per game at 0.88.  

"In general, teams that send more players to Olympic rosters are disadvantaged once the NHL season resumes after the Olympics," Longley wrote. "This reduced team performance is presumably due to a fatigue factor, where the travel and additional games that the Olympics entail simply cause players to wear out."  

Chicago is still likely headed to a 100-point season and will be a difficult out come playoff time. But if the 'Hawks do face Colorado, which had only four Olympians, in the first round, one can only wonder if fatigue will prove decisive.  

Top 5  

1. St. Louis: The Blues remain unbeaten in regulation since trading for goalie Ryan Miller at 8-0-1.  

2. Boston: Rookie Torey Krug's 14 goals rank fifth in the league among defensemen.  

3. Anaheim: The Ducks lost at home on Tuesday to coach Bruce Boudreau's former team, Washington. Alex Ovechkin got the game-winner for his league-leading 46th goal of the season.  

4. Pittsburgh: Teammates Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz rank fifth and sixth, respectively, in the league in goals with 33 and 32.  

5. San Jose: The Sharks are tied with Anaheim for the league's third-best record and Pacific Division lead but their ROW (regulation and overtime wins) lags far behind the Ducks', 43 to 35.  

Bottom 5  

26. Calgary: The Flames finally reached .500 at home (16-16-3) on Tuesday with a 3-1 win against Buffalo.  

Can Maple Leafs winger Phil Kessel, who ranks third in the league in points, lead his team to a pivotal win in this week's spotlight game?

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27. Edmonton: The young Oilers are giving fans optimism for next season: They are 10-4-3 in their past 17 games dating to Jan. 26.  

28. New York Islanders: In a 6-0 home loss to Minnesota on Tuesday, all 18 of the Islanders' skaters were a minus. The worst indignity: former Islander Matt Moulson scored twice.  

29. Florida: The Panthers began a four-game Western road swing with a 3-2 win over San Jose, one of the league's top teams.  

30. Buffalo: The Sabres have lost seven straight.  

Game of the week: Montreal at Toronto

It's one of the NHL's oldest rivalries. Montreal has 83 points and sits at second place in the Atlantic Division while Toronto has 80 and is in fourth but easily could move up to second or third and end up playing the Habs in the first round of the playoffs. On Tuesday, in a 6-3 win against Colorado, Montreal's big trade deadline acquisition of Thomas Vanek finally broke through with his first goals -- a hat trick, in fact. The game also includes the Leafs' Phil Kessel, No. 3 in the NHL in points.

If it is indeed a preview of a postseason matchup, hockey fans in Canada will be ecstatic.  

Stat line of the week: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington

In a 4-3 win against Vancouver on Friday, Kuznetsov had three assists in his third NHL game since leaving the KHL following the end of his team's season and joining Washington. The Capitals' first-round pick in 2010, the 21-year-old center has four points in his past two games. With the Capitals two points out of the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference and 13 games to play, Washington is hoping Kuznetsov can help provide the spark to get them over the hump. In the 2011-12 World Junior Championships, Kuznetsov lit up the tournament with six goals and seven assists in seven games.

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