Is NHL ignoring a deadly problem?
Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien were members of a rarified class of NHL players.
They were enforcers, a role that has been deemphasized by the league for years to make it more palatable for public consumption.
Maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Belak, who reportedly hanged himself in a Toronto hotel room on Wednesday, became the third current or recently retired enforcer to die since May, joining Boogaard (prescription drug overdose after a bout of depression) and Rick Rypien (suicide).
And they’re probably not the only ones dealing with the ramifications of a career spent doling out and taking physical punishment.
"I could give you about 20 names of people that have demons still because of that job," former NHL enforcer Georges Laraque told CBC News.
“I didn’t really enjoy it much,” Andrew Peters, another former enforcer, told FOXSports.com. “It’s a tough job emotionally more than physically. There is just so much that goes into the role itself. I don’t think that people who have never done it can relate to it. It’s very stressful.”
Most of these enforcers only get a few minutes of ice time each night. Some teams don’t even carry a skater whose main objective is to drop the gloves and throw bare-fisted punches. Packed into those fleeting shifts are often fisticuffs with a player as big if not bigger. Poundings are doled out and taken.
“At the tail end of my career, I tried to protect myself as much as I could,” said Peters, who played for the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils before he retired last season. “I didn’t have the desire to trade punches.”
Peters began to worry about what lay inside his own skull after the brain of one of the game’s all-time great enforcers was found to have the same debilitating brain disease discovered in football players and boxers.
Former Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks tough guy Bob Probert — who suffered through bouts of depression and substance abuse for years — died at age 45 after a heart attack in July 2010 and his family donated his brain to Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine. Days after the donation became public last September, NHL officials visited Boston University to talk to the experts about the disease – chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Chris Nowinski, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, told FOXSports.com he hadn’t heard from the NHL in the 11 months since.
“I am disappointed that the NHL didn’t show more interest in the issue,” Nowinski said. “There just doesn’t seem to be the curiosity there.”
The Center has four NHL players’ brains in its possession: Probert, Reggie Fleming, Boogaard and an unidentified fourth brain. (It only releases the name of the player with the family’s permission.)
It’d be trite to suggest that had the NHL shown more interest in the CTE that the lives of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak could have been saved. The damage that may have been a contributing factor to each of their untimely deaths may have already been done and alteration to treatment programs may not have made any difference.
Still, to go nearly a full calendar year without talking to these experts — especially as the game’s biggest star, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, remains sidelined with a concussion suffered in January — is inexcusable.
If the NHL weren’t a notch above niche sport in this country, we’d have hearings this fall on Capitol Hill like the ones called by politicians to examine the NFL’s concussion issues a year ago. But the NHL only gets summoned to Washington as a reflexive action, like when the more popular leagues are called upon to discuss performance-enhancing drugs. Even then, nobody ever seems to notice the NHL’s steroid policy lags behind its counterparts.
“They are talking as if depression in these players is the luck of the draw,” Nowinski said. “They are talking as if all the outcomes are different, suggesting that a player dying from an overdose while depressed is different from one dying from suicide. Both are abnormal behaviors that are very common in CTE populations.”
CTE is a degenerative brain disease that, besides depression, can lead to problems with impulse control and, as it progresses, often mimics amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
The NHL tried to rally on Thursday. The league and the NHL Players Association said in a joint statement, "while the circumstances of each case are unique, these tragic events cannot be ignored.” They vowed to determine “whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare and minimize the likelihood of such events taking place.”
Steps would be made, according to the statement, to examine assistance programs for players and encouraged players to seek help for depression and drug abuse.
"NHL Clubs and our fans should know that every avenue will be explored and every option pursued in the furtherance of this objective," the joint statement said.
So could this mean an end to fighting?
Nowinski said he isn’t necessarily for an outright ban, although the NHL players should at the very least be educated on the consequences of their actions. Laraque said an outright fighting moratorium would only exacerbate the problem.
“Are you kidding me?” Laraque told The Edmonton Journal. “Whoever decides to make that rule, then you’re really going to have a problem with these guys. If there’s depression when you retire, how bad do you think it’ll be if you take 75 jobs out of the NHL so they can’t even earn a living? You create a bigger problem by trying to fix the problem.”
Peters said he still loves the game, although he admits Wednesday’s death of Belak, 35, shook him. As Peters launched a medical device distribution company in Buffalo this year, Belak suffered through some demons after his retirement in February that nobody around him could detect.
It’s left Peters — and possibly other players of his ilk — with survivor’s guilt.
“I feel good and I almost feel bad for saying that,” Peters said.