Thursday, September 1, 2011
Three. A number that represents beauty in hockey. Three goals: a hat-trick. An event that is so magnificent that we not only tip our caps, but we actually throw them off our heads and onto the ice. A nonsensical tradition, for sure, but a fun one.
But, unfortunately, three represents something darker this off-season, something so ugly and horrible we can hardly comprehend. Three is the number of NHLers who have passed away over the course of one lousy, miserable summer.
First it was Derek Boogaard in May, found dead in his Minneapolis apartment. Ruled an accidental death, but one caused by the lethal combination of alcohol and oxycodone. Boogaard was not even 29.
Then came the news of Rick Rypien, a player hoping to rejuvenate his career in Winnipeg after taking a personal leave of absence from the Vancouver Canucks in November. Rypien died in his Alberta home, later confirmed as a suicide. He battled depression for over a decade. He was 27.
Almost unthinkably, they would not be the only NHLers to tragically pass this summer. Wade Belak died in his downtown Toronto hotel room on Wednesday, just weeks after Rypien. Reports are indicating that Belak, like Rypien, committed suicide. He was 35.
Now we must comprehend not one, not even two, but three deaths.
Belak was in Toronto for the upcoming season of Battle of the Blades, a reality TV series on CBC that is the Canadian equivalent of Dancing with the Stars. This was a good thing for Wade. He was going to be a fan-favourite for sure. He was charming, funny, and someone you just couldn’t help but root for.
There are three moments that will always stand out to me when I remember Wade Belak’s career.
First, in Jiri Tlusty’s rookie season as a Maple Leaf, some unflattering nude photos of the young Czech surfaced on the internet and became front page news. It was certainly a young, stupid thing to do and he was obviously embarrassed, but he was probably very scared as well. After the incident, Wade Belak was quick to make self-deprecating jokes about himself. It was a small gesture, but it represented the type of guy Wade was: funny, engaging, and always ready to defend a teammate.
The latter is what many people will remember Belak for. The most vivid example is when Belak stood up for Tomas Kaberle after the skilled defenceman took a vicious cheap-shot from Cam Janssen in March 2007. In the follow-up game between the Leafs and Devils everyone knew what was coming – Janssen and Belak especially - and the two squared off in a spirited bout. Belak defended the honour of his teammate and exacted the retributive justice common in the NHL.
However, I choose to remember Belak for something else. On December 5, 2007, Belak scored his first goal in 143 games. He never scored much, and it seemed like before this goal he never would. It was a nothing season for the Leafs and there was little to cheer about. However, the ACC exploded when Wade scored, a true outpouring of emotion for one of the good guys in the game. He deserved it and the fans in Toronto knew it.
But now he’s gone and, aside from the memories we keep, we’re only left to wonder why.
Unfortunately, attempting to understand why means we have to attempt to understand the role of fighting in hockey and understand the mentality of those whose job it is to fight.
The role of the NHL enforcer is a tough one. They have to fight to survive. Their job is based solely on their willingness to fight, a job that requires them to put their life on the line. It’s difficult both physically and mentally. It’s the toughest job in all of sports.
Despite their evident toughness, enforcers are often the gentle giants of the game. They stick up for their teammates and take the role of protector very seriously, yet, surprisingly they’re somewhat of an outcast on their team, somehow different from the rest. They play the fewest minutes, sometimes no more than five minutes a night, and their contributions rarely make a visible difference on the scoreboard.
Many enforcers have a soft side as well, like Georges Laraque, the former Montreal Canadiens enforcer, who is a member of the Green Party and a vegan - not the typical image you get when you picture a tough-guy. Or George Parros, currently of the Anaheim Ducks, a Princeton graduate who gives his hair to Locks of Love and owns his own apparel line that donates its proceeds to The Garth Brooks Teammates for Kids Foundation.
The enforcer is even more puzzling when you consider that no one gets into hockey with the goal of becoming an enforcer. It’s something they begrudgingly accept. Many enforcers rise through the ranks using their hands for scoring, not for fighting. They never imagine having to fight their way to the NHL, but at some point they realize that it's the only way for them to stay in the game. They adapt.
George Parros was an offensive player in high school and college, but only became a fighter when he joined the LA Kings’ organization, realizing this was his only chance of continuing a career in professional hockey.
In most cases, enforcers don’t particularly like their job either. Georges Laraque has publicly stated that he hated fighting, but did it because it was his job.
That’s what this is: a job. They do it for a salary. They do it for our entertainment.
Laraque has talked about the psychological difficulties associated with fighting, which he states is sometimes more difficult than the actual physical toll fighting takes.
“A lot of the time, fighting starts a couple days before the actual game. You look at the schedule and get really worked up because you have a game against a team that has a top tough guy and mentally that's tough.” – via Sportsnet
Laraque said that he would spend many sleepless nights before a big fight during his first few years. He even wished that either himself or the other enforcer would be a healthy scratch come game time.
The top enforcer last season, George Parros, fought a total of 27 times; Zenon Konopka followed him with 25 bouts. That’s almost once every three games. That works out to about one fight a week over an entire season.
This is a frightening proposition when you consider how the enforcer has evolved over the past few decades. Enforcers are now bigger and stronger than they have ever been. Derek Boogaard was 6’7 and 265 pounds.
In 2006, Boogaard fought Todd Fedoruk and literally smashed his face. Fedoruk needed five titanium plates to put his orbital and cheekbones back together, as well as titanium mesh to hold his eye in place.
Doctors told Fedoruk that players are so strong and hit so hard that your face will be broken whether it has been rebuilt or not. Think about that. These enforcers are so strong that even if you have a titanium plate in your face, it doesn’t matter.
In Tampa Bay, Fedoruk would use his facial injuries as a reason not to fight anymore, but acknowledged that “the game doesn’t work that way” in an interview with The Providence. If he wanted to continue playing, he knew he would have to fight.
Like other enforcers, most notably the late Bob Probert, Fedoruk had serious drug and alcohol problems.
Is this what it takes to come down from a fight, to deal with the pain, both physically and emotionally? This is the question the NHL needs to ask. The NHL needs a support system in place. If they already do, they need a better one. This summer has made that tragically evident.
The link between Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak is that they were all enforcers. This doesn’t mean there is a direct causal correlation between that and their deaths, but we would be naïve to ignore the role that it played.
With many enforcers, such as Georges Laraque, willing to talk about the fears and anxieties associated with fighting, plus others, like Todd Fedoruk, willing to discuss the drug and alcohol problems they battled, we must examine the potential link between these two as well.
Three people are dead. That is a fact. We do not know what role, if any, fighting played in these heartbreaking events, but ignoring the possible relation is negligent and downright dangerous.
These are not the questions we want to answer, but we must. Ignoring them is cowardly. This doesn’t mean the NHL needs to immediately ban all fighting, but they need to ask questions and they need to find answers.
For a long time Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak answered the bell every time it called their names. Well, now, with these three players taken far too soon, this isn’t just a bell ringing, it’s a siren. We can only hope that this time the NHL is ready to answer the call.