The death of former NHL enforcer, Bob Probert, came as a big shock to the NHL community last year.
The fighter had a checkered past, riddled with drug and alcohol issues and legal troubles but he was still young (45) when he died on his boat in Ontario. At the time, his death was an isolated incident, something people hoped not to see again.
Sadly, it began a trend among hockey pugilists.
Less than two months later, the highly-respected Jason Smith, former captain of the Philadelphia Flyers and NHL tough guy, was arrested for domestic abuse last September. Nobody saw that coming.
This offseason, we’ve seen Tom Cavanagh, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and now Wade Belak all die way too young. Belak, the former Nashville Predator who passed away last night, was the oldest of the four at 35. (This problem is not limited to hockey either as former MLBers, Mike Flanagan and Hideki Irabu both took their own lives recently but, for the purposes of this article, I will focus on hockey.)
In some cases, we know what caused the death of some of these players but we could speculate endlessly as to what led to these tragedies. Was it depression? Substance abuse? Concussions? Hopelessness when a career ends? A sense of failure when a player who has dominant skill at a lower level has to change his role from scorer to fighter just to make it in the NHL?
I don’t know and I don’t care to speculate. I’m not a doctor, a psychologist, or a professional athlete. I do know one thing, though: when the number of incidents begin to pile up, something is wrong.
At some level, many of us played an organized sport. We’ve been pushed by parents, belittled by coaches, and called out by teammates. From the youngest ages, athletes are taught to hide their emotions and trained to be more machine than human. As the level of competition rises, so do the stakes, especially when amateurs turn pro.
Bloodied up athletes with broken down bodies who still give their all are called heroes. We honor those who aren’t afraid to dive head-first in front of an oncoming slapshot to stop a puck as well as those who don a flack jacket to play with cracked ribs.
In many ways, it’s very noble to sacrifice your body for the perceived greater cause of winning. In other ways, it creates a culture where those who put their own safety first are frowned upon.
If we are to care about the person as well as the player, this culture needs to change.
People need to be able to admit when a problem arises, whether the issue is mental or physical. Then, they need to not only be treated properly by the team but also given enough time to heal, rather than be rushed back into the lineup as soon as possible.
Getting to this point would be no small feat and it is hard to say how it could change the game but as players continue to get bigger, faster, stronger, and worked harder, it becomes even more important to work towards this goal.
To implement such change, it needs to come from the bookends of the hockey community.
Former players, who witnessed the potential for dangers or experienced the danger itself need to come out and speak up. Tyson Nash, Theo Fleury, and Georges Laraque were among the first to voice their opinions tonight after the announcement of Belak’s death. Each former player offered a unique perspective, which gave insight into the fact that it’s not one issue, such as concussions, that is to blame.
They cannot stop there, though. These players and others like them need to organize and make their voices consistently heard in order to affect change. They need to serve as the voice of reason for those who currently play the sport. Since they lived through it, they can provide the greatest insights to the problems that exist.
At the same time, we need to instill different ideas in the next generation of professional athletes — and all children, really — while they are still young. They need to learn to speak up when there is a problem of any sort and the stigmas attached to mental health need to be removed. Children, parents, and coaches need to be better educated and accepting of mental health issues so that they can recognize the signs and learn how to respond to them properly.
Maybe this means that there will someday be a softer NHL where the diehard player who overcomes any injury to help lead his team to a championship becomes a thing of the past. It may not be something that you want but it is something the league needs. Human life is more valuable than a game.