Is The NHL Doing Enough To Battle Depression?

September 5th, 2011 2 Comments

Like Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien before him, the news of Wade Belak’s death hit the hockey community like a slap in the face.

All three former NHL players had links to drug abuse, depression or a combination of both, all three leave the NHL and it’s fans scratching their collective heads as to why these seemingly strong men chose death over the disease of drug abuse and/or depression.

In light of the uncanny amount of death involving NHL enforcers, many players are choosing this time to chime in on their experiences as enforcers, acknowledging their roles to be lonely, dangerous and, for many, a nightmarish existence.

Former NHL pugilist Georges Laraque recently rang in on the topic of being an enforcer in the NHL and, by all accounts, he doesn’t think it’s a walk in the park.

“People don’t understand the stress of being an enforcer in hockey,” said Laraque. “You have to pretend you’re invincible, that you’re not afraid, but you are not invincible and you are afraid. You have to intimidate and make like you can’t wait to fight. It’s the toughest job in professional sports.”

To Laraque’s point, it’s difficult to imagine that these modern day gladiators ever gave fighting a second thought, but in reality the opposite seems to be the norm, not the exception.

Imagine looking at the schedule and playing out each game, each opponent and each inevitable fight in your head and knowing that you and you alone would have to be the one to drop the gloves. Night after night, week after week, month after month, season after season, it’s gotta play havoc with your mind, body and soul.

From the outside looking in, being an enforcer in today’s NHL is not much of a life. It has to take a special individual to be able to deal with the stress, stardom, mental anguish and injuries that come with “the job” which, for some, becomes too much to bare.

Many players have said that they were consumed by fighting, often leading them to take illegal drugs such as cocaine, oxycodone and/or alcohol to deal with the pressure.

Of course, not every enforcer goes down this road, but for those that do, the final outcome can lead to a lifetime of abuse and, eventually, death or suicide.

While it’s easy to believe that injuries suffered through fighting led players to partake in drugs, the mental anguish associated with the job is also a contributing factor—maybe the biggest factor.

Whether you are an NHL Enforcer, elite player (such as Theo Fleury), businessman or other, it doesn’t take a lot of drug use before it takes over your life, it doesn’t take long before having a drink, doing a line of coke or taking an injection becomes less of a habit and more of a lifestyle.

I worked some of the meanest streets of Toronto, dealing with prostitutes, drug addicts, gangs and the mentally ill—many of which were successful people at one point in their lives, many of which are likely dead today, or well on their way.

The life of a drug addict is a living hell, a life with little priority other than getting your next “fix”. The reality is, drugs never discriminates, addiction could happen to anyone. Let’s face it, many of us have been touched by this plague personally or otherwise, it’s never easy, and it almost always ends in a life ruined or death.

For those of you that have never had to endure addiction or mental illness in one shape or form, consider yourself lucky.

In light of the recent deaths, given time, more and more enforcers are likely to come out with tales of depression, drug use, alcoholism and mental illness. The question is—will anyone be shocked?

The issues of drug abuse and depression have been associated with enforcers for decades, this is not a new phenomena, the awareness has only been heightened due to three deaths in under four months.

Are the enforcers the only players suffering from such pain, anguish, stress and illness?

Hardly, but there is an uncanny link here, one that should not be ignored, one that the NHL and it’s Players Association need to take a closer look at.

TSN’s host of Off The Record  Michael Landsberg (a close friend of Wade Belak’s) recently spoke to James Cybulski on TSN 1050 radio speaking about Wade Belak’s death and depression.

Landsberg is a longtime sufferer of depression and, by all accounts, well versed on the stranglehold it can have on one’s life and the struggle those suffering from the disease must go through in order to overcome it.

In conversation with Belak, Landsberg stated that Belak told him he had been on “happy pills” for four years. Few people knew Belak to be depressed, in fact, many remember him as a happy-go-lucky/jokester that always had a smile on his face and always had others (including his teammates) laughing.

In retrospect, Belak’s external ability to laugh and smile at all costs was simply a deflection from his struggles from depression—an illness he rarely shared with anyone outside of loved ones, if ever.

Nobody saw Belak’s death coming, nobody thought the disease was getting the better of him.

To Landsberg’s point, “Wade had an unbelievable ability to appear to be the happiest guy in the room, when in fact he was the sickest guy in the room”…“Nobody knows what’s going on in another mans head…”

As great as the NHL’s drug and alcohol programs are, each case is individual and, to Landsberg’s point, “all of us suffer our illnesses, whatever they are, in a solo way—you are on your own”.

Why would anyone with depression take their own life?

Landsberg compared depression to having a “popsicle headache (which often carries intense pain)…”imagine having that pain for an hour, a day, a week—how long would it be before you say the option of dying is better than living another day with that pain?” Landsberg said. “People take their lives when the fear of living another day is greater than the fear of dying”

Insightful, strong words, form someone who not only knew Belak well, but also suffers from the disease of depression and has an intimate knowledge of hockey and the lifestyles associated with the game we all love. So much anguish, so much pain and a feeling of having no way out, all pulling at you, day-in, day-out, it’s almost inconceivable.

Was being an enforcer the only factor in Belak’s death? Probably not. But one has to admit that there is an uncanny link to being an enforcer and drugs, alcohol abuse and depression.

It has been almost 20 years since another former Toronto Maple Leaf—John Kordic—lost his battle with drug abuse, succumbing to an overdose.

Kordic was a troubled man who battled through drug abuse and rage issues. Some reports indicate that his family life led him to use drugs, others say it was the stress of hockey. Whatever the case may be, here we have another enforcer that everyone seemingly knew was hooked on drugs and little was done to help him out of his troubled, sometimes tormented life.

To be fair, people suffer from mental illness in all walks of life. Depression is not discriminatory, it can hit anyone, as can drugs and alcohol abuse. Still, there seems to be more to it with regards to the enforcers, so much so that it’s undeniable.

It’s not often we hear of the great offensive/highly skilled players falling into drug and/or alcohol abuse and/or depression (Theo Fleury excused), but it does happen nonetheless.

Of course Fleury’s issues had more to do with sexual abuse, but the abuse could be attributed to hockey, at least on some level.

Non-traditional Fans have long fought for a zero tolerance rule against fighting in the NHL. Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke is on record as saying he would not support such a rule, as are many traditional fans of the game.

“You can’t have a contact sport with no out of bounds and with hitting, without having fighting,” Burke said. “If we do (remove fighting) we cannot create a safe workplace for our players”.

Fair enough—but is it time that more NHL teams took a page out of the Detroit Red Wings book, choosing to employ a measure of toughness but taking a pass on the enforcer role?

A quick look at the Red Wings roster will reveal that they have not employed a “enforcer” for years. Simply put, the Red Wings organization clearly feels an enforcer is not needed.

If the Red Wings (one of the most successful NHL franchises in modern day history) can do without an enforcer, why can’t the rest of the NHL GM’s mirror Detroit’s model for success?

I, like many NHL fans, am all for a good tussle from time-to-time, but there are many (like me) that feel it is high time NHL general managers took a pass on the enforcers in favor of players that bring a certain amount of truculence, testosterone and belligerence to the game without the label of being an enforcer.

Taking fighting out of the game is not the answer. Reducing fighting by taking away the enforcer role may be a step in the right direction and, in turn, it may help reduce the apparent anguish some of these players face on a nightly basis.

Let’s face it, throughout an 82-game NHL schedule we often find the same players involved in fighting. Few fights are spontaneous, more likely, the two combatants mix it up as a result of an incident that happened in the past and/or between two unrelated players.

Many fans refer to these fights as being “scripted” or “staged”, words that many players/enforcers detest.

To illustrate my point further, when is the last time you witnessed two players that did not carry the enforcer label dropping the gloves? Sure, it happens from time-to-time, but the incidents are few and far between.

When they do happen, the results are typically a lot less damaging to the more random players than having two 6’3”, 225-250 pounders go tete-a-tete.

The question is, do NHL teams need to employ players to fight other players’ battles for them? What message does that send to our kids and, does the fact that most teams employ an enforcer give their players the right/confidence to do as they wish as they will rarely ever have to answer the bell/pay the piper themselves?

Of course, there are those that argue that fighting is an integral part of the game, one that can spark the crowd and/or ones team when all seems lost.

Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren is one ex-NHL player turned GM that is all for fighting.

“There’s a place for it, (fighting)” Holmgren said. “It supplies some kind of release. Hockey is a continuous sport. Things happen at the spur of the moment. At times, it does have an effect on games. I’ve seen games where not a whole lot is going on and I think ‘this game needs a good fight.”

Enforcers are not only employed to fight, they are also there to intimidate, but who exactly are they intimidating? Eachother?

Enforcers cannot force the offending players to fight. How many times have we watched the likes of New York Rangers forward and super pest Sean Avery getting in the face of an opponent only to watch him duck out of a fight?

Avery has fought his fair share of tough guys, sucker punched a few too! In the end, there’s not much you can do to a player of his ilk to deter him from being the player that he is.

If you send your enforcer out to “deal” with Avery nine times out of ten he’ll turn the other cheek, which, in some cases, ends up in the opposing team having to kill a penalty, and Avery laughing at the opposing tough guy.

Maybe Avery is the only sane one out there? Perhaps the answer is simple—don’t fight?

Hockey is a game that is full of physical play and raw emotions. To say that a fight is not going to break out from time-to-time is asinine, but how much fighting is too much, and where should the NHL be drawing the line, if any?

Traditionalists want fighting to remain as it always has, front and centre and as an integral part of the culture of the game of hockey.

Non-traditionalist would be happy to see fighting completely abolished, which in the opinion of many (I being one of them) would likely see the game go in the wrong direction towards more stick infractions, dirty play and liberties taken on all players, not just the stars.

The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Let’s face it, recent injuries and deaths suggest that fighting is a dangerous element of the game of hockey. No longer are we talking about two 5’10”, 180 pound players going at it, today’s pugilists stand well over six feet tall and weigh in at 200-250 pounds and many of them are MMA trained and well versed in boxing.

Today’s enforcer is a warrior capable of knocking an opponent out with one punch, or, as former Toronto Maple Leaf tough guy Nick Kypreos can attest, end your career in one punch.

There is nothing wrong with employing tough players—men of courage and strength— but perhaps it’s time more GM’s took a stance and employed the right players, not being pre-occupied with the hiring of “goons”.

While guys like Wendel Clark don’t grow on trees, he is exactly the type of player that can stick up for his teammates while still making a major contribution to the games outcome, not simply filling a five minute role.

Clark wasn’t employed to simply fight, but when the opportunity knocked, he could take care of business with the best of them, all while holding the ability to score a big goal, or make a big hit.

This is the type of player NHL GM’s should be employing, these are the type of players that play the game first and fight second. They are tough, multidimensional players that can contribute on all levels.

Essentially, the enforcers are employed to take care of the enforcers, nothing more, nothing less. By default, every single one of them is expendable—maybe they should be abolished? Maybe the time has come to make a change in the game?

Sure, they may be great in the locker room, they may be able to lay an opponent out, but mostly they are on the ice to fight each other.

Players have long been more than capable of taking care of themselves, fighting their own battles and policing themselves and their opponents.

Gordie Howe did it, Maurice Richard did it, Wendel Clark did it—in fact, there are countless cases of star players or otherwise taking care of business when called upon, they never needed another player to fight their battles for them.

It’s high time the NHL stepped up it’s enforcement of the rules, enforced greater suspensions on dangerous players and implemented mandatory use of safer equipment such as padded elbow pads (which is more like armor these days) and the use of the M11 helmet—which has been shown to reduce concussions and their effects.

This would lessen the need for enforcers as liberties taken against players would be properly punished on a regular basis.

Change always comes about slowly.

Don’t forget, the NHL didn’t make helmet use mandatory until 1979, some 60 plus years after the first NHL season was played in 1917-18. Sure, the players wore “cups” to protect their more sensitive parts, but wear a helmet? No way!

Change always starts at the grassroots, so any movement away from the employment of enforcers would have to take place in the minor leagues before anything could be done at the NHL level.

Let’s face it, old habits die slowly. It’s going to take a group of NHL general managers that want to make the game better to truly change the culture of hockey.

Making the job of the enforcer extinct will never stop all drug and alcohol abuse and depression, but it could go a long way in reducing the effects of one of the toughest, if not the toughest, roles to play in all of sports.

Treatment, suspensions, awareness and on-ice rules can only do so much to facilitate change, but collectively these policies can also make a difference.

As much as the NHL has a responsibility to take care of it’s players (all players for that matter) they are not the ones that fill out the roster sheets, they are not the ones that employ players for the sole purpose of fighting and they are not the ones that tap the enforcers on the shoulder and ask them to “take care of business.”

A culture change and a change of philosophy—both on and off the ice—are the only ways to truly make a difference, at least where the enforcer is concerned. Each GM needs to look himself in the mirror and decide if his actions are contributing to a problem that, if not looked at seriously, may spin further out of control.

Got a story idea, comment or hockey related question? Contact me at theslapshotpucktalk@gmail.com

Until next time,

Peace!

2 Comments

  1. Tim says:

    I read something about hockey pretty much every day of the year and have for over a decade. That is hands down the best article on hockey that I have read in years, maybe ever. Very few people who follow hockey understand fighting and it is great to read about the true toll it takes on the players who take on that responsibility. As someone being treated for depression it is heartening to read an article that doesn’t just mention it but tries to describe what it is like. Well done.

  2. MarkRitter says:

    Thanks Tim.

    I think we all go through some level of depression at some piont in our lives. Clearly, those that suffer on the level that Belak and other have deserve all the help they can get, sadly, as we all know, it’s typically a silent disease that creeps up on you and those around you. I think we have a duty to tell their stories and reach out to those that are in a similar situation. I had a friend of the family take his life a few years back- his death touched so many people. His son rode across Canada to help raise awareness about Depression and the chemical imbalance/disorder that it is. Keep yer stick on the ice and embrace those that love and care about you! Cheers! MR

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