We’ve all seen the headlines. We’ve all read the stories. In the span of a few months, three NHL players, Derek Boogaard (28), Rick Rypien (27) and Wade Belak (35), have all lost their lives. One year ago, the legendary Bob Probert (45) collapsed and died of a heart attack while boating near Windsor, Ontario.
They were, by all accounts, fine human beings. They were also NHL enforcers.
It’s always shocking when a person dies young. For those of us close enough in age to these three guys, it’s alarming and confusing. For those of us with wives and children, like some of these men had, it’s, with all due respect, sobering. Whether you’re an NHL player, a mailman or the President, it makes you contemplate your own mortality. When it’s your time, you may be able to drop the gloves and give it one hell of a fight. In the end, though, that final curtain does, and will, fall before your eyes.
Earlier this year, on May 18th, Boogaard, a former member of the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers, and a monster of a man at 6’8″, was found dead by his brother Aaron. It was called an accident but, apparently, alcohol and painkillers were demons Derek’s family tried to help him fight off regularly.
Then on August 15th, Rypien, a former Vancouver Canuck who had just signed a new contract to play for the Winnipeg Jets, was found dead in his Alberta home. Rypien’s struggle with depression was widely reported, with the player taking a leave of absence from the NHL last November, his second such leave.
This past Wednesday presented another loving family with grief and sadness. Belak, who played for five different organizations during his career, was found dead of an apparent suicide in his Toronto condo. There are reports that it may have been an accident, but the facts remain that yet another person in the prime of their life is gone. He left behind a wife and two young children.
Sunday, in his Buffalo News column, Jerry Sullivan wrote a thoughtful piece on the role of the enforcer, and the toll it takes, mentally and physically, on the player. He goes on to mention that the NHL:
“needs to take a hard look at the psychological effects of fighting. Maybe it’s time to legislate fighting out of the game by making it a game misconduct, instead of a five-minute penalty.”
Well, there’s where you lost me, Sully, and it leads me here.
I need to attempt to tread lightly here, because we’re talking about death, but I am unsure if I will be able to.
Were all these deaths related, or were they a coincidence? There is no way of ever knowing the answer to that. You can do all the testing you want, and blame everything else under the sun, but these people made choices in their lives. Attributing a few glancing blows to the head as a reason a person kills themselves or starts using drugs and alcohol is a cheap excuse, and it’s wrong. Let’s face it, fighting ain’t what it used to be. You have the odd donnybrook, when the players stand toe-to-toe and land nothing but haymakers. Those fights are few and far between now. Most of the time, these “enforcers” grab one another, hold on for dear life, throw the occasional, required punch so the fans don’t get restless, and thirty seconds in, it’s over. Watch any of Andrew Peters’ fights from when he was a Sabre. He should have been on “Dancing with the Stars” instead, and definitely had no business calling himself an “enforcer”. You wanna know why Sabres fans still talk about Patrick Kaleta’s fight with Columbus Blue Jacket Derek Dorsett from last December?
Because there were actually punches thrown.
Just listen to Harry Neale‘s comment after the fight was over. “That may be the most left handed punches thrown in a fight in a long time”. Then he goes on to count the punches Kaleta threw. Was it really because Kaleta is a southpaw? No. It was due to the nature of the fight. Fighting is an unfortunate lost art and, while I absolutely do not condone senseless violence in any facet of life, it has it’s place in the game of hockey for one reason:
Because the NHL refuses to protect it’s players’ safety.
Between 1997 and 2004 (the NHL is studying the years between 2005-2011 as we speak), there were 559 concussions during regular season games. These are the ones that were reported. Were they all due to fighting? Not even close. Does bodychecking have some influence on these numbers? You betcha. Should we remove hard hits into the boards? Let’s not get crazy.
What the NHL has to do, and supposedly says it’s doing, is educate all of these millionaires who strap razor blades and body armor to themselves every night on the effects and consequences of the cheap, blind-side hit. In todays game, everything is more of a “drive-by” mentality. The lack of respect shown towards each other by today’s players is at an all-time low. The league refuses to be consistent with any sort of punishment given to these players for violent acts. So, instead of relying on NHL disciplinarians to address the problem, perhaps there needs to be a different approach.
Either educate these players, especially cowards like Matt Cooke, Sean Avery, Jarkko Ruuttu and the like, on the impact their actions have on a person’s health, or get rid of the instigator rule in hockey, and let the players police themselves again. Or Both.
Removing fighting from the game, as laughable as it’s become, actually makes things worse, not better. You take away the players’ ability to police themselves, and you will see more cheap shots, more dirty hits and even more injuries. What happened after Cooke delivered that gutless hit to Boston Bruin Marc Savard? The NHL never suspended Cooke, a multiple repeat offender who obviously hadn’t learned his lesson, and probably never will. While I take issue with the league’s decision to let this guy walk without even a slap on the wrist, I am more interested in what happened on the ice after what is most likely a career ending hit on Savard. The other Bruins players made some half-assed attempt to get to Cooke, did a little pushing and shoving, and probably threw out a couple of “how dare you’s”.
Guess what? This is why guys like Cooke keep on doing what they do.
There was a time, in the 70’s and 80’s, where there was more fighting, more brawls and more punches thrown than there are now. The game was nasty, but it was more of a “face-to-face” nasty. You mess with our star player or put a questionable hit on somebody, you’re going to get it. That was that. Done deal.
Cooke’s head should have been bouncing off the ice from so many lefts (right, Harry?), that he would have been begging for a right. There should have been immediate ramifications for what he did. Justice should come off the ice, yes, but these things need to be able to be addressed on the ice, too. You think if John Wensink was on the ice for the Bruins that game, that there wouldn’t have been some immediate retribution? Cooke would have had to answer the bell right then and there.
As it stands now, no one wants to take that silly instigator penalty because they don’t want to be thrown out of the game. So, things like the Cooke incident don’t ever get addressed properly.
I cannot underscore how unfortunate it is that we have lost so many of our beloved NHL players in such a short time. These guys were people. Husbands, fathers, sons and uncles. Tragic and heartbreaking. It’s the finality of it that is so hard to take. But to blame fighting, or the role an enforcer has to play, on these deaths is jumping the gun. People get hit and killed by cars and busses while crossing the street all the time. Should we not allow people to cross the street?
Fans of ice hockey will miss the Boogeyman, Beelar, Ripper and Probie. Of course, no one will miss them more than their families, and their lives will never be the same.
But, fighting needs to stay, and school needs to start. More concussions happen from cheap shots, flying elbows, or dirty, blind side hits than fighting. There needs to be mandatory education for these players, and the instigator rule needs to go. The enforcers must be allowed to police the scumbags, if the scumbags cannot understand that what they’re doing is wrong. Let these guys stand up and face the music if they want to be idiots. If they can’t stand up to it, then they will be branded cowards and turtles. Peer pressure works, especially in the NHL. Only then can we cut down on the cheap shots and dirty hits, which will hopefully cut down on the concussions and injuries, which hopefully, if you believe there is a link, eliminates the sudden and tragic deaths of young NHL players.
Either way, rest in peace, Bob, Derek, Rick and Wade.
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