There's nothing wrong with asking hard questions. But, we've got a big problem with making wild guesses.
Forty-eight hours after Wade Belak's stunning and sad death, we really don't know what happened. There's lots of speculation, but not a lot of certainty.
What do we know, really? We know one of the NHL's funniest and most popular players is gone, way too soon. We know his family and friends are suffering, struggling for answers. This is the guy who, on-camera, congratulated Shea Weber on being selected to the 2010 Olympic Team, then turned right into the lens and said, "I didn't get picked this year."
Everybody who knew Wade Belak had at least one story like that. Some had 10. The most common comment heard from people who really knew him: "This doesn't make any sense."
In an interview with CBC News, Belak's mother, Lorraine, said her son battled depression. (One ex-NHLer said Belak was taking anti-depressants, but I was leery of reporting that until Mrs. Belak spoke.) However, she cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
This hasn't stopped the agendas from coming out, tying this into fighting or concussions or something else. In this case, however, "x+y" doesn't necessarily equal "z".
Many times, the NHL and the NHLPA are their own worst enemies when it comes to handling difficult moments, but, in this case, the two organizations reacted properly. League Commissioner Gary Bettman and association Executive Director Donald Fehr released a statement indicating both are "committed to examining, in detail, the factors that may have contributed to these events," referring to this awful summer that's also seen Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien's tragic deaths. (And we shouldn't forget either Bob Probert or Tom Cavanagh.)
In those four cases, depression and/or substance abuse could be linked to their deaths. Belak - not yet. Shouldn't we wait before turning him into something he may not have been?
What those two organizations must do is eliminate the wild guesses by asking the hard questions. On Thursday, one player said, "I really love our game, and I'm sad people are going to use this as another vehicle to attack it."
I agree with him, to a point. While linking Belak to the fighting issue is premature and irresponsible until we really know what happened, the sport has left itself open to that by failing to address some legitimate concerns.
During an Inside Hockey segment from last season on concussions, Dr. Robert Cantu, who created the "Grades 1, 2 and 3" concussion severity formula, said he believes one in every four fights results in a concussion. But that can't be accurately determined because players go to the penalty box instead of getting checked. Maybe it's time for a baseline test after every fight.
If there's one thing the NHL and NHLPA don't get enough credit for, it's their programs for players who struggle with depression or substance abuse while still active. Several NHLers prefer to remain anonymous, but privately have great things to say about the support they receive and help they get.
(And, in some cases, the administrators don't allow them to speak about it. Three years ago, we were about to do a feature on one player whose quality of life really improved only to have Co-director of the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioural Health Program Dr. Brian Shaw kibosh the idea when he heard about it, which was at the absolute last minute. Shaw was apologetic for the inconvenience, but could not be swayed to change his mind. "[The player] has not been in the program long enough to be talking about successes," he said. Although temporarily annoyed, I came to respect his intransigence because it was all about what was best for the player.)
Rypien, for example, is a player the Canucks, the league and the players' association really tried to help. GM Mike Gillis has said he will soon discuss the situation in-depth, but what is known is that Vancouver and the NHLPA pleaded with the league to show leniency when Rypien faced a suspension for grabbing a fan in Minnesota last year. Both were worried about the impact of a significant ban on the player's mental health, promising that Rypien would be cared for even if the number was a bit lower than expected. (He got six games.)
Privately, Bettman received a lot of praise for being sympathetic to Rypien's issues.
That said, the twitter feeds of Tyson Nash, Chris Dingman and Matthew Barnaby made it very clear they feel NHLPA ignores players once they've retired.
Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to Fehr, reached out to Nash Wednesday night. And, while the conversation didn't start well, Nash said he was impressed by how it ended, with Schneider asking, "What can we do better? What issues do we need to address?
"I've spent some time in the last couple of weeks talking with Brendan Shanahan and Rob Blake about it," Schneider said Thursday. "All of us have retired friends looking for work in hockey. Luc Robitaille and Steve Yzerman constantly get calls from former teammates looking for jobs."
One of Schneider's thoughts is getting more ex-players involved as minor hockey coaches, which would be a great idea. He knows that several alumni agree with what one said Wednesday: "When you're playing, the NHLPA will do anything to help you. When you're retired, they won't take your call."
"One of the things I want to do is change that feeling," Schneider said.
There have been some exceptions. Probert received post-career help, but, it was the NHL, for example, that stepped in to offer financial assistance to Mike Danton upon completion of his jail term. That loophole must be closed, and Schneider seems sincere in his desire to do that.
In fact, both sides could learn a lesson from the NFL and NFLPA, which addressed some serious retired-player issues in its recent CBA. The new deal allocates almost $1 billion US in new and improved benefits for alumni. Included in that plan: making sure that players would not necessarily need to have suffered football-related injuries to receive maximum disability benefits; new benefits for "those dealing with mild or moderate
neuro-cognitive impairment" (a big deal for retired football/hockey players); and enables today's players to have continuous healthcare coverage following retirement.
The deal also includes $22 million in veteran benefits to be determined, but expected to include funding for things like job-transitioning and career development. That's the kind of thing Nash, Dingman and Barnaby were talking about.
It's also time to seriously address the issues of painkillers and post-retirement care. Derek Boogaard's accidental mix of painkillers and alcohol was fatal, and, in a league where the "play-through-pain" mentality is incredible, he can't be the only one.
But how widespread is the problem? I don't know. I'd be guessing. And it's time to stop that. Ask the hard questions and get the answers. That's the only way we're going to address the problems and really solve them.
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