NHL, union vow to examine trio of deaths
The hockey world on Thursday continued to try to come to grips with yet another player death — that of Wade Belak, one of the NHL's most gregarious players.
It is the third death in just over three months of a player who was in the NHL during the most recent season. While each death has involved unique circumstances, all three players found a role in the league in large part because of their willingness to fight.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr issued a joint statement on Thursday afternoon vowing to not let the deaths pass by without examining the events surrounding each one in full.
"While the circumstances of each case are unique, these tragic events cannot be ignored," the statement read. "We are committed to examining, in detail, the factors that may have contributed to these events, and to determining whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare and minimize the likelihood of such events taking place. Our organizations are committed to a thorough evaluation of our existing assistance programs and practices and will make immediate modifications and improvements to the extent they are deemed warranted."
Former Toronto Maple Leafs teammate Tomas Kaberle told CBC News what the common reaction on Wednesday night to the news of Belak's death was shock and speechlessness.
It's important to stress that the great majority of the all-time penalty minutes leaders in NHL history has transitioned well into post-playing life. Craig Berube and Tim Hunter have been NHL assistant coaches, while the likes of Dave Schultz and Tiger Williams have gladly made public appearances based on their long ago fighting fame.
But it's also undeniable that, for whatever reasons, hockey's tough guys have been a more star-crossed group than other hockey positions or archetypes. The list includes:
Steve Durbano: 1970's tough guy did time in connection with a drug ring among several arrests before dying at 50 of liver cancer in 2002.
Bob Gassoff: Racked up 866 penalty minutes in 245 games with the Blues before dying at 24 in an alcohol-related motorcycle accident in 1977.
John Kordic: Canadiens and Leafs enforcer died at 27 after a police encounter in 1992.
Bob Probert: Endured a short prison stay and multiple NHL suspensions due to drug and alcohol incidents. Died of heart disease at 45 in 2010.
"He [seemed] like he never had a bad day, and you know, … when you lose a game and stuff, he always kept good spirits around the locker room so obviously it's a rough time right now for everybody, and you know, especially Wade's family."
Belak, 35, was found dead Wednesday afternoon in a downtown Toronto condo and hotel. Sources have confirmed to CBC News that police are treating the death as a suicide.
According to a person familiar with the case, Belak hanged himself.
'Big man, bigger heart'
His wife Jennifer released a statement Thursday through the Nashville Predators on behalf of the Belak family.
"We are overwhelmed and deeply touched by the outpouring of compassion and support since Wade's passing. Wade was a big man with an even bigger heart. He was a deeply devoted father and husband, a loyal friend and a well respected athlete.
"This loss leaves a huge hole in our lives and, as we move forward, we ask that everyone remember Wade’s infectious sense of humor, his caring spirit and the joy he brought to his friends, family and fans. The coming days will be very difficult for our family and we respectfully ask that we be allowed to grieve privately."
The six-foot-five Belak broke into the NHL with Colorado in 1996-97, and went on to play with Calgary and Toronto before ending his career this spring after most recently playing with Nashville.
He had lined up work for the upcoming season on Predators broadcasts and was one of the scheduled in competitors in the third season of Battle of the Blades on CBC.
Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien preceded Belak in death in this shocking summer for the NHL.
New York Rangers enforcer Boogaard, 28, was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment in May. His death was the result of an accidental drug overdose, according to the coroner.
Rypien, who had battled depression, was found dead in his Alberta home in August. The 27-year-old had been given a chance at a fresh start with the Winnipeg organization after several seasons with the Vancouver Canucks.
Jim Thomson spent a decade as a pro player, and his role for 115 games in the NHL was to provide toughness and be willing to stick up for his teammates by dropping the gloves.
He told Teddy Katz of CBC Sports on Thursday that the role of enforcer takes its toll on the body and mind.
Thomson pondered suicide
"I thought of suicide many, many times. but it was only when I was messed up," Thomson said. "And then you wake up the morning and go 'What was I thinking?'
"But that’s how the demons play with you."
The self-deprecating Belak was never under any illusions about his place in the league, and he racked up over 1,263 penalty minutes in 549 games.
Thomson said that during his playing days, the late summer period before training camps opened was fraught with anxiety over the on-ice battles ahead, and the stress that came with being a marginal player trying to secure a roster spot.
He said the Boogaard death particularly resonated, as he too had mixed Oxycontin and alcohol before going to rehab and getting clean.
The fact that Belak on the surface seemed to be off to a good start in transitioning to his post-playing days with opportunities lined up might be deceiving, the former player cautioned.
"I don’t know if [Rypien] was doing drugs, I don’t know if Wade Belak was doing that stuff, but I do know one thing, the stress, the pressure that puts you into depression, even though you’re retired, it doesn’t go away."
Thomson was a contemporary of Bob Probert, but only got to talk to him in depth about the perils of the enforcer lifestyle shortly before Probert's death from heart failure in 2010 at the age of 45.
"Deep down, we both had the same story, a shallow, lonely soul [pretending to be] these big tough guys," he said.
Thomson said that while depression can't be eliminated, the stressors that come with fighting could be by taking that aspect out of the game. He willingly and unapologetically called himself a "hypocrite" given how he spent his playing days, but said the stakes are just too high.
Retired enforcer Georges Laraque told CBC News that he hoped the league would respond appropriately to the distressing deaths.
"They are your product and represent the league even after they're retired, and you have to take care of that," Laraque said.
Mike Gillis, general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, told The Canadian Press he expects the role of the enforcer to be re-examined now.
"I'm sure it will have an impact," he said. "I'm sure it will create debate. I know in the case of Rick [Rypien], I don't think we ever felt his role and how he played the game was influential in what happened. Perhaps we are wrong."