Wade Belak: A Suicide Symptom of Hockey’s Greater Ill

maple_leafs_thrashersAs a hockey fan, the death of former Maple Leaf, Wade Belak, is of great concern to me. He is, after all, the third “enforcer” to take his life this past off-season. Several newsrooms have reported that the former pugilist hanged himself. His death follows the overdose of New York Ranger winger, Derek Boogaard, and the suicide of Winnipeg Jet centre, Rick Rypien.

[edit: I should have originally included these words of respect for Wade Belak and his family. Thank you, “Kevin from Nashville.”] I would like to begin by saying that I wish the Belak family the best during this tough, tough time and that I mourn the death of yet another athelete. As a fan of the game of hockey, this news saddens me.

Looking at the recent deaths, you can’t help but notice that all three men died of their own hands – the same hands that they had used to pummel others and to protect their own insufficient skulls.

This third death tells me that something is seriously wrong with the game of hockey. Actually, it reaffirms the fact that something is seriously wrong with the game of hockey – the potentially career-ending concussion of Sidney Crosby has already given great prior indication that things are quite out of hand.

Somewhere along the line, violence has become a major part of the sport. It is not an essential part of hockey – for we see breathtakingly beautiful, fight-free play at the Olympic and World Championship levels – but it figures greatly in the NHL and many of the junior leagues that feed it.

This is not a new phenomenon. The hockey played by greats such as “Rocket” Richard and Gordie Howe could be brutish and rough. The 1970’s saw the rise of “The Broad Street Bullies” and the “Big Bad Bruins.” Bench-clearing brawls became the norm. Heck, even Canada’s glorious ’72 Canada Cup victory was a partial result of Bobby Clarke’s ankle-breaking slash on Valeri Karlamov.

But things have changed. The players are bigger now. They are stronger. Faster. They no longer regularly drink and smoke in the dressing room. When they want to hurt someone, they are capable of doing so with incredible power and precision.

This is no longer just “sport.”

You regularly hear people say that something terrible is bound to happen. That headshots and fighting have to be taken out of the game “before someone gets killed.”

Well, guess what, folks. Three men have been killed. In one summer.

The link between brain injuries and psychiatric mood disorders is becoming more and more obvious to doctors. The link between depression, drug and alcohol dependence and suicide has long been known.

Repeated punches to the head killed these athletes. Their deaths didn’t happen on the ice – not before our very eyes – but behind closed doors. These very public heroes lived in very private pain. And then they took their own lives. They died of hockey.

At the same time, some of our best players are being knocked senseless from the game. Sidney Crosby is quickly becoming the poster boy for the effects of headshots on skaters, but he is hardly the only star to face the effects of concussions. Eric Lindros was arguably the best in the game when he was laid out by a Scott Stevens cheap shot. Supremely skilled forward Paul Kariya retired early, admitting that concussion problems had finally beat him. Bruins star Marc Savard’s season may be over before it has even begun – his concussion woes reoccurring.

It is only a matter of time before one of the stars gets killed as well. We can only hope that it is not on the ice. Not in front of millions of people.

Violence is killing the game. And it is killing its players.

It is sad. And it is wrong.

It is sad and wrong that grown men are getting hurt and even dying – despite the fact they willingly sign up for the league and get paid royal riches to play. It is even sadder – even more wrong – what this level of violence says to our society and our children.

In hockey, you see, it is illegal to fight. It is illegal to take a player’s head off with an elbow. It is illegal to hit from behind. All of these things are against the rules. Severe violence is not meant to be part of the sport. And yet players get rewarded for violent acts. Sure, they take a penalty, but they make a million dollars at the same time. 2 minutes in the box doesn’t seem that harsh to a multi-millionaire. Nor does it seem that harsh to a person watching the game.

We are grooming our hockey athletes to be active rulebreakers: brutes who perform violence, despite the explicitly stated terms of conduct; retaliators who use their fists rather than their skills or their talent.

And then we promote their behaviour to kids.

I’d say this is pretty disturbing.

Add to this the fact that we then promote a top-down fantasy/fallacy that heavy hitting and fighting “is part of the game/part of the culture” but completely against the rules that govern the sport and things get even more twisted.

For those who are learning a basic sense of right and wrong, it is most misleading.

How can we tell our kids that violence is against the rules, against the defining principals of the sport of hockey, but also worth reward and hero worship? Show me one still-developing mind that is intelligent enough to wade through this explanation without questioning whether or not violence is acceptable and I will be most impressed.

We are normalizing accepted violence within a system where violence is supposedly not tolerated.

And this is wrong. Very wrong.

I shudder to think how this translates into the promotion of off-ice violence – of violence in our greater society. I shudder to think of the message it sends to impressionable minds.

One of the truly upsetting parts about this is the fact that many of the goons in the sport are truly unhappy with their decisions to fight. Many have spoken out. One of the toughest fighters in the sport, Georges Laraque, has repeatedly gone on record denouncing his role. In a recent interview with TSN he stated: ““I hated fighting. I did it because it was my job. I hated promoting violence. I hated it.”

Belak also regretted his job as brawler. Last March, in an interview with the Toronto Star, he spoke about his job. “On nights you knew you had to fight, there were nerves, you never slept the night before. You dealt with it or you didn’t. You don’t really get over it, you just go out and do your job.”

Imagine feeling that way on a regular basis. And then factor in the effects of repeated head trauma. Imagine being taught that this is normal.

There are options, of course. You can make fighting an official part of hockey – and then watch as parents line up to pull their kids out of the sport. Or you can take a serious stance on removing fights and cheap shots.

But pretending violence is not a part of the sport and then glorifying it when it occurs does great social disservice. It puts athletes – both adult and child – in danger. It creates victims. And it sends a horrible, horrible message.

Wade Belak has become the latest public casualty. Unfortunately we have no way of knowing how many victims of violence have suffered away from the glare of the NHL rink.

10 thoughts on “Wade Belak: A Suicide Symptom of Hockey’s Greater Ill

  1. Maureen says:

    The deaths of these men and the suffering of the mind they endured can only make one weep.

    Your article speaks the truth. It is common sense.

    When people are expected to do violence against another and then carry it out while fans are screaming and encouraging them it can do nothing but hurt the mind and heart of the person doing the violence.

    We are all culpable in the deaths of these men…because hockey and society has told them this type of violence is O.K… Fans pay to go and see the “enforcers” fight.

    Hockey has become a reflection of the disorderd minds and hearts of those in our society and we are now seeing the tragic effects of this in the loss of lives by suicide.

    Thank you for your article. I hope that many people come to read it.

  2. Brent in Calgary says:

    The best thing the public can do in response to these needless deaths is to boycott every NHL game, NHL Centre Ice, Hockey Night in Canada, Versus, Sportsnet, TSN, etc. Send a message, folks. Send it loud and clear.

    Great article.

  3. Steve says:

    The conclusion that Rick Rypien’s was hockey related is totally ignorant to what a killing disease depression and bipolar disorder is.

  4. Kevin in Nashville says:

    I think you are making some pretty broad assumptions. You have no idea what other factors could have contributed to the loss of these men. I am a youth hockey coach and will to the day I die contend that this the greatest sport on the planet. If you have the opportunity to be around the players of the NHL you will quickly find them to be polite, courteous, and willing to talk to you as an equal. Being around pro athletes on regular basis, I can assure you this is not the case in other sports. As far as fighting goes, I feel the staged “lets get the crowd going” type fight has no place in hockey, but with the level of emotion and intensity that this game naturally breeds fights will happen. Defending a team mate will happen. Clearing the crease will happen. These men enter the ice rink as much more than team mates, they are brothers. I know if my brother needs my help, it is unconditional, I will fight for him. Todays game is faster and more exciting than ever. The league recognizes this and is making great strides in improving equipment and the rink itself to help insure the safety of the players. To condem the entire sport is ludicrous. I coach multiple sports and I have more kids injured playing basketball than I do in hockey. Is hockey perfect? No. Anything that involves human beings is subject to flaws. Even a writer that chooses to attack a man on the day of his death shows a measure of disregard for the emotional toll this could inflict on someone close to this man. Is this any less violent than an open ice hit? For me the answer is no.

  5. Donald Fraser says:

    Steve, I definitely hope that I’m not undervaluing the impact of depression or any other mood disorder. As a writer, I’ve done some outreach work for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, a major institution that deals with such issues. I’ve also had my own personal experiences with depression.

    What I am saying is that there are a combination of factors that increase the likelihood of depression in hockey fighters — from repeated brain injuries to the stress that accompanies the job to psychological demons that stem from being pressured into violent acts.

    Among the conditions that fighters face after repeated brain injuries is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Among the symptoms are psychiatric and mood disorders — depression and bi-polar disorders among them. Bob Probert was found to have CTE in his autopsy. It is common in athletes who receive regular blows to the head — football players, boxers, hockey players, etc.

    Even if Rypien’s original psychiatric problems were not originally injury related (and who knows how many concussions he may have had in his teens), they very well may have been exacerbated by repeated head trauma.

    One of my points here is that I see a direct link between fighters and depression. And I think it is one that needs to be examined. And soon.

    Thanks for the comment. I hope this helps.

  6. Donald Fraser says:


    Thanks for your comment.

    I played hockey for years. I continue to watch the game. I am a lover of the game and a person who knows its many complexities. I would never condemn the entire sport. It is too much of who I am to possibly do so. But I do think there is need for change.

    I don’t believe that my post was an attack on Belak. I feel for the guys that have died and would like to see an NHL where these deaths don’t occur. I don’t blame Wade Belak. Instead, I am saddened that people like him, Rypien, Boogaard, Probert, Laraque, and others are pressured into situations where violence and injury are the norm. If anything, I hope that I am being sympathetic to his death in trying to prevent other similar deaths.

    We have different opinions on fighting in hockey. I won’t try to change your mind on that. But I think we share a belief that hockey deaths are tragic and steps need to be taken to eliminate them.

    I wish the Belak family the best and hope that they get through this very rough time.

  7. Mitch in Saskatoon says:

    This article has no facts or scientific proof behind it. Calling Scott Stevens hit on Lindros a cheap shot shows that you have no idea what you are talking about. Lindros had the puck and put himself in a dangerous position. The hit was well within the rules. Stevens had THREE elbowing penalties in is whole career. I knew Wade’s parents on a personal level and I feel for them that not only do they have to deal with the death of their son, but that people like you have to write uneducated articles like this to make matters worse. Grow up.

  8. Donald Fraser says:


    Thanks for your comment. And I’m sorry you took offence.

    The Stevens hit is certainly debatable, but I think an intended hit to the head when a player is looking down is uncalled for. There was no shortage of body for Stevens to nail. Lindros is a big boy. What is and what isn’t a cheap shot will always be debated by fans, players, and refs. There is no way that everyone will ever see eye to eye to eye on any given hit.

    And, again. I feel for Belak. I liked him. He was personable, giving of his time, and one of the good guys of the sport. I mean him no disrespect in the least. I see him as more of a victim than a villain.

    Sadly, the links between head trauma and mood disorders are well documented. I wish I could make that up.

    I am, indeed, sorry for the loss of the Belak family and all of the friends of Wade and his family.

  9. Maureen says:

    Regarding the brutal fighting endorsed by fans in hockey….if such brawls happened on the street, the brawlers would be arrested and charged with assault.

    Why is that? Because the civil law recognizes that such vicious fighting harms the persons involved and on a larger scale, society.

  10. Trevor says:

    To Mitch in Saskatoon – Just because Stevens had 3 elbowing penalties in his whole career does not mean he didn’t elbow 3 times, it just means he may have been sneaky enough to get away with it. I love hockey and I love football, 2 sports that have recently seen there share in the negative role concussions play on the lives of players, their families and consequently the fans. The rules of these games have not, in my opinion, evolved as fast as the players have. I agree 2 minutes in the box is of little consequence for a head shot, that could have life long lasting effects. The rules have got to change to reflect the size, speed and skill level of the players that play today. Harsher 1 strike penalties. If for example a player accidently hits Sidney Crosby in the head but they are a first time offender and that scenario happens 2 or 3 times in a game. There is only one individual being punished both literally and figuratively. For example head shots and cheap opportunistic open ice hits should all be dealt with harshly. Immediate and long term suspensions and fines to the player with no pay and heavy fines to the team. In the short term it is going to hurt but in the long term we will be rewarded with a much more entertaining sport to watch. There is no gray area and there is no special treatment. I want to watch skilled players do there thing, I am not paying money to watch the likes of Matt Cooke and Shaun Avery cheap shot there way through a long term career with no ill effects after there days are done.

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