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.

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