Update: The NHL and NHL Players’ Association released a joint statement on the recent deaths:
Everyone at the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players' Association is profoundly saddened by the loss, within a matter of a few weeks, of three young men, each of whom was in the prime of his life.
While the circumstances of each case are unique, these tragic events cannot be ignored. 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.
It is important to ensure that every reasonable step and precaution is taken to make NHL Players, and all members of the NHL family, aware of the vast resources available to them when they are in need of assistance. We want individuals to feel comfortable seeking help when they need help.
NHL Clubs and our fans should know that every avenue will be explored and every option pursued in the furtherance of this objective.
Original post: In what was already a tragic offseason, the hockey community suffered another painful loss when retired NHL enforcer Wade Belak was found dead Wednesday in Toronto.
Belak, 35, who reportedly committed suicide, is the third NHL tough guy to die since May, along with New York’s Derek Boogaard and Winnipeg’s Rick Rypien. While the death of three players with similar on-ice roles could be an unfortunate coincidence, it is prompting questions about the mental and emotional toll of serving as a fighter in the NHL.
“It’s been brought to our attention now,” said Matt Hendricks, who led the Capitals in major penalties last season. “It’s something we maybe need to focus on a little more than we have, but at the same time, never in this game, the thought is never in the back of your mind about this. You never think that your teammate, your coworker could be going through something like this. It’s tough to answer these questions…but hopefully we can get a better understanding of what happened and try to prevent it.”
Belak played for five teams over the course of his 14-year NHL career, most recently in Nashville where he appeared in 15 games during the 2010-11 campaign before retiring in March. He finished his career having played 549 NHL games, eight goals, 25 assists, 1,263 penalty minutes and 136 fights.
Widely regarded as one of the more affable personalities in the league, Belak planned to get involved in broadcasting after his playing career. He was scheduled to be a part of the Predators’ television broadcasts in the upcoming regular season and was set to appear on the CBC reality show “Battle of the Blades.”
While Belak did have the same player role as Boogaard and Rypien, it’s too early to know if there is a direct connection between their on-ice job as an enforcer and their deaths. Regardless, their deaths will and have already opened up the conversation about the taxing physical and mental nature of life as an NHL enforcer.
Boogaard, 28, was suffering from post-concussion syndrome when he died from an accidental mix of oxycodone and alcohol in May. Rypien, 27, who had battled depression, died in August.
“They all had the same role on the ice, but it’s hard to say that there is definitely something that would lead to this,” Capitals forward D.J. King said.
The whole hockey community “is shaken up by it. It’s an eye opener for all of us, that’s for sure,” King said. “It makes you think, you just never know. There’s so many players dealing with different things. You never know who might be dealing with what, and if there’s a chance to help, you want to do whatever you can.”