Saturday, September 03, 2011
Hockey Players’ Deaths Pose a Tragic Riddle
By JOHN BRANCH
The New York Times
September 1, 2011
Three N.H.L. players, all enforcers entrusted with protecting teammates through intimidation and the occasional flurry of fists, have been found dead since May, stirring debate over the role of fighting in hockey, the stress placed on enforcers and the possible impact of brain trauma on the men who absorb the sports’ biggest beatings.
The three players — Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, who died Wednesday — combined to play 945 N.H.L. regular-season games, scoring only 20 goals while accumulating more than 2,000 penalty minutes. They dropped their gloves hundreds of times to fight, sometimes against one another, while meting out hockey’s unique brand of jaw-cracking justice.
The question emerging in hockey circles is not only whether something could have been done to save the lives of each man, but whether their deaths were related to their jobs as enforcers.
“While the circumstances of each case are unique, these tragic events cannot be ignored,” the N.H.L. commissioner, Gary Bettman, and the N.H.L. Players Association’s executive director, Don Fehr, wrote in a joint statement. “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.”
That calculated review stands in contrast to the emotions tangled among the enforcers themselves.
“A sense of fear, especially, came over me,” said Todd Fedoruk, whose afflictions over the past decade as an enforcer included a shattered cheekbone at the hands of Boogaard and a battle over alcohol and drug addiction, which he says he has overcome. “I did what these guys did for as long as they did, or longer. And you get the sense: is this going to happen to me, too?”
The body of the recently retired Belak, 35, was found in a downtown Toronto hotel and condominium building on Wednesday. The police said the death was not suspicious but would not elaborate. The Associated Press and other news outlets reported it was a suicide.
On Aug. 15, Rypien, a 27-year-old who played for the Vancouver Canucks and recently signed a contract with the Winnipeg Jets, was found dead in his home in Alberta. Again, the cause of death was ruled unsuspicious; widespread news reports called it a suicide.
Those deaths, 16 days apart, followed the death of Boogaard, widely considered the most feared player in the N.H.L., in his Minneapolis apartment on May 13. Boogaard, a 6-foot-8, 270-pound 28-year-old, was found to have died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescription painkillers.
“I can’t rule out coincidence yet, but I’m definitely leaning toward the role and the bumps that we take,” Fedoruk said.
There is reluctance to tie the deaths together too tightly. Belak, married with two young daughters, engaged in more than 100 fights in his career, but if he had personal problems, they were not well known. Rypien fought depression for most of his adult life and had taken leaves of absence in the past couple years to address it. Boogaard sustained at least a dozen concussions in his career, his family believes, and was addicted to sleeping pills and painkillers the last years of his life.
“I think sometimes we get caught up in generalizations,” said Allain Roy, Rypien’s agent. “We have three sad instances where we have three young men who struggled with their lives off the ice. Whether their role played a piece in it, I think it’s almost impossible for anybody to draw that straight line through it — to say, all right, they were enforcers, and this is why this happened to them.”
But the questions left in their wake are reminiscent of what the N.F.L. endured in recent years as it slowly addressed the evidence mounting over the life-threatening nature of brain trauma among football players.
More than 20 former N.F.L. players have been posthumously found to have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease caused by blunt trauma to the head. Many athletes with C.T.E., which can be found only by examining the brains of the deceased, had symptoms like drug abuse, impulse control problems and impaired memory.
Boogaard’s family saw all those symptoms in Boogaard, and donated his brain to researchers at Boston University. The final report is not complete.
In March, it was revealed that the Boston University researchers found C.T.E. in the brain of the former N.H.L. player Bob Probert, a hard-living, well-respected brawler who struggled with addiction and died of heart failure in 2010. Earlier research found the disease in the brain of the 1960s-era enforcer Reggie Fleming.
As with the N.F.L., the growing attention on one potentially life-threatening aspect of its game may force the N.H.L. to closely re-examine its rules and procedures in protecting players — particularly, perhaps, those in the most pugilistic roles.
Many enforcers described the toll — not only physically, but mentally — of being a designated fighter, used as a weapon of retribution against perceived cheap shots or simply to charge the crowd or teammates. A lot of them, including the long-feared enforcer Georges Laraque, now retired, said that sleep was rare the night before an expected fight with another enforcer.
The job can pay well (Boogaard signed a four-year, $6.5 million contract with the Rangers in 2010), and some enforcers are among the most popular players in the game. But beyond their fists, most do not have the range of hockey skills necessary to stay in the N.H.L. Each lost fight could be the last.
“The guys that have played the role have never denied how it makes them feel and what it does to them emotionally,” said Brantt Myhres, a former N.H.L. enforcer who made five trips to league-mandated rehabilitation because of alcohol and drug addictions, and now works as a substance-abuse counselor. “It’s one of the hardest jobs in sports. All people see is 20,000 people standing and cheering you on. They don’t see the dark times. They don’t see you curled up in a ball in a hotel room, scared to death for the next fight.”
On Wednesday, after news of Belak’s death emerged, the player agent Scott Norton sent a Twitter message that read: “Boogaard, Rypien and now Belak? Maybe we should spend less time worrying how they play on the ice, and more time helping em cope off?”
In an interview Thursday, Norton said that while the three cases were unique, “It’s hard to say the deaths are completely not connected.”
He added: “The common thread is that they go to war every day. What have they done in their lives to prepare themselves for that?”
Several enforcers and agents said that more work needed to be done in eroding the persistent stigma over personal problems like depression and substance abuse. Players still worry about being embarrassed by teammates and fans, and being branded by coaches and team officials.
“There are thousands of guys waiting to have your job,” Myhres said. “There has to be a way to get these guys to come forward and talk about these issues, without fear of any repercussions.”
With training camps scheduled to start this month, Fedoruk is one who expects an unforeseen amount of understanding and compassion in the dressing rooms in the wake of the three deaths.
“I think there’s going to be a level of caring among teammates like you’ve never seen before this coming year,” Fedoruk said.
Yet the question as to why three N.H.L. enforcers died this off-season, and whether their deaths can be tied to their role and the physical and mental toll it takes, will linger.
“They scare me,” said the former enforcer Ryan Vandenbussche, 38, who last played in the N.H.L. five years ago and acknowledges bouts of memory loss. “They scare me because we don’t know why this is happening.”