Wade Belak's Tragic Passing Gives Hockey A Wake Up Call

With the tragic passing of Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard, and Rick Rypien this summer, along with the loss of ex-Shark Tom Cavanagh in January, new attention has been cast upon the mental health of hockey players across North America. While it may be easy to see the physical toll this great game takes upon the bodies of players, truly attempting to understand the mental strain each individual experiences throughout the course of their career is something that is much harder to comprehend.

Kent Wilson examined these issues today in a superbly written article that parses through all of the information we have at this point in regards to the untimely deaths of Belak, Boogard, and Rypien.

It's a must read for any hockey fan in these humbling hours, especially for those interested in the trials and tribulations of enforcers:

The growing battle over fighting in the sport seems to revolve around the degree to which concussions and/or physical maladies may or may not influence health of current enforcers, particularly in light of the recent tragic passing of men who were perhaps too young to have succumbed to a long-term, chronic issue like CTE. However, the relationships between health, depression, suicide and substance abuse is far more complex than drawing a single, causal line between concussions/chemical misbalance and premature death. The life of an enforcer is replete with stress, anxiety, pain and isolation which, when mixed with certain idiosyncratic factors, may give rise to psychological pathologies, even in the absence of degenerative brain damage.

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To me, it all begins with education. Are coaches and leagues of Junior teams educating players on the ramifications of concussions and the use of painkillers or other drugs? Are AHL teams educating their players on these things? Are NHL teams educating their players on these things? Is the League as a whole educating players on these things? Is the NHLPA doing their part to ensure that they are looking at the long-term health and safety of their union members during and after their careers?

Until we can answer that question, quick fixes and rule changes seem slightly premature. As Wilson notes, the increasing battle over the role of fighting in the game will continue to be a hot-button issue for years to come. Technology and medicine have provided increasing breakthroughs on the role and prominence of concussions in the sport from a physical standpoint, but this tragic summer has begun to shed even more light upon the mental dangers associated with the game as well. It is tricky territory for the NHL to maneuver of course, as the complexity of these issues does not lend itself to a one size fits all umbrella approach, but it is one that should be tackled with as much passion as the League undertakes when they test potential rule changes at their annual R&D Camp.

By analyzing the source of these issues, and not just the end-result, bold steps can be taken to ensure the mental and physical health of the players playing the game is a priority going forward. That's the first step to take before we can try and curb what we have witnessed this summer, and understand whether this is just an painful anomaly or a disturbing trend that is progressively getting worse as players get bigger, quicker, and more competitive when fighting for roster spots.

As little as twenty years ago the dialogue surrounding concussions in professional sports was non-existent. Players were superhuman, the culture of the game told us so. New developments, specifically the head injury to Marc Savard on March 7, 2010, changed that discussion forever. Rule changes were put in place during the 2010-2011 season for hits to the head, and while Rule 48 is far from perfect, it was a step in the right direction.

Emerging data has begun to renew the debate concerning the link between head trauma and mental health, and the use of painkillers to numb physical issues is still a stone that has largely left unturned despite it's widespread use.

As Science Daily notes, the NHL and NHLPA have "historically paved the way in professional sports for establishing comprehensive concussion surveillance and maintenance patterns." The League and the NHLPA took another important step today, issuing a joint statement that stated their intent to analyze the issues that led to this somber summer.

Educating players on the effects of these decisions, whether they be fighting, hits to the head, mental health, or prescription drug use, is the first step towards attempting to understand what must be done going forward. Education provides a community with the tools to become more accepting of the taboos commonly associated with male professional athletes, provides an opportunity for them to reach out and feel comfortable expressing emotions of sadness and depression within a culture that has historically seen those traits as an indisputable sign of weakness.

Because a summer like this, whether it is a tragic anomaly or a troubling sign of things to come, deserves a serious response.