Derek Boogaard died on May 13, 2011.
Voted the second most intimidating player in the NHL in 2007 (second to none other than Georges Laraque), Boogaard was a face and name that everyone knew. Playing five seasons for the Minnesota Wild, and spending his last with the New York Rangers, Boogaard was one of the many fighters that knew just how to add that special spark to a game. He was an enforcer, a tough guy. Despite his fearsome on-ice persona, Boogaard was beloved by all who came in contact with him. His death, a month and ten days short of his 29th birthday, was caused by an accidental mixture of alcohol and the powerful painkiller Oxycodone. Boogaard was mere hours out of a drug rehabilitation center when the lethal dose was ingested.
Rick Rypien died on August 15, 2011.
Playing six seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, Rypien was set to begin the 2011-12 season with the newly formed Winnipeg Jets. Rypien was another tough guy in the League, another guy that teammates could count on to protect their honor. But Rypien’s mental health issues were abundant; his volatile interaction with a fan during a game against the Wild led to a six-game suspension and the beginning of media speculation. A friendly and likeable face in the League, Rypien was found dead in his home by a family member. The cause of death was later confirmed as a suicide. The 27-year-old had been battling depression for 10 years.
Wade Belak died on August 31, 2011.
Drafted 12th overall by the Quebec Nordiques in the 1994 Entry Draft, Belak played for the Colorado Avalanche, the Calgary Flames, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Florida Panthers and the Nashville Predators during his career. During his 549 games in the NHL, he only scored 8 goals, but he was again well-liked by everyone who knew him, players, coaches and fans alike. Like Boogaard and Rypien, he was also an enforcer. The guy on the team that made an impact with his fists rather than the blade of his stick. The 35-year-old father of two was found, alone, in a Toronto hotel room. His death was called a suicide by police officials.
All three of these men, these popular and well-liked men, were battling demons too dark and too devastating for us to understand. Boogaard’s brother Ryan spoke of strange phone calls, Rypien’s mother disclosed her son’s long battle with depression, and Belak fought with a very private sadness as well. The common link between them is their reputation for fighting. What must it be like knowing that each night you had to step on that ice and, for lack of a better term, get the shit kicked out of you?
“For a fourth-line guy trying to stick in the NHL, he couldn’t afford to take a year off. So he took pills,” Ryan Boogaard told the Star Tribune. “And … I know his hands were always hurting. They were clubs. They weren’t even shaped like hands anymore.”
Boogaard’s addiction brought him to rehab, but he never got to what fellow enforcer Todd Fedoruk called “the critical point.” Despite the closeness of the Boogaard family, Ryan admitted that Derek never really let them know what was going on, always instead insisting that he was good.
Rypien’s mental health was a known subject, but never discussed publicly by the Vancouver Canucks. Many close to him report on him having a “positive summer,” a good attitude and a genuine excitement about his return to Winnipeg. He began his pro career playing for the Manitoba Moose, and his return to the province was thought by many to be good for him.
Belak left behind an admittedly perfect life with a wife and two beautiful children. A fighter loved by fans everywhere, Belak had retired from the NHL in March, and was set to star in the Canadian show, Battle of the Blades.
I did not know any of these men, and I did not root for any of their teams. I saw them play whenever their team was scheduled against the Capitals, and I admit I do not remember much about their play. I can’t even tell you what numbers they wore. But their deaths have shaken me in a way I didn’t think was possible for people whom I do not know.
Aaron Sands of the National Post wrote an article highlighting the fact that Belak did not die from the disease, but rather the stigma of having and living with a mental health disorder. I can’t say I disagree. In this day and age, and like he said, especially in sports, coming out and admitting you are mentally unwell is a big deal. People look at you differently, people treat you differently. You are different. You are set apart from the rest. You’re tainted. Those who haven’t suffered from depression do not know the evil that lurks behind that simple clinical word. Getting diagnosed is just the beginning. It is the easiest part. It is the gentle slope before the trek to the top.
Many ideas have been thrown around about the NHL supporting and helping pay for players’ treatment outside of the hockey realm. Many players have stated that once you leave the NHL, it’s like you never even existed. Ex-Canadien Brent Sopel Tweeted something so profoundly dark and telling that it’s hard not to whole-heartedly agree with him:
It’s true when you’re gone from the NHL it’s like you never played. We’re all just pieces of meat.
Should the NHL and the NHLPA be responsible for players after they retire? To a degree. If a player is battling depression or an addiction because of some injury sustained or altercation encountered while under the NHL’s care, the League should care, regardless of the player’s status. Retired, inactive, or active, the player was once a part of the machine that is the NHL, and will forever remain bound to the League. The NHL should want to help the players that once helped it. Without guys like Boogaard, Rypien and Belak and all the others who put their fists, faces, and bodies on the line each night without complaint, the NHL would be a much different place. Whether it would be better or worse is not the point. These men literally fought their way to the big show, and they deserve everlasting respect. Even pests like Daniel Carcillo and Matt Cooke should never be turned aside if they asked for help from the NHL. They too have sacrificed their body, their time and their reputation to make the game what it is. I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t stand either player, but if the situation arose where they became the next to suffer with depression, I would 100 percent support the NHL in giving them the help they need.
Should fighting be banned completely? This is the question I have the biggest problem answering. Though it might be inappropriate to say so in light of the subject of this article, I love hockey fights. This is the only sport in which a player is instantly accountable for their actions. Yes, there are rules and penalties for fighting, but if you cross a player, chances are you’ll pay dearly within the period. I don’t support a senseless cross check or a Zdeno Chara shove into the stanchions, but there is something so electrifying about watching two players duke it out for their team. Riley Cote, an ex-Flyer now coaching the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms, said it quite accurately: “When you take fighting out, you pretty much have soccer on ice.” Hockey is unique for many reasons, but fighting is what really allows the sport to stand out, albeit sometimes in an entirely negative way. Why do baseball players have those ridiculous, bench-clearing “fights” at the pitcher’s mound? Because they spend nine innings letting the disrespect flow over them, taking their bases and just hoping for the best. Hockey is a sport of respect, and if disrespect is shown, you are going to learn a quick lesson in etiquette. So no, I don’t think fighting should be banned, because it is a core aspect of the sport. But for those players whose place it is to fight, I think the NHL and NHLPA should keep a watchful and attentive eye. This summer has taught us, if nothing else, that fighting can often hold more consequences than a shattered cheekbone or a broken ego.
I have loved the sport of hockey and the NHL for as long as I can remember, but never before have I felt so connected to the League. We are all in this together – players, coaches, owners, GMs, bloggers, reporters, fans – and we will figure this out. Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak will not have died in vain. This dysfunctional little family of ours will get through this, and the players that have struggled and felt alone and forgotten will not fade. I usually don’t have much faith in those who run the NHL, but I have faith that the League officials will do something to prevent tragedies like this from happening again. This is bigger than handing out unbalanced penalties or thinking a franchise in Phoenix is a good idea; this is bigger than hybrid icing or a shallower net. This is mortality, something that up until now, I didn’t think hockey players possessed. They have always been larger than life to me, untouchables that were stronger, faster, better than anyone and everyone else. Being disproven in such an awful way has been incredibly eye-opening, and I feel something akin to remorse that I did not take the time to notice, truly notice, these men on the ice. I am just grateful that many others did.
Rest in peace Derek, Rick and Wade. My heart goes out to your friends and family.