What is Wrong in the NHL?

It all started in the late spring 2011 when I was sitting at a local Toronto bar and saw a report on the TV that was a little shocking. I saw a picture of Derek Boogaard and underneath it had the report that Derek Boogaard, the New York Rangers enforcer, had been found dead in his home. Later it was revealed that the death was a result of an accidental mix of alcohol and painkillers, to which Boogaard was addicted. I thought to myself, what a sad story that an NHL player passed away well before his time. It has not been completely unusual to see this every now and then in professional sports, especially as a fan of the NFL, but then something else happened. In August I saw it again another report with another picture of an NHL player this time it was Rick Rypien, the former Vancouver Canuck soon to be Winnipeg Jets tough guy. It became something that many people have not seen before that two professional hockey players that were still in the game passed away. This time it was related to depression that Rypien had been suffering with for a long time. This made something seem off but it still seemed that it was two separate issues that just happened to come to a head this offseason. Then this week I was rocked with a third death in the NHL family as former Maple Leaf tough guy Wade Belak was found dead in his Toronto apartment. This one hit closer to home as I grew up watching Belak and listening to him on a local radio show making fun of himself when he was in England during the lockout. Belak had always been a happy guy and when it was announced that his death was a suicide it surprised me. Like most people I started thinking about this offseason and that three players that had all played last year died within the same offseason. Not only did they all pass during the same time but they were also closely related as all three were tough guys and all three were the cause of something more than just a body shutting down. Then the question became forming in my head, what is happening with these players? There has to be something happening in the NHL or outside the NHL that is adversely affecting these players.

The NHL and NHLPA had announced that they will be launching an investigation into these deaths. The deaths are tragic and fans are demanding an answer to the problem before their favorite player ends up being the next one. Unfortunately the solution being proposed is a simple one that may not solve the problem and may have a lasting impact on the game. It is true that each of these players were tough guys but I am not convinced that it was because they were tough guys that this has happened. It seems as though the first leap is to take out fighting in the game. This is an easy route as it has been a controversy for years and this seems to be the excuse that will let the NHL ban fighting. This is such a simple solution to the problem and doesn’t make a lot of sense. First the tough guy in hockey is beginning to disappear in a way. A player making it to the NHL solely to fight is almost impossible as players now need to be able to make plays and add something else to the team rather than just fight. The times of having someone only there to fight and having that anxiety to fight is gone as they now have other responsibilities. Second the players that are having mental issues or addiction issues need something more. These issues won’t leave just because you take fighting away but the better solution is to improve the systems they have in place. The addiction program that the NHL has can be improved to try to increase the amount of people coming forward. The NHL could also establish some better mental health programs that will let the players that are suffering stop their way of thinking before it goes too far. Of course these are not simple solutions as you cannot force someone to tell you if something is happening with them. There may be better solutions but I do not think simply taking fighting out of the game is a simple solution to a much bigger problem. It is up to the NHL and NHLPA to make a solution based on thinking and not on simple emotion. The deaths of this offseason have been tragic and should be used as a lesson to a bigger problem is sports and not a small non-issue like fighting.

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