Former NHL enforcer Wade Belak was found dead in his Toronto condo Wednesday. He was 35. He is also the third NHL enforcer we’ve lost in the last four months. In May, Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers died of an overdose of booze and pills, alone in his apartment in Minneapolis. A few weeks ago, Rick Rypien of the Winnipeg Jets, who lived with depression was found dead at his home in Crowsnest Pass, Alberta.
Belak spent time in Calgary, Florida, Toronto and Nashville. His busiest season was 2002-03 when he scored an NHL career high 9 points for the Leafs. But Belak wasn’t about lighting the lamp: he also logged in 196 penalty minutes that year. He retired this past season after he cleared waivers but wasn’t picked up by a club. He was forging a broadcasting career, was set to appear on CBC’s Battle of the Blades, and as my pal Amanda at Inside Smashville notes, had trained to be a volunteer firefighter in Tennesse.
It’s been a tough summer for NHL fans, but no question, it’s been a nightmare for the loved ones of these three athletes. It will be a while before we know why we lost Belak, and it’s easy make some semblance of a connection with his death and the loss of Boogaard and Rypien: three young men, all hockey tough guys, silently dealing with the mental game of being a professional athlete and living with injuries.
Regardless of what we learn in the coming days, I just hope for this: that we talk more openly about eliminating the stigma of mental illness and getting people – athletes included – the help and support they need. And “we” includes the NHLPA. The Canadian Mental Health Association cites that “one in every five Canadian adults under age 65 will have a mental health problem”. Assuming there are just under 1000 guys playing in the NHL, do the math: the odds are fairly good that there are a number of hockey players who live with mood or anxiety disorders, and may be abusing drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. Instead of being quick to judge these guys for having so much too soon, we need to show compassion.
We at Ladies… send our thoughts and prayers to Wade’s family.
UPDATE: In an interview with the CBC, Wade’s mother Lorraine confirmed that her son suffered from depression. The NHL and NHLPA released a joint statement Thursday in response to these recent off-ice deaths and have committed to “examining…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.”