One year since deaths of NHL enforcers

Not much has changed in the culture of the National Hockey League since Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak – three of hockey’s toughest fighters – died last summer.
Friend of HIO Avi Goldberg, who teaches sociology at Vanier College in Montreal, offers some provocative thoughts on the anniversary of  the enforcers’ untimely passing.
Goldberg, 42, was born in Montreal but grew up in Edmonton watching the great Oilers teams of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and, yes, Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley.

You can follow Goldberg on Twitter: @AviGoldberg

We Can’t Find a Solution If We Forget About the Problem

By Avi Goldberg

In the aftermath of tragedy, members of a community join together, reflect on their priorities, consider alternative ways of living, and then slowly return to the routines that marked their lives prior to the upheaval they experienced.

As painful memories and feelings fade over time, it is common that important questions or lessons that arise from difficult circumstances are lost. One year after the summer sports columnist Bruce Arthur described as wretchedfor the hockey community, have we settled into the forgetting stage of the post-tragedy sequence?

With the Olympics on and the NHL staring at a potential work stoppage once again, it is easy to overlook that we have passed the anniversary of the deaths of Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien and are nearing one year since Wade Belak took his life.

Last summer, however, as the cumulative news of each individual loss looked ominously like a trend, mourning players, league officials, and fans had to digest the fact that three former players, all enforcers, lost their lives within a freakishly short period of time. As the deaths coincided with a period during which heightened attention was being directed at the effects of head shots and concussions, the game of hockey itself came under scrutiny.

A tough question was asked: Was NHL hockey in general, and the enforcer’s role in particular, responsible for the tragedy?

Journalists, hockey insiders, and a range of experts and regular folks used Canada’s national newspapers to weigh in. While some assigned near-total responsibility to the NHL and called for the elimination of fighting, others endorsed the enforcer’s rightful place in the game and challenged the notion that the three deaths be viewed as anything more than coincidence. The commentators’ words demonstrated unity in the experience of grief, but they betrayed a lack of consensus on whether the facts surrounding the deaths pointed to a common cause.

As a tragic summer turned into autumn, the new NHL season began. And following a nasty exchange of recriminations between Don Cherry and former enforcers over the significance of the deaths – plus a New York Times investigation into the life and death of Derek Boogaard – fighters kept doing what they do to keep roster spots in the NHL.

In response to heated public debate that threatened to boil over last summer, the NHL and the Players Association announced they would collaborate to investigate the circumstances of the deaths. Also, league programs designed to assist players in trouble would be evaluated to ensure they deliver appropriate care. Almost one full year later, we await news of even preliminary ideas that may be emerging from this NHL/NHLPA commitment.

For hockey observers who want to know what the league is thinking, and possibly preparing to do, it seems as though the tragedy has been forgotten not long after it was on near constant display.

Supportive of fighting in hockey or not, those who see only coincidence in last summer’s deaths can tolerate the silence. After all, how can a remedy be found for unwanted outcomes that lack a shared cause? But even acknowledging that there are limits to explanations of human behaviour, provocative questions emerging from last summer’s media exchange remain unanswered and untouched in public conversations today.

The most obvious question pertains to the growing body of research that demonstrates clear connections between blows to the head and serious physiological and psychological harm. In light of this knowledge, the NHL has moved to reduce negative consequences of hits to the head by regulating open ice hitting more stringently. But how can the league avoid considering ways to address similar harm resulting from players exchanging bare-knuckle punches to the face and head?

Hockey enforcers are not the only workers that face pressures on the job site. But more questions are raised by non-physical challenges that may be dangerous to a hockey enforcer’s health. These include:

daily battles to manage emotions in order to be always ready to fight

amplified forecasting of economic and career vulnerability during life after hockey

working in a culture of winning and toughness that discourages those whose role it is to patrol and protect the safety of others from venting their emotions.

As each of these experiences can strip away at the perception of control over one’s fate, it may be necessary to explore whether these specific job requirements put the hockey enforcer through psychological duress not experienced by fellow players.

A final question relates to the positive outcomes that can emerge when influential bystanders join the process of turning a private problem into a public issue.

During the economic conflict in the NHL in 2004-2005, for example, Brendan Shanahan was praised for bringing hockey minds together to discuss and repair parts of the game that had broken down. Aside from the players, former and current GMs, scientists, eminent members of the media, and empathetic citizens offered poignant and provocative thoughts on last summer’s tragedy. People with varying types of expertise and experience are concerned about this issue. Can respected individuals among them be tasked with coordinating an official effort to ensure that answers to all remaining questions be pursued?

Even following a thoroughgoing public investigation, it is likely that people will continue to disagree over whether a need exists to treat symptoms or whether there is a cause to be rooted out. Whereas good folks hesitated to seek informed answers last summer due to fears that emotions would get in the way or due to the sense that the timing was not right, now is the moment for members of the hockey community to act.

Failure to do so suggests the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak have been forgotten.

And that would mean we are OK with – indeed, complicit in – allowing the fighters’ tragedy to happen again.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.