OVERTIME: NHL needs to act on player deaths

Photo by MCT

The National Hockey League has been confronted with one of the most terrifying issues in the history of professional sports.

While the other three major American professional sports leagues are dealing with lockout issues (National Basketball Association), post-lockout issues (National Football League) and boring postseason races (Major League Baseball), the NHL is faced with a frightening problem: its players are dying.

We are not talking about dying- at-a-ripe-old-age dying. We are talking about men under the age of 40 possibly taking their own lives.

Something has to change. Something has to be done to prevent professional athletes from even thinking about committing suicide.

This NHL offseason has seen three men, all known as “enforcers” on the ice, die under suspicious circumstances.

The first of the three was Derek Boogaard, who passed away at the age of 28 on May 13 from consuming a mix of alcohol
and oxycodone.

Rick Rypien, 27, died three months later on Aug. 15. His death was ruled a suicide.

Most recently, Wade Belak, 35, was found dead in a Toronto condominium. While his death is currently under investigation, it too is thought to be a suicide.

It would be easy to blame these deaths on the hard-hitting nature of being an NHL enforcer. All three men regularly took part in on-ice fighting and threw their weight around when and where they could.

We are not looking at a concussion problem though. Sure, fighting and hard hits took their toll on all three men. The real problem is more difficult to solve, diagnose and deal with.

Boogaard, Rypien and Belak have all been connected to depression. Rypien in particular suffered from depression for at least 10 years.

The stressors of competing in professional sports day in and day out were possibly too much for these men.

When someone who is depressed is part of a major sports organization, however, something should be done to help.

Professional sporting leagues need to do everything in their power to help their athletes. Without them, the executives and the owners would not make a cent and would likely be out of work.

There is some help available. “NHL teams have psychologists, the league and the [NHL players’] union have a substance abuse and behavioral health program that covers players for up to two years after they leave the game, and the union has a program to help players find careers after hockey,” according to Yahoo! Sports writer Nicholas Cotsonika.

Clearly, this is still not enough.

The fight against depression and other mental health problems needs to start at youth league levels. Children may not fully grasp the seriousness of depression, but schooling NHL hopefuls in what depression is and how to get help should be the first step for the NHL.

This schooling needs to go on past youth hockey too. The NHL or its players union should establish a yearly seminar where the main topic is depression.

It may be one of those things that players groan about each season, but if it helps one player, it is worth the time and money.

More needs to be done for current and former NHL players as well.

The league would benefit from a “mental disabled list,” similar to MLB. Team physicians, doctors and psychologists also need to keep an eye on those that they feel are struggling and keep them off the ice. Then they need to monitor them inside and outside of the locker room.

As far as former NHL players are concerned, the substance abuse and behavior program that covers retirees for two years after they retire needs to have lifetime coverage. This may cost more money, but it will also prevent more heartaches.

Accidental deaths and suicides should not be part of everyday life. The NHL needs to realize this and act now, before things have a chance to get worse.

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