04:49:57 pm on
Monday 22 Jul 2024

Hockey as Roller Derby
Bob Stark

"There will no doubt be some hard questions asked of the NHL and NHL Players' Association in the wake of the death of three NHL tough guys in less than four months. Many will be looking for a link between the jobs Boogaard, Rypien and Belak did and what role it may have played in their deaths. Ultimately, those are questions that do need to be asked, though in a measured manner without leaping to unfounded conclusions based on wild speculation."

Bob McKenzie, TSN Website

Sigh. Here we go again, folks. For starters, look at the qualifiers and choice of words in McKenzie's last sentence, "measured manner,” "leaping” and "wild speculation.” No offence, to McKenzie, but it is time for wild speculation, the wilder the better. Let me be the first to do the leaping!

There should be a federal inquiry into the matter. The National Hockey League (NHL) says it is "concerned" and "troubled" by the recent deaths of three NHL enforcers, noted in the quote above. Is someone playing a tape there? How many times have we heard that sentiment before?

 I don't trust the NHL. There should be a federal inquiry into the matter.

After the death of Rypien, General Manager (GM) of the Vancouver “Canucks, Mike Gillis, cautioned not to draw too many parallels between the, at that time, two recent deaths. Rypien's situation, perhaps mental disorder, was almost a life-long problem connected with certain tragic personal events in his life. The GM's concern about it all stimulated him as well to do more to detect and treat mental health issues for NHL Players. To their credit, the “Canucks” had done much behind the scenes to help Rick Rypien. Gillis wants to expand that effort, that treatment program, across the NHL.

I thought his position was quite reasonable, indeed admirable, akin to Brian Burke's statements regarding homosexuality and standing beside his gay son. Let's get this stuff out in the open and deal with it properly.

A century or so ago, families used to send relatives with mental health problems out to some grey stone edifice in the country, far away from the public eye. This was due to the sense of failure and shame. The generally accepted view, at the time, was such afflictions were in the blood, thus implicating the whole family.

To be historically fair, some institutions opened their doors to the public, at a price. The grand and allegedly sane bourgeoisie could gape at the poor wretches for their evening and weekend entertainment. Have times changed?

Lately, enlightenment unfolded, reserving the insane asylums for the truly dysfunctional and dangerous. Such institutions became even more enlightened by opening those doors, not for the public to walk in, but for the residents to walk out; sending them into the streets with the latest mind-numbing miracle pills, leaving them to fend for themselves, "wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters" searching for food "among the garbage and the flowers.” (Quotes are from L. Cohen's 'Suzanne'.)

Having undergone psychiatric treatment when I was a young man, I can attest that the hardest thing to face is the stigma of mental health problem. As well, in hindsight, it is equally difficult to withstand the labeling, being lumped into one big psychiatric category, as defined by the psychiatric diagnostic bible and, thus, ironically, losing any individuality at the very time one is struggling daily to find and/or hold on to it.

Underneath all, the public masks one wears; Belak was a noted clown, Mr. Fun Guy type. There is a loud and extremely intense desperation going on, a combination of fear, a sense of overwhelmed by one's emotions, as well as suffering various, menacing, dark thoughts and the sense of going out of control, losing it. Daily life is one of fighting to keep some semblance of balance, homeostasis, pushing the 'monsters' back into the cave, while quietly screaming for help.

In hockey/sports parlance, you don't want to let the team down. It's easier to call for the puck than call for help and admit you need treatment. Smile, damn you, smile.

 Earlier today, on CBC Radio, news a former player qua enforcer, Jim Thompson, I believe, suggested, contrary to others interviewed so far, that there is a link between the three recent deaths. He says the connection is the fear factor. The expectation, the pressure, the realization that the only way to make a team and stay employed is thru your fists and in order to face all that players  pop pills or drink a lot. Bingo! That seems to be a common factor in the deaths, of these players and previous ones, for example, Bob Probert.

He also said that going into the next season he had considered suicide many times, due to all that pressure. Many attempted suicides or attempts occur just before new beginnings, a return to old beginnings, that is, at the onset of the next season'. You may have heard people talk about Rypien looking forward to training camp with his new team, the Jets, or that Wade Belak showed no signs of depression as his new season would be in the broadcast booth, not on the ice. Smile damn you smile!

Here's another potential link discussed: head injuries/concussions due to the role of being the enforcer; too many blows to the head. The impact alone, along with the symptoms, can lead to a depression that wasn't there before. Boxers at least wear gloves. The macho code in hockey is for players to "drop the gloves and chuck the knuckles.” How many blows to the ole noggin does it take to change the chemical or physical nature of the brain tissue?

Shane O'Brien, from the “Predators,” says about that, and about the pressure on enforcers, players go on the ice, game after game, knowing, fearing, that "one punch can change your life.” Can someone print that in bold letters and send to Gary Bettman?

On the very same news day about Belak, we also learn that it is unlikely Marc Savard will ever play the game again. Too many concussions have left him, let's be legally careful here, disabled. At the very least, he can no longer do his life's work without suffering symptoms or being at risk of further brain damage. One more “el kabong” and he might be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

The whole hockey universe is currently awaiting further news on "the face of the NHL," Sid the Kid. At 24, his playing career may be over! Step right up kids! Be the next Super Star to have your brain turned into your favourite dessert – JELL-O!

To be fair here, hockey is not the only major sport having issues with the long-term damage done to players. The NFL will be soon facing a class action suit by former players, some of whom can't remember many things, have various physical troubles, the result of hits to the head by helmets. One former layer committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, purposefully ensuring his brain for study of his post-concussion damage, which he allegedly believed caused his depression and associated problems.

Several current, and I suspect former, Major League Baseball players have ongoing symptoms due to concussions. As I said before, there will be concussions and other head injuries in contact sport of any kind. Alas, you will hear again a chorus of singers of the same old tune; that has the basic melodic subtext that it's a man's game, don't be a wimp, stop trying to spoil our fun!

Secondly, there are no hidden devils here; any player who pops on a helmet and hits the pond knows the dangers. If he or she doesn't at this point, check their medical records or IQ, or get out the lie detector.

However, it is time to take off the masks. Expressions of concern are no longer enough. For the fastest game on earth, the league has a collective problem getting off the fucking couch. MLB and the NFL have taken some steps to ensure the health of its players. Joey Votto, of the Cincinnati Reds, lost his father a few years ago. He developed panic attacks and night terrors. The league did not sweep the situation under the table and met it head-on. Unlike the previous conventional wisdom of giving players time off, Joey felt part of the team while he got treatment. When he returned the next year, he won the batting championship and led the Reds to a play-off appearance.

The NFL has implemented ever-increasing rules re helmet-to-helmet, head-to-head hits, via direct order of the Commissioner, overnight, despite the disapproval of some players who make their living by whacking players with their noggins. Gary Bettman, with his ostrich-like head firmly stuck in the quick sand, has more study groups than the Department of Defence.

I believe it is time to rid the league of 'goon fucks.' A new code should be implemented, no enforcers, period. When you hear the tiring ancient argument that you need a player on your team to protect the star players, just politely ask, "Protection from what"? If the answer is close to, "from hits or any intent to injure them,” smile damn you smile, and say "that's what rules are for doorknob!" No other sport allows fighting. Fights will happen, yes. Penalize them. How am I doing Stomper?

There should be minimum skill tests results expected. You need a licence to drive a car, why not one to play hockey! If you can't parallel park on skates, you're toast. Zero tolerance on fights that are pre-meditated. Zero tolerance for fights that are to intimidate - when the score is out-of-reach, the so-called 'sending a message' fights.

Gee, Bob, why not just ban fighting of all kinds? Okay, why not? I'm good with that. It's time for the NHL to become a member of the 21st Century.

It's a fast-paced emotional game and there will be blood. You can't completely prevent forest fires despite what Smokey the Bear says but only you can help prevent more and more of them, lessen their impact when they happen. Let's jeer or guffaw every time we here some Neanderthal from the league say, "it's part of the game.” Bullshit. Does anybody remember the Olympics?

Let’s hose them done when players go at it! Cops use Tasers. Give the refs fire hoses, pepper spray, mace or something.

Yellow cards, Red Cards like soccer. Yellow Card meaning, "You're out of this game and the next five.” Red Card meaning, "Tell your wife she'll need to get a job, pal.” I'm serious.

I'm however open to discussion, but don't allow the NHL to get their shovels and brooms out and ice this over with a Zamboni. The game I love is falling into the category usually reserved for Roller Derby and Kick Boxing or whatever that shite is where they put two doorknobs in cages and let them beat the shit out of each other.

Is that where the NHL wants to be? Somehow, I doubt it, even if it means storming the Bastille to change attitudes. Bettman, I'm turning the other cheek!

Bob Stark is a musician, poet, philosopher and couch potato. He spends his days, as did Jean-Paul Sarte and Albert Camus, pouring lattes and other adult beverages into a recycled mug, bearing a long and winding crack. He discusses, with much insight and passion, the existentialist and phenomenological ontology of the Vancouver 'Canucks,' a hockey team, "Archie" comic books and high school reunions. In other words, Bob Stark is a retired public servant living the good life on the wrong coast of Canada.

More by Bob Stark:
Tell a Friend

Click above to tell a friend about this article.