In the wake of a barrage of headlines that exposed the tragic passing of Wade Belak, now the third NHL tough guy to die under somewhat mysterious circumstances in one year, a friend of mine, who isn’t exactly immersed in the modern sports media juggernaut, asked me if there is more than meets the eye to this growing trend of tragedies. Perhaps some deep, dark scandal that lurks beneath the veneer of one of the oldest and most squeaky-clean leagues in all of North American sport.
At first I was at a loss for words… where do I begin to explain the complex and controversial nature of this discussion? First of all, the tragedy and subsequent media frenzy is already several weeks past any of it’s glossy newness; it’s enticing, most provocative relevance in the lives of Canadians and Hockey fans gossiping around their respective water coolers. Now, even to bring it up seems a moot point, considering that, much like the man in question who is no longer with us, the story itself might as well be buried six feet under the ground…or under a heap of bullshit (the story, not the player just to be clear). In any attempt to find the means to explain or understand this elaborate and most speculative of issues, one first needs some context to understand exactly how big a question was posed in the first place.
In the world of Canadian sports media, especially in the heart of the NHL season when it essentially just becomes Canadian media, this potentially scandalous ring of tragedies is probably the biggest most disputed topic there is. To stop dancing around it; the discussion is essentially based on the idea that what is happening with the NHL’ers of late, is similar to the already established pattern of former NFL footballers and various types of professional wrestlers that have either killed themselves or overdosed (on drugs) in recent history, some directly citing the continuing symptoms of long term head traumas incurred back in their pro days as the reason why. The speculation being that they either turn to drugs for relief and it gets out of hand, or they simply can’t take life with a fucked up brain anymore….or their brain is just simply fucked and they can’t be responsible for what pushed them over the edge. Delving a little into the scientific side of things, I should mention that there is an actual study of the phenomena which is called “Chronic Traumatic Ensephalopathy” (CTE) but I know nothing more of it beyond what Wikipedia has to offer. It’s worth a look for anyone who wishes to understand the potential scope of the condition.
I tried to convey to my friend that there is, in fact, a huge, monumental, juiciest of the juicy story here definitely… but it has been completely and utterly devoured by North American sports media for a while now. This is especially true in the Great White North where to add anything on top of the already enormous pile of indulgent speculation might just be enough to cause the whole operation to implode, and set ablaze anything good that remains to come out of our beloved game on ice.
What could one say if they were so inclined as to throw their two cents in and express something, dare I say, provocative? To take the more arduous, bordering on cynical, road and really start asking some difficult questions starting with; “Why should we really care about guys who are paid to be warriors eventually succumbing to the long term risks of their respective career choices?” In other words, we must consider that though the game is faster, players are bigger and more aggressive, our collective blood lust as fans hasn’t lessened over the decades. Instead we’ve only become more aware of the hazards and more cagey about our own culpability as spectators. What has remained consistent however, is the endless supply of new generations of players who are ready, willing, able and utterly eager to risk life and limb for our beloved ruthless pastime. Who has the right to stop them from following their dreams and playing the game as hard and for as long as they can?
The real issue is society’s collective guilt over the consequences, which is perhaps the only aspect that is fundamentally new in the evolution of sports. Probably not to the same degree, but guaranteed this trend of tragic occurrences had been going on for decades before it made its way into the vortex of media that is the 21st Century. The tricky thing about our current position is that we now collectively feel that it is unacceptable not to take action; some type of mitigating circumstance considering the extent of knowledge we have about the horrors and consequences of almost every negligent aspect of society including sports… unless of course it’s about some liberal conspiracy like climate change, or our ever depleting fresh water resources.
When it comes to more tangible and relatable issues; like those awful fucking monsters who still smoke cigarettes, or ride their bicycle in the city without a helmet, or some former NHL’er whose name you recognized all of a sudden shows up dead in the headlines (in the same mysterious circumstances as two others just like him in recent memory) then it might just be time to take up a renewed interest in the societal cause for health and safety. After all, it’s the kids we must consider, and lord knows our society can’t abide raising another young, rough and tumble, salt of the earth, son of the prairies, hockey prodigy only to watch him grow up to drink beer, pop painkillers and drive without a seat belt while smoking a duMaurier in the Mercedes he bought with the millions of dollars he gets paid to enforce in the NHL! My god, it would break my heart if it happens just once more. Thirty thousand three hundred and sixty seven was enough, not one more I tell you!
Without being so glib as to actually get called out by a Tom Cruise type, I should mention that as far as the actual safety of the game is concerned there are those whose opinions are actually worth entertaining. To the dismay of many, I must admit the one person we should actually listen to in all of this (certainly not for everything) is none other than the Pope of the holy church of Hockey himself, one Don “Grapes” Cherry (a former enforcer as well) who advocates ad nauseam for the return of soft padded shoulder and elbow protectors in contrast to the stiff reinforced plastic armour they wear now. A shoulder is already a shoulder and should hurt enough by itself if driven into someone else’s body. It doesn’t need any extra help. Then there is, of course, the often touted no-touch icing rule popular in most other pro leagues of the world; effectively ending the dangerous race for the iced puck as the boards rapidly close in on you in a kind of bizarro game of chicken. Even just this year there were the suggested sloped stanchions to protect against a future possible neck breaking play at edge of the glass. Zdeno, I’m looking at you!
To borrow a page from Cherry’s book and take the liberty to impart my own “sage” Hockey wisdom, I also (after witnessing all the injuries caused by open ice hits behind the net from this past playoffs) suggest a new rule; no hitting within the trapezoid area, which I admit would be quite a dramatic change in gameplay behind the net, but would do wonders for safety. Everyone’s pissed about those new zoidal red lines anyway why not double their usage and protect players’ safety at the same time? Shit, maybe it would produce more goals and we then wouldn’t have to worry about the cockamamie schemes the NHL is always talking about like making nets bigger or changing the painted lines or face off spots or smaller pads or whatever the fuck their next genius breakthrough is.
As far as the dangers of a punch to the face are concerned (regarding enforcers), if you get paid to take or give one, be it on the ice, in the ring, in the octagon, on the street or wherever the fuck it is, that is what you get paid to do. There is very little, other than not doing so, that anyone can do to mitigate against the potential terrors of prolonged head injuries. Conversely if it’s not about the injuries then what else can we as a society possibly get involved with? At the end of the day we have to accept that none of us actually know a fucking thing about the real truth of the matter.
Lets take a look at what where up against. I’ve heard talk of post pro-athlete depression (I hear amongst us non pros there’s something similar called “depression”). I’ve heard of the long-term effects of steroids making people crazy (another “juicy” story in itself when you put the words steroids and NHL in the same sentence). I’ve even heard about the growing tendency of NHL’ers towards drug and alcohol abuse (part of a lifestyle on the edge). Along the same lines, there is talk of the dangers of abusing somewhat experimental or black market supplements or alternative enhancers or whatever the fuck you want to call them. Maybe, just maybe Belak was such a crazy iconoclast that his personal life outside of his former profession actually meant much more in the grand scheme of things and it was something deeply personal and totally un-Hockey related that compelled him to do what he did. To be honest even I think that is unlikely, but I’m also part of the problem… a Leafs fan.
Honestly we could talk about all of this, even search further for new explanations until we’re blue in the face and we still wouldn’t know shit about shit. To focus on the individual instead of the discussion at large becomes something negative as it inherently takes away the rights of our dearly departed to exist in our memories as anything other than an athlete, a Hockey player, a goon, a monkey we pay to dance around on skates and fight. In this scrutinizing gaze, any individual’s hopes, dreams, and personality become immediately and forever attached to a legacy of “sports controversy” and an extension of our own collective guilt.
Now it gets difficult. Now let’s get the soap box into position as I’m about climb atop it, while already mounted on a tall horse named morality, so my imposing presence shall resonate with the gilded edge of shame and guilt to everyone in the town square. If we as a society (Cakers, I’m looking at you especially) really care about ensuring a nice long balanced life for our modern day gladiators, we have to start by teaching our youth (yes the children) that there is more to life then the sport of Hockey. Even if it’s the dead of February and you live in Saskatchewan, or you’re drunk on a Saturday winter’s night in Toronto there has to be more. The bottom line is that young kids are, and will continue to be willing to risk their life on the ice… because to a lot of them that simply is life. For many young Canadians life doesn’t start until you get on the ice, is really only meaningful while you’re juggling a rubber disc on the blade of an L shaped stick supported by two narrow “shinggg Blades of Steel” on a hopefully smooth and frozen sheet of ice.
Fathers, mothers, especially brothers, sisters, your doctor, your teacher, almost everyone except for certain groups of immigrants who may still resist the pastime (not many mind you) and hipsters that don’t like sports (because they’re pussies, some hipsters do…when its cool) won’t blink an eye if you’re the type of kid who literally eats, sleeps, breathes Hockey. Someone who has broken your collar bone twice (through playing) and who’s parents spend upwards to thirty grand a year on fees, equipment and travel. No one judges that, in fact, that kind of undying passion and dedication is what makes you the best kind of Canadian there is. The type who from day one only wants to go out on the ice and battle for the team, who will block shots, score goals, take hits, make hits, pass, fight and leave his entire fucking heart and soul on the ice with no complaints, no celebrations, no tears, no cheers just because its the right thing to do for the team and it’s the thing he loves to do. That’s what Canadian heroism is about.
That’s what compelled us to stake our entire nation’s sense of purpose, self esteem and identity on one month of sport culminating with one singularly most important game some two winters ago; that which only through painstaking victory, allowed us to feel good about ourselves once again. You can’t tell me that if we had lost the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic gold medal for men’s Hockey to our eternal rivals south of the border that maybe one – out of millions of Canadians – one lonely, misguided, depressed individual might have been pushed over the edge into suicide. I’m not claiming that it would have inevitably happened I’m just trying to illustrate the point that Hockey becomes such a monolithic force in the lives of Canadians, impenetrable in scale, scope and importance that there is no accounting – and I really mean no accounting – for how many lives it may have ruined or even ended prematurely.
For as much unbridled joy and pride that comes from our game there is an equal amount of pain and anguish. It is these two extremes in our love and passion for this game that makes us the best in the world. It is this which also holds us back in many ways from evolving into a more well-rounded society. You could literally make the analogy that for many Canadians putting on that uniform for the first time is like being drafted into the military in some countries. It is an essential, inherited and enforced right of passage that in some communities and families is the single most important litmus test that determines your identity as a man. For many it’s an all-encompassing obsession to which one’s life is unquestionably dedicated with little to no thought of what life might be without it… or after it.
To put things into perspective, we Canadians are not the only culture obsessed with sport to a dangerous degree, many places over the world put the same borderline insane emphasis on Football (Soccer) to in fact an even greater extreme than we. Even in some corners of Eastern Europe you might find one or two Hockey nuts to rival the intensity of the Canadian puck fiend… but it’s unlikely. Maybe we’re not as bad as some, but we’re also supposed to be leading the way with our cushy North American democratic, pseudo-Socialist society. Do we really want our hats thrown in with the likes of Brazilian Football fanatics? Should we be compared to a country with huge amounts of crime and poverty where one of the major global exports and means of economic and social success is athletic prowess on the Football pitch? A place where people actually committed suicide during a World Cup final in the Maracana stadium right after suffering an upset loss to Uruguay in 1950? (Yes that is true). I’m not judging Brazilians (I can’t because it’s too relatable) but consider that we mild mannered Canadians would be in the exact same boat if we had been around for as long and had our population increased ten fold, and if we lacked the cushy standard of life that we all have become accustomed to. (Some more recently than others).
Where does all of this leave us? Shouldering the burden of being the greatest Hockey nation on Earth, the Mecca of the sport, spiritual gurus of this beautiful game on ice. It’s just like James Brown says “paid the cost to be the boss”. I am deeply saddened by the untimely death of anyone, especially someone that used to wear the blue Maple Leaf over his heart… but if I’m being brutally honest, to me all of these tragedies can be explained as the collective price we pay in a society where for so many Hockey is much more than just a game, it’s a way of life. Incidents like this will happen again. The question we must grapple with is: Can we afford to let them? When we really dig deep into the heart of the issue we have to ask ourselves what is ultimately more important. Do we continue to make the necessary sacrifices to be the best there is in the world of Hockey whatever they may be? Would we be alright as a nation without another gold medal? Without Sidney Crosby? (Because we might not get him back either). Would we, could we give all that up to ensure the quality and longevity of the lives, families, and communities of those who do, in fact, sacrifice everything to be the best, the people behind the sport? Can we bridge the gap between the game we’re obsessed with and the people who play it that still do live with the rest of us in the world at large, a small corner of space we reserve for ourselves outside of the game? Can we find a balance? What do we really care about more? Be honest.