Sunday’s Hockey Fest at Staples Center was announced as a sellout – 3,000 tickets sold. If all those Kings fans continue to show up at the turnstiles, it can be considered a success for the team’s marketing department.
In any other year that might be enough, but this time the event seemed to serve a greater purpose: It brought the focus back to hockey.
Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team — including former King Pavol Demitra –all left Earth far too soon, their abrupt and unfortunate deaths overshadowing the usual summer headlines about trades and free agents and the like.
“It was shocking,” Kings forward Kyle Clifford said. “It’s always tough to see someone go. The hockey community is one big family. You know guys who know them, or you know them, and it’s difficult. You have to pay your respects and move forward.”
Air travel safety in Russia is beginning to get the attention it deserves in light of the Yaroslavl crash. But the deaths of the three enforcers are three separate incidents and must be treated as such, which makes a unified course of action elusive.
The guardians of the game in North America, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association, released this joint statement after Belak’s death Aug. 31:
While the circumstances of each case are unique, these tragic events cannot be ignored. We are committed to examining, in detail, 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. Our organizations are committed to a thorough evaluation of our existing assistance programs and practices and will make immediate modifications and improvements to the extent they are deemed warranted.
It is important to ensure that every reasonable step and precaution is taken to make NHL Players, and all members of the NHL family, aware of the vast resources available to them when they are in need of assistance. We want individuals to feel comfortable seeking help when they need help.
NHL Clubs and our fans should know that every avenue will be explored and every option pursued in the furtherance of this objective.
Matt Greene, the Kings’ representative to the NHLPA, was at the association’s most recent meeting in Chicago when Belak’s death was discussed. Those “existing assistance programs” include the joint NHLPA/NHL Substance Abuse & Behavioral Health Program, which is known to have an “educational component” aimed at prevention. Greene said awareness of the program among players is key.
“As a member of the PA, all you can do is educate the players about the system,” he said. “Just knowing that, I think for us, it’s not having the system in place but it’s knowing how to use it, how to get access to it. This job as player’s rep is to educate other players about it. It’s theirs to seek it out. It’s something we need to draw more attention to now.”
As far as taking real action, Greene said that changes to the joint Program have been discussed. “I don’t think any change immediately right now, but it’s definitely in the works,” he said. “It was an issue before even before Belak.”
Belak’s mother said in a recent interview with the CBC that her son suffered from depression. According to one report, Toronto police are considering his death a suicide. Rypien also suffered from depression and is believed to have taken his own life. Boogaard died from an accidental overdose of Oxycondone mixed with alcohol. The connection to Oxycondone, a powerful painkiller, raises questions about the physical toll of an enforcer’s job, while the cases of Rypien and Belak have cast light on the mental toll.
To that end, Scott Norton, the agent for Kings captain Dustin Brown, has taken some initiative.
Norton launched a Twitter campaign last week to raise money for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI); he gained about 2,500 followers in the process. Before cutting a check, Norton said Friday that “whatever money is raised is minute compared to what is needed.”
“We raise or athletes and celebrities on a pedestal like Superman, which makes the fall even louder,” he said. “My bigger issue is the way we deal with athletes, the situations, the pressures.”
Of course, not all enforcers have clinical depression and not all sustain concussions — Kings enforcer Kevin Westgarth, for one, said he’s never had a concussion in his life. But for those who have, this summer taught us just how immense the toll can be in some cases.
In July 2010, former NHL enforcer Bob Probert collapsed and died. Studies on his brain revealed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to concussions. On Sunday, Probert’s former roommate in Chicago, Bernie Nicholls, suggested a general course of action.
“I think they (the NHL and the NHLPA) just have to do a lot of things with concussions, have a better handle on guys like that that do that for a living and if you have signs,” the long-time Kings forward said.
During his NHL playing career, from 1981-99, Nicholls said there was “nothing” in the way of assistance for players suffering from concussions or mental illness.
“Even when you got a concussion, you just thought it was a headache, and go back and play,” he said. “I think they’re doing the right things now. That’s just part of the growth of the league and any sport. They know the effect that head injuries have taken on their athletes. I think they’re doing the right thing with that.”