Wade Belak: Looking back On His Death And Depression In Hockey

Wade Belak 1975-2011 (Photo courtesy of the Nashville Predators)

Just shy of the one-year anniversary of former Toronto Maple Leafs Wade Belak’s suicide, one wonders what, if anything the NHL has done in order to help those struggling with the debilitating disease that is depression?

Belak, just 35 years old at the time of his death, will forever be remembered as a character player whose role as an enforcer likely played a major role in his illness.

The tragic loss of Belak was one of three enforcers that took their lives last year with former New York Ranger Derek “The Boogeyman” Boogaard taking his life in May and former Vancouver Canuck Rick Rypien taking his life on August 15th.

In the case of Boogaard and Rypien, drugs, alcohol and/or depression are all thought to have played a role in their deaths, while the cause of death with respect to Belak suggest depression was a major factor.

Boogarard’s death was linked to a lethal dose of Oxycodone and alcohol, while Rypien had been in and out of the NHL’s substance abuse program and had been rumored to have been a long time sufferer of depression.

Officially Boogaard’s cause of death was a accidental drug overdose. Boogaard’s family released a statement through the National Hockey League’s Players Association after the results were revealed which read in part:

“It is very comforting for our family to know that, while Derek’s life was far too short, he had a great impact on many people who he came into contact with.  We are proud that Derek was able to live his boyhood dream to play in the National Hockey League. We are even more proud of the fact that Derek was dedicated to making a difference in his adopted communities of Minnesota and New York City, through his countless hours of charitable work.

Earlier today, we received the results of Derek’s toxicology report at the time of his accidental death.  After repeated courageous attempts at rehabilitation and with the full support of the New York Rangers, the NHLPA, and the NHL, Derek had been showing tremendous improvement but was ultimately unable to beat this opponent.  While he played and lived with pain for many years, his passion for the game, his teammates, and his community work was unstoppable.

Our family would like to like to thank the New York Rangers, the Minnesota Wild, the National Hockey League Players’ Association, and the National Hockey League for supporting Derek’s continued efforts in his battle.”

Clearly, Boogaard’s injuries, or at least the pain associated with those lingering injuries, played a role in his substance abuse. It has been reported that the night before Boogaard died he had been out at a club where he mixed a lethal dose of alcohol and drugs—which was said to be a mix of Percocet, oxycodone & OxyContin and of course we know that OxyContin is physically addicting — before returning to a Minneapolis apartment where he would later succumb to an overdose.

Boogaard’s brother Aaron was later charged with unlawful distribution of a controlled substance. He was also charged with interfering with the scene of a death for allegedly flushing the rest of his brother’s drugs down the toilet before police arrived, the complaint alleged.

Derek Boogaard had just been released from drug treatment one day before his overdose. Clearly he was making an effort to turn his addiction around, but the lure of drugs was just too much, the pain just too real for Boogaard to break the habit.

Many of us have had our lives touched by loved ones who, at some point in their lives, have had to endure the horrible sickness that is depression, many of whom never ask for help.

With so many NHL players suffering from substance abuse and/or depression issues, it appears as if the NHL (which has been revisiting it’s policies and treatments on an ongoing basis) will have it’s work cut out for them in the coming months trying to find a way to help it’s players (former and current) before things get out of control (if they are not already).

In the case of Belak, there were no signs that he was suffering from depression, drug abuse or anything of that nature. The way most of us remember the former Maple Leaf was him always joking around, his contagious smile, his penchant for playing practical jokes, and his ability to never take himself too seriously.

Belak also had the ability to keep his teammates loose in the dressing room—an asset that served him well throughout his NHL career.

Well respected in broadcasting circles, Belak was set to participate in the Battle of the Blades on CBC last year, an opportunity he was surely looking forward to.

Of course, that opportunity never materialized. With his quick whit and ability to find humor in just about anything who knows where his television career may have taken him?

For a player with limited skills, Belak had a tremendous career. By all accounts he had a great life, a loving wife, kids, a promising broadcast career and the love and respect of fans and NHL players everywhere—so what went wrong?

In light of the uncanny amount of death involving NHL enforcers, many players are choosing this time to chime in on their experiences as enforcers, acknowledging their roles to be lonely, dangerous and, for many, a nightmarish existence.

Last summer, former NHL pugilist Georges Laraque rang in on the topic of being an enforcer in the NHL and, by all accounts, he doesn’t think it’s a walk in the park.

Once an NHL enforcer, Georges Laraque is speaking out on fighting in hockey and the tool it takes on NHL players mentally. (Dan4th/Flickr)

“People don’t understand the stress of being an enforcer in hockey,” said Laraque. “You have to pretend you’re invincible, that you’re not afraid, but you are not invincible and you are afraid. You have to intimidate and make like you can’t wait to fight. It’s the toughest job in professional sports.”

To Laraque’s point, it’s difficult to imagine that these modern day gladiators ever gave fighting a second thought, but in reality the opposite seems to be the norm, not the exception.

Imagine looking at the schedule and playing out each game, each opponent and each inevitable fight in your head, knowing that you and you alone would have to be the one to drop the gloves. Night after night, week after week, month after month, season after season, it’s gotta play havoc with your mind, body and soul.

From the outside looking in, being an enforcer in today’s NHL is not much of a life. It has to take a special individual to be able to deal with the stress, stardom, mental anguish and injuries that come with “the job” which, for some, becomes too much to bare.

Of course with the shift in NHL philosophy, many enforcers have been sent down to the AHL, found employment in other leagues or were forced to retire because they simply could not keep up or did not posses the skill-set necessary to compete at the NHL level anymore.

Many players have said that they were consumed by fighting, often leading them to take illegal drugs such as cocaine, oxycodone and/or alcohol to deal with the pressure.
Of course, not every enforcer goes down this road, but for those that do, the final outcome can lead to a lifetime of abuse and, eventually, death or suicide.

While it’s easy to believe that injuries suffered through fighting led players to partake in drugs, the mental anguish associated with the job is also a contributing factor—maybe the biggest factor.

Whether you are an NHL Enforcer, elite player (such as Theo Fleury), businessman or other, it doesn’t take a lot of drug use before it takes over your life, it doesn’t take long before having a drink, doing a line of coke or taking an injection becomes less of a habit and more of a lifestyle.

Back when I was in security, I worked some of the meanest streets in Toronto, dealing with prostitutes, drug addicts, gangs and the mentally ill—many of which were successful people at one point in their lives, many of which are likely dead today, or well on their way.

The life of a drug addict is a living hell, a life with little priority other than getting your next “fix”. The reality is, drugs never discriminates, addiction could happen to anyone.
Let’s face it, many of us have been touched by this plague personally or otherwise, it’s never easy, and it almost always ends in a life ruined or death.

For those of you that have never had to endure addiction or mental illness in one shape or form, consider yourself lucky.

Depression, like many mental illnesses, can be overwhelming, debilitating and even life threatening. It really depends on the severity of the disease and ones ability to cope with whatever is causing the depression.

Traditional help involves counseling and/or the use of antidepressants to help mask the symptoms that plague those diagnosed with the illness.

Many of those medications have side effects which, when not monitored, can put a patient in danger of developing abnormal eating habits, withdrawal from friends and family, the use of additional medications and even lead to suicidal thoughts.

If you have ever been on any of these medications you know that most of the doctors prescribe based more on trial and error than pure science. There are no certainties where meds are concerned, and for some finding the right medication can be an arduous process which can lead to frustration and self-imposed stopped treatments.

In light of last summer’s deaths, given time, more and more enforcers are likely to come out with tales of depression, drug use, alcoholism and mental illness.

The question is—will anyone be shocked?

The issues of drug abuse and depression have been associated with enforcers for decades. This is not a new phenomena, the awareness has only been heightened due to the three deaths last summer which occurred in under four months.

Are the enforcers the only players suffering from such pain, anguish, stress and illness?
Hardly, but there is an uncanny link here, one that should not be ignored, one that the NHL and it’s Players Association need to take a closer look at.

TSN’s host of Off The Record  Michael Landsberg (a close friend of Wade Belak’s) spoke to James Cybulski last summer on TSN 1050 radio speaking about Wade Belak’s death and depression.

Landsberg is a longtime sufferer of depression and, by all accounts, well versed on the stranglehold it can have on one’s life and the struggle those suffering from the disease must go through in order to overcome it.

In conversation with Belak, Landsberg stated that Belak told him he had been on “happy pills” for four years. Few people knew Belak to be depressed, in fact, many remember him as a happy-go-lucky/jokester that always had a smile on his face and always had others (including his teammates) laughing.

In retrospect, Belak’s external ability to laugh and smile at all costs was simply a deflection from his struggles from depression—an illness he rarely shared with anyone outside of loved ones, if ever.

Nobody saw Belak’s death coming, nobody thought the disease was getting the better of him.

To Landsberg’s point, “Wade had an unbelievable ability to appear to be the happiest guy in the room, when in fact he was the sickest guy in the room”…“Nobody knows what’s going on in another mans head…”

As great as the NHL’s drug and alcohol programs are, each case is individual and, to Landsberg’s point, “all of us suffer our illnesses, whatever they are, in a solo way—you are on your own”.

Why would anyone with depression take their own life?
Landsberg compared depression to having a “popsicle headache (which often carries intense pain)…” Imagine having that pain for an hour, a day, a week—how long would it be before you say the option of dying is better than living another day with that pain?” Landsberg said. “People take their lives when the fear of living another day is greater than the fear of dying”.

Insightful, strong words, from someone who not only knew Belak well, but also suffers from the disease of depression and has an intimate knowledge of hockey and the lifestyles associated with the game we all love. So much anguish, so much pain and a feeling of having no way out, all pulling at you, day-in, day-out, it’s almost inconceivable.

Was being an enforcer the only factor in Belak’s death? Probably not. But one has to admit that there is an uncanny link to being an enforcer and drugs, alcohol abuse and depression.

It has been almost 20 years since another former Toronto Maple Leaf—John Kordic—lost his battle with drug abuse, succumbing to an overdose.

Kordic was a troubled man who battled through drug abuse and rage issues. Some reports indicate that his family life led him to use drugs, others say it was the stress of hockey. Whatever the case may be, here we have another enforcer that everyone seemingly knew was hooked on drugs and little was done to help him out of his troubled, sometimes tormented life.

To be fair, people suffer from mental illness in all walks of life. Depression is not discriminatory, it can hit anyone, as can drugs and alcohol abuse. Still, there seems to be more to it with regards to the enforcers, so much so that it’s undeniable.

It’s not often we hear of the great offensive/highly skilled players falling into drug and/or alcohol abuse and/or depression (Theo Fleury excused), but it does happen nonetheless.

Of course Fleury’s issues had more to do with sexual abuse, but the abuse could be attributed to hockey, at least on some level.

Non-traditional Fans have long fought for a zero tolerance rule against fighting in the NHL. Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke is on record as saying he would not support such a rule, as are many traditional fans of the game.

“You can’t have a contact sport with no out of bounds and with hitting, without having fighting,” Burke said. “If we do (remove fighting) we cannot create a safe workplace for our players”.

Fair enough—but is it time that more NHL teams took a page out of the Detroit Red Wings’ book, choosing to employ a measure of toughness but taking a pass on the enforcer role?

A quick look at the Red Wings roster will reveal that they have not employed a “enforcer” for years. Simply put, the Red Wings organization clearly feels an enforcer is not needed.

If the Red Wings (one of the most successful NHL franchises in modern day history) can do without an enforcer, why can’t the rest of the NHL GM’s mirror Detroit’s model for success?

I, like many NHL fans, am all for a good tussle from time-to-time, but there are many (like me) that feel it is high time NHL general managers took a pass on the enforcers in favor of players that bring a certain amount of truculence, testosterone and belligerence to the game without the label of being a thug.

Taking fighting out of the game is not the answer. Reducing fighting by taking away the enforcer role may be a step in the right direction and, in turn, it may help reduce the apparent anguish some of these players face on a nightly basis.

Colton Orr lost his job as an enforcer with the Maple Leafs (clydeorama/Flickr)

Last season many GM’s made an effort to rid themselves of the enforcer. Brian Burke was included in that effort, sending pugilist Colten Orr down to the AHL where he finished the season with the Toronto Marlies.

Burke was disappointed to see Orr go, but with few teams employing enforcers and fewer players with which Orr could show off his “skills” he became expendable, which while a bad thing for Orr, is a good thing for NHL hockey.

Let’s face it, throughout an 82-game NHL schedule we often find the same players involved in fighting. Few fights are spontaneous, more likely, the two combatants mix it up as a result of an incident that happened in the past and/or between two unrelated players.

Many fans refer to these fights as being “scripted” or “staged”, words that many players/enforcers detest.

To illustrate my point further, when is the last time you witnessed two players that did not carry the enforcer label dropping the gloves? Sure, it happens from time-to-time, but the incidents are few and far between.

When they do happen, the results are typically a lot less damaging to the more random players than having two 6’3”, 225-250-pounders go tete-a-tete.

The question is, do NHL teams need to employ players to fight other players’ battles for them? What message does that send to our kids and, does the fact that most teams employ an enforcer give their players the right/confidence to do as they wish as they will rarely ever have to answer the bell/pay the piper themselves?

Of course, there are those that argue that fighting is an integral part of the game, one that can spark the crowd and/or ones team when all seems lost.

Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren is one ex-NHL player turned GM that is all for fighting.

“There’s a place for it, (fighting)” Holmgren said. “It supplies some kind of release. Hockey is a continuous sport. Things happen at the spur of the moment. At times, it does have an effect on games. I’ve seen games where not a whole lot is going on and I think ‘this game needs a good fight’.”

Enforcers are not only employed to fight, they are also there to intimidate, but who exactly are they intimidating? Each other?

Enforcers cannot force the offending players to fight. How many times did we watch the likes of former New York Ranger forward and super-pest Sean Avery getting in the face of an opponent only to watch him duck out of a fight?

Avery has fought his fair share of tough guys, sucker punched a few too! In the end, there’s not much you can do to a player of his ilk to deter him from being the player that he was—a pest.

If you had sent your enforcer out to “deal” with Avery nine times out of ten he’d turn the other cheek which, in some cases, ends up in the opposing team having to kill a penalty and Avery laughing at the opposing tough guy.

Maybe Avery was the only sane one out there? Perhaps the answer is simple—don’t fight?

Hockey is a game that is full of physical play and raw emotions. To say that a fight is not going to break out from time-to-time is asinine, but how much fighting is too much, and where should the NHL be drawing the line, if any?

Traditionalists want fighting to remain as it always has, front and centre and as an integral part of the culture of the game of hockey.

Non-traditionalist would be happy to see fighting completely abolished, which in the opinion of many would likely see the game go in the wrong direction towards more stick infractions, dirty play and liberties taken on all players, not just the stars.

The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Let’s face it, recent injuries and deaths suggest that fighting is a dangerous element of the game of hockey. No longer are we talking about two 5’10”, 180 pound players going at it, today’s pugilists stand well over six feet tall and weigh in at 200-250 pounds and many of them are MMA trained and well versed in boxing.

Today’s enforcer is a warrior capable of knocking an opponent out with one punch or, as former Toronto Maple Leaf tough guy Nick Kypreos can attest, end your career in one punch.

There is nothing wrong with employing tough players—men of courage and strength— but perhaps it’s time more GM’s took a stance and employed the right players, not being pre-occupied with the hiring of “goons”.

While guys like Wendel Clark don’t grow on trees, he is exactly the type of player that can stick up for his teammates while still making a major contribution to the games outcome, not simply filling a five minute role.

Clark wasn’t employed to simply fight, but when the opportunity knocked, he could take care of business with the best of them, all while holding the ability to score a big goal, or make a big hit.

This is the type of player NHL GM’s should be employing, these are the type of players that play the game first and fight second. They are tough, multi-dimensional players that can contribute on all levels.

Essentially, the enforcers are employed to take care of the enforcers, nothing more, nothing less. By default, every single one of them is expendable—maybe they should be abolished? Maybe the time has come to make a change in the game?

Sure, they may be great in the locker room, they may be able to lay an opponent out, but mostly they are on the ice to fight each other.

Players have long been more than capable of taking care of themselves, fighting their own battles and policing themselves and their opponents.

Howe was tough as nails both in the corners and with his fists. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated))

Gordie Howe did it, Maurice Richard did it, Wendel Clark did it—in fact, there are countless cases of star players that were well known for “taking care of business” when called upon, they never needed another player to fight their battles for them.

It’s high time the NHL stepped up it’s enforcement of the rules, enforced greater suspensions on dangerous players and implemented mandatory use of safer equipment such as padded elbow pads (which is more like armor these days) and the use of the M11 helmet—which has been shown to reduce concussions and their effects. This would lessen the need for enforcers as liberties taken against players would be properly punished on a regular basis.

Change always comes about slowly.

Don’t forget, the NHL didn’t make helmet use mandatory until 1979, some 60 plus years after the first NHL season was played in 1917-18. Sure, the players wore “cups” to protect their more sensitive parts, but wear a helmet? No way!

Change always starts at the grassroots, so any movement away from the employment of enforcers would have to take place in the minor leagues before anything could be done at the NHL level.

Let’s face it, old habits die slowly. It’s going to take a group of NHL general managers that want to make the game better to truly change the culture of hockey.

Making the job of the enforcer extinct will never stop all drug and alcohol abuse and depression, but it could go a long way in reducing the effects of one of the toughest, if not the toughest, roles to play in all of sports.

Treatment, suspensions, awareness and on-ice rules can only do so much to facilitate change, but collectively these policies can also make a difference.

As much as the NHL has a responsibility to take care of it’s players (all players for that matter) they are not the ones that fill out the roster sheets, they are not the ones that employ players for the sole purpose of fighting and they are not the ones that tap the enforcers on the shoulder and ask them to go “take care of business.”

A culture change and a change of philosophy—both on and off the ice—are the only ways to truly make a difference, at least where the enforcer is concerned.

Each GM needs to look himself in the mirror and decide if his actions are contributing to a problem that, if not looked at seriously, may spin further out of control.

Sure, the NHL has made some changes to their programs and awareness of depression and drug use within the NHL, in fact, the NHL’s involment in treatments and support is at an all-time high, but is it enough? And if not, what more can the NHL do?

While depression can often be seen on some level, many players (I’d say most players) are able to hide their symptoms from those around them. Depression is not something many with the illness like to talk about publicly, and with the media the way it is in pro sports you can see why professional athletes want to deflect any and all attention off of the subject by remaining in the shadows, alone to deal with their demons.

To be fair, there is not much more the NHL can do. You cannot force someone to seek treatment and if players are determined to keep things quiet it is tough to ask the NHL to diagnose depression or substance abuse.

All the NHL can do is hope that the programs and support they have put into place are used by those that need it most.

Just because few players seek treatment it by no means excuses the NHL from continuing their efforts. Only a continued concerted effort to reduce depression and drug abuse will help the players and the NHL make depression more manageable—or God willing, a thing of the past.

*****If you or someone you know is suffering from depression please consult your local Hospital for treatment options or click here to see what your options are. There is no reason to suffer, depression is treatable.*****

Until next time,


Note: Portions of my article from last summer were used in this post.