Wade Belak’s suicide won’t be the last – time to outlaw fighting in the NHL

Let's not ignore the obvious. Boogaard, Rypien and now Belak. Is anyone sensing a pattern here? Photo courtesy of the Hockey Writers.

Toronto Sun reporting that enforcer Belak’s death was a suicide – *AP reports Belak hung himself

By Terrance Gavan

Wade Belak died today. And it’s a sad, sad day for hockey.

I arrived home from work. Took the dog out for a walk and saw the banner on TSN when I returned. How to deal with that? And how to ignore the trend?

Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak.

Three tough guys. Enforcers who made a living in the National Hockey League trading punches and throwin’ down. Modern day gladiators. The victims, this off season, of the “thumbs down.” Nero’s not overseeing such swift justice. Who’s wearing the Emperor’s Robes here anyway. In this arena farce? Gary Bettman? The Owners? Or collective apathy?

The NHL is the only professional sports league in the world that allows fighting.

No wait.

It’s the only organization in the world that supports man to man combat as an intrinsic part of its paradigm.

Bare knuckled fighting was banned from the sweet science – boxing knuckleheads, but I love the alliterative nuance – in 1889. (John L. Sullivan fought and won the last sanctioned bare-knuckle fight in 1889 against Jake Kilrain)

Know why? They outlawed such foolishness? Way back before John Ferguson or Eddie Shack’s grandaddies were born?

Because bare-knuckled fighting is considered dangerous and probably deadly. Now, I’m pretty sure that this is fairly obvious to most upright walkers with an indentured IQ that exceeds oh, say 41.5.

I once watched two bare-chested drunks at the Toronto Zoo popping haymakers over an ice cream cone.

They were in front of the baboon cage. While everyone was watching the fisticuffs I turned to the baboons. Two adult males ran to the back of the enclosure, sat down, and covered their eyes. You draw your own conclusions.

Me? I took away a notion that even baboons are smart enough to regard bare-knuckled interaction as intrinsically base. And stupid.

So me and baboons and a majority of small children – really – do not find punch-ups aesthetically pleasing. I happen to teach kids on a ski hill. I know for a fact that kids think fighting is dumb. I’m thinking then that maybe, just maybe, adding the Marquis of Queensbury to a professional sporting event may not be a good idea. You know. In the long run.

That kind of logic has never impressed the suits, general managers, macho rug beaters and the lumpen proletariat in the National Hockey League Players Association. Aha. I would name Gary Bettman in this screed but what can I say? He’s just an inheritor of the long tradition who’s still drinking the Kool-Aid baby.

They likes them their fights up top in the rarefied air of the upper echelon board rooms at NHL HQ! Yes they do.

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TSN – Bob McKenzie – Editorial from BOB MCKENZIE TSN

“Puts butts in the seats!” Ever heard that one? Of course you have. Ever hear this one? “Hey, Billy Bob. I went to the fights last night and a hockey game broke out! Harrrrrrrr… dee-har-har. Ain’t that a knee-slapper?”

I’m sorry. Have I offended anyone yet? Well, feel free to take a swing. You know. Because that’s how we settle things in the hockey universe. I have been arguing for the eradication of fighting from all levels of hockey for – hmmm – most of my career as a sportswriter and editor.

I bet you already know some of the names I’ve been called. The string of epithets usually square around that most indelicate of four letter words – which I happen to use a lot in my own day-to-day shuffle – followed by charming slanders that include but are not limited to: f#@#ing (w)ag, pansy, (m)aggot, know-nothing, slug, f—er (redundant), a—hole, idiot, treehugger, bunnyhugger, leftist, commie, liberal, pussy, sap, moron – and my fave – smock-ducker. Do I have to explain that?

Here’s what I have been told at points during my three decade campaign against fighting in hockey.

“You don’t know! You’ve never played the game.”

Yes I have. In Sandy Hill on outdoor arenas when it was -30 F. I have never been so freaking cold in my life. And I have stood on Portage and Main in Winnipeg. Randy Bachman once summed it up in song: “Portage and Main – 40 below!”

I found basketball when I was 8 years old. I’ve been warm ever since. I’ve been in three basketball fights. Sucker punched – all three. The guys were all ejected. But? It still freaking hurts. You know… to get laid out by a right cross. Imagine doing it for a living. Wade Belak, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard did just that.

Back to the chase and the apoplectic apologists.

“We need fighting to control the cheap shots and the ‘rats.’ ”

Here’s what we know about that. It never dissuaded Ken Linseman. And controlling cheap shots? That’s why they pay referees. I think. Just spitballin’ for Schlitz and Giggles.

And my favorite.

“Hockey’s a fast game and guys need to let off steam. If there’s no fighting? They’ll start using their sticks.”

Well. I’d offer an explanation. But let’s face it. That’s just batcrap crazy.

And so unfathomably stupid on so many levels that I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

That line? Sounds like a conversation that Snooki and Pauly D might dipsy-doodle-dandy into on an episode of Jersey Shore.

Here’s the final “Cherryista” cringe-inducing apology for fighting in theNHL.

“No one gets hurt in a hockey fight.”

Now. I spent my summers on a ranch in the Interlake, so I’ll attempt to put this as gently as I can.

That’s the kinda’ stuff that oozes and spurts from the north side of a south-bound Bull.

“No one gets hurt in a hockey fight.”

Heard it?

Yeah. Yes you have. Me too.

Wade Belak. Rick Rypien. Derek Boogaard.

“No one gets hurt in a hockey fight.”


 Former Toronto Maple Leafs enforcer Wade Belak was found dead in his downtown Toronto condo Wednesday, sources say.

He is the latest in a line of several NHL pugilists who died over the past decade from unusual circumstances, including suicide, alcohol and drug abuse.

Belak reportedly took his life, according to sources.

Other NHL enforcers who died before their time, include:

– Canadian-born John Kordic was 27 when the Quebec Nordiques player died Aug. 8, 1992 from lung failure and a heart malfunction after overdosing on drugs and being involved in a struggle with police at a motel in Quebec City.

– Windsor native Bob Probert, 45, suffered chest pains while boating with family on Lake St. Clair on July 5, 2010. Retired from the Chicago Blackhawks, his career was clouded by a prison term for cocaine possession, terms in rehab and an on-ice reputation as one of the Bruise Brothers.

– Former New York Rangers player Derek Boogaard, was almost 29 when he died May 13. Called the Boogeyman and Mountie for his reputation as a fighter, the Saskatoon native was voted second most intimidating NHLer. His death was ruled accidental. A medical examiner determined he consumed a lethal mix of alcohol and oxycodone.

– Born in 1984 in Blairmore, Alta., Rick Rypien, spent the last six seasons with the Vancouver Canucks and was due to start with the reborn Winnipeg Jets this fall, after signing a $700,000 deal. His death at home two weeks ago, on Aug. 15, was ruled a suicide.

gav@pardontheeruption.com   twitter.com/terrancegavan



22 thoughts on “Wade Belak’s suicide won’t be the last – time to outlaw fighting in the NHL”

  1. If Don Cherry endorses fighting in hockey then I dare him to get in the ring and take a 3 punches straight to the face to “entertain his audience.” Violence is banned in every sport on the globe. I would never watch or take my children to a hockey game because of the institutional thuggery. The notion of ice hockey as a sport is fantastic, but the NHL and the 1 % team “owners” and “managers” are nothing but pimps and thugs in Mc Mansions, exploiting young boys and men. Bring on a class action law suit against them.

  2. Time to ban fighting?

    Maybe the current crackdown on fighting made enforcers realize their days are numbered and caused them extreme stress in maintaining their jobs to provide for their families?

    Yeah, banning fighting is gonna protect those enforcers as they begin to work 8 to 8 shifts at the mill and pump stop for minimum wage…oh sorry, sell used cars, right?

    All banning fighting will do is keep those suicides out of the headlines. Everything is neat and tidy when we don’t have to be confronted with uncomfortable realities, right? Just sweep them under the rug, who cares about the consequences.


  3. don’t care if there is fighting or not but with out it, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak don’t have jobs in hockey anyways and probably find another way to die.

  4. There is a well put together article and then there is what i have just read here, i’m sorry but this was a joke. Painting hockey fight fans as morons or rednecks is really classy first of all how do you have a job? Also to people saying head injuries are the reason for these deaths, hows eric lindros doing these days? How about marc savard, and less known jeff serowick. All have had concussion filled careers the last two have had career ending concussions are still around. To use peoples death to push your own agenda is said especially since you have no idea what you are talking about when it comes to your own agenda. You say you played really the vauge detail you dolled out make me think you played youth hockey no higher level of competition. Because when you get there, guys get hit from behind cheap shotted, hockey players are generally dirty agressive players i would know unlike you i played at that next level. In hockey there is only so much you can take from an opposing team or player before you see just that person getting a penalty is not enough. You can only be pushed so many times before you need to push back, and if you dont youre going to lose. Case in point both sedins in this years final. Hockey is a game rooted in toughness not in skill, the beautiful moments in hockey games are few annd far between typically hockey is an ugly game of grinding. To get rid of fighting is impossible its built in the fabric of the game, leagues that dont allow fights still have them. The only way erradicate fighting in hockey is to change the way the game was played since its inception. I know the NHL has tried to do that as much as possible, but somethings will always stay the game.

    • – Built into the fabric of the game –

      I have to disagree with that. Both the Olympics and the World Juniors were contested without the need for fisticuffs. It was tremendous hockey: fast paced, action packed, hard hitting and at times elegant and beautiful. There was no unnecessary fighting woven into these series and I certainly didn’t pine for it.

      • Olympic hockey has maybe one big hit a game, and also the world juniors have multiple instances where there have been fights, and situations close to them. I dont consider olympic hockey to be good hockey, i get bored while watchinng it. At the end of the day its a glorified all star game, real hockey is physical real hockey is putting your body on the line as hard as you can to get to that ultimate goal. Give me the stanley cup playoffs any day over the olympics.

  5. I am sorry, but have you never heard of the phrase “Correlation does not equal causation”? Just because 3 NHL enforcers have died this summer does not mean that fighting in the NHL is deadly, or that it needs to be banned. How many Enforcers died last year, the year before that, or the year before that?

    Whether fighting should be a part of hockey is a perfectly debatable subject, but lets not sink to the level of trying to end fighting based upon the tragedies that have occurred this summer.

  6. Chronic Traumatic encephalopathy

    Signs of CTE were first observed in boxers more than 80 years ago. Back then, trainers described affected fighters as being “punch drunk” or “slug nutty”. The first evidence of CTE in an American-football player emerged in 2002, when neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, now co-director of the Brain Injury Research Institute at West Virginia University in Morgantown (which houses a separate brain bank), examined the brain of former NFL player Mike Webster.

    “Anyone who is exposed to mild repetitive head trauma is vulnerable,” McKee says. That includes American-football players as well as rugby, football (soccer) and hockey players, boxers, wrestlers, soldiers, victims of physical abuse and ‘head bangers’ at rock concerts. A 2009 review1 by McKee and her colleagues even includes a case of CTE in a person with dwarfism, who had been knocked out a dozen times while participating in ‘dwarf-throwing’ contests.

    Researchers are still trying to sort out how many hits it takes for an individual to develop the disease and how forceful those hits have to be. Worryingly, McKee’s research suggests that even multiple mild blows that don’t cause symptoms of concussion may be enough to trigger CTE. And some people may be more susceptible genetically than others.

    • Tricia – that’s fascinating stuff and if there had been any remote suggestion that any of these deaths or these men had a connection to CTE, it would be relevant. But there isn’t, so it’s not.

  7. Well put. I don’t watch hockey, but I have been reading a lot about the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in sports with these cases becoming more and more common. What’s more alarming still is how much younger people with these types of injuries are starting to display the destructive symptoms. This is of course not to mention the emotional turmoil that the lifestyle can cause on so many levels.

  8. Fighting in the NHL is nothing new. Sure the guys are bigger, tougher, and stronger, and would rather take the hit than hurt their pride but there is no justification that fighting in hockey is to blame for the three recent deaths.

    The real issues here are deeper than that.

    You look at Boogaard who was known to use substances, who chose to ingest Oxycodone which lead to his demise. A drug is a drug is a drug, be it prescription or illegal; it sure wasn’t his prescription so therefore illegal. These guys have way too much accessibility and money that they think they’re invincible, and then the hockey world is shocked when it goes awry. I am not negating the fact that it is a sad loss, and much too soon, but the abuse that these “tough guys” do to their body off the ice way outweighs the abuse they take on the ice. It is deeper than fighting.

    In Rypien’s case, he was known to have suffered with mental illness his entire life. Truth be told, while playing in the competitive profession that he did may have been trigger points, nine times out of ten mental illness is a genetic predisposition.
    Perhaps the proper help wasn’t sought out or offered, maybe everyone turned a blind eye, or maybe his closest relationships were just too close to see the ticking time bomb. Regardless, Rypien’s mental status decided for him that there was nothing left.

    Guys like Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak work so hard to where they get to (insert NHL: the dreams of so many young athletes) and when they get there, they are given everything provided they maintain and/or improve their skills, focus, and work ethic. These are regular guys that live irregular lifestyles of the grueling NHL schedule, the dinners, the parties, and of course the women who throw themselves at them. Of course they feel invincible. But all of those highs must trigger the lows.

    Is that why Boogaard was taking a highly addictive narcotic the night before he died? Maybe that was Rypien’s trigger point. As for Belak, well only time will tell what might have been going on. One can only imagine what might have happened that afternoon. While I can’t guarantee he wasn’t thinking about his March 20th, 2007 fight with Cam Janssen, or the other 135 fights he’d ever been in, I can sleep at night with knowing the probability is that he wasn’t.

    There are so many NHL Tough Guys, and yet I realize that the deaths of three enforcers in the same summer is rattling in many lives, it seems merely coincidental. I don’t think this will be the last of the unfortunate incidents but I hope that we don’t see as many as we have in such a short time. Then again, death always comes in three’s and seven’s.

  9. I don’t watch it but MMA is now huge and has pretty much made boxing a punchline to a bad joke. So much for your theory on violence is not selling and being banned. No it’s not the bare knuckle brawling that most NHL fans love that kills these guys. It’s the use of steroids, HGH or prescription medication given them by those incredibly important and talented behind the scenesguys, the trainers. And not to mention in most cases underlying psychological issues created this epidemic. Concussions? Please. It’s an excuse to get full pay and sit and say you have headaches and don’t want to be out in public and bright lights hurt my eyes. More like you’re a coward and got you’re bell rung and don’t have the courage to get up. You’re simply not tough enough and havent got what it takes to fight through against guys who want it more and are tougher, Eric Lindros Marc Savard. oh ya look at them all flopping around the ice playing half a season Tim Connolly, because he got hit. ya pretty good deal you made for yourself. Work half the time get full pay.

  10. Well I read it and I’m still waiting for the point. A poor article that expresses a repeat of one mans opinion, but what it lacks, is any connection to the death of 3 hockey players.

    The relevant common link is as likely to be that they had too much money and too much time on their hands in their careers as anything else and at this stage, there is nothing, emphasise nothing, to suggest that being a tough guy is in any way connected to their deaths.
    So if you want to be a journalist, put together a connected, relevant, constructive article. Not a personal rant that skews the facts.

  11. Also just to clarify my comments so that they aren’t misconstrued I’m not saying concussions can’t lead to more problems. However Gary Bettman mentioned a stat this year about the % of concussions that come from fights in the NHL and it’s actually a much smaller number than the concussions that come from in-game plays.

    Either way, we lost a funny guy with lots of life today, and for that I am very sad. Wade was one of the likeable characters during the big rivalries in the early 2000’s with the Leafs/Flyers/Sens, etc.

    RIP Wade

  12. Completely and respectfully disagree. Fighting has been in hockey forever. The amount of fights is down every decade and I doubt the punches are causing any more problems now than they did in the 70’s or 80’s and there weren’t a lot of suicide then. What I think the NHL does need to consider is a more aggressive counseling program for anyone with personal issues. The majority of fights in hockey are just a lot of grappling and trying to get an arm free and maybe connecting on a punch or two if you’re lucky.

    There hasn’t been any scientific correlation to a hockey fight and depression/suicide. You can’t just change the game based on a suspicion that you might have. Maybe the link is that they have the mindset to be an enforcer which means they had a lot of anger and aggression? That also leads to depression. It has no direct correlation with the actual fights.

    I disagree but that’s why we have these discussions. Thanks for sharing your side.

    • Things have changed in society, people are stronger(growth hormones, steroids), competition is more fierce, narcotics are rampant and way more people than you know are struggling with addiction. Fast lives, mixed with high pressure and expectation and physical demand, in addition to punches and elbows to the brain are a deadly mixture. Fighting in sport is one part of the equation that can actually be managed.

      Understanding all of the aspects of this issue requires using non-tunnel vision.

      • Completely disagree Tricia. If you want to talk about using illegal substances as a reason for this than that has ZERO to do with the enforcer role or fighting. Those substances are banned. I don’t know how you can accuse people of tunnel vision when you’ve admitted you don’t watch hockey. Everyone who doesn’t agree with you it seems like you have a smart remark for. Please be mature about it and you will gain respect.

        • Did you read anything that I wrote??? Clearly you aren’t getting my point and it seems as if you didn’t bother to try. Pointless argument then.

  13. I hate to break this to you but banning fighting will not stop players from dying too soon. So when the first scorer dies because of hits to the head, are we going to ban hitting? How far is too far basically?

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