Wade Belak was found dead in a Toronto hotel/condo complex Wednesday afternoon. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
I remember the first time I realized NHL players weren’t superhuman immortals: the day Pelle Lindbergh died in a horrific car crash. It was November of 1985 and I was a 13-year-old who thought the world of guys who could play the game at its ultimate level.
My grandmother worked at the old CCM plant in Toronto’s west end and I used to head over there at times to meet Maple Leafs players when they stopped in to grab some equipment. They looked like they hadn’t a care in the world – young, healthy guys who always had time for a gangly, awkward autograph seeker. So when the news came that Lindbergh had died in a car crash, I was stunned. But when I heard he crashed into a wall – and that his blood alcohol level was more than double the allowable limit at the time – I remember being devastated. Not only did he end his own life – he seriously injured passengers who were with him. It was the height of reckless behavior and it deflated my sense that players were to be blindly worshipped as infallible entities.
I thought of Lindbergh on three separate occasions this summer: the death-by-overdose of Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard in May; the suicide of Canucks tough guy Rick Rypien in mid-August; and Wednesday, when the body of retired enforcer Wade Belak was found lifeless in a Toronto condo/hotel. We still don’t know the specific details of Belak’s demise, but any time a 35-year-old man as outwardly gregarious as he was meets an untimely end, red flags should be shooting up all around us.
With three tragic deaths in as many months, this has become the summer when we officially ran out of excuses for not awakening to the not-so-glamorous realities of the world of professional sports.
There no longer should be a shred of doubt that the players we idolize and deify are as capable of making rash, horrific decisions as any of us. The idea that all players are at peace with their place in the hockey world and what is asked of them – this nebulous, flawed concept of “inherent risk” assumed by players – has been exposed as utterly false. And the idea we’re supposed to look beyond the damage that is done to them simply because they make millions of dollars is an idea that should be thrown on the trash pile where it belongs.
I don’t care what anyone tries to argue – our personal entertainment shouldn’t matter as much as it does at present. The game itself isn’t as important as the people who play it. We owe the young men who ride buses for nothing and sacrifice their teenage years much more than a bunch of zeros at the end of a paycheck and a cold shove into the real world once their bodies are of no use to the business of the game.
If we want to make hockey players more capable of coping with the pressures of life in the pro game and life after the pro game, we have to demand more of them as they make their way through the developmental ranks – and ask less of them in terms of what they put themselves through for our viewing jollies.
The lionization/deification of players now begins long prior to the world junior tournament. We know the names of 14-year-olds to look for on the horizon, but never see them as insecure kids with the same problems as any other youth. All we demand of them is to be focused, brave enough to “suck up” any injured part of them, and ready to play the next game. For that, we convince them they’re bulletproof. Yet when they’re done, either after practice or at the end of their careers, we far too often release them into the wild to fend for themselves, without any sense of structure and without the constant adulation that follows them everywhere until it ceases abruptly.
At a basic structural level, we are simply not equipping players with the same life skills – and we’re certainly not demanding they mature in areas outside of hockey. There is no committee that needs to be convened to confirm this. The proof is right there in front of us – or at least, in front of those of us who aren’t bending over backward to avoid facing it.
If we don’t begin to have more adult conversations about this stuff and quit chalking it up as mere unfortunate events that never could be predicted, we’ll continue to see players make choices that affect many more people than just themselves. We’ll see more Steve Durbanos, more Bryan Fogartys, more Steve Chiassons, more John Kordics.
In all my dealings with Belak – when we met on the set of TSN’s Off The Record, or when he came out of the Maple Leafs dressing room to answer questions – I never would have guessed he’d join a long line of NHLers gone too soon. That he did should sound an alarm in every corner of the hockey world.
Players are more than just names we root for, slag off, pick in a fantasy pool, or snarl at behind the safety of arena glass. They are sons and husbands, fathers and brothers and friends. And their pain is as real as anyone’s.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.