Belak, Boogaard, Rypien : Tough Guy Suicide

Written by: Iain Carnegie, BBBR

(Montreal, QC.) I’m about to become very unpopular. But that’s part of the job. I don’t want to become the Christie Blatchford of NHL writers, but I’m willing to take the risk.

Last night, the terrible news that retired “tough guy” and NHL enforcer Wade Belak had taken his own life, lashed across the world-wide web, television news streams, and radio alike. Although I’ve grown up as a Montreal Canadiens fan all of my life, I spent 30 of my 41 years on this earth in Toronto.

I grew up watching the likes of Borje Salming, Daryl Sittler, and Mike Palmateer. Even if I didn’t support them, I was infiltrated with their lives as a Habs fan embedded in “Leafs Nation”.

There was no difference when it came to Belak.

I knew his game, and I knew his shining personality. You can’t live in the heart of Toronto and not be party to that. He became known as a slugger that knew his role, and never questioned it. He proved night in and night out that he was there to fulfill that role with vigour. He was also tested as a defenseman, and moved around in the line-up, so he might fulfill a hockey role as well. Something rarely done with this breed of player.

But in watching Wade Belak through the years, it was also apparent that he was a different kind of guy. He had passion for what he did, but it didn’t seem to consume him like it has with others. He loved playing the game, had a wonderful off-ice personality, and most deemed him as a player who was well-adjusted to his role.

Many a night , with a gleam in his eye, he would retort the Toronto media with a joviality seldom seen amongst players in the league.

Alternately, side effects have been talked about by players like Brantt Myhres, who’ve discussed their inability to cope with the position they’re placed in; to fight instead of play the game. Myhres spoke candidly about the illness he felt in anticipation of fighting George Laraque, a fight that would end his career when Laraque broke his orbital bone.

Subsequently, Laraque himself states in a blog post about how difficult it is mentally to be an enforcer in the NHL:

“What might surprise some people is that the mental part of fighting can sometimes be tougher than the physical part. A lot of the time, fighting starts a couple days before the actual game. You look at the schedule and get really worked up because you have a game against a team that has a top tough guy and mentally that’s tough. You think about the guy, you watch his fight on YouTube, you try to tell yourself it’s going to be okay but it’s not. No one can ever understand this pressure unless you’re a fighter yourself.” ~ George Laraque

I have watched interview after interview, read quote after quote, where some of hockey’s toughest men lament over the role they were asked to play. The detriment it had on their families, their friends, and their co-players.

In the end, it would seem that detriment is most played out in themselves.

We have seen and had to bear witness to three young men, who held that role in the league, becoming corpses because of the mental strain that this role so obviously has placed on them.

I listen to Don Cherry in his interview with The Fifth Estate, “The Code”, and it makes me cringe!

How this man can still defend the enforcer position in the game that we love so much still ceases to amaze me. As he talks openly about how no one goes after the stars (“nobody’s going after Crosby”), it makes me wonder what he might say today. We have clearly lost Savard to violence in the game, and potentially may have lost Crosby as well. His defense regarding incidents like McSorley on Brashear, as well as Bertuzzi on Moore are ludicrous.

The enforcer position in hockey needs to dissipate. It’s time for the game to get back to its roots. There is no place for grooming grown men into the position of a professional fighter within the league.

Three men that were given that spot lie in coffins today.

Physically it’s a tough place to be in, but more-so, mentally it’s a position that seems to open a Pandora’s Box for instability and issues of mental health.

For Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak, our heads drop in sorrow, and our hearts melt in shame.

Human beings are being sacrificed for a position that doesn’t belong in any sport. A single hockey fight will never replace the loving lives of these men, that families held so dear.

BBBR sends prayers to the families of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, Bob Probert, and others who have left us far too early, in a sacrifice that should never have been.

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About Iain Carnegie (@emann_222 on Twitter)

I have followed the Montreal Canadiens for over twenty years, even while living in the heart of Toronto. I spent 5 years in the mecca of hockey, moving to the Plateau region of Montreal in the summer of 2009, I've been writing extensively on the Habs franchise at Bleed Blue Blanc Rouge BBBR has now moved to it's new home here at WordPress, , where content continues to matter.
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5 Responses to Belak, Boogaard, Rypien : Tough Guy Suicide

  1. ChrisGrenon says:

    Good work Iain,

    I could do without fighting in hockey… That said, I will confess to having fiat-pumped when Ryan White took on Johnny Boychuk when he tried to take PK Subban’s knee out.

    I think the role of the enforcer has to disappear. No one needs a big tough guy, who can barely skate and will only fight the other team’s tough guy. The posturing and nonsense that leads to those fights is anticlimactic, and the fights themselves tend to be a snoozefest… And most teams cannot afford to reserve a place on their roster for a bench warmer, essentially rendering a whole line useless.

    Back in the day, teams had a tough guy, and thise could still play. Look at knuckles Nilan and you can see the difference with some of the current day goons.

    I think that any team needs a few guys that can keep the other guys honest, make sure they understand they will have to defend their actions if they step out of line. I don’t think that exists with an enforcer on the roster. 9 times out of 10, he’s on the bench, and when he comes out, it will be to fight his counterpart. When the other team doesn’t have a designated Grade A tough guy, they can’t fight. What did Laraque’s presence on the roster do to help protect the small guys? Absolutely nothing.

    Time to completely eliminate that role. The Habs have moved on from that, and I don’t think they are worse for wear. In fact, they now have an effective 4th line, giving the coach more options. (I won’t start a debate on whether JM plays the 4th line anyway here today).

    Thanks Iain!

    • Thanks for the read and comments Chris.

      I agree with you in regards to having those mements when you still can’t help but have pride when one player stands up for another. My “fist-pumping moment” last year (and I probably said this a million times – so I apologize) was Ryan White stepping up to Clayton Stoner during the 8-1 massacre in Minnesota.

      But as you point out, there’s a difference between being able to handle confrontation when it occurs as opposed to going out to create that confrontation in the enforcer role.

      Even when these tough guys have some hockey skill that can be put to use, this summer has clealry shown that the weight of the job has some serious mental repercussions (ask Nick Kypreos for one).

      It’s time to remove this player position from the league!

  2. mbouf says:

    I don’t see how this post could anger anyone.

    What I do find absolutely hilarious is that you mention in this blog how Don Cherry defended these enforcers on The Code and now he’s in a potential law suit for calling three ex-enforcers “pukes”. Don Cherry of all people is not someone I even want to hear talking about this topic considering his countless Rock em Sock em DVDs. He is SO two faced when it comes to this subject. I don’t know how ANYONE could defend McSorley or Bertuzzi either. But that is another matter.

    Thank you for expressing yourself on this matter and taking it to heart.

    I must admit, I do love a good hockey fight. However, I agree that it is pointless to have this “enforcer” guys who get dressed and sit on the bench and do nothing. These guys grew up playing their hearts out for the game they love and if their talent is not good enough to get them in the NHL, they shouldn’t be drafted and put on a team to be used for their size once in a while. They then stop working on their actual hockey skills and only start working on building more muscle. That is where it gets depressing and I get why the things that happened to these players, happened.

    As a player coming from the women’s game where there is NO “hitting” allowed (there is still body contact but not checking) and if you ever even think about dropping the gloves for a fight it’s an automatic 5 game suspension I have to say, please leave fighting in the NHL. There is SO much more ugly stick work behind the play in women’s hockey…slashes, trips, hooks etc…because we don’t ever get to vent our frustration/anger. Yes, the game should be about skill…but with such fierce competition, every once in a while it would be nice to set someone straight with a nice clean hit and if it leads to pushing and shoving the players shouldn’t be ejected and suspended (which would happen in women’s hockey) There is a fine line between fighting for the sake of the competition and fighting for entertainment. I don’t agree with starting a fight to just get the crowd going, this ain’t Hollywood, but I do agree with fighting for the emotion of the game. (If that made any sense)

    • It’s always refreshing to hear commentary from someone who plays the game. Even more interesting to get the viewpoint of a future CWHL’er because your perspective is from a different angle.

      I think I can say that I don’t mind the odd hockey fight as well. In many ways, it’s to be expected when tempers are flaring, frustration arises, and the sport is played with so much contact. But like you, I have no time for this whole enforcer role. It takes away from the game, and clearly is not doing the player any positive service.

      The Don Cherry issue is fascinating. The apology given – although well spoken and worded – seemed disingenious. It’s always easy to say I’m sorry after you “get caught”. I assume an impending lawsuit has that effect on people. It’s time that CBC re-evaluated their relationship with Mr. Cherry, and at the very least, hold him accountable for the words he speaks.

      Once again, thank you for supporting BBBR and being so diligent in leaving your thoughts and opinions. I’m always interested in hearing them. They are intellegent, and thought provoking Mel!

      • mbouf says:

        Well, I know CBC does not like Don Cherry very much. They are a public broadcaster and the things he says are VERY politcally incorrect. His choice of words, his comments towards certain races of people etc… The problem is, he brings in big buckaroos for CBC and well, money talks. Doesn’t matter if every producer at CBC can’t stand the guy, wishes he’d shut up and they pray they don’t get sued…he’s going to be there as long as people give HNIC/Coach’s corner ratings and as long as he rakes in the dough.

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