(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.