Here is our weekly trip around the hockey blogosphere bringing you some of the best articles that you may have missed. In addition to the usual great hockey writing around from the internet, this edition features intelligent, insightful, and introspective writing in the wake of Wade Belak’s untimely passing. If you can’t get through all of these articles (they’re all very good), please make sure you catch the last two articles from Hockey Wilderness. Both are fantastic reads that center on hockey, depression, and the real world.
NHL General Managers are held in high regard regardless of qualifications, past or current performance. The worst of them are considered experts and their decisions, even the terrible decisions, are discussed with reverence by intermission panels as if though each decision was passed down from god himself. The mainstream media, as has been demonstrated by a number of other writers, aren’t the people with the nerve to question the very people who grant them the keys to the kingdom. Nowhere is this more evident but on those very intermission panels. It seems as if each one of those panels employs an expert who was a miserable failure at his job. So when we in the ‘sphere talk about making intelligent moves, we’re often directly at odds with the primary source of sports news for the average fan.
It’s a very unique experience watching ownership nearly ruin a team that you love. That’s what happened when Oren Koules’ and co. came to Tampa Bay. He treated a professional sports franchise like a team in a fantasy league and that didn’t work out for anyone. He was a first time owner who might not have known exactly what he was getting involved in, but just because you have the money to buy a team does not mean that you should.
Bolland is the only Hawk who remained in town all summer — most likely upon fiance’s orders — and thus has gotten the brunt of it from Hawks Strength and Conditioning Coach Paul Goodman, who sounds like a total nutcase, in the nicest sense of the word.
This is good news in that A) Bolland didn’t suffer any setbacks from his recovery from a concussion while working out — something Penguins fans wish Sidney Crosby could say — and B) that someone who had back surgery about two years ago is taking his physical health seriously.
Unlike some of his fellow prospects, the one who will be under the most scrutiny is Filatov. Sure, many eyes will cast in the direction of Ottawa’s hyped prospects like Mika Zibanejad, Jared Cowen and David Rundblad but none of these players have arrived in Ottawa having played in the NHL for the past three seasons – that is if you feel inclined to call them seasons – and in desperate need of a clean slate.
Filatov’s inconsistent production (or lack thereof) in a 44 NHL game sample size has prevented him from meeting the lofty expectations that accompanies a player with his offensive skill set. To put this in perspective, he’s played in 6 more NHL games than Bobby Butler.
Hockey Hall of Fame former coach Scotty Bowman, the NHL’s all-time wins leader, actually loves today’s technology. He has an iPad and top-of-the-line smartphone, and was one of the first coaches to embrace the Internet for gathering information from all sources in the mid-1990s. But the 77-year-old living legend admits he might have had a tougher time coaching players in today’s high-tech era.
“There’s a lot of things competing for their attention today,” Bowman said. “It’s just a lot different. I don’t know if it’s that teams aren’t as close as they used to be, but players don’t seem to need to rely on each other for company as much like they used to. Now they can just go talk to a million other friends if they want, on what do you call it — Facebook?”
With those qualifiers made – the first step towards fixing a cultural problem, it to admit you’ve got a problem – and like it or not Canucks fans, we’ve got one. It manifests itself in malignant ways that embarrass the entire city (the Lucic harrassment, the riot) but also in more subtle, benign ways. Think about the “REF YOU SUCK” chant that the regulars at Rogers Arena are so attached to – is there another fan-base that has a chant like that which they go to habitually? Because for Canucks fans – it doesn’t even matter whether or not the ref makes a terrible call or not, “REF YOU SUCK” is just a Rogers Arena standard.
Now that chant is pretty harmless, how does that link directly into looting behavior? It doesn’t. But the chant is based on a paranoid worldview (they’re out to get us!) that the group (Canucks fans) have internalized and identified with. As with any other fan-base we’re permissive of a certain type of delusion the reenforces our group identity (Oilers fans – it’s still the eighties!) but our particular mixture is paranoid, overly-sensitive and aggressive.
The important point though is that when the old farts go on about fighting being an integral part of the game, guys like Steve MacIntyre actually aren’t in the tradition of hockey up until 1980 and even then only barely. They’ve only really become a part of the game in the 1990s and 2000s. You cannot support an argument for their continued existence in the game on the basis of history.
I’ve mused before that rosters are too big in the NHL. We see coaches trying to kill games with fourth lines, sending them out to ensure that nothing happens for 40 seconds before scooting back to the bench. The existence of the pure goon is, I think, another piece of evidence in support of that view. Coaches have determined that the 18th roster spot is of such little value that you can safely fill it with a guy who can’t skate. Coaches didn’t used to think that. The expansion in rosters is the obvious reason that they do now.
Many of us know people who have battled depression. Some of us have known people who have committed suicide. I had a friend who took her own life. Of all the funerals I have attended for young people who have departed too soon – and there have been far too many – hers was the most haunting. She didn’t die in an accident. She didn’t die of cancer or a heart problem or an easy-to-accept physical ailment. She left everyone wondering what they had missed, how they could have stopped it.
I’m sure Rypien’s family and friends are going through that now, along with the hockey world at large.
Wade Belak tragedy
In the wake of yet another NHL tragedy this summer, there have been some great pieces starting to explode Belak, depression, and the NHL/NHLPA’s role in it all. Each one of these articles is great on its own– but reading them all together shows just how important it is for the league to get a handle on this situation. It’s too soon to make definitive connections; but it’s not too early to start asking the difficult questions.
Eleven summers ago two University of Manitoba students blew off their summer employment and spent the last of their savings driving from Winnipeg to Los Angeles to spend a month lying on the beach and getting drunk on Sunset Strip.
It was these circumstances that led to me meeting Wade Belak. Our first night in California my friend Ray and I found ourselves drinking at the Saddle Ranch under the allure of a mechanic bull. Early in the evening the DJ played New Orleans Is Sinking by the Tragically Hip and it immediately outted the other Canadian in the bar, Wade Belak.
Then there is retirement. Hipple said it can be “devastating” – loss of identity, loss of connections to teammates, loss of support network. Said Kutcher: “If you define your self-worth based on statistics and playing sports, and you’ve been doing that your whole life, and that’s taken away from you, you either have to be able to adjust to that or be able to replace that in some way.” The roar of the crowd is difficult to replace.
All of this is amplified for NHL enforcers. Their anguish is well-documented – the feeling in the pits of their stomachs before a fight, that they aren’t valued as much as skill players, that they have to fight to stay in the game. Enforcers are expected to be even tougher than usual, and indeed they are often clinging to their jobs. That can make it easier to slip into depression and harder to seek help.
“It’s a tremendous burden, for sure,” Kutcher said. “That alone is going to cause significant depression at a much higher rate than people who don’t do that job. … Obviously the big stars are more able to be injured than the guys who might be on the cusp. It’s that chunk of people, the ones that are on the cusp, on the fringe, that probably need a little more attention.”
And here we are. As for a common thread, it’s not yet clear. Yes, Boogaard, Rypien and Belak were fighters, above all. Yes, there is a long and growing history that that job takes a real and sometimes terrible toll. If Belak did commit suicide, then his name has to be added to a heartbreaking list. Former enforcer Georges Laraque spoke to TSN radio Wednesday, and he said, “I hated fighting. I did it because it was my job. I hated promoting violence. I hated it, I hated it, I hated it.” In that, he is far from alone.
So while Rypien was afflicted with deep depression, and Boogaard was on painkillers, we don’t know why Wade Belak died. Not yet. Maybe never. We just know that there aren’t an awful lot of 40-goal scorers or puck-moving defencemen dying young, and that the men whose role it is to fight in the NHL are starting to vanish like professional wrestlers. This shouldn’t be a political issue in the sport; it should be a human one. And at some point, some deadly serious questions have to be asked about the role of enforcers in hockey, if only to understand why these men are gone too soon. This has been an unspeakable summer, which is exactly why it needs to be talked about.
“This job is so hard, physically and mentally,” said Laraque. “You can go to a movie theatre the night before a game, and you’re thinking of the fight you’re going to get into the next day. Like, you have to fight Boogaard. Then that game’s over and it’s like ‘OK, I have to fight Jody Shelley.’ After that it’s Brian McGrattan. You try not to think about it, but you start with the drugs or the alcohol and that creates the problem.”
In that silence, we look around, we ask each other what can we do to help. What can we do to make it stop, to make it… better.
End fighting in the NHL. Wise up, guys, you’re killing yourselves, we say. We admit they have a choice, and then hedge by saying that they had little other to offer. Damn you NHL, and damn you NHLPA, why don’t you care? Why don’t you do something? Fix this. Fix it for us. Take away our fear and our discomfort. Help us become numb once again. Why, oh why, oh powerful lords of our game, why do you not answer our calls? Show your faces.
I’ve suffered with depression off and on since junior high. It’s always been there, but it first seriously manifested itself at the end of my senior year of college, right before graduation. I was questioning my career choice, and how good I would even be at the job. I was scared and uncertain, and my friends generally didn’t want to hear it. I learned quickly to not talk about how I felt with anyone, because those that I confided in wanted nothing to do with the problem, but those who I kept on putting on a happy face for, well, they still wanted to hang out. I didn’t seriously contemplate suicide then, but life was a chore, and it was made more so of one by the fact that how I felt – the fact that when I was really myself, I was insufferable to be around – drove away the people I cared about the most.
This isn’t going to show up on some NHL mandated test. People can’t tell those that the care about the most how they feel, and they don’t want to ruin their jobs – they’ll act and answer the way that society expects them to. They’ll continue to be secretly square pegs in round holes, knowing that they don’t fit and that at any minute they’ll pop out for all to see. But they’ll keep their fingers crossed that they can get away with this charade just a little while longer. They’re people like the rest of us.