Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dying young - It's not just for rockstars anymore

The hockey world got another jolt yesterday with the news that former Vancouver Canuck and recent Winnipeg Jets signee Rick Rypien had been found dead in his home in Alberta.  He was 27 years old.  Word around the internets is that he suffered from depression and may have taken his own life.

Rypien's death comes only a few months after the loss of New York Rangers forward Derek Boogaard, who accidentally overdosed on a lethal combination of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone.  The 28 year old Boogaard was also suffering the after-affects of multiple concussions and the possibility of a return to the NHL was questionable.

Besides dying young, Rypien and Boogaard had a couple other things in common.  Both were troubled off the ice - Boogaard's death came just after completing a stint in rehab, while Rypien had taken multiple leaves from the Canucks for "personal reasons" and was suspended last season when he lost his cool and went after a fan taunting him from the stands.  And as players, they were both what the hockey world refers to as "enforcers", meaning they were better known for their fighting abilities than actual hockey playing skills.  

Last year legendary enforcer Bob Probert, whose career was marred by drug, alcohol and legal problems, died unexpectedly at the age of 45.  His brain was donated to a Boston University Medical School program (as was Boogaard's) that found evidence of chronic traumatic encophalopathy (CTE), a condition similar to boxer's dementia, to be present.  From Wikipedia:
CTE has been most commonly found in professional athletes participating in gridiron football, ice hockey, professional wrestling and other contact sports, who have experienced head trauma, resulting in characteristic degeneration of brain tissue...
Individuals with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy may show symptoms of dementia such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression which may appear within months of the trauma or many decades later.
It's a role every NHL team has, the intimidating tough guy who will beat the crap out of you if you mess with his more skilled teammates, and less heroically, pick a fight in the waning minutes of a hopelessly lost game in order to make a statement that if you can't beat 'em, you can at least beat 'em up.  But the downside of the enforcer role isn't lost on even the most ardent fan: The common joke is that when this player is on your team he's an "enforcer", but if he's on the opposing team, he's a "goon".

Fighting has long been perceived as a black eye to professional hockey (mainly by non-fans and non-hockey media) and historically hockey fans respond by defending their beloved game even more passionately.  However these recent deaths are starting to prompt even dedicated fans to question the wisdom of the emphasis put on pugilism on the ice.  None of these guys died outright from fighting-related injuries, but deadly pattern is emerging nonetheless.  Active players have even begun donating their brains to science in advance; Willie Mitchell of the Kings (who has suffered several concussions in his career) made the decision last season.

And it's not just the guys who are suited up mainly for their fighting skills who are suffering.  Keith Primeau, whose stellar career was ended by a concussion, instigated players brain donation (Mitchell made his announcement in the wake of Primeau's decision and Probert's death).  The league is also struggling with the ongoing absence of concussed superstar Sidney Crosby, who has been out since January after taking a couple of hard hits to the head.  The game is rough enough as it is.  You throw in the part of hockey where it's acceptable for guys to punch each other in the brain as simply their role on the team and it's probably a wonder more of them haven't succumbed early.

Greg Wyshynski (aka Puck Daddy) published a fantastic article today in the wake of Rypien's death: Rick Rypien and the crisis of faith on fighting.   It's an excellent and objective look at the pros and cons of fighting in the sport and how it is perceived by both fans and "outsiders".

The National Hockey League is the pinnacle of the sport of hockey.  It is the ultimate dream of players from around the world who uproot their families and leave their homes for years of their adult lives to relocate to North America to play in this league.  It may sound cruel, but just maybe, if you don't have the necessary skills you shouldn't be in the NHL.  You should be boxing, or perhaps in that other "sport" where guys just get in a cage and brutally kick the crap out of each other if you're into that sort of thing.

Personally, I've always felt that the league could survive just fine without fighting and it wouldn't damper my enthusiasm as a fan at all if that happened.  As mentioned in Wyshynski's article, college and international leagues play successfully without the emphasis on it.  Olympic hockey isn't diminished by the absence of enforcers.  I rag on NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (the league boss fans love to hate) all the time, but the man could redeem himself one hundred percent if he had the guts to come down hard on this aspect of the game that has become a nightmare for more than just the NHL's PR guys.

Eliminating - or at least greatly reducing - fighting in the NHL may no longer simply be a matter of making pro hockey more palatable to the rest of the sports world or to recruit more fans.  Many enforcers may play out their careers and enjoy their retirement without any lingering affects and without resorting to substance abuse or suicide, but do they outweigh the untimely losses of the Proberts, Boogaards and Rypiens of the world?  It may no longer be a matter of image, but simply that we need to take better care of these guys, who will play their hearts and brains out to in order to make a place for themselves in the NHL even if it kills them.

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