The tragic death of Wade Belak, another hockey player gone too soon this summer, is plainly gut-wrenching. My first reaction to hearing the news of Wade Belak was, not again. The hockey community has taken another direct shot, and this one stings just as much as the heartbreaking losses of Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien earlier this summer. Collectively, it is almost too much to bear.
I had no plans to write about this topic before, but for whatever reason Belak’s apparent suicide got to me. Three guys, all loved by their fanbases (and beyond), all with the same job description, but each with his own issues to contend with, all gone. Not three hockey players, three human beings.
So first, I thought about the men we’ve lost too soon, their families, friends, teammates and fans. Secondly, I asked why? Why did this have to happen? How could it have been prevented? What could anyone have done differently?
Everyone has their own theories. It has brought plenty of people out saying we should ban fighting in the NHL, and with good reason. As someone who enjoys that aspect of hockey, it’d be hard to see it go. However, the people with that opinion are not wrong, especially not now.
None of us can definitively say fighting did or did not contribute to the deaths of these three men. I won’t speculate much more about that. However, because of the similarities among these three, we have to cautiously examine, not just fighting itself and its physical toll, but the mental and emotional conflicts they may bring about.
There have been generations of fighters in the NHL that have lived full, happy lives, so there is a track record that what has transpired this summer is not the norm. However, three is a trend. Albeit a small and recent trend, but a scary one. A trend that makes it only appropriate to continue to ask questions. To examine in depth.
One of the things that has been talked about a lot when speaking of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak is the fighting they had to do at the NHL level. However, we often forget that most NHL enforcers have been fighting since they were 16 years old in junior hockey.
While people are beginning to jump on the “Ban Fighting in the NHL” bandwagon, there appears to be an overlooked, yet increasingly more obvious choice. What if we were to ban fighting at the junior level?
Before you start shouting at the top of your lungs, this is not a suggestion that I’ve come to lightly.
However, as I looked at the statistics for Belak, Boogaard and Rypien, these guys had been scrapping since they were teenagers, a lot. It makes me wonder if three or four years of junior hockey, fighting regularly, was beneficial. It may have helped each make it to the NHL, as I’m sure the toughness factor was a big one for making Belak a first-round choice. But was it actually beneficial to these players’ actual hockey development?
Michael Farber wrote about the mental and emotional struggle of being an NHL enforce for Sports Illustrated in 1997. That story is about grown men, not 17-year-old boys. Can you imagine dealing with that kind of stress and anxiety on a nightly basis as a teenager? Not to mention all the other normal stresses, anxieties and concerns of being a teenager.
Additionally, those grown men fighting for their paychecks, literally, are actually getting paychecks. In Junior hockey there’s no guarantee you’re ever going to make it to the NHL and there’s not much more than a weekly stipend for incidentals that compensates you for your work. Yet each team has an enforcer or two, typically, in Junior hockey. He’s usually anywhere from 18 to 19 and this might be the highest level of hockey he ever plays, outside of the low-level minor league team that will undoubtedly snap him up as sideshow act assuming his NHL dreams are dashed.
And while there may be an emotional toll that fighting can take on a young man, it’s difficult to quantify. The physical toll that fighting can take is easy to see visibly, but also, as research continues to show, there’s a lot more beneath the skin that we’re becoming more aware of.
Fluto Shinzawa, of the Boston Globe, recently spoke with Dr. Robert Cantu of Boston University about the perils of fighting, particularly in Junior hockey. Cantu’s group at BU and its Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has plenty of research to share just how dangerous fighting in junior hockey can be:
According to Dr. Robert Cantu, the co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, younger brains are not as myelinated, meaning they have less insulation than brains of adults. Also, boys’ necks are weaker than those of adults. Their heads are disproportionately large for their bodies.
“That sets up a younger person to have injuries to the brain that are greater than those sustained at a later age from the same force,’’ Cantu said. “It takes more force later on to produce the same injury.
“It’s important not to have a head injury at any age. It’s particularly important not to have it at a young age. Fighting is certainly to be discouraged, especially at young ages, for those reasons.’’
In addition to the increased likelihood of brain trauma at a younger age, there’s risk to develop CTE because of that brain trauma early in life. CTE has become increasingly infamous in contact sport circles. Noted NHL tough guy Bob Probert was discovered to have had it, as have several now deceased former NFL players. Shinzawa writes:
If researchers can determine whether players subjected to bout-related concussions at early ages are at greater risk, fighting could come under more scrutiny. There is not enough research to prove that a hockey player who has been fighting and absorbing head shots since his teenage years will be more greatly affected later in life. However, Cantu points to brains of three youngsters (17, 18, and 21) at the BU center that had early-onset CTE.
There’s not enough research yet, but would it be a good idea for junior hockey leagues to be more proactive on this issue in order to not only protect tomorrow’s future stars, but tomorrow’s healthy adults?
There will be more research done in the future, but knowing that head trauma is bad, particularly at a young age, which shouldn’t take a doctor to tell you anyway, is fighting all that necessary in junior?
Junior hockey is meant for development for a future in professional hockey.
Fighting is a skill that can help you get to the NHL, so it’s no surprise that Junior hockey allows it in its rules.
The pro-style played in Junior hockey certainly helps add to the development, but if we took fighting out of it, would the games be any worse off? More importantly would the players’ development be hindered? I think not.
College hockey does not allow fighting, but the games are no less physical or exciting because of it, at least not to me. Because of that, players can focus on skills, building strength and playing a smart, physical game. Despite the lack of fighting in college hockey, there have been plenty of NHL enforcers that attained a college degree, most notably George Parros, the mustachioed pugilist for the Anaheim Ducks, who graduated from Princeton, no less.
If fighting was taken out of Junior hockey, we’re giving the future professional players a bit of a break. It might mean less kids who’s primary skill is fighting will have the chance to play in Junior and perhaps that means it’s the end of their hockey career. That’s unfortunate, but for the vast majority of kids who have signed on to Junior clubs in the Canadian Hockey League, USHL, NAHL, EJHL or wherever, they’ve done so in order to help them develop as hockey players, to reach their goals.
If you eliminate three to four years of fighting for a player, that’s three to four years that player is free from situations in which there is a higher risk for head trauma. Additionally, it saves those kids from the mental and emotional conflicts fighting may bring in those most formative years.
We know that fighting can cause bodily harm, but as we’ve learned from stories like the one Farber wrote in 1997, the mental toll can be serious. While we don’t want to speculate about the recent deaths and what led to them, they’re making us think. What can we do? How do we stop this from happening again?
I don’t know, but if we’re truly worried, perhaps it’s time we reexamine what we’re allowing our young hockey players to put themselves through.