SUN Hockey Pool

Why are hockey players dying?

Wade Belak fights with George Parros in Anaheim, Calif., Jan. 9, 2008. (CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/Getty...

Wade Belak fights with George Parros in Anaheim, Calif., Jan. 9, 2008. (CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/Getty Images)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:35 AM ET

It's so easy to connect the dots and get from there to here.

Three relatively young men, three guys who fought for a living in the NHL, three lives ended too soon.

Knee jerk reaction: get rid of fighting.

Get rid of enforcers to save them from themselves.

It could well be that there is a connection between what Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak did for a living and the sad, too-soon ending to their lives.

Does anybody really know what happened to Belak in the last hours of his life?

Is there anybody out there who can tell you what was going through his mind in his final hours?

Boogaard? Rypien?

It is possible, though probably unlikely, that being enforcers in the NHL had less to do with each of them dying in this sad spring and summer.

But certainly the NHL and the NHL Players Association need to be asking the question. They need to ask the question for the good of the peers they leave behind. They need to ask the question for the good of the families and friends of every NHL player.

It's so easy to leap to conclusions, but in each case does anybody really know what happened beyond the easy generalizations?

Why? Why did this have to happen?

There's a long list of people for whom the NHL and the NHLPA need to at least try to find the answer to that question and the wheels are already turning. At the top of the list are players past and present and and their families.

A joint statement by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said: "While the circumstances of each case are unique, these tragic events cannot be ignored. We are committed to examining in detail the factors that may have contributed to these events."

That's a great starting point.

Maybe it turns out all three situations were substantially different. That kind of information needs to be gathered to figure out what can be done to help the next guy, no?

Depending on what's found, it's likely an examination of the role of the enforcer becomes part of the conversation.

Look, I've long been a guy who enjoyed the odd scrap as much as the next guy ... as long as the next guy was Don Cherry.

But I am willing to allow now the changes in the game and the nature of the fighting -- 6-foot-8 guys who weigh 260 pounds swinging what amount to cement blocks -- have evolved (or devolved) into something different.

I recognize there was a time, particularly after expansion in the early 1990s, at the height of obstruction and the clutch and grab era, when the odd scrap was often the only exciting thing that happened in a game.

But as the times change, you have to change.

For a long time I bought into the argument that the presence of an enforcer acted as a deterrent.

Now?

Having an enforcer on the end of the bench has done nothing to deter blows to the head, has it?

A lot of the guys who run around delivering those type of hits don't fight anybody out of their weight class.

The game, as it's played now, hasn't been this entertaining -- and maybe more so, given the speed of the game today -- since the 1980s. The change in rules after the lockout opened the door for small, skilled players, guys who didn't fit and couldn't compete in the clutch-and-grab era. They're putting the squeeze on guys who fight and play two shifts a game.

I think fighting is always going to have a place in the game, but it's form and frequency is going to change.

How -- and how fast -- could depend on the answers the NHL and the NHLPA can hopefully find in the stories of three men, gone too soon.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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