TORONTO - Each haunting dispatch from the NHL league office was eerily similar.
May, 14, 2011: NEW YORK — Gary Bettman, commissioner of the National Hockey League, today released the following statement regarding the passing of New York Rangers forward Derek Boogaard: “The news that we have lost someone so young and so strong leaves everyone in the National Hockey League stunned and saddened. The NHL family sends its deepest condolences to all who knew and loved Derek Boogaard, to those who played and worked with him and to everyone who enjoyed watching him compete.”
Aug. 15, 2011: NEW YORK — National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman issued the following statement regarding the passing of Winnipeg Jets forward Rick Rypien: “The National Hockey League sends its deepest condolences to the family, friends and teammates of Rick Rypien, who played the game with so much energy and emotion and whose passing fills us all with a sense of immeasurable sadness and sorrow.”
Aug. 31, 2011: NEW YORK — Gary Bettman, commissioner of the National Hockey League, today released the following statement regarding the death of Wade Belak: “The National Hockey League family mourns the passing of Wade Belak, who competed to the utmost every minute of his NHL career. Our hearts go out to Wade’s loved ones, his friends, his former teammates and to all who feel the horrible void left by this tragedy.”
Maybe they should just have a stock quote at the ready?
But what was not said in these statements is all three deaths may have been the result of self-inflicted violence or death by misadventure.
There’s no question the NHL is sad former Leaf Belak took his life and that others like Boogaard, Rypien and Bob Probert died way too young.
But what is it going to do about it?
“They have to do something,” former Maple Leafs executive Bill Watters told John Oakley on AM 640. “There needs to be an investigation into the (possible) connect of these deaths.”
It’s too much carnage to sweep away. Will there be a proper, independent probe?
Pro sports’ dirty little secret of players on Oxycontin to deal with their pain, concussions, alcoholism or depression is not an easy one to tackle.
But the NHL needs an immediate audit of what medications and painkillers players are being prescribed, what illegal drugs are being abused and what kind of counselling is available for players. The NHL has performance-enhancing drug tests. How about performance-enabling tests?
Could these deaths lead to a ban on fighting?
The problem with banning NHL fighting is there is too much money in it and the competition for dollars and eyeballs with the UFC is real. Hockey is not ballet but a tough, mean game. The players who play understand the risks and are compensated well.
Instead of eliminating fighting, maybe they will decide all that is needed is a rule that says someone in one must have also played a certain amount of minutes in a game, to eliminate the goons.
Or make a new rule where combatants keep their gloves and helmets on?
Still, these players’ deaths should at least lead to a cogent, realistic and modern discussion on the subject since no other fight league allows bare-knuckle punching on skulls. It’s always been like that, but back in the day when players dropped the gloves they were less than six feet and 180-pound car salesmen during the summer.
Today these giants spend the off-season bench-pressing 450 pounds in a gym with the same trainers used by UFC scrappers. They have become professional fighters who play hockey, instead of tough hockey players who occasionally fight. How they cope is in need of urgent study.
In the end, perhaps the conclusion will be these mysterious deaths are just the collateral damage of a billion-dollar business — although not explained quite so callously in any dispatch from New York.