Wilson: Depression awareness important in hockey

Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson addresses the media at the start of training camp Friday....

Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson addresses the media at the start of training camp Friday. (MICHAEL PEAKE/QMI Agency)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:55 PM ET

TORONTO - If you ask Ron Wilson something he considers stupid or ridiculous, he’ll let you know about it, usually with a scowl and a sarcastic rebuttal.

But one topic Wilson was certainly willing, and eager, to talk about on Friday was the issue of depression.

The premature deaths this summer of NHL tough guys Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien hit Wilson hard. And while he was unimpressed with those who automatically linked the deaths of the three players to the role they performed on the ice, he’s also hopeful that the NHL learns from the tragic events.

“We have to be more aware,” said Wilson, as the Leafs held their medicals at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence. “You have to have an open environment where there’s not a stigma attached to mental illness, (and let people know) that they have no control over this, that it’s not a weakness, and they can come forward and get the right kind of help.”

Wilson said players and coaches have to be more cognizant of what their teammates may be going through, and reach out to them, and not wait until depression manifests into a tragic set if circumstances.

He said four or five times during his career as a coach he’s had to intervene when he suspected one of his players was battling depression.

“That’s our job in management and as teammates, to see warning signs and speak up,” he said. “You get involved and they get help and the player comes back and says, ‘Thanks for the understanding and thanks for not holding it against me.’ That’s what you have to do. Because sometimes the players are afraid to come forward.

“We have to have an open mind to these types of things,” Wilson added.

That being said, Wilson believes it is “disrespectful” to use the deaths of Belak, Boogaard and Rypien to further a anti-fighting agenda.

“You want to kick fighting out of the game and BOOM, we’ve got something,” said Wilson. “That’s totally disrespectful to the families.

“I laugh at some of these things (written),” he added. “I’ve dealt with a lot of people who are depressed. And to read some of the stuff I’ve read ... there are so many people out there who are depressed you don’t even know about. And I think it’s ignorant for anybody to even speculate that fighting has something to do with it.

“Why weren’t all these guys killing themselves two years ago, three years ago? These are just, unfortunately, isolated set of events that happened together. Each circumstance is entirely different.”

Wilson believes depression isn’t unique to NHL enforcers or to hockey. Nor are concussions unique to fighters.

He believes there very well may be a correlation between concussions and depression, but it would be amiss to try to eliminate concussions by pushing for a ban on fighting. No matter what, Wilson said, players in the NHL are going to get hurt.

“We’ve got guys elbowing and hitting people with shoulders in the head,” he said. “You get an innocent check, your head goes off the glass.

“There’s no fighting in football. But what’s their biggest problem? Concussions. So ban hitting. Ban boxing. These are arguments that, yes, philosophically they’re good to talk about, but that’s not reality. There are car accidents, why are we driving? People get killed everyday. Does everybody wear seat belts? No. Just because you have rules you can’t eliminate bad things from happening. It happens all the time in life.”

Even if you wanted to ban fighting from the NHL, Wilson said, guys would be dropping the gloves.

“You think if you ban fighting there wouldn’t be fights out there? There would be,” he said. “You can put stiffer penalties on it, you can ban it, there’s still going to be fighting. You’re not allowed to hit someone from behind, and every year we’ve got 15 incidents and suspensions where that happens. In our league, you get kicked out of a game if you hit somebody from behind, therefore with those penalties, why are people still hitting each other from behind?

“And let’s say you take out the tough guys,” he added. “You’re still going to have agitators who are going to go after a skill guy on a team, and maybe hurt him with a hard, clean check. So there’s no accountability. So what do you do? I don’t know the right answer.

There is a role for tough guys, the coach added, besides fighting.

“The part I don’t like are two tough guys who just line up and fight for the sake of fighting,” Wilson continued. “To me, your tough guys have to be able go out there and play, skate, forecheck, finish checks and hit the other team’s skill guys, and throw them off their game.

“(But) no matter what we do, people are going to get hurt. Look what happened to Sidney Crosby,” Wilson said. “To me there was no intent or malice on that hit (by David Steckel). That was totally accidental. But you’ve heard the people say, ‘There should have been a penalty. He should have been given 10 games.’ For what? For skating and the other guy runs into you? It’s Sidney Crosby, are we supposed to get out of his way when we’re playing a game? We need Sidney Crosby but... there’s inadvertent stuff happening all the time. You can’t eliminate that kind of thing. The discussions should be about concussions and concussions entirely. Not fighting.”

On the other hand, Wilson suspects that there may be a link between players retiring from the game and the onset of depression, because, he said, players and coaches sometimes tend to measure their worth as people on how they perform on the ice or behind the bench.

“Unfortunately that’s the hardest thing for all of us — to separate and maintain your self esteem when other people are criticizing you for something that sometimes not even in your control,” he said.

“What I believe for myself as a person cannot be the results on the ice. I have a whole life. I have a wife, I have kids, I have grandchildren. And I would hate to live my life (with the thought) if I lose a hockey game, my family doesn’t like me that day. Or, if I’m not a hockey coach, that’s my only identity. I can’t do that, then my life’s over — that’s the conundrum for many athletes and coaches. Your identity becomes this couple of hours of your life, and it shouldn’t be.”

steve.buffery@sunmedia.ca

twitter @beezerun


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