'Brave face' culture must change

Wade Belak scraps with Eric Boulton in this Nov. 2005 file photo. (QMI Agency)

Wade Belak scraps with Eric Boulton in this Nov. 2005 file photo. (QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:58 PM ET

TORONTO - The hockey enforcer gives his team a sense of security in the heat of battle — a debt that people should think more about repaying in civilian life.

Certainly, the deaths this past summer of three NHLers who excelled in that taxing job, the latest, Wade Belak, taking his own life on Wednesday, has given pause for thought.

“These guys played a really difficult role, but things change and people leave the game,” said Paul Dennis, a York University sports psychologist and former staffer with the Maple Leafs. “We’ve got to support them the way they once supported us.

“We talk a lot about resilience after losing a game, every coach telling you to get right back up the next day after a loss. But we need to employ social resilience, too.

“The culture of sport, the brave face, is great. But sometimes that culture keeps a lot of things inside. That has to change. I’m not condemning people for not getting involved with these players. When Wade played, he was very open in his optimism, but it goes to prove we all have demons. We don’t know what those demons are if they’re not telling us. But I think the time has come to bring these stresses to light.”

Belak’s passing follows that of Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers from what is being termed an accidental overdose, and Rick Rypien of the Winnipeg Jets who had suffered from depression. Belak, an outwardly well-adjusted father of two young daughters, just retired after 571 regular season and playoff games with five teams.

“A young man is gone, but hopefully there is a silver lining, something to be learned that can help other players,” said Dennis. “Hopefully, more players can come forward and tell us what is troubling them and we won’t put this issue on the back burner any longer. There is nothing more valuable than life itself.”

Dennis travelled many miles with Belak during the latter’s seven years as a Leaf.

“He would pick up everyone’s spirits,” Dennis recalled. “Players would just gravitate to him. He never got to contribute a lot in the course of a game, but he was a guy who always saw the big picture, who never considered himself exceptional because he was a Leaf. He made us feel inadequate because he was so optimistic. This is just devastating.”


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