Tragic summer for hockey turns catastrophic

Wade Belak celebrates a goal against the Oilers at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alta., Dec. 17, 2009....

Wade Belak celebrates a goal against the Oilers at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alta., Dec. 17, 2009. (DAN RIEDLHUBER/Reuters)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:54 PM ET

The last time I spoke to Wade Belak, we talked books, mostly.

I was doing one of those off-ice profiles we do for our weekend NHL package and he launched into his reading list. He had just got a Kindle reader and was raving about how he could store 1,200 books on it and joking about how he figured he and his wife had spent an extra $5,000 on each of their moves just for the boxes of books.

He was, as always, accommodating, self-deprecating, thought about what he was going to say before he said it and did it all with that hint of smile that said he was in on a joke that any moment he might share with you.

"I love reading. I just finished the Mickey Mantle book, 'The Last Boy' and now I'm reading 'Decision Points,' George Bush's autobiography. I read a lot, especially on the road. I've read three books in the last two weeks. I love autobiographies. I go on streaks where I'll read every book on JFK or every book on the Mob or every book on serial killers. I love westerns, too, Billy the Kid..." he said.

I thought about that conversation when I heard the news Wednesday.

I thought about my last interaction with Wade Belak when I heard the news of hs death, yet another shocking loss of an NHL enforcer, three now this summer which was already so sad.

It is now catastrophic.

You cannot help but think about all the families and friends left behind in the wake of the deaths of young, physically-gifted men making a decent wage, who, superficially in our culture, would seem to have everything for which to live.

Instead, they're dying.

Former NHL scrapper Chris Dingman posted on Twitter Wednesday night that "People think sports and most just see a lifestyle. It is really hard mentally and physically. Especially hard when you're done. When you're done, you're left to ponder, what do I do with myself now? Tough to ponder. More needs to be done to ease the transition."

Belak had retired after last season.

Three tough guys gone.

A pattern? Three lives prematurely ended. Is there something more profound damaging these men beyond the obvious physical toll enforcers must endure, the battered hands, countless stitches and loosened teeth?

Concussions? We are only beginning to realize the profound, long and short-term effects of brain injuries.

Maybe not enough attention has been paid to the negative nature of their business, going out and beating people up for a living, which must extract its own grinding, emotional price.

The NHL and the NHLPA are doing their due diligence in investigating what has happened with their players this summer. Fans of the NHL and its players shouldn't expect anything less.

But there are already programs in place, access to counsellors and experts, if that's what was needed.

What more can be done? That's a conversation that's taking place and you hope the questions being asked will yield effective answers, and quickly.

The corporate, collectively-bargained safety net is already in place, but it sure looks like some poor souls are still falling through.

These losses this summer -- looking at the nature of them, an accidental mix of alchohol and prescription drugs or "a sudden and non-suspicious death" -- must chill anyone who has a loved one in the NHL.

You hope players are having conversations with teammates. Wives with husbands. Mother and fathers with sons.

You hope somebody is listening.

I think about Wade Belak and I think about that smile and I think about a guy gone at 35-years-old.

We all want answers.

The sad part is we might never get them and use them to help the next guy.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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