September 2, 2011
Belak not only one hurtingEx-NHLer Courtnall pleads for openness amid suicide saga
By ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency
CALGARY - Russ Courtnall didn’t wake up Thursday morning thinking he’d get a chance to save someone’s life.
But it’s quite possible he did.
More to the point, perhaps Wade Belak did.
With all the attention Belak, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard’s recent deaths have brought to the previously taboo subject of suicide came an emotional phone call Thursday to Courtnall.
“I got a call today from a former NHL players’ spouse, and she’s concerned about her husband,” said Courtnall from outside his home at Westlake Village, Calif.
“She said she doesn’t want to be that person left behind, so they’re reaching out. It was a very emotional and tough phone call to listen to. But with people talking about it, maybe we’re on the right path.”
Thirty-three years ago, it was Courtnall and his siblings who were left behind when their father Archie ended a period of deep depression by killing himself.
Russ was just 13. Following a 16-year NHL career with seven teams, Russ and his brother, Geoff (also a former NHLer), have evolved into spokesmen on an issue that deeply affected their lives.
Having raised considerable money to help open a crisis intervention facility in Victoria, B.C., in his father’s name, Courtnall has received more than a few calls like the one he received Wednesday. It’s clear many people just don’t know exactly where to turn.
“I know when my dad suffered, he couldn’t get any help,” said Courtnall, a board member of Leftbehindbysuicide.org.
“He’d try to talk, and people would say, ‘Snap out of it,’ because he looked fine physically. You can’t see the turmoil in their brain. It’s invisible.”
While the NHL and NHLPA have long provided various support mechanisms for players dealing with on- and off-ice issues, they announced Thursday they’ll look into trying to better protect the welfare of its players.
The league help couldn’t save Boogaard or Rypien, so who knows what might have saved Belak from what his father confirmed Thursday as a suicide?
“A lot of times, people close up and don’t share and are too embarrassed or hurt to mention to anyone, so maybe there needs to be a watchdog for people close to that person,” said Courtnall, who a year ago was prepping for Battle of the Blades as Belak was for this season’s show on ice.
“The more we talk about it, the better it is for the guys listening who get into that dark hole and feel they’re all alone. They’re not — there are millions of people like them.”
That’s exactly why the hockey world is so shocked a father and husband as radiant, outgoing, cheerful and apparently optimistic as Belak was apparently so quietly troubled.
“I feel for the tough guys, because some guys were scared,” said Courtnall, refusing to believe the list of troubled and deceased enforcers is a coincidence.
“I don’t think there’s a 10-year old who grows up dreaming of beating the crap out of guys for a living. These guys were all stars at one point, but once you’re being paid, you have to do what you are told. You can become something you aren’t. What’s going on when guys know they have to go out and fight? I don’t know the effect that has.
“My brother quit in major junior as a 20-year-old in Seattle because he couldn’t stand being told to go beat the (crap) out of somebody because they did something wrong to a teammate.
“I had 20 fights in my career, and I remember being scared every time. Could you imagine having to do that and that wasn’t your personality — the toll?”
Dating back to the likes of Bob Probert and John Kordic, the toll has often been heavy on enforcers, producing a pain that has reverberated through the league of late.
“The person may have ended their pain, but I feel bad because it gets passed on to others in the family. I feel bad there wasn’t a way to feel better,” Courtnall said.
“We walk through this life and good and bad things happen, and we make good and bad choices, but there are places you can get help.”
Those battling darkness need to know that.
Everyone needs to know that.