Wade Belak, a 35-year-old former NHL player, took his own life in a downtown Toronto hotel yesterday afternoon. He left behind a wife and two children, a promising post-hockey career, and a hockey culture that has bred two other suicides this summer. Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien played similar hockey roles to Belak. They fought. They hit. They instigated and engaged. There was no power play time. They didn’t kill penalties. They were not on the ice for important face-offs. They were enforcers. Tough guys. Fighters. Des hommes fort. They played the role from their early teens right up to their deaths. And what we, the fans, are left with is trying to understand what role we’ve played in their unfortunate deaths. At the end of the day, the Canadian hockey community, its fan base, and the media that covers the sport are not responsible, but guilty.
Canadians pride themselves on being the gatekeepers to the kingdom of hockey. The protectors of its national sport; it is our obsession, our heart, our long Winters and early Springs. We are born into a culture that idolizes teenagers, that is taught to respect not just the offensively gifted and the defensively sublime, but also those with grit. Those with sandpaper to their games. Players who will stick up for their teammates. And we love a good fighter. Because those boys are the salt of the earth. The real hockey players. The real Canadians. They grow up playing on makeshift rinks on family farms. They shoot pucks at the barn until their mothers force them to bed. They wear hockey sweaters like skin. They’re everything we ever wanted to be.
This, of course, is all bullshit. This is the image of hockey that has been force fed to us by an all-powerful hockey community. These fallacies fill their coffers, fund their sport, and feed our national pride. It’s an image they need to portray in order to hide decades of sanctioned abuse of young boys who just want to play a game. How is it that we, as a populace, allow boys to be taken from their homes as young as 15-years-old in order to play hockey in a community they don’t live in. To be left in the charge of strangers with questionable motives and goals. Left with the Graham James’ and David Frosts’ of the world. Shame on us. Would Canadian hockey die if players were only allowed to play within a certain circumference of their hometown? Of course not, but that’s not a benevolent attitude that buys into the hockey monster.
And once removed from parents all too willing to allow the move (because after all who doesn’t want their child to be the next Gretzky or Crosby or Kordic?) what does it do to a teenager to be told by an adult to go beat up another teenager? How is that a tolerable culture? In any other setting it’s barbarism. It’s child abuse. It’s a horrific act withholding the tools children need to become adults. It’s teaching a culture of violence, a culture that dictates that the less talented, the less gifted, must resort to acts of pugilism elsewhere criminal in order to survive.
What happens to these boys when they become men in an adult world? When they are left outside the rink in places like Nashville and Atlanta and New York, and not Red Deer or Saskatoon or Sudbury? Places that do not worship at the altar of hockey, that do not ignore the right and just and sane for three more wins, for one more season, for a shot at a silver cup. I think we know what happens, and we need to look no further than John Kordic, Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard, and now Wade Belak. But what of those that never made it to the NHL, to the show? What about those who never made it past Red Deer’s penalty box? What happens to them?
Hockey has become a diseased culture, a deeply flawed community unable or unwilling to tend to its problems. And I believe the media; the ‘journalists’ who cover the sport have played a role in allowing the downward spiral of the game. The media is meant to be the fourth estate, meant to hold those responsible accountable. But the hockey media, and in particular the Canadian hockey media, have a long history of ignoring hockey’s flaws. It dates back to Alan Eagleson, and progresses right through amphetamines, the movement of Canadian franchises, the sexual abuse scandals, ignoring steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, concussions, and now the mental fragility of the players kept on the game’s periphery.
Too often the Canadian hockey media has been populated by fanboys, by those who yearned to move away from their parents at 15 and weren’t talented enough, so they turned to covering the sport they loved. And as much as they love the sport, they love feeling as if they are a part of it. They call players, coaches, and management by sports’ simplest collection of nicknames: Burkie, Collie, Ripper, Gomer, and so on. They report rumours and not fact, as if the rules of journalism don’t apply because they’re just covering hockey. They impose themselves on the discourse not to evolve it, but rather to be a function of it. To be a part of the culture. What should be the entity that protects the Rick Rypiens, and Sheldon Kennedys, and Theoren Fleurys, and Derek Boogaards, that should have held the sport accountable, instead has become the entity that allowed these atrocities under its watch. Shame on them.
After Wade Belak’s death was confirmed yesterday, there was an outpouring of sadness from the hockey community. There was a non-stop flow of stories about what a great guy he was. “Great in the room.” “A great teammate.” And from the ever ignorant and unaccountable media: “A great quote,” “Made our jobs easier.” And yet, who was being a great teammate to Belak in a broader sense? Who was making his job easier? There were certainly some calls for the NHL to be more accountable given the deaths of the three enforcers so close together. No one I’ve read was holding themselves, or the community at large in question. The only solace I could take, in moments away from my outrage, was that I was glad that it was the off-season. I don’t think I could have handled a Coach’s Corner on Belak. To watch the clown prince of hockey, Donald S. Cherry, talk about Belak and Boogaard and Rypien, and yet not hold himself or his jester Ron MacLean somewhat accountable in their blindness.
Cherry often talks about fallen soldiers and law enforcement officers, nearly coming to tears as he tells the audience of their untimely deaths. But what about the deaths occurring in his own backyard? What about those who are living within the philosophy that he espouses only to fall victim to its folly? It’s quite sad that Cherry seems totally oblivious to his power, to his standing within his community. A better man, a more responsible voice, would be leading the charge to reevaluate, to reconsider how all of us are a part of these deaths. But instead the community will pave over their graves with grit and sandpaper. And as typical Canadians we’ll soldier on oblivious and complacent, and we’ll quickly forget about three young men whose lives ended too early, because we’ve got dreams of Saturday nights, and hockey fights, and a vicarious run at the Stanley Cup. Shame on all of us.