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Fighting For Their Lives

on Monday, 05 September 2011.


Fighting For Their Lives
As I opened the newspaper and flipped through to the sports section this morning, I experienced a palpable sinking in my chest. Yet another "expert" had taken the opportunity to hop up onto his soapbox and proclaim that, surely, this incident must be the final straw in the long-fought battle to impart an outright ban on fighting in the National Hockey League.

The incident, of course, was the tragic passing of NHL enforcer Wade Belak. As most of the sporting world is well aware, the summer of 2011 has been a tough one for the hockey community. By now we are all too familiar with the circumstances surrounding the losses of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and now Belak.

At a glance, the common thread between the three is all too obvious; each was a fighter, a role player whose sole purpose on their respective teams was to protect teammates and intimidate opponents. Between them, they played a total of 945 NHL games, accumulating a grand total of 20 goals ... and 2,078 penalty minutes.

It is easy to understand, then, how the average sports fan might come to the conclusion that playing the role of an enforcer must have contributed to each of their deaths.

But I would suggest that, as is so often the case, the truth lies much deeper. Perhaps the fact that these men were fighters was more of a symptom than a cause.

As a person who has dealt with my own share of personal demons, I can attest that depression is a vicious illness. It lingers constantly in the back of one’s mind and plays hell on your psyche. Even at the best of times, there is perpetual sense of fear. It feels as if the world could come crumbling apart at any moment. It can lead to sudden, violent outbursts that erupt without warning and dissipate just as quickly.

And if you happen to be 6'4", 215 lbs., and a strong skater, it has the potential to put you in the perfect state of mind to become a hockey enforcer.

You see, depression, along with host of other mental illnesses, is often a game of extremes. In a matter of seconds it is possible to go from the top of the world to the lowest of lows. There are moments when rage and anger can fuel unprecedented levels of achievement and there are moments when the world is together in perfect harmony and yet it is impossible to find the strength to drag yourself out of bed in the morning.

Many sports, but hockey in particular, follow a similar pattern. A typical shift is no more than sixty seconds in length, a fury of effort and emotion that leaves a player drained and gasping for air before returning to the bench to recuperate and await another round. Goals-for are moments of pure ecstasy, while individual mistakes often cost the entire team and leave you with feelings of hopelessness and frustration.

For a person whose demons manifest in a particular way, it can feel like home. There have been countless studies which have shown a positive correlation between depression and aggressive or violent tendencies. It’s not hard to imagine, then, that a person with a natural gift for playing hockey, who just happens to be battling depression, could easily end up as an enforcer. So why do so many of us within the media insist upon putting the cart before the horse?

Because it’s easier than fixing the real problem. If we ban fighting in the NHL, no more NHL fighters will die. That is an inarguable fact; you cannot kill what does not exist.

Instead, these people will become accountants who contemplate suicide and gravitate towards substance abuse. Or grocery store clerks. Or bus drivers. But as long as they’re not hockey players, they’re not the NHL’s problem, and for some of us in the sports media, that seems to be enough. Ignorance is bliss.

I certainly cannot pretend to understand what any of these three men were thinking prior to their deaths, nor will I presume to know what any of their individual circumstances were. But I can tell you that each of them loved the game, and their role within it. Each of them made a living doing something they thoroughly enjoyed, and none of them would have been able to do so in a league that banned fighting.

Regardless of occupation, those who battle depression often find themselves caught up in the throes of addiction and dependency as well. It can lead to anger, violence, and in some extreme cases, suicidal tendencies. In my opinion, as someone who has danced with this devil, the role of an NHL enforcer is much more likely to attract players with symptoms of mental illness than it is to breed them.
Being a fighter does not lead to depression, but rather depression can lead to becoming a fighter.

Fighting does not even enter the equation until players are eligible to play junior hockey. By this time, a young person’s personality and temperament are well on their way to being developed. Come draft time, junior teams select players based on a myriad of factors, but since fighting is not allowed until a player reaches at least sixteen years of age, fighting ability is certainly not one of them. If a player has a capacity for violence, it is in place long before any coach asks him for it.

To eliminate fighting in hockey as a response to this summer’s tragic events would be an insult to the memory of those we’ve lost. If you honestly believe that rendering these players unemployable would have prevented their deaths, I would beg you to reconsider.

Does fighting have a place in hockey?

Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s a discussion for another time and place. But to use the deaths of these three players as an argument against the very role that defined their careers is little more than opportunistic ignorance from those who already have an axe to grind. It is an insult to three seasoned warriors who were dealt a very tough hand in life and managed to use what little redemption it offered to build themselves a career.

Every day, in every walk of life, there are millions of people in this world who are struggling to cope with mental illness. The real solution does not lie in keeping them out of the game of hockey, but rather in improving access to resources and information that might help change their lives for the better.

We in the media should be focusing our efforts on making these players a shining example of how athletes are just the same as you and I; they struggle at times, they achieve great things, they laugh and they cry and sometimes their demons get the best of them.

If our goal is, as it should be, to prevent further mental illness-related deaths, focusing our efforts on banning fighting in hockey is akin to spitting at a forest fire. Can the life of a professional athlete be stressful enough to amplify the effects of depression?

Yes, but the answer does not lie in banning the amplification, it lies in eliminating the root cause.

The solution is not contained within the world of hockey, or anywhere in sports for that matter. The prevalence of mental illness is a social issue, one that plagues every industry, on every level. The real solution lies in providing education and easy access to information so that those who are in need of help can find it and so that the rest of us can develop an understanding of how serious and debilitating these diseases can really be.

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