NHL Ready to Face-Off After Tragic Offseason

By Robert Riches
September 28, 2011

After a summer’s absence, fans of the National Hockey League are ready to see their favorite players in action night after night. While this offseason featured many exciting and surprising trades and acquisitions, it may be most remembered for the horrific tragedies that took place.

The tragedies started on May 13, in between the Conference Semifinals and the Conference Finals of the playoffs. New York Rangers forward, and former Minnesota Wild forward Derek Boogaard, was found dead in his apartment in Minneapolis, Minn. Boogaard was known by many fans as “the Boogeyman,” and was regarded as one of the most intimidating players in the NHL. His passing came as a shock to league personnel and fans everywhere

Three months later, on Aug. 15, yet another player was found dead. Rick Rypien, a former Vancouver Canuck who had just signed with the newly relocated Winnipeg Jets franchise, was found dead in his home by a family member.
Rypien was known more for his grit and toughness than his skill. He battled depression, which led to several leaves of absence from the Canucks as well as media speculation.

A little over two weeks later, on Aug. 31, recently retired Nashville Predators defenseman Wade Belak was found dead in a hotel in Toronto, Ontario. Earlier in the 2010-11 campaign, the Predators placed Belak on waivers, and when no team claimed him, he was assigned to Nashville’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals. Rather than deal with the frustration of the minor leagues, Belak retired.

Like Rypien, Belak had battled depression throughout his career, and had been public about it in the months leading up to his death.

Following Belak’s death, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman released a statement.

“While the circumstances of each case are unique, these tragic events cannot be ignored,” Bettman said.

A week later, on Sept. 7, the plane carrying Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia crashed shortly after takeoff. Of the 45 people onboard, including team personnel as well as flight personnel, 43 were killed at the scene, one died several days later, and a flight engineer remains the lone survivor.

Several former NHL players died in the crash, including Pavol Demitra, Karel Rachunek, Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins, Josef Vasicek and Brad McCrimmon, the team’s head coach. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl elected to cancel their participation in the KHL season as a result, instead opting to compete in Russia’s second-ranked hockey league.

The three player deaths, as well as the plane crash, struck the hockey community like an open-ice body check. An autopsy revealed that Boogaard died due to the lethal mixing of oxycodone and alcohol. Rypien and Belak were found to have taken their own lives after their battles with depression.

These tragic events present an unfortunate scenario for the NHL, and it leaves fans everywhere wondering the same question: what can be done to prevent tragedies like these in the future?

The NHL Players Association (NHLPA) has strived to help players with issues off-the-ice, such as substance abuse, and has been pretty successful. A discussion point amongst hockey fans everywhere is how the NHLPA’s programs could have helped these players and even saved their lives.

As far as the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crash goes, an investigation is underway as of press time to determine how the crash could have been avoided.
While the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak are all tragic, there could be a positive implication for the NHL. There are over 600 players on NHL rosters, and chances are that some of them could have problems comparable to these three players. After seeing and hearing about these events, players with any type of problem, whether it be substance abuse or health issues, may be more willing to take advantages of the help that the NHLPA has to offer. A new era of help in hockey could take place.

Many fans everywhere use hockey as a temporary escape from everyday issues. However, serious issues do persist in hockey, and tragic circumstances can result. Fans will still continue to fill hockey arenas each night to see the excitement and action on the ice, but the events of this summer will still remain in their thoughts.

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Robert Riches

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