Thursday, September 8, 2011

In Remembrance

Death is never easy. Especially when it comes suddenly during a tumultuous summer that saw the hockey world lose three high character guys who lost their battles off the ice. That Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and recently retired Wade Belak all shared something in common playing our sport, has led to a plethora of feedback from tough guys, who at least agree that being an enforcer is a very challenging occupation that can lead to anxiety or depression. Whether it's Georges Laraque, Cam Janssen or once troubled Boogaard ex-Wild teammate Todd Fedoruk, the compassion and understanding expressed give fans a better glimpse into the life of an enforcer.

I think it has something to do with the job. Absolutely,” Janssen told James O'Brien in an NBC sports feature on depression. “People look at the fame and the money part of pro athletes and they don’t understand how hard and stressful it can be. Listen, I have the absolute coolest job in the world, but it’s also one of the most stressful jobs in the world, too.

If you look at me, talk to me and see me every day, you’d say, ‘This kid has absolutely no depression.’ But everybody has depression. Some have it more than others. It’s how you deal with it. You can feel sorry for yourself, lock yourself in your room all day and kind of crawl into a hole and deal with it that way. Or you can go out and get something accomplished, work out and do the right things to get over it. There are different ways of coping with depression.

Fedoruk, who once was laid out by a Colton Orr right during a Flyers/Rangers game on NBC- has battled his own demons. The vet's being given a tryout with the Canucks but recently discussed his struggle with The Province's Tony Gallagher.

"Depression is a disease of the mind and if you haven't experienced it, a lot of people don't feel it's real. It is. And it needs to be dealt with because it's a disease of the mind, body and spirit. You need help. Alcohol is a depressant and I only know about this because I've screwed up so many times trying to beat it by myself.

"If I wasn't feeling good I used alcohol to feel the way I wanted to feel. If it was there, I was using it. I used it to go from A to B, but it's A you have to deal with."

Sometimes, pride can get in the way of admission. In a sport where a majority of the audience supports their fighters for the tough role they play protecting teammates, perhaps the perception keeps them from coming clean.

"You're conditioned not to show weakness at any time, and that's the way you think," added Fedoruk. "You go out and you get punched in the face for a living and we've all taken those punches, so you're thinking, 'What does feeling sad for a day or so matter? If I can handle punches in the face I can certainly handle a bad mood. I can get through this, no problem, if I can get through those guys.'

"You never want to show weakness, but that's not the way it's beaten. I know because I've fought it so many times and lost. You have to surrender to it first to win.

To hear Laraque on the issue, he sounds off an even bigger alarm about life after hockey.

"This job is so hard, physically and mentally," Laraque told the Edmonton Journal's Jim Matheson. "You can go to a movie theatre the night before a game and you're thinking of the fight you're going to get into the next day.

"Like, you have to fight Boogaard. Then that game's over and it's like, 'OK, I have to fight Jody Shelley.' After that it's Brian McGrattan. You try not to think about it, but you start with the drugs or the alcohol and that creates the problem," Laraque continued.

"And, when you retire, most of the tough guys aren't set (for life). You don't make a lot of money as a fighter, so they're thinking 'OK, now what do I do?' So they go back to drugs and alcohol. There's no options.
While Boogaard lost a bout with an addiction to painkillers, Rypien fought depression. Of the three deaths, Belak's has drawn the most reaction. The vet had recently hung up the skates and was set to compete on Battle of the Blades.

"The thing with Belak that's hard to understand is he was going to be on Battle of the Blades (a TV figure skating show). After the first day of practice, he was talking about his daughter, and he seemed pretty happy. He didn't have any drug or alcohol problem. It doesn't make sense. We don't know what caused this. He had a job waiting in Nashville in broadcasting," a startled Laraque said.

"But we've talked about Boogie and Rypien and now Belak. Before that it was Probie (Bob Probert) dying. All fighters. On top of the people who've died, we could talk about all the other guys who've had trouble with alcohol or drugs, but they're not dead yet."

"I was very upset when I heard that Wade had died," former Ranger Jason Strudwick admitted. "He was full of life, and today he's not with us anymore. He was a tough guy, but we used to hang out. He was fun guy, he had a great spirit.

As a league and players association, we have to offer more support somehow. I don't know what that would entail, but we have to do it."
With camps a few days away from opening, it will be harder for players to focus more than ever. How they cope with the loss of friends and foes will be extremely important. Combined with the terrible KHL tragedy that took the lives of almost the entire Lokomotiv roster, including ex-Rangers Alexander Karpovtsev and former property Jan Marek, former Devil Alexander Vasyunov and one-time Islander Josef Vasicek, the NHL must ensure that everyone has plenty of outlets. Everyone handles death differently. Whether it's a close relationship like the one current Ranger Marian Gaborik shared with former Slovakian hero Pavol Demitra or ties that bond like ex-'94 Cup hero Karpovtsev, this season will be more challenging than any other.

With the Ten Year Anniversary of 9/11 this Sunday, the Rangers visited FDNY firehouses, paying tribute. There is much to mourn. The games will go on. But how we remember those lost shall live on.

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