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Hockey and depression: Going from ‘I’m fine’ to “I need help’

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy

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"I think it's a coincidence."

"It's amazing, I think, that there's not more Wade Belaks, Derek Boogaards, [Rick] Rypiens."

These are two statements made within moments of each other by Lyndon Byers, the former Boston Bruins pugilist turned radio host in Boston, during an interview with WEEI on Friday.

The first statement is a hope many of us in the hockey community share — that this isn't an epidemic worthy of the front page of CNN.com, but rather a series of unconnected events that have pummeled the game's reputation like a burly enforcer would an opposing pest.

The second statement is, sadly, the accurate one.

Open your ears. Rub your eyes. Look at what's happened to the conversation about the men playing in the National Hockey League after Wade Belak's death. It's no longer just a jihad against hockey fighting or a vigilant effort to protect players from brain injuries during games.

It's about what happens after the games end, to the men that play them.

Byers, in that same interview, on Belak:

"Wade Belak just retired. I went through it. I wasted a year-and-a-half of my life, ended up in rehab because I was one of those guys who didn't plan to do something after hockey. I was just living the good life, living the dream, enjoying it. When it was all said and done, I was lost."

There was news today that Belak, behind his jovial demeanor, fought depression. It's understandable given (a) the manner in which he died and (b) that a sunny personality is by no means an indicator of quality mental health.

It wasn't something he shared openly, contributing to the shock of his passing. Why would he? Belak's a product of a sports culture — and in particular a hockey culture — where disclosure of ailments or weaknesses or fragility could mean the loss of everything from ice time to a livelihood. Where playing through pain is an achievement.

It's a job in which you can hit the emotional reset button 82 times over the span of seven months, pushing yesterday's melancholy to the background with today's euphoria. To lose that dynamic is to lose what amounts to a coping mechanism. And then you lose yourself.

Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star had a column on Friday that disclosed, via two sources, that Wade Belak was suffering from depression and "took medication to treat his mental illness but had been loath to speak about it."

TSN host Michael Landsberg, who has battled depression himself and was a friend of Belak's, told the Star he was "shocked" as Belak's passing:

"I can't, for the life of me, imagine how the guy I'd been communicating with could get to the point where he said, 'I feel too horrible to go on. (Death) has got to be better than living another second.' I can't comprehend that process," Landsberg said.

"Knowing Wade, in my mind, he had a handle on anything that was challenging him. I can't tell you if that was his ability to hide the challenges he had, or if that was the real, genuine Wade Belak, who had faced all of his challenges and had beaten them. I don't know. I don't know if anybody knows."

We don't know. Or at least, we didn't. But this week opened up a new chapter in the relationship between the players, the NHLPA and the NHL. This week was the moment when "I'm Fine" became "We Need Help."

It wasn't just Brent Sopel saying players are "just pieces of meat." Or Jarkko Ruutu demanding action instead of "releasing statements." Or brawlers from Byers to Laraque talking about how leaving the game can adversely affect a person's mental state.

And it's not just the players. For many fans, it's a moment the examine who these players are and what they go through.

From reader Kirk Coughlin, "irongarlic" on Twitter:

"Whether or not a method of simple screening is currently used, any player should have access to a mental health care doctor or professional that IS NOT CONNECTED TO THE TEAM IN ANY WAY. Yes, safety, security and privacy are important. But if a player has access to any medical staff that is going to be making decisions that they feel will interrupt their work or influence normal team doctors I am inclined to believe that the players will not be entirely honest. Why?

"In very few other sports does the proximity to the end of the season and the playoffs increase the number of static 'I'm Fine' answers to any and all questions asked about medical condition to continue playing. How many stories have we heard of people playing with broken bones, torn tendons, or lacerated ligaments? How many times have we praised the folks that sacrifice it all to win? If someone completely detached from the situation were in charge of evaluating and treatment, they may hear directly from the source exactly what's going on."

This speaks directly to the "thorough evaluation" Bettman and Fehr talked about in Thursday. But it also speaks to the need for some kind of shift in the sports culture.

Y! Sports' Nick Cotsonika got into this in his column on Belak, speaking with Eric Hipple, a former Detroit Lions quarterback whose 15-year-old son took his own life.

Eliminating or reducing fighting has been — and should be — a point of debate. But we don't know what role fighting actually played in the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak, and even without fighting depression would continue to be an issue in hockey, as it is elsewhere.

Suicide has struck all over sports in recent months, claiming several current and former elite athletes, including former Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan, U.S. Olympic aerial skier Jeret "Speedy" Peterson, former New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu, former Duke basketball captain Thomas Emma; Austrian Olympic judoka Claudia Heill, former Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson and former San Jose Sharks farmhand Tom Cavanagh.

Different sports, different individuals, different cases — same conclusion: Mental health must be monitored more like physical health.

"The message isn't, 'Don't be afraid to seek help,' " Hipple said. "The message is, 'Be proactive in being mentally healthy.' … The professional knows what it's like to get their body in shape to get ready to play. Well, there's things that we can do to learn how to be mentally healthy as well — how to overcome certain things, how to be more resilient, how to utilize more tools than just the ones we end up with when things don't go right."

"So, is it hockey?" Lyndon Byers asked rhetorically this morning on the radio, "I beg to differ. I do not think it's hockey."

He's almost right: It's not just hockey.

This isn't a clarion call to never have a player compete through injury or get his bell rung in an inherently violent sport. This isn't a case made that every player who retires is going to wallow in depression, because the percentages tells us that's not the case.

This is a moment, however, when we can shift the sports culture to help those that do not feel ashamed about it and get the help they need earlier in their lives.

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