September 01, 2011
Rick Rypien(notes) was an undrafted player. Derek Boogaard(notes) was drafted No. 202 overall in 2001, in the seventh round. Wade Belak(notes) was different. He was taken at No. 12 in the first round back in 1993 by the Quebec Nordiques as a highly-regarded physical defenseman known for his crease-clearing ability and toughness.
Despite that high draft pick, it was fighting that helped Belak establish and maintain a career in the NHL, much like it did the other two players who died suddenly in the last five months. From a HockeyFights.com interview in 2009, this is how Belak made an impression as a young player:
"During my second year of pro, (98-99) Colorado was going to send me down. I did everything in my power to stay up. I fought everybody. The Coaching staff wanted me there, but they knew it was in my best interest to go down. They were happy with the fact I was fighting and I was proving to them I could be a future heavy weight in the league. They knew I was committed to working hard and sticking up for my teammates."
And this is what Wade Belak said when asked if he was "discontent" with his role as he career progressed:
"I knew the only way I was going to stay in the league was by playing physical and being a leader on the team. Certain enforcers just stop fighting and they're done with it. If you don't have anything else to bring to the table, then it's tougher for the team to keep you around. I'm going to keep doing my job as long as it permits me. I know I'm on my way down, and I've been fortunate to play as many years as I have. I never would have thought I would be playing 13 years of pro hockey. It's been amazing."
The cause of Belak's death hasn't been officially confirmed, nor has the painful examination of his post-career psychology and physiology been completed. But it's undeniable that his passing, following those of Boogaard and Rypien, had blown open the conversation about fighting, fighters, mental health and all of its place in the game.
Wade Belak wouldn't have played 13 years without fighting. Derek Boogaard wouldn't have signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the New York Rangers without fighting. Rick Rypien wouldn't have been in the NHL at all without fighting.
Ask an enforcer, and they'll tell you they appreciate the science of fighting and the gamesmanship that comes with it, but would rather not have to get punched in the face for a living. Yet, that's the job.
Adrian Dater of the Denver Post really got into what he called the "Faustian Bargain" of the NHL fighter in a terrific Belak-related column:
I know the argument coming: nobody put a gun to these guys' heads to do what they do. If they don't like it, they shouldn't do it. Stop feeling sorry for someone making hundreds of thousands of dollars just to play a minute or two a game and get into a staged fight.
It's a Faustian Bargain these guys are given. Damned if they do, damned if they don't. Take it or leave it. You want to be in the NHL and make big money? OK, but we're not going to give you any more than a couple minutes a game and we only want you for one thing out there. Take it or leave it.
Most of them end up taking the job. But they subject themselves to real danger when doing it, and they subject their self-esteem to endless ridicule from an increasing portion of the hockey public. And if they get hurt and can't fight anymore? Bring in the next tomato can. There's always another.
In essence, the chain reaction goes like this:
- These men fight to be known.
- We know these men because they fight.
- We forget them when they stop fighting.
- These men lose themselves when they're no longer known.
Bourne's going to touch on this later today in a column, so I won't get too deep into the disposable nature of the pro hockey player. But this tweet from Brent Sopel(notes) really struck a chord this morning:
Sopel's not a fighter, but he was a valued physical player in the NHL from 1998-2011. He won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks; two years later, he's playing in the KHL. And he's probably not the only one looking at these tales of post-career depression and desolation with a knowing glance.
It's said hockey players are endearing because of their blue-collar aesthetic. For any of us that has ever felt disposable and unappreciated in our jobs, or rudderless when we lose them, these players become even more relatable. We swallow pride, punch a clock, do what's best for our family. Then, eventually, you wonder what it was all for. How you cope with that reality determines if you endure.