NHL, NHLPA vow ‘thorough evaluation’ after player deaths

Wade Belak's death on Wednesday sparked the same debates about fighting in the NHL as the year's other tragedies involving Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers and Rick Rypien of the Vancouver Canucks did.

But his passing — confirmed as a suicide — also created a groundswell of criticism about the quality of care provided by NHL and the NHLPA in helping players through personal matters, and preparing them for life after hockey.

Former NHL player Tyson Nash was one of the most vocal critics, tweeting:

"Your entire life is dedicated to hockey and then one day it's all over and you're kicked to the curb! And the NHLPA does nothing to prepare you."

The NHL and the NHLPA issued a joint statement today from Commissioner Gary Bettman and executive director Donald Fehr about those criticisms:

"Everyone at the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players' Association is profoundly saddened by the loss, within a matter of a few weeks, of three young men, each of whom was in the prime of his life.

"While the circumstances of each case are unique, these tragic events cannot be ignored. We are committed to examining, in detail, the factors that may have contributed to these events, and to determining whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare and minimize the likelihood of such events taking place. Our organizations are committed to a thorough evaluation of our existing assistance programs and practices and will make immediate modifications and improvements to the extent they are deemed warranted.

"It is important to ensure that every reasonable step and precaution is taken to make NHL Players, and all members of the NHL family, aware of the vast resources available to them when they are in need of assistance. We want individuals to feel comfortable seeking help when they need help.

"NHL Clubs and our fans should know that every avenue will be explored and every option pursued in the furtherance of this objective."

Meanwhile, two former NHL fighters are candidly asking for the League and the Players Association to "step up" and offer more help.

Georges Laraque appeared with Brantt Myhers today on AM 630 CHED's "Oilers Now" program, and Oil on Whyte has the details:

Laraque made an especially good point about how players are less likely to seek help from places that may have an attached stigma (doctors, therapists, anyone in the mental health field) as opposed to current or former NHL players.  I sure know that if I had an issue, I'd feel more comfortable (at first) talking with one of my peers before going to someone in the medical field.  I'd be willing to test that theory in any professional sports situation.  I don't have thousands of people screaming at me when I screw up at work. (For me, it's just one.)  Pro athletes do.

Meanwhile, former Philadelphia Flyers tough guy Riley Cote offered some very impassioned pleas on his Facebook page regarding substance abuse in the League (thanks to reader Gary Peterson for the tip):

"Someone needs to step in and speak up about these very preventable deaths. This absolutely crazy. These PILLS (painkillers) are mass produced, way over prescribed and are flooding the black market with pharmaceutically made, very highly addictive drugs. This is a growing epidemic all across North America. We need some action ASAP otherwise there will be plenty more of these sad stories."

"The fact is, its not just NHL tough guys taking pills. Its ironic that its all tough guys, but the fact is when you mix a chemically made drug with an emotionally and mentally taxing job such as being an enforcer, It takes it toll. Clearly creates an emotional imbalance. But this problem isn't just in sports, its all across the board. Its starts with the accessibility of these drugs. At the end of the day it's legalized drug dealing."

"That's just it. Any sort of chemically made drug filters through the liver twice. Not only that there is an abundance of side effects for every drug. They have removed the ability for people to use the oldest medicine known to man by making the plant illegal. They haven't figured out how to maximize profit on it and that's why it remains illegal. Medicinal marijuana clearly has its benefits. Why else would the people be pushing medicine they know works. Modern medicine is pills and surgery. Long are the days of health, prevention and natural remedies"

Remember this phrase from Cote next time someone tells you it's a problem with fighters:

"The fact is, it's not just NHL tough guys taking pills."

Kudos to the NHL and the NHLPA for being proactive on this. But as Cote's post points out, there's a lot of ground to cover in attempting to prevent further tragedies.