Belak death cause for concern


Wade Belak has been the most recent of three professional hockey players in a span of four months to be found dead in their homes. Belak along with Rick Rypien committed suicide while Derek Boogaard died from a drug overdose. Without a doubt the tragic deaths of these three Canadians have shook the hockey world and have affected many people. But the question of “why” still lingers.

These three men were in the prime of their lives; it seems they had everything going for them. They were all making good money and doing the thing they loved the most — playing hockey. Rypien, in particular, had just signed a one-year $700,000 contract with the Winnipeg Jets, but died even before the team began training camp. Meanwhile, Belak left behind his wife, Jennifer, and two young daughters.

What was common to all three was their reputations of being enforcers on the ice. They were willing to deliver punishment and also receive it. So it is probable that the addictions and depression suffered by these three NHL enforcers may be linked to brain trauma they suffered from concussions.

Neurosurgeon Robert Cantu and his team of researchers at Boston University have been studied the brains of Reggie Fleming, an enforcer in the 1960s, and
Bob Probert, an enforcer who retired in 2002 and died in July 2010 of a heart attack. Their research showed that both Fleming and Probert had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by a blunt impact to the head. People with this disease may show symptoms of memory loss, loss of impulse control, aggression, anxiety and depression.
Cantu and his team have also had the opportunity to examine Boogaard’s brain because of the decision of his family to donate his brain to science. The results have not been made public yet, but it would be no surprise to learn that he also suffered from CTE.

Brain injury probably played a prominent role in the course of events that led to their deaths, but the problem certainly goes much deeper than that. Suicide is not unique to hockey, it is a societal phenomenon. That being said, the NHL can work from the assumption that the concussion-depression link is well-established and that alcohol and drug abused routinely accompany depression.

The NHL needs to do more to address these problems. A hockey mental health summit would do wonders for public acceptance and awareness of these matters. Even more so, Canada needs to do more as it is one of the few countries in the West that does not have a national suicide prevention strategy.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death of Canadian youth at their most formative minor hockey years. This is completely unacceptable. It is our responsibility to learn from these deaths so that we may prevent them from happening again in the future.

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