Do the deaths of hockey players Wade Belak, Derek Boogard and Rick Rypien follow a pattern that can be broken?
In the hockey world, former NHLer Wade Belak is the third player to have died this summer. Reports indicate that he was found hanging in his room in an apparent suicide. Wade was 35-years-old. In May, 28-year-old Derek Boogaard died after mixing alcohol and a painkiller. It was well documented that he struggled from an addiction problem. Just last month, Rick Rypien was found dead from an alleged suicide. Rick suffered from depression. Understandably, news of these deaths was met with shock, sadness, and many questions.
Sports athletes are human too.
Any high profile individual who passes away suddenly is newsworthy. Part of this is due to the fact that they are famous so we pay more attention to them. These examples are also shocking because we hold professional athletes to a different standard. Many of us view them as being “larger than life” and by extension not susceptible to the same issues that “normal” human beings like you and I face. We expect them to be immune to pain and suffering, insecurities and discretions, impulsiveness and bad decisions. Ultimately, athletes are idealized to be superhuman. Addiction, impulsivity, depression, and suicide do not fit into that image.
These beliefs about athletes color our perceptions about them and make us ask ask how someone so strong and powerful–like in the case of Wade Belak–die so young? What would move someone with this great lifestyle to kill himself?
In reality, they bleed like us. Have emotions like us, and face mental health challenges like us. Professional athletes are human beings too. And they are men.
Athletes are male, too
Men face unique health challenges both physically and mentally. An analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that men are four times more likely than women to die from suicide; it’s the eighth leading cause of death for men. Men are also more likely than women to engage in risk-taking behaviours including using more alcohol and drugs, engaging in reckless and illegal driving and drunk driving.
These factors, combined with the reality of life in sports, can create challenging circumstances and struggles for these athletes. Sports brings with it immense occupational stressors and demands. Professional athletes are constantly analyzed, critiqued, and criticized. They seldom get away from their jobs. It is not a 9 to 5. Daily they have to compete with the best athletes to ensure they get playing time and secure a contract. With limited jobs, and the pressures to perform, they can never take days off.
Sports also present other logistical difficulties. Teams are constantly traveling from city to city, leaving players away from their family and loved ones. In the blink of an eye a player can be traded, having to uproot his family and himself. In some cases, these trades happen after signing long-term contracts to stay in a city. Imagine working for a company in your city that turns around and tells you to move across the country the next day? The average athlete retires in their mid 30s. At that age, they are considered “old” and “washed up;” for most other professions, the 30’s is when you begin to settle into your career path. Retiring from the job you love so young, cannot be easy for all. Not sure what skills they have outside their sports, and no longer being in the spotlight, many athletes struggle coping with this reality. The point is that with all the glitz and glamour of being an athlete there too comes immense occupational demands and stressors that need to examined.
The role of the enforcer
Gender role socialization outlines the prescriptive ways in which it is socially acceptable and unacceptable for men and women to act. Violations of gender roles by either gender leads to negative evaluations and reactions from others. Men are socialized to be tough, aggressive, keep emotions at a distance, and be competitive. These are the exact ingredients needed (or perceived to be needed) to be successful in sports such as hockey, especially the role of enforcer. The enforcer is supposed to be tough, aggressive, and defend his teammates on the ice at all costs, never backing down from a challenge no matter how hurt he is physically, no matter how much he personally struggles with the pressure of it.
Here is what Wade Belak said in a Toronto Star interview last March:
“On nights you knew you had to fight, there were nerves, you never slept the night before. But you dealt with it or you didn’t. You don’t really get over it, you just go out and do your job.”
Just do your job because this is the only way you can make it in hockey. The only way you can earn a paycheque.
The enforcer role may be the most dangerous job in professional sports, and as a result the most taxing mentally. Retired NHL enforcer George Laraque told the Toronto Star:
“…Now more than ever, people have to realize that the job that we did is a really stressful job. Mentally, it’s one of the hardest things. There’s so many guys that have demons and problems with that. We have to do something…”
Demons. Those issues that we all keep deep inside of us hidden from the rest of the world and in many cases from ourselves. Men in general lack the type of social support that is conducive to receiving support, advice, or at the very least, a shoulder to lean on. Making matters worse, men are far less likely then women to seek out professional help for their mental health issues. It is a double-edged sword.
This is the unfortunate reality of “demons” like mental illness: they are not always visible to the naked eye.
We cannot “see” depression like we can see a broken leg. If we cannot see it, we suspect it doesn’t exist. People who knew Wade Belak stated that he seemed “so happy” and “full of life.” This is what makes it so much harder for everyone to comprehend, and come to terms: how externally someone can appear so full of life and joy, yet internally suffering to the point where one takes his own life.
We have no way of knowing what Wade Belak’s demons were or the exact reasons why he chose to end his own life. We will never know. But all we can do now is direct our energies into ensuring that there will be less of these incidents in the future. It is undeniable that the pressure of being an enforcer in hockey is taking a serious toll on these men.
At the end of the day, professional athletes are human beings that have to have their psychological needs considered. We need to re-evaluate the mental costs professional athletes endure throughout their playing careers, and whether or not they justify the ends. In the case of Wade Belak and these other young men, it seems that in one way or another, being a hockey enforcer contributed to them paying the ultimate price.
Photo: Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press
Maneet Bhatia, M.A. is a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. His specializations are in the areas of psychotherapy research, emotions, and male psychology. He is also a practicing psychotherapist and author of a psychology blog entitled Psych State of Mind.