Wade Belak

What the NHL and NHLPA should learn from a year filled with tragic death

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There’s no way to be able to wrap your head around what’s happened off the ice in the hockey world this year.

Since the start of 2011 we’ve seen four tragic deaths. Sharks minor leaguer Tom Cavanaugh, Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, former Canucks tough guy Rick Rypien, and now recently retired scrapper Wade Belak. Of those four, three of them are believed to be suicides (Rypien’s cause of death is still yet unknown while Belak’s is suspected to be a suicide) and Boogaard’s came thanks to a toxic mix of painkillers and alcohol all stemming from being upset with missing time thanks to post-concussion syndrome.

We’re not here to hypothesize on what caused these young men to reach that dark place where killing their body with toxins or taking their own life seemed like the right answer to the situation they were in. Doing that is a folly. Trying to figure out if the life of an NHL tough guy or a concussion victim leads to being consumed by the saddest of sad thoughts is too much for people not in the know to speculate on. While you could draw conclusions with a guy like Rypien, using the same methodology for a guy like Belak doesn’t make sense. We just don’t know what made these guys tick and that’s part of the frustration in dealing with their untimely deaths.

What needs to be looked at is how the NHL and the NHLPA are trying to take care of their troubled souls. Former NHL tough guys Tyson Nash and Matthew Barnaby took to Twitter to point the finger at the NHLPA for not helping players prepare for their post-career lives. In Belak’s case, this makes some sense although Belak wasn’t lacking in opportunity post-hockey. Belak was set to be a rinkside reporter for Predators broadcasts and was also set to compete on CBC’s Battle of the Blades celebrity figure skating competition.

The fact here remains that pro hockey players are guys that have been playing since childhood and have known a professional schedule lifestyle that consisted of virtually nothing but hockey. When it comes time to retire or if you’re forced out of the game by injury, it’s a colossal culture change for players which sometimes leaves guys feeling lost.

It’s the sort of situation that makes you think of the character Brooks from the film “The Shawshank Redemption.” After so many years on the inside of prison, when he was set free he became a lost soul unable to adapt to a new way of life on the outside. That’s not to say that the hockey lifestyle is like a prison, just that when everything you’ve ever known is thrown into disarray, if you’re not ready for it you can be left feeling swamped over.

Whether it comes from preparing players for their post-career lives, helping them with substance abuse, or getting them help when it feels like there’s no way out of the darkness that’s enveloping their lives being proactive to let the players know there’s help when they need it is the absolute least they can do and it has to start early.

The NFL and NBA hold rookie symposiums for incoming players to help them better prepare for the perils of being a professional athlete. Having the NHLPA and NHL work together to let players know that there is a program in place to help (the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse & Behavioral Health Program) can get the word out early and let it be known that help is there if needed. Whether the problems stem from abusing alcohol or pain killers, the assistance is there.

With depression is one of the most personal and most private mental illnesses, teaching players early on what the signs of it are and that reaching out for help when it’s needed. That’s not nearly enough to help those who are depressed, but doing something is better than doing nothing. Depression is such a difficult thing because even with proper counseling and a great circle of friends, it still might not be enough to save someone from their thoughts. Ignoring it, however, is not an option.

With  so much sadness and so many questions left unanswered for those players and their families, the time is now for the NHL and NHLPA to work together and make sure that sadness and avoidable tragedy will not happen in the future. One death is one too many, four is a sign of a much larger problem that must be addressed.

Blue Jackets defeat Coyotes in shootout, but only after Mike Smith made franchise-record 58 saves

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 07:  Goaltender Mike Smith #41 of the Arizona Coyotes during the preseason NHL game against San Jose Sharks at Gila River Arena on October 7, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Sharks 3-1  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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PHOENIX (AP) Columbus pummeled Mike Smith with a franchise-record 60 shots, Alexander Wennberg scored with 2:16 left in the third period and the Blue Jackets beat the Arizona Coyotes 3-2 in a shootout Saturday night.

Smith set a franchise record with 58 saves, but the Coyotes still lost their third straight.

Cam Atkinson and Sam Gagner scored on Smith in the shootout while Curtis McElhinney stopped both Arizona shooters. Boone Jenner also scored for Columbus, which has won three straight.

Shane Doan got his 399th career goal and Radim Vrbata also scored for Arizona, which was playing its eighth overtime game in 23 contests.

Doan put Arizona ahead 2-1 at 11:04 of the second when he redirected Michael Stone‘s lobbed shot from just inside the blue line along the right boards.

Wennberg tied it at 2 by backhanding the puck between Smith’s pads off a pass from Brandon Saad.

The Blue Jackets needed only 13 seconds to take the lead in the first period. Jenner took a pass from Jack Johnson between the hashes and fired over Smith’s glove.

Smith made 47 saves between the two Columbus goals and 21 in the third period alone.

After failing to take advantage of a two-man advantage late in the first, the Coyotes evened the score on Vrbata’s rising shot off McElhinney’s blocker from the left faceoff circle for a power-play goal 63 seconds into the second period.

Smith helped preserve the lead with 5:30 left in the second, stopping Saad’s breakaway attempt with a sprawling pad save.

McElhinney finished with 32 saves.

Related:

Why the Blue Jackets are the NHL’s biggest surprise

Panthers lament slow start versus Sens, as debate over controversial Gallant firing continues

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 20:  Keith Yandle #3 of the Florida Panthers skates against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on November 20, 2016 in New York City. The Panthers defeated the Rangers 3-2 in the shootout.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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It’s been one week since the shocking and controversial firing of Gerard Gallant. The decision made by the Florida Panthers continues to be a hot topic of debate.

Don Cherry weighed in on it Saturday. As you might expect, he wasn’t in favor of the decision. Meanwhile, the Panthers lost 2-0 to the Ottawa Senators in a game that completely swung in favor of the hosts in the span of just 19 seconds.

Erik Karlsson and Derick Brassard scored early in the first period, giving Ottawa a two-goal lead and that was the only scoring of the evening.

On taking over from Gallant, interim coach Tom Rowe said, per the Sun Sentinel: “This isn’t a knock on Gerard, because he did a great job.

“I just thought some guys weren’t bringing it the way they’re capable of bringing it every single night. A little too much inconsistency. They’d come out one period and play great. Another period they just sit back a little bit too tentative.”

That second paragraph is interesting.

Against the Senators, the Panthers had a slow start, illustrated by their 19-second lapse leading to the Ottawa goals. The Panthers found their game in the second period but tested Mike Condon with only 24 shots on goal by the end of the night.

They also couldn’t capitalize on a five-on-three power play in the second period.

“It’s a tough one to swallow,” said Keith Yandle, per the Miami Herald. “They had a good start, and sometimes you have to weather the storm throughout courses of games, and they did a good job in the first 10 or 12 minutes. If you look at the second period we were better.”

There were anxious moments for the Panthers, as defenseman Aaron Ekblad took a puck to the face in the second period. He missed about two minutes of game time, but did require stitches, according to Rowe.

Avs’ D-man Johnson suffers broken fibula, out six to eight weeks

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 11:  Erik Johnson #6 of the Colorado Avalanche in action against the Winnipeg Jets at Pepsi Center on November 11, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
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Another loss for the Colorado Avalanche, but the news following this latest defeat is much worse.

Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson has suffered a broken fibula and is out six to eight weeks, the team announced following Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Dallas Stars.

Johnson left the game because of the injury and didn’t return.

This development occurred later in the same day the team’s captain Gabriel Landeskog skated briefly with his teammates, leading to the possibility that he may travel with the Avs on their upcoming road trip.

It’s obviously devastating news for Colorado, which recently had its effort ripped by coach Jared Bednar. Issues with consistency and work ethic have been around since Patrick Roy was in charge.

The Avalanche have struggled since the beginning of the season after a late-summer coaching change, but they now occupy last place in the Western Conference with five straight losses.

Johnson has 11 points, which ties him with Tyson Barrie for the team lead among defenseman in that category.

In addition to playing 22 minutes a night, which is a substantial loss because he plays on both the penalty kill and power play, he’s also one of only two blue liners with the Avalanche to have even-strength puck possession numbers greater than 50 per cent.

The difficult times for the Avalanche continue.

Video: Caggiula (finally) scores his first NHL goal

EDMONTON, AB - SEPTEMBER 26:  Drake Caggiula #36 of the Edmonton Oilers skates against the Calgary Flames on September 26, 2016 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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Drake Caggiula had to wait to make his NHL debut because of a hip injury suffered in pre-season. He had to wait even longer for his first NHL goal.

On Saturday, the wait for the latter ended.

Playing in just his eighth career NHL game, the North Dakota product and NCAA Frozen Four MOP — pursued by at least half a dozen teams as a college free agent — ripped home a wrist shot from the slot on the power play for career goal No. 1 in the big league.

That goal gave Edmonton a 1-0 lead over the visiting Anaheim Ducks.