Tag: substance abuse and behavioral health program

Wade Belak

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


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.

Deaths of Boogaard, Rypien prompt NHL to examine its support programs


The hockey world was shaken by Monday’s news of Rick Rypien’s death at age 27, which came about two months after Derek Boogaard’s untimely death at 28. Many reacted to Rypien’s death with great sadness, from teammates to fans and even former opponents. Yet there was also sizable contingent of people looking for someone beyond Rypien to blame, with several onlookers casting that gaze at the way the NHL handles players dealing with personal issues.

I believe that it is unfair to cast blame on the league and its teams, especially since the deaths of Rypien and Boogaard were both such personal and complicated matters. Sadly, that’s the way society often reacts to tragedies that are difficult to accept: by finding the easiest target to blame.

While NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was quick to claim that the league’s support program ranks among the best in sports, he admitted that the league and its players association will examine its substance abuse and behavioral health program after those two sad, high-profile deaths.

“My guess is we’ll talk at the appropriate time with the players’ association, making sure that we’re comfortable with all of the mechanisms and programs we have in place, which are extensive,” Bettman told The Canadian Press at the league’s research and development camp on Wednesday. “I don’t think any sports league does more than we do but maybe there’s more, as we focus on it, that we need to focus on. I know it’s always hard for people to accept, but sports is a microcosm of society in general.

“And life isn’t always easy.”

Union executive and former NHL defenseman Mathieu Schneider echoed Bettman’s sentiments.

While referring to the NHL-NHLPA support program as “very strong,” union executive Mathieu Schneider indicated that he shares Bettman’s desire to look closely at ways it might be improved.

“I think there certainly has to be some work done in addressing issues,” said Schneider, the NHLPA’s special adviser to executive director Don Fehr. “If anything could have been done that would have helped those players, if anything can be done to help future players, we certainly need to do it.”

The Canadian Press article states that the league and NHLPA try to limit the amount of details revealed about the program to protect those who undergo treatment, but Schneider said that players are aware of the services made available. Those services include access to counselors and a 24-hour help line.

Both Boogaard and Rypien tried to get help. One of the saddest details about Boogaard’s death was that it reportedly came the day after he left treatment. Rypien took a leave of absence on two occasions – most recently in November 2010 – to try to deal with his personal issues.

To some, that might be proof that the system isn’t working, but it’s also clear that attempts were made to help both players work out their issues. Let’s not forget that the program seemed to benefit Nashville Predators forward Jordin Tootoo, although anyone familiar with these situations will acknowledge that battling personal demons is often a gradual process with ups and downs.

One thing Schneider brought up is a crucial factor for anyone dealing with depression and other issues: communication. That’s an area that Schneider believes players could work on.

“Maybe it would have been better had Rick been able to lean on some teammates and guys there for support,” said Schneider. “But those type of things have always been kind of taboo. You just don’t talk about it.”

Again, these are complicated situations that don’t always have obvious resolutions. That being said, it’s good to hear that the league and its players association will discuss ways to improve the process. It would be wrong to say that the NHL doesn’t care about helping its players, but there’s always room for improvement.

NHL clears Jordin Tootoo to play in games again

Image (1) Tootoo1-thumb-200x300-10161.jpg for post 1182

The NHL and NHL Players Association announced that Nashville Predators forward Jordin Tootoo has been cleared to play in regular season games as he continues the “follow-up care phase” of the league’s substance abuse and behavioral health program.

Tootoo checked himself into the program in late December and was allowed to practice with the Predators again in late January, so this seems like a natural progression to get the noted pest back on the ice.

While the team hasn’t made it official yet, Ryan Porth of RLD Hockey writes that Tootoo is likely to play for the Predators against the Phoenix Coyotes tonight. Tootoo scored 10 points and assembled 47 penalty minutes in 32 games this season, having last played in a game on December 26th. It will be interesting to see if his pest-like game changes a bit considering his off-ice growth or if he’s able to maintain an edge even as he tries to turn his life around.

Jordin Tootoo takes next step in substance abuse program; cleared to practice with Predators

Jordin Tootoo, Mark Shewchyk

As hockey fans, we often get wrapped up in wins, losses, goals and assists. It’s easy to forget that there are human beings driving those numbers.

Nashville Predators forward Jordin Tootoo voluntarily checked himself into the NHL/NHL Players Assocation’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program in late December. While he hasn’t been cleared to play in games or travel with the team during road trips, the NHL and NHLPA announced that Tootoo has been cleared to practice with the club again.

Tootoo has entered the “follow-up phase” of the rehab process, so he still has to clear some hurdles to appear in NHL games.