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.

Canadiens’ Shea Weber bloodied after blocking shot with his face (Video)

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The Montreal Canadiens picked up a hard fought (and much needed) win in New York on Friday night by knocking off the Rangers, 2-1, thanks to a late goal from Nate Thompson with a minute to play in regulation.

It was a painful win for captain Shea Weber.

He was once again a workhorse on the Canadiens’ blue line, playing a game-high 24 minutes, finishing as a plus-one, attempting five shots, and blocking five in the defensive zone. One of those blocks in the first period left him bloodied as he slid to the ice and was hit directly in the face by a shot from Rangers center Ryan Strome.

You can see the play in the video above. He somehow did not miss a shift after that play.

Weber has been one of the consistent bright spots for the Canadiens this season and is showing that he can still be a dominant, impactful player. His biggest problem the past few years has been staying healthy enough to remain in the lineup so he can make that impact. So far this season that has not been a problem. He already has 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in the Canadiens’ first 30 games this season while posting some of the best possession numbers of his career. His 0.76 points per game average would also be the highest mark of his career.

The Canadiens’ win on Friday was only their second in their past 11 games.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Hurricanes remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

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When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kessel returns to Pittsburgh trying to find his game for Coyotes

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When the Arizona Coyotes acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins back in August (for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph) it gave them the type of player the organization had been lacking for years: a bonafide star forward, and one that was capable of scoring at a level that no Coyotes player had reached in close to a decade.

For a team that was just a couple of games away from the playoffs a season ago — despite an absurd season-long run of injuries that consistently decimated the roster — it was the type of move that could not only generate excitement within the fan base (it did, and they have the season ticket sales to prove it), but also give the team the last extra push it needed to get over the hump and end what is currently a seven-year playoff drought.

With Kessel set to make his first visit to Pittsburgh since the trade on Friday night, the Coyotes have put themselves in a great position to end that drought, sitting on top of the Pacific Division after 30 games thanks to their 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.

What is perhaps most surprising about their current spot in the standings is they have done it while getting minimal offensive impact from Kessel, even with his two-goal effort in Thursday’s win.

The early numbers are kind of staggering given the high bar Kessel has set for himself over the years offensively.

  • His six goals are his fewest through 30 games since his rookie year in 2006-07 (five goals).
  • He has been held without a goal in 26 of the team’s first 30 games.
  • He has just one even-strength goal on the season, with the other five coming on the power play (including both goals on Thursday — one of which was also an empty-net goal).
  • He is on pace for just 16 goals over 82 games. If he does not improve on that it would be his lowest total since his rookie year (11) and the first time since 2007-08 (his second year in the league when he missed 10 games) he did not top 20 goals in a season.

Some decline in his overall production should have been expected.

Not only because he is another year older (32) and another year away from his prime, but because he went from playing on a veteran, star-laden roster in Pittsburgh that plays one of the most up-tempo styles in the league, to a young Arizona team that, while talented, does not have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the middle of its lineup.

Even with all of that in mind this is still a pretty significant drop across the board, but it does not mean all hope is lost for him this season. Like any elite goal scorer Kessel can be notoriously streaky and score goals in bunches (this is not a knock on Kessel; it’s a reality for all players across the league), and it’s also not the first time he’s started a year slow. In his first year with the Penguins back in 2015-16 he had just nine goals through 30 games before getting hot in the second half, then catching fire in the playoffs on the way to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups.

While Kessel has not exactly lit the world on fire for the Coyotes, the trade has not exactly been a rousing success for the Penguins.

For all of Kessel’s flaws as a player, the Penguins absolutely miss his presence on a power play unit that been mostly dysfunctional this season. A lot of their power play the past few years ran through him, from his ability to gain entry into the zone (a problem for the Penguins this year), to his playmaking, to his ability to finish. Even with all of his struggles in Arizona offensively his five power play goals are more than any player on the Penguins.

They also have not received anything close to what they hoped they would from Alex Galchenyuk, which is starting to become a pretty big issue. He has just two goals through his first 20 games and has mostly been relegated to fourth-line duty. Even with the Penguins missing several regulars in their lineup he has not topped the 10-minute mark in three of the team’s past four games, while general manager Jim Rutherford on Thursday (via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe) that Galchenyuk is not a lock to remain in the lineup when everyone is back. Galchenyuk always seemed like a one-and-done player in Pittsburgh from the very beginning — Joseph is the key long-term piece — but they probably expected more than this.

The funny thing about all of this is the trade has not really done much for either team through the first quarter of the season, but both teams have still managed to put themselves on solid ground.

The Coyotes are healthy and in first place and still have the hope that a Kessel goal-binge is lurking somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

The Penguins are overcoming their injury issues, playing the way they want to play, and finding ways to collect points while they wait for their regulars to return.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Laila Anderson meets bone marrow donor

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Laila Anderson has made us shed a tear or two (or several) over the last year, and she was involved in another touching moment on Thursday night.

It was special to witness the 11-year-old’s journey. We got to see her ups with the St. Louis Blues and we also got to see the emotion behind her battle with a rare auto-immune disease, HLH. Last night, Anderson got to meet the person who helped her get better, as she got to interact with Kenton Felmlee, who ended up being her bone marrow donor.

“I felt a bond with her before we ever met. I think the second I look at her on the stage and saw her face,” Felmlee, who is a sophomore at the University of Kansas, said, per Fox 2 Now St. Louis. “Every emotion that I was feeling all exploded into so much more.”

As you can tell from the above video, their first interaction was incredibly emotional.

“I don’t care if we go to dinner or if we go to Disney World. I don’t care what we do, I just want to spend time with you,” Laila told her new friend on Thursday night.

And, of course, Anderson and Felmlee will be attending Saturday’s game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.