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.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.