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.

Police: Drowning of NHL goalie Ray Emery not suspicious

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HAMILTON, Ontario (AP) — The drowning of former NHL goalie Ray Emery does not appear suspicious, police said.

The 35-year-old player whose career spanned 11 seasons drowned in Hamilton Harbour on Sunday.

He jumped off a boat near the Leander Boat Club to go swimming, and friends called emergency services at about 6 a.m. when he didn’t resurface, police said. Inspector Marty Schulenberg called it a ”case of misadventure.”

Emery’s body was found at about 2:50 p.m. Sunday, about 20 yards from where he went into the water, Schulenberg added. He said first responders were not able to locate Emery right away so they called the dive unit. The search took longer than anticipated because of concerns for the dive team.

”It’s a lengthy process and safety is paramount to our divers,” he said. ”We need to take the time do it safely and that’s what the delay was.”

A post-mortem was to be completed Monday.

”Mr. Emery was taking a swim this morning and the circumstances around that are a part of the investigation,” Schulenberg said. ”Those details remain to be uncovered by our investigators.”

Emery played for Ottawa, Chicago and Philadelphia. He helped the Senators reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2007 and won it as a backup with the Blackhawks in 2013.

The Blackhawks lauded him as a ”fierce competitor, a good teammate and a Stanley Cup champion.” Flyers President Paul Holmgren cited his ”talent, work ethic and determination,” calling him an ”outstanding teammate and an extremely gifted goaltender.”

Emery battled avascular necrosis, the same serious hip ailment that ended two-sport star Bo Jackson’s career. He and fellow Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford combined to win the William Jennings Trophy for allowing the league’s fewest goals during the lockout-shortened 2013 season and finished seventh in Vezina Trophy voting.

Emery played in 326 NHL regular-season and playoff games. He went 145-86-28 with a 2.70 goals-against average and 16 shutouts.

He faced issues off the ice, including an incident of road rage, assault of a trainer in Russia and behavior that led to his dismissal from Ottawa’s training camp.

”Ray had many highs and lows in his personal life and his career,” longtime agent J.P. Barry said. ”He never let things that would derail most of us stop his forward momentum. He had a big heart and a fun loving personality. He was someone we all rooted for to succeed.”

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas knew Emery from junior hockey and the American Hockey League. He said Emery’s ”smile and intelligence made him a magnetic personality.”

Emery played in a charity hockey game Saturday night organized by Zac Rinaldo of the Nashville Predators. After word of his death spread, condolences poured in.

”I will always remember Ray as a good person first & foremost,” friend and former teammate Dan Carcillo wrote on Twitter. ”I envied his demeanor. He had a contagious personality.”

Former teammates pointed to Emery’s mentorship and leadership, especially in his final professional season in the AHL in 2015-16. Enforcer-turned-analyst Paul Bissonnette, a teammate with the AHL’s Ontario Reign, said Emery would treat other players to dinner almost every night.

”I’d heard nothing but great things before meeting him,” Bissonnette said. ”And it was true.”

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and The Canadian Press contributed to this report.

Hartman handed prove-it contract by Predators

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The Nashville Predators want Ryan Hartman to succeed and are prepared to give him every opportunity to do so after signing him to a one-year contract on Monday.

Hartman’s deal comes in at $875,000 for the 2018-19 season, a prove-it deal that, if all goes well for the former first-round pick, could mean a bigger haul next season as a restricted free agent with arbitration rights.

“[Predators head coach Peter Laviolette] said to him in the exit meeting that basically the cupboard is open,” Predators general manager David Poile told reporters following his team’s second-round exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. “So, when you come to training camp, take whatever you want, meaning we’re open to him playing up in the lineup, different positions, maybe power-play opportunities; Lavi and our coaches had Ryan killing penalties, which he didn’t do in Chicago. In doing that, he did it very well for us, so it’ll be his best chance to with the whole year to know exactly where he fits in.”

Nashville seems open to letting Hartman compete for a job, and now it’s up to Hartman to keep his wits about him and prove he’s the same player he was in his rookie season.

Hartman cost the Predators a first, a fourth and a prospect at the trade deadline, and after an up-and-down time with the Predators following his acquisition, the Predators are hoping a healthy Hartman can offer a good return on investment.

Hartman underwent surgery for a torn labrum this offseason but is expected to be ready for the regular season. He has a proven ability to be versatile in the lineup and can play a role on special teams as well, both power play and penalty kill.

Poile said it himself: This is Hartman’s chance. Hartman notched 19 goals in his rookie season with the Blackhawks, and that type of form would be a perfect fit on a Predators roster that could use the secondary scoring. He had 1.89 points-per-60 with the Blackhawks this past season and 1.40 with the Predators, where his shooting percentage was over 10 percent.

He’s also proven to be a pretty effective puck-possession player, finishing his rookie season at 53.06 CF% and last year at 53.09.

A little more consistency in his game would help.

Hartman was made a healthy scratch for Games 1 and 6 of the second round and Game 6 of the first round and was suspended for Game 5 of that series against the Colorado Avalanche for a wild check to the head of Carl Soderberg.

He also scored the game-winner for the Predators in Game 4 of the series against the Jets.

This is a low-risk deal for the Predators with the potential of a nice reward if Hartman can find his place in a team that seems destined to contend once again this year. A good showing by Hartman could really round out their roster.

The deal also doesn’t break the bank for the Predators, who still have to sign Miikka Salomaki and Juuse Saros, who are the team’s remaining RFAs. CapFriendly has the Predators at just over $68 million counting against the salary cap, which is set at $79.5 million for the coming season.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: The hockey world remembers Ray Emery

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Remembering Ray Emery. (TSN.ca)

• A tragic end for Ray Emery, a polarizing figure who led the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup Final. (Ottawa Sun)

• After signing a six-year, $37 million contract last week, a look at how an agent change changed the course of Connor Hellebuyck‘s career. (InGoal Magazine)

Logan Couture, who committed the next eight years of his NHL career to the San Jose Sharks on July 1, is ready to pay it forward. (The Hockey News)

• A move out the wing helped Claude Giroux revitalize his career, and helped Sean Couturier to have a career year, but could a move back to center be the best move for the Flyers going forward? (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• A lengthy look at the single best contract for each of the NHL’s 31 teams. (ESPN)

• Vegas’ top line is good, but best top trio hockey? Nope. (Knights on Ice)

Ryan Kesler could miss the entirety of next season and the Anaheim Ducks don’t appear to be worried about it. (Anaheim Calling)

• It wasn’t just New York Islanders fans who felt the sting of his departure on July 1. His own teammates need to pick themselves back up as well. (Sportsnet)

• He’s one the greatest names in Detroit Red Wings history. It’s time to retire Sergei Fedorov’s No. 91. (Detroit Free Press)

• A look at Nathan Walker and the future of international hockey. (Puck Prose)

• Well, this is interesting: Troy Stecher’s closest comparable as he heads to arbitration is in Jim Benning’s family. (Vancouver Courier)

• A look at how Paul Bissonnette has forged a career in multimedia after forging one as a fourth-liner in the NHL. (Forbes)

• After signing Devon Shore to a two-year, the Dallas Stars are still in decent shape in terms of the salary cap. (Blackout Dallas)

• Oilers Nation is doing a player-by-player review from last season, and this particular review looks at if Edmonton is going to miss Patrick Maroon more than they think. (Oilers Nation)

• When Devils’ head coach John Hynes expects to fill his coaching staff and what he wants in an assistant. (NJ.com)

• How Andrej Sustr found healing through art. (NHLPA)

• The rollercoaster of a ride that was the first season of Fanatics handling official NHL apparel. (Scotty Wazz)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Canadiens make a good move: Solid deal for Danault

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Unanimously good moves haven’t happened regularly for the Montreal Canadiens these days, so it’s worthwhile to appreciate even what would seem like easy calls.

With that in mind, signing useful forward Phillip Danault to a nice three-year contract ranks as one of Marc Bergevin’s best decisions in some time, whether you can chalk up the value to RFA leverage or not. The Canadiens confirmed that the cap hit is a reasonable $3.083 million per season.

Danault, 25, has essentially been a point-every-other-game player for Montreal. He scored 25 points in 52 games this past season after a relative breakthrough in 2016-17, when he collected 40 points in 82 contests. Not too shabby.

It’s conceivable that Danault could maybe chip in a bit more if leaned upon in a bigger way, as he averaged 16:35 minutes per game, with a touch less than a minute (56 seconds) of that average happening on the power play.

Now, it’s not as though the Canadiens are being foolish in playing him in his current role, as it’s plausible that he’s best served as a supporting cast sort of asset. The point is that Danault seems to make good use of his time, might be able to do a tad bit more, and tends to check out reasonably well from a possession standpoint. He’s not the type of player who will win you a Stanley Cup, yet he’s also the sort of guy who wouldn’t take much off of the table, either. In other words, this is a justifiable contract and could even be a nifty value.

Faint praise? Pretty much, but it’s better than the usual reaction for Bergevin & Co. (laughter, mockery).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.