While the hockey world and various pundits try to make sense of Wade Belak’s death, the former fighting defenseman’s family, friends and colleagues also must move on. A big part of the grieving process will happen in Nashville, where his funeral will take place on Sunday. Belak played his final NHL games with the Nashville Predators.
In the mean time, the search for answers will continue as details emerge. The Toronto Sun’s Dave Feschuk wrote that two anonymous sources claimed that Belak struggled with depression and quietly used medication to try to deal with his issues. It’s not a shocking revelation, but it’s important to try to maintain a sense of perspective even in a time of awful loss.
To some, that column will fuel a reaction that his former teams, the league or someone else was to blame for this sad story. The NHL and its players association hope to find ways to improve their process, but it’s naive to believe that a larger entity can solve its players’ issues with some broad stroke. If there’s one prevailing thought that is emerging from the many columns and criticisms, it’s that the culture needs to change.
That’s not something that you can expect to change overnight, though; some might assail the “macho” culture of hockey yet that same person may glorify the brazen action of a player giving up his body to block a shot once the action picks up again. The league should examine how it opens up the lines of communication between players, teams and health care professionals, but ultimately it might take some time before hockey people are willing to be honest about their problems.
After all, Belak and others aren’t just fighting on the ice, they’re often fighting to keep their jobs. One can see the double-edged sword that enforcers would deal with: if they decide to break their silence, they might not be in the NHL much longer because they may be deemed unfit to complete their duties.
This may be an issue that can only be realistically solved by baby steps. The NHL is probably justified in trying to keep players’ troubles as confidential as possible for all the reasons stated in the previous paragraphs. If you ask me, the best they can do is find practical ways to encourage players to seek help if they need it, on their own terms. Maybe that means investigating troubling signs a little more deeply or consulting any number of different avenues, but to claim that there’s a quick-fix solution is to ignore human nature and a complicated issue like depression.
Hopefully we’ll remember Belak and other recently deceased hockey players for more than just their untimely ends, even if their deaths might give others the push they needed to get the help they’ve been missing.