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By Sean Fitz-Gerald, Postmedia News
September 2, 2011
TORONTO Wade Belak was coping with depression when he died but seemed to be “taking control” of his condition, according to his mother, and one of the retired National Hockey League player’s friends said Belak had been taking antidepressants for the last four years.
Lorraine Belak said in an interview with the CBC that her son “didn’t talk about it all the time, or a lot.”
“I don’t know about depression,” she told the Canadian network on Friday. “I don’t know the symptoms or things like that, so I really am uncomfortable talking about that because I just don’t know enough about it.”
Her son’s body was found in a downtown Toronto hotel and condominium complex early Wednesday afternoon. Toronto police do not suspect foul play and have released neither the identity nor the cause of death, though a police source has confirmed it was a suicide.
Lorraine Belak said she last spoke with her son on Sunday, before he left his family home in Nashville for a flight to Toronto, where he was preparing for his role on the CBC show Battle of the Blades. On Thursday, Lionel Aadland, Belak’s father, said the family had been told Belak had taken his own life.
“Of course, I couldn’t believe it,” his mother told the CBC. “I was stunned, shocked, but most of all, I just could not believe that this happened to him.”
Belak’s funeral will be held Sunday in Nashville, where he had settled with his wife, Jennifer, and their two children.
“The lesson we’ve learned from Wade will haunt many of us for a long time you never know what’s going on in someone’s head,” TSN host Michael Landsberg told TSN Radio on Friday afternoon. “Wade Belak apparently had an external ability that was mind-blowing, how good he could sell his mental well-being. Always smiling.”
Landsberg, who copes with depression, told the station he and Belak had been discussing the condition and its treatments on and off for at least four years. He told the station they had talked about it as recently as a week ago.
“He had referred to having been on ‘happy pills’ for four years,” Landsberg said on the air. “And I said to him, ‘They’re not happy pills, as you know. At best, they return you to being the way you were beforehand.’ ”
Belak had been a guest on Off The Record, the long-running TSN show hosted by Landsberg. He was a fan favourite and a celebrity during the parts of seven seasons he spent with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I was 100 per cent sure that he was managing it, coping with it,” said Landsberg, who described Belak as being a “pseudo member of my family.”
Belak retired from hockey earlier this year and, in an interview with the National Post last week, detailed the various physical aches and pains endured over 15 seasons spent as an enforcer. The 35-year-old had developed arthritis in his pelvis that, when inflamed, required cortisone injections that sidelined him for three or four days at a time.
The Nashville Predators placed him on waivers in February, but instead of forcing him to report to their American Hockey League affiliate, they gave him the option of becoming a broadcaster. Belak moved behind the microphone before the playoffs and was due to become a sideline reporter with the team this season.
“Fifteen years of pro hockey flew by for me,” Belak said last week. “Just to still be involved with hockey is great, and I think it helps you out.”
On Friday, the Toronto Star cited two sources close to Belak stating the former enforcer had been taking medication to treat his depression. Belak’s father said the family “didn’t see any signs” of trouble.
The NHL and NHLPA have a program in place to help players deal with personal issues such as depression or drug and alcohol addiction, but it was not clear if Belak had been a part of that program. As part of the program, players are put in touch with specialists in their area and given medication, psychological treatment or a combination of the two.
On Thursday, the league and the Players’ Association issued a joint statement saying the organizations were “committed to a thorough evaluation of our existing assistance programs and practices and will make immediate modifications and improvements to the extent they are deemed warranted.”
Aadland said he last spoke with his son a few weeks ago.
“He wasn’t a fighter because he was necessarily a rough, tough guy,” he said. “He was an enforcer or whatever you want to call it because that was his role. He knew his role and that’s what paid the bills. As much as he loved hockey, he didn’t really like the fighting part, but it kind of came with the territory.”
By Stu Hackel
With today’s report in The Toronto Star that Wade Belak suffered from depression, we have a possible explanation for an event that has shocked many who knew him and alarmed many more. Belak, found dead in a Toronto hotel on Wednesday, is the third NHL enforcer to die since May. His death has been reported by some as a suicide, the same talk that surrounded the death of Rick Rypien in mid-August. Derek Boogaard’s case was ruled accidental, due to a lethal mixture of alcohol and pain killers.
Belak had just retired, but some connection between his occupation as a hockey tough guy and the closely spaced deaths of the other two enforcers has been sought.
“I think sometimes we get caught up in generalizations,” Allain Roy, Rypien’s agent, told John Branch of The New York Times today. “We have three sad instances where we have three young men who struggled with their lives off the ice. Whether their role played a piece in it, I think it’s almost impossible for anybody to draw that straight line through it — to say, all right, they were enforcers, and this is why this happened to them.”
Branch went on from there to explore, if not exactly draw, the straight line that Roy warned against. He’s not alone, of course, because there are many who would like to see fighting removed from hockey and they see these three deaths as evidence of its destructiveness to the sport as well as the individuals who play it. We cautioned yesterday, however, that there are many more questions to be asked and answered before one transforms this awful coincidence into a pattern of evidence and calls for an end to fighting in pro hockey.
There’s no doubt that fighting is a difficult activity, both physically and psychologically, and it’s hardly news. Back in 1997, SI’s Michael Farber wrote about the emotional swings some tough guys endure in their hard, punishing work that is not as well compensated as some other roles on a team. And while fighters are among a team’s biggest heroes to its fans, they are also among the biggest villains on the road. Some play only a few minutes per game, if that, although that brand of enforcer — the “goon” type that came into vogue in the 1970s — seems to have less place in the contemporary faster NHL where good skating and some degree of skill are nearly mandatory. The old-fashioned one-dimensional fighter is becoming something of an endangered species (at least on the ice; many seem to have found second careers in the media, and Belak was headed for that as well).
Farber called NHL fighting “the worst job in sports,” and chronicled the joylessness some feel about the profession. “I love this job, but at times I almost hate this job,” Louie DeBrusk told him. “There are times you don’t feel like going out there and fighting…. Unfortunately, that’s my job.” And it’s also their identity, for better or worse.
But depression is a social problem, not merely a hockey fighter’s problem, and it’s widespread. Are enforcers more prone than others in the game? We also wrote yesterday about pro hockey players who were not fighters but suffered from depression or other forms of anxiety and emotional disorder. We looked at how widespread mental health problems are throughout both the U.S. and Canada — upwards of 20 percent of the population – remarking that there’s no reason to believe that athletes are somehow immune from being part of that group.
In fact, in a highly recommended, penetrating 2003 piece on mental illness in pro sports, SI’s L. Jon Wertheim wrote about how athletes may be more vulnerable to mental illness than the general population. He quoted experts who attributed that to a number of factors, including the stress of performing in public, a traveling lifestyle that robs them of the support gained from a regular home life, childhood traumas (which may be less prevalent in hockey than other sports) and head injuries (which may be more prevalent in hockey than most other sports). He also noted that athletes tend to hide emotional problems for fear that they indicate to their peers some sort of weakness — and of all the athletes who must display courage and deny or mask weakness, we’d have to put hockey fighters near or on top of the list.
But when you look at those risk factors, are fighters more vulnerable than other hockey players? It seems unlikely even in the case of head injuries. The NHL’s research indicates that most concussions in the game are accidental or inadvertent, not the result of deliberate head checks or fights. But that really must be fully explored before adequately assessing the meaning of these three recent deaths.
None of this is to cast doubt on the known effects of post-concussion syndrome that include depression, nor the link being researched between fighting and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, the degenerative neurological disorder that can result from concussions and is known to cause cognitive decline, behavioral abnormalities and ultimately dementia. (Boogaard’s brain is now being studied for evidence of CTE, a link that seems valid.) Nor should we minimize the myriad difficulties hockey fighters face — the concussions, the medicating, the self-esteem problems and other emotional baggage.
But there are larger issues at play here that need to be comprehended before we can understand if there is any real connection between these deaths and what, if anything, they mean for the sport.