NHL TV Partners Need to Help Explain Player Tragedies
September 1, 2011 14 Comments
I’ve mostly stayed away from this sort of thing as it has reared its ugly head twice before over the summer. Yet, here the hockey world is again, in the wake of a tragedy. This time, it is Wade Belak, who took his own life at the age of 35 in Toronto yesterday. This is third death of an NHL player, and the second suicide of an NHL player (the first one was of a drug overdose), within a few months. To not have it weigh heavy on your mind would be impossible as someone who watches as much hockey as I do, and as I imagine anyone who reads my website would have to as well.
It is a horrible, incomprehensible tragedy that Belak, as well as Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard, are gone forever. Other men have spoken about the range of emotions that you have to feel for these players, these human beings, and their families. Greg Wyshynski and Bruce Arthur both wrote words that have touched me and spoke to how I felt about all of this. I am truly at a loss for them, other than to say that my heart is truly in pieces for the families and – in Belak’s most tragic case – young children who will have to carry on in the wake of these men. I cannot even venture to guess how lost they must feel from all this, and how much they have lost.
We all must move on, however, after a few more days in which we will see more tributes to Belak, more words spent recapping the terrible loss that the hockey family has burdened since May, when Boogaard died, and that continued a few weeks ago, when Rypien took his life. Even more will be spent talking about the cause and effect of fighting in the game, how it may have affected the mental state of these men and what they have done. About the punishing sort of game that these three men in particular personified. That’s not what I’m here to talk about at all, however. What this is about is sending a message, publicly, through the league’s easiest connection to its’ fans.
The National Hockey League’s television partners in both the United States and Canada, have a real opportunity here. They have a chance to spark real debate about issues such as head injuries, hitting, fighting, how players should be properly medicated, drug culture, and in the NHLPA’s case, how their athletes transition into life after hockey. Issues such as these should already be regularly bantered about on the numerous chat segments of Hockey Night in Canada and TSN’s panel, but there needs to be expanded debate.
These are just a few of the many issues that need to be – if not debated – at least talked about on CBC, TSN and VERSUS in America. One could forgive the NHL’s own in-house channel from sidestepping this, but NHL Network could be involved in creating debate too, in the vein of the two-hour special the network aired that dealt with race in the modern game. This isn’t something that VERSUS can ignore either. Maybe they will, but they shouldn’t. You’ve got a 10-year contract with the league, now’s the time to discuss some of the more dicey issues and bring something like this to the forefront. Talk to the hardcore hockey fan like adults. We’ve all just been dealt a horrifying summer in which three players died of means that could have prevented. How many more of these do we need to see without more than a brief obituary?
My suggestion is as follows. CBC or TSN, in conjunction with VERSUS or the NHL Network in the states, should hold a two-hour (or one-hour, to accommodate TV) roundtable discussion on these issues – formatted similarly to the one on race from a couple of years ago – that gets out a a message that these topics won’t be swept under the rug for another season. Involve people from the league, commentators, players, medical experts, whomever. Just get into an open, frank talk about what’s happened over the summer and what can be done to turn this around.
It isn’t just that these are hockey players. These are men with a unique influence on fans of this game, especially young children. Whether we like it or not, one of the appeals of hockey to young fans is that players are allowed to spontaneously fight each other. Some kids have lost their heroes this summer, even aside from the obvious tragic loss to their families. Enforcers, or “goons,” hold a special place in many fans’ hearts. How do we deal with the fact that three of them have died, that two have taken their own lives? Television, at it’s very best, can help us steer the conversation towards making real change.