Kovacevic: No need to link NHL tragedies

| Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011

On the first Sunday of September, with a light rain falling outside a Nashville church, Steve Sullivan attended a hockey gathering like no other. One that shook the sport to its foundation.

This was the funeral of Wade Belak, his friend and former teammate with the Predators, dead of an apparent suicide at age 35.

Sullivan recalled shaking, too.

"I was devastated," the Penguins' newest forward was telling me at his locker stall earlier this week. "You can't use the word 'shocked,' because it really doesn't do it justice."

Not when he looked at Belak's widow, Jennifer, and their two young daughters.

"That's who I feel for," Sullivan said. "Hopefully, there will be memories made for their daughters so they can get to know what kind of a special person their dad was."

It's a poignant thought. Unfortunately, that image will be forever distorted if people continue to connect Belak's death to those of two other NHL enforcers, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, this summer.

Don't misunderstand: I do believe that fighting in hockey can damage a player physically and mentally. I also believe that the league should move toward eliminating fighting, starting at the developmental levels. It's barbaric to beat faces with bare-knuckled fists, and it wouldn't be deemed necessary by anyone if existing rules were enforced.

What I don't believe is the growing narrative that the NHL just experienced some intertwined hat trick of tragedy.

Boogaard, a 28-year-old with the New York Rangers, was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment May 13. An autopsy determined he died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescribed painkillers. Over his career, he showed concussion-like symptoms but never depression. And I'll repeat: It was ruled accidental.

Rypien, a 27-year-old with the Winnipeg Jets, was found dead at his home in Alberta on Aug. 15. Police ruled it unsuspicious without offering details, but news reports called it a suicide. Rypien did have a history of depression, twice taking personal leaves from his playing career to cope. But that history preceded his time in the NHL.

The next came just 16 days later when Belak, who had recently signed with the Maple Leafs, was found dead in his Toronto condo. Police ruled it unsuspicious, but the Associated Press quoted an unnamed source as saying Belak hanged himself.

Imagine that.

It was the hardest of the three to digest, and it remains that way for those who knew him.

"No one still knows exactly what happened with Wade," Sullivan said. "We can all speculate and say we think it was depression. But I've got family members who have been diagnosed with depression. When you see them on a daily basis, you know they're depressed. It's not a hard read."

Sullivan recalled Belak, by contrast, as "the life of the room everywhere he went," as has just about everyone interviewed about Belak, including his father.

"With Wade, there is not one person in the world who would have told you he was depressed," Sullivan said.

I look at these cases, and I see this connection: All three were fighters, all died far too young. And that's it, until there is far more compelling evidence.

Sullivan feels the same way.

"I don't believe any of this is linked," he said. "There are just too many guys who perform that role who are fine. We all have demons. We're all battling things in our lives and in our jobs. So, are we all linked together?"

The day after Belak's death, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and players' union chief Donald Fehr issued a rare joint statement pledging to study fighting's possible effects on depression and to review counseling programs. There is much about the brain we don't know, so it's a gesture worth applauding.

Penguins general manager Ray Shero applauds it, too, but his firm stance is that there's no connection.

"It's not like every tough guy is depressed," Shero said before rattling off the names of former Pittsburgh enforcers such as Jay Caufield, Jim McKenzie and Dennis Bonvie. "All those guys are doing great. How many fights did they have• Probably more than 1,000."

Shero cited the suicides of two former Major League Baseball pitchers, Donnie Moore in 1989 and Mike Flanagan this summer.

"I'm pretty certain Mike Flanagan was never in a hockey fight, but we only talk about it in hockey," Shero said. "There are a lot of people in sports and in life who have depression. Millions of them. But now we have people jumping to the conclusion that being an enforcer leads to depression and that leads to committing suicide. I don't see that."

These tragedies were terrible enough. No need to make them a trilogy.

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