Wade Belak, 35, died by suicide on August 31.
Rick Rypien, 27, died by suicide on August 15.
Derek Boogaard, 29, died from an accidental overdose due to alcohol and prescription painkillers on May 13.
Tom Cavanagh, 29, died by suicide on January 6.
The men listed above have a few things in common. They were all young professional hockey players in the National Hockey League (NHL) and struggled with depression. And I am a fan of the game they played.
I grew up in the Midwest in the small town called East Grand Forks, MN, which borders Grand Forks, ND, an hour south of Canada. The way Texas feels about football is the way Minnesota feels about hockey. I remember the first time I went to a hockey game. One of my earliest memories is how I was supposed to watch and cheer for the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, the school I graduated from this past May. Watching hockey at UND’s Ralph Engelstad Arena is unlike anything else. It’s a massive, elegant building that can seat over 11,000 people. Entering the arena on a hockey night means being lost in a sea of green, white, and black where everyone is smiling and excited to watch what is bound to be an incredible show of athleticism, talent, and heart. The audience is transformed from simply being spectators to a community, a part of something bigger than themselves. If a fan can feel such connectedness by simply watching, what is preventing players from feeling safe enough to share their struggles with mental illness?
If you’ve never watched hockey, it’s an incredibly physical and sometimes violent sport. That’s often the draw for people. But what attracts me to hockey is that it’s a sport of fierce loyalty, for the fans and the players. Players have to trust their teammates to be there for a pass and to protect them when they’re skating along the boards. Night after night, players take painful hits for their teammates, often to protect the person holding the puck, knowing one wrong hit can end a career. So in a sport where game after game players show each other such loyalty and trust, it is devastating that off the ice they don’t feel they can do the same, that they feel so alone and don’t know how or if they can find help.
When news of Belak’s suicide broke, National Post writer Aaron Sands tried to answer the impossible: “How could a young man who was so widely loved, a man who was living an apparently charmed life with a beautiful young family decide to kill himself whilst alone in a Toronto hotel room? How could nobody have seen it coming?” Articles written about Rypien, Boogaard, and Cavanagh all echoed similar sentiments. All asked why. All wanted to know what we could do, what players could do, what the NHL could do.
Sands said, “the cost of coming out in the open about his mental illness would have been too high a price to pay,” suggesting the stigma associated with mental illness is what prevents players from coming forward about their struggles. Sadly, he is most likely right. Hockey players are looked at as prime examples of what it means to be physically tough and mentally intimidating. They are taught, coached, and instructed from the time they first pick up a hockey stick to never show weakness—on and off the ice. Being a hockey player in the NHL is about more than what happens inside a rink. They protect an image, and because of the stigma associated with mental health issues, sharing their struggles significantly alters how others see them.
And this stigma isn’t just for them. It’s for soldiers, doctors, teachers, celebrities. It exists for you. And for me.
As I sit with that, and think of its implications, I lose my words. We live in a world where we are readily exposed to sex, drugs, and violence. We talk about those things at great length because they’re on the news, in movies and songs. But we shy away at talking about mental illness and what it means. Why? Why do we let such a stigma continue to exist? One of the main goals we have at TWLOHA is to push back against this stigma. We want people to talk about these things freely, to be unafraid to stand up and say, “I’m struggling and I need help.” No one should ever have to live in a place where they feel they will lose more than they would gain by acknowledging a part of themselves, no matter how dark that part may be.
In an article from Star Tribune former NHL player Peter Worrell, who also struggled with addiction, said, “Part of the locker room mentality is we can fight through everything. We kind of get down on guys if they show any weakness. I hope with these tragedies this summer that as players and union members, we look out for each other a little bit more.”
Worrell’s sentiments are not limited to NHL players. We can look out for each other, too. You and I can, right now. For our family. For our friends. For our own selves and the stories we’re living. And maybe that’s how we start to help, by being fans who set an example. Let’s join the NHL in trying to erase mental health stigmas. We can love each other. We can talk about these things. I know it’s not easy and it can be scary, but by giving these issues a name and a face, one by one, we’ll change this.
If you ever get a chance, be sure to watch my favorite sport. I hope you can feel what I feel every time I watch a game. And I hope you’ll think of Belak, Rypien, Boogaard, and Cavanagh. And when you think of them, I hope you’re moved to share your story.