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01 2011

What in Heaven’s Name is Happening to Hockey’s Hit Men?

Syndicated from: Steve Paikin

There's a new movie set to debut at the Toronto International Film Festival about the men who have a simple job in hockey.   They're not to worry about scoring goals or setting them up. Their job is to drop their gloves at least once a night and try to pummel their opponents into another time zone.  The film is called "The Last Gladiators," because that's exactly what hockey's hit men are.   The reason they do this is simple: intimidation is a significant part of pro hockey. If you can make the other guy "hear footsteps," he won't be as effective and you get the advantage.   The problem is, we're discovering that job increasingly seems to come with tragic side affects.   Wade Belak signs autographs after a Leaf game in Detroit several years ago.   Wade Belak, the former member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has been found dead of an apparent suicide. He leaves behind a wife and two young daughters.  He is the third "tough guy" to die prematurely this summer --- Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien being the others.   I knew Belak a little bit. His teammates on the Leafs called him "Beeler," and he was one of the most engaging, entertaining, fun-loving guys in that dressing room. I interviewed Belak for a book I wrote several years ago about life after the lockout in the NHL.    Belak impressed me because he was so NOT what I expected a hockey enforcer to be like. He was charming, funny, enjoyed talking spontaneously about his life and his profession, absent the usual mind-numbing cliches which constitute so much of the player-reporter relationship.   He would engage with other players while I was interviewing him, teasing them, teasing me, just having fun with the whole thing. He was refreshingly authentic and as I think back on those moments, he strikes me as one of the least likely people to consider suicide. He just wasn't the brooding type.    (To read the chapter of "The New Game" about Belak and other hockey tough guys, click here).   It's too early to say whether the constant pummeling Belak inflicted on others and suffered himself were responsible for his suicide. His career ended last year and it may well be that the transition to "civilian life" was infinitely harder than he'd anticipated.     But regardless, the National Hockey League has got to start asking itself some tougher questions. If Belak is another casualty of hockey's need to have "enforcers" on the payroll, then a serious examination of fighting's place in the game is essential.   If he's a casualty of the transition blues, then the league and the players' association need to redouble their efforts to ensure ex-players better understand their new lives.   The pro hockey world is actually a small, tightly-knit community. And after three tragic,  premature deaths, it is in a state of shock.  Time to use that shock for constructive purposes and get to the bottom of this.    

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