Analysis: String of NHL deaths opens door to tough questions

Thu Sep 1, 2011 7:56pm EDT
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By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - Determining whether the sudden deaths of three players was related to their enforcer roles is something that must be explored, a leading sports psychologist and former National Hockey League tough guy said on Thursday.

Still reeling from the deaths of Winnipeg Jets center Rick Rypien and New York Ranger Derek Boogaard, the NHL was rocked again on Wednesday as recently-retired tough guy Wade Belak was found dead in a Toronto hotel at the age of 35.

On the surface, the deaths appear eerily similar, Rypien, Boogaard and Belak all made a living on the unforgiving fringes of the sport, bare knuckle brawlers who literally had to fight opponents to keep a place on their teams.

Belak's death, the third in under four months, raised some uncomfortable questions as to whether the three players are part of a tragic coincidence or a deadly problem.

"There are some things about that particular job which might make somebody more prone to depression," Dr Don Malone, head of the Psychiatric Neuromodulation Center at the prominent Cleveland Clinic, told Reuters.

"I'd be very surprised if we were able to come up with a common link but nevertheless it is something that ought to be looked into."

Rypien battled depression for about a decade and was found dead at his home this month at the age of 27 while Boogaard's death at 28 was ruled accidental and caused by a lethal combination of alcohol and painkillers. No cause of death has been given for Belak's death.

The deaths have set off alarm bells with the NHL and NHL Players' Association, who issued a joint statement on Thursday promising to review substance abuse and behavioral health programs available to players.   Continued...