Sunday, September 25, 2011


Three hockey players died by their own hands this summer: Derek Boogaard in May, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak in August. The things they died of are the sort of things we typically ignore: addiction in the first case, mental illness in the latter two. These are not exactly exotic problems in hockey. Anyone who’s been within spitting distance of a hockey rink or, hell, even a hockey bar knows the stories. Some of the tales of addiction and dementia pugilistica are well-known, a matter of public record- Doug Harvey, Bob Probert- but far more circulate in semi-privacy, from friend to friend and neighbor to neighbor, part of town or team lore. The hockey media are for the most part too classy or too embarrassed to put them in ink- at least, not until the subject has safely recovered and assumed a position of advocacy- but everybody knows. And even allowing for a percentage of exaggeration and embellishment, there are too many stories for them all to be lies. There are a great many hockey players who’ve struggled with drug problems, alcohol problems, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, loss of memory, loss of emotional control. We know this.

We cannot prove, of course, that these things were caused by hockey. It could be that these men would have had the same problems were they lawyers or farmers or exotic dancers. It could be their genes, or their epi-genes, or if you’re of a more mystical bent, their souls that led them down these dark paths. There are no longitudinal studies of hockey players over the course of their lifetimes, carried out in parallel with a control group of non-hockey-playing men of similar background and genetics, which could isolate hockey as the cause of the trouble. There is no brain scan yet devised that can look inside their heads and say, ah, yes, there’s the cerebral puck-bruise that made him depressed (although chronic traumatic encephalopathy can be diagnosed post-mortem). And since we cannot know, for sure and absolute, that hockey caused their problems, we are apt to take them as isolated cases of troubled men, sigh wistfully, wait a respectful moment, and then ignore them entirely.

This demand for absolute proof is a slick evasion, because medical science doesn’t generally work that way. There is no way to test injuries on humans. We cannot take two groups of twins, force one of each pair to hockey-fight for ten years and the other not to, and catalog the differences. We cannot create the data necessary for proof. As with the progress of any disease, medical knowledge has to proceed from the cases that arise naturally, and endeavor through careful examination of each in itself to suss out correlations and relationships. And if causal proof appears at all, it inevitably takes decades to free itself from any shadow of doubt. The 9/11 recovery workers in New York inhaled an encyclopedia of aerosolized carcinogens and medical science still cannot prove that that is what caused any of their specific cases of cancer.

Usually, it’s enough for us if there is a correlation between an environmental factor and a disorder. We avoided MSG for decades because it might cause hyperactivity in children or cancer in rats or something bad we weren’t quite sure of, and yet where sports are concerned, there are still people arguing that there isn’t enough evidence of a causal relationship between being hurt often and becoming addicted to painkillers. When we demand proof of causality rather than just correlation, it’s usually because we’re afraid that it would cost us something dear if the relationship were true. We want to maintain plausible deniability on behalf of our pleasures.

Hockey people tend to isolate and ignore not because we’re cold-hearted people with withered, blackened souls, but because we have a fundamental tendency towards conservatism. You aren’t a hockey fan today if you didn’t fall in love with the game on some distant yesterday, and when you did, you fell in love with it as it was at that time, without exception or apology- love is not only patient and kind, but most especially, it keeps no record of wrongs. The flaws hockey had when we fell for it are the flaws we’re willing to live with, and we fear that giving them too much weight will inevitably lead to calls for reform.

As, indeed, it does.

Disasters and scandals have a way of changing the game. Bill Masterson died of a brain hemorrhage, and the helmet became prevalent and eventually mandatory. A series of police-attracting brawls in the mid-1970s gave us the third-man-in penalty. I haven’t been able to do the necessary background research (Seaman Center, your ass is mine), but I would hypothesize that much of the NHL penalty catalog has some dusty, half-forgotten maiming behind it. Calls to change the game have the most force when there is trauma behind them, and these deaths, illuminating as they do the fatal consequences that might come of pain and injury, have given new force to a long-standing aim of hockey reformers: the elimination of fighting.

Fans who wrap themselves in the mantle of tradition and stand against reforms to the game don’t always offer the most reasoned defense of their position, beyond the isolate-and-ignore strategy, but I think they instinctively realize that reform in hockey is the slipperiest of slopes. Every generation tries to reform the game, and yet, despite all these efforts, the game remains stubbornly unreformed, to the point where people cannot even agree whether hockey today is actually any safer than it was fifty years ago, and it is possible that the furthest logical conclusion of the reformist mentality will be to do away with the sport altogether, because the reformers seem unable to accept one of the fundamental truths of the game, which is as follows:

Hockey is not safe.

It has never been safe. It wasn’t safe when it first crawled up from the frozen rivers to the arenas of Old Montreal. It wasn’t safe in the Golden Age, when opponents showed no qualms about slowing down Howie Morenz with sticks to the head and Eddie Shore crippled Ace Bailey. It wasn’t safe for Bobby Orr or Eric Lindros. It hasn’t been safe for Sidney Crosby.

It must be dangerous to be what it is. So long as it is a high-speed contact sport- and most of us would agree that without speed and contact ice hockey is not itself at all- it will always break people, and break them badly, and do the kind of physical and mental damage most of us would never wish on anybody. It is dangerous at its heart, this game. It will never be safe.

But it doesn’t have to be. It is one of the fallacies of contemporary Western culture that everything can and should be safe. We want to keep people safe from everything, not just from war and disease but from hot coffee and slippery floors and unwelcome catcalls. We take it for granted that the ultimate aim of civilization is to eliminate as much danger, risk, and pain as possible from life. For the most part, we succeed. With each successive decades, in North America anyway, life grows safer and safer

And yet we still hunger for danger. Some of us more than others, certainly, but all of us in some small way, and when we don’t find danger naturally, we manufacture it. We skydive, or free climb, or kite surf, or we take strange drugs, or fuck strange people. We hunt. And we play dangerous sports: boxing, MMA, football, hockey.

We seek danger because danger can enrich and ennoble us in ways that safety never can. Danger allows us to exercise our courage, our stoicism, our capacities for self-discipline and self-sacrifice, facets of the heart that can atrophy in an overly safe world. We long to test ourselves against the darkness, to look straight at the abyss and take that step off the edge and laugh about it after. Hockey’s dangers provide that opportunity, and for some, the strength that comes from living in that danger is worth far more than safety. In taking a hit to make a play or throwing a hit to stop one, a player knows full well that he might break something, and though there is nothing on the line more significant than a puck and a number, it means something to the man and to his team that he is willing to put himself at risk for the collective good. The ‘code’ of hockey fighting, incoherent though it may be, describes a process by which men choose to sacrifice their own safety to defend or assist others, and that is a noble choice. Danger and bravery need to have some place in even the most civilized society, and hockey is one of those places in North America, and that’s good. We don’t need to apologize for it, and we don’t need to change it.

The danger does not have to be reformed out of the game, but it does have to be taken seriously, because it is a particularly extensive and multifarious variety of danger. Hockey has a short list of casualties, but only because most of them didn’t quite die. The list of the wounded-in-action, however, encompasses damn near every man who ever got paid to lace up skates. There’s hardly anyone gets out of a professional hockey career whole and healthy. For the most part, the game grinds them up or wears them down, plays them through an endless cycle of break-heal-break until one day they’re too broken to fully heal anymore, and then it lets them go. We know this, particularly when it is true of joints, tendons and muscles. We’ve been slower to accept it in the case of brains, although that changes more every year. But we still refuse to acknowledge that it can happen with psyches as well, although the roll of the addicted, demented, and depressed is no shorter than that of the crippled.

There was a time when neither management nor fans had much sympathy for the physical damage done by the game, when playing through the pain meant playing on crumbling joints not even left to heal, and the careers of the early players tended to drop of precipitously because of it. But we wised up, and franchises started insisting on better treatment, and now no player shows signs of a sprain without a trainer to keep an eye on it. We have developed, increasingly, a healthy, practical attitude towards physical injury, putting aside the mythos of ‘toughness’ when it comes to really dangerous damage and just treating it- early, aggressively, rationally.

But we are too decorous when it comes to mental illness. Certainly in non-hockey life, we are often perilously slow to acknowledge the signs of a mental illness in others, and even slower to say anything about it. We think of it as a personal problem, none of our business. And maybe, under some circumstances, it isn’t. But we know enough about hockey to know that, anecdotally, it has a historical relationship with certain types of psychological troubles, and we know enough about the nature of physically arduous, high-stress, low-control professions to know that the sport may well be the cause of them, and in that case, it is our business. It is our business to make sure that players are aware, from a young age, that addiction and depression are risks of the game. It is our business to ensure that families, friends, and teammates know the early signs of these problems, and that there are early treatment structures in place. And it is our business to start trying to talk about mental damage with the same uncritical rationality with which we discuss physical damage: not as character flaws or personality traits, but as injuries to be treated. The alcoholics, the bipolar- they’re not weak, they’re not wrong, they’re just… hurt.

These men didn’t die because hockey damaged them, and they didn’t die because they were so naturally damaged as to be beyond saving. They died because they had psychological injuries that went too long unacknowledged and untreated, that festered in darkness and denial, and turned gangrenous. If there is one common theme in the elegies for these men, one common observation made by families and friends and teammates, it is that no one really understood the severity of their problems, including themselves. They told everybody they were fine, with the easy, practiced lies that pro athletes learn from such an early age, and although people suspected- in Boogaard and Rypien’s cases, certainly- that the problem persisted, they didn’t know what to do. These men died because they knew more about how to cover up their problems than treat them, and because the people who loved them didn’t know what to do, and the people who watched them didn’t really give a shit once they left the ice.

We have to give a shit. If we want to preserve hockey with its dangers intact, then we have to be as fanatical about treating the injured as we are about watching the injuries. Isolate and ignore is not a legitimate response. There is no moral justification for fans blowing off the damage of players as something that doesn’t concern us. Our concern is not an important legislative force, we don’t have the power of the franchises or the NHLPA to really do something direct to help mentally ill players, but we also have to recognize that the NHL operates within the framework of our worldview, our definitions of what hockey is. That which we tolerate, it can tolerate. That which we ignore, it can ignore. If we don’t give a shit, it doesn’t have to either.

Giving a shit is what separates us from the hippos. It’s what makes us a community and not just a bunch of bloodthirsty hypocrites, because honestly, if we’re not going to give a shit about the human consequences of our entertainment then we might as well spend our cash paying hobos to fight with beer bottles.

And you know what? Fuck causality anyway. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether hockey causes addiction or depression. Either the sport is damaging people or it is making use of damaged people, and either way, once we started paying for the privilege of watching it, we took on a responsibility to give a shit about the people and their damage.


more green said...


E said...

thank you, terse-yet-supportive commenter!

Anonymous said...

This kind of gets to the whole question of public health. There, the idea is that the psychic benefit of something like danger is something that we would be just as happy doing without.

It would follow that we should try to reform danger out of the game, or at least engage in some harm reduction. Examples are suspensions for hits targeting the head, possibly the development of better helmets, etc.

Even more interesting is that we hardly know what the risk factors are for most cases of mental illness. Here we are confronted with a pretty clear risk factor (repetitive brain trauma) - it's hard to say we care about someone's illness, and then do nothing to prevent it in his susceptible colleagues (reform out danger).

At heart, I struggle too, because I think that psychic benefits are really valuable. I just don't know how you weigh them against tangible illness.

E said...

i wonder, though, where we began to think that there is a moral obligation incumbent on society as a whole to stop people from willingly doing dangerous things. it's one thing to protect people from being harmed by someone else's choice (i.e. secondhand smoke), but another to protect people 'from themselves'. at some point, you have to accept that some people value danger in one form or another as an enhancement to their life, and it's damn paternalistic to forbid them from choosing that.

to my mind, the problem is that in hockey our habit of ignoring dangers in the name of stoicism means that for many generations players were making decisions without full awareness of the risks involved. the interesting question going forward is whether, as cte becomes better understood and more widely discussed, fewer players will want fighting to continue as a part of the game. but it's up to the people who are actually facing the risk to make the decision, not the people on the sidelines.

Clare said...

I'm glad you wrote this and I'm glad this is out there, because there are still a whole lot of hockey fans who refuse to acknowledge that there was anything "wrong with" Belak or Rypien. By that I mean that too many of the folks I interact with day to day refuse to accept that there was ANY pain behind the smiles. We praise our guys for fighting through broken bones and torn up joints. I wish we could face the psychic pain of our players with the same attitude. Just an "I hear you, man," is a huge help to someone fighting depression. I feel like if we can do that for our players we can do that for others we meet and make the struggle a little less impossible for people.

Life isn't safe. Hockey is life. Therefore, hockey isn't about "safe." Hockey is about fighting back, fighting through, standing up to crap, and standing tall. We ought to be able to acknowledge the shit we've faced and be proud we faced it.

Anonymous said...

The problem with this "choice" of danger that fighters face, is that even if things changed so that a single punch was immediately lethal in hockey, we would still be able to find people willing to accept this risk for the absurdly high NHL minimum salary.

At that point we would only be selecting for people who wildly undervalue their health, lives, or are ignorant of the risk. It wouldn't exactly be much of an informed choice for such people, in fact, it might select for even more mental instability, compounding the problem.

I think that those of us on the sidelines bear a lot of the responsibility and also should be allowed to help choose how risky hockey is. Danger is one thing, but constant high level harm is too much, and the chorus should advocate for reducing the harm.

Anonymous said...

I should say - I would like hockey to be a sport that a reasonable person should want to play. It shouldn't be a sport that only the radically risk-tolerant can play.

(Sorry, all these anonymouses are me - M)

E said...

clare- thanks!

anon- of course hockey should be a sport that everyone can play, but by definition not everyone is willing to make most of the sacrifices necessary to achieve a pro career. most of us aren't willing to sacrifice that much of our free time, or our education, or our time with our families, most of us aren't willing to undergo the intense physical discipline day after day and year after year. which is why the good lord made non-contact rec hockey, so that 'everyone' has something to play. but the pros are always going to be doing things that aren't wholly reasonable, sacrificing things we wouldn't want to sacrifice, taking risks we wouldn't want to hazard. it's what makes them different, and it's what makes them better.

you hypothesize that it is only those who are already mentally ill or ignorant who would take these risks. my argument is, essentially, that we have an obligation to make sure everyone in the game, from the youngest age, is aware of the risks, and also an obligation to treat signs of mental illness whenever they appear in a player, regardless of how long they've been in the game. if we took these responsibilities seriously, after a few years nobody could plead ignorance of the danger anymore, and nobody with a mental illness which could be exacerbated by playing would be permitted back on the ice. at that point, one of two things happens: either fighting and other such high-risk behaviors drop radically, or we have to accept that some perfectly sane, informed people still choose that path. why should 'the chorus' have the power to overrule the decisions of sane, informed people? why are our values better than theirs just because we are risk-averse and they are not?