Spotlight shining brightly on fighters’ woes

If there’s one positive aspect to the news that a third NHL tough guy lost his life this summer, it’s that people are finally starting to realize what these hulking men go through on a daily basis.

Spotlight shining brightly on fighters’ woes
PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 13: Jason Spezza #19 of the Ottawa Senators handles the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on April 13, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Senators defeated the Penguins 3-2 in a shootout. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)


If there’s one positive aspect to the news that a third NHL tough guy lost his life this summer, it’s that people are finally starting to realize what these hulking men go through on a daily basis.

I’m not going to sit here and write a know-it-all post about what needs to be done about fighting in the NHL, how it can be changed (or eliminated) and what it says about us as hockey fans and people. Change must be planned and endorsed by the people who actually go out there every day and put their lives on the line. And I’m not just talking about fighting, but also the speed of the game, equipment standards and that sort of thing.

That may sound a little melodramatic, to say these players are risking their lives every time they go out there, but they are. I’m not just talking about those who have actually died this summer — Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard — but people who are losing the lives they once had.

We learned yesterday that Marc Savard’s career is probably over. I’m not sure if anyone has asked him, but I wonder if he would give it all up to go back to a time he could play with his kids without getting dizzy, fighting through memory problems or dealing with yet another headache.

Rather than blather on here and pretend I know what it’s like, I’ll share some words I’ve come across today in the aftermath of Belak’s death from people with some credibility.

If you want insight into what NHL fighters go through — mentally and physically — this Sports Illustrated article by Michael Farber is a must-read. In fact, if you only read one thing about this situation today, make it “The worst job in sports.”

Here are some particularly striking quotes:

“I can look back and say fighting’s pretty much given me a life, but it’s also kind of destroyed my life. The fact that I am a fighter on the ice and the difficulties I’ve had with that job definitely brought me to drink a few times. I’d go out after a game, and all I could think of was the pressure I had on me during the game. Maybe I didn’t fight. There’d be the guilt that I didn’t fight, the feeling of worthlessness, I guess. Then I’d go out and drink myself into oblivion, and maybe I’d get into a fight later. I’ve been advised by people who have helped me in rehab not to go back to my job.” — Louie DeBrusk

“I love this job, but at times I almost hate this job. There are times you don’t feel like going out there and fighting. If someone does something to me on the ice, it’s not difficult for me to flip the switch. Sometimes when I’m sitting on the bench for the whole game, though, and someone does something to a teammate, I don’t necessarily feel great about having to go out and fight. Unfortunately, that’s my job.” — DeBrusk, again

“We’ve all had that oh-I-think-my-girlfriend’s-pregnant feeling, that sick-to-your-stomach feeling when you have to do something you don’t want to do. It’s like when you’ve had somebody in school organize a fight for you. You know that at 3:30 you’ve got to go out and have that fight. That’s how I feel every game and probably how I’ve felt since junior hockey. Eventually that’s what chases a lot of guys away from the game.” — Kelly Chase

“The worst part for a fighter is that when hockey matters most, you become irrelevant. In Game 7 of a Stanley Cup series, chances are you won’t play or maybe even dress. A hockey player wants to play Game 7. That’s what he lives for. Everyone wants to matter.” — Mike Milbury

“Nobody expects Arnold Schwarzenegger to be firing a machine gun when he walks into a restaurant. People who know me kind of think I’m a Renaissance man, but most people assume when I walk into a restaurant that I’ll break down the door, slap a head, order raw meat and then gnaw on the bone. That’s the weird part. So many people live through fighters. After a game they’ll say, ‘Yeah, you smacked that guy’s face; you killed him.’ But once you don’t do well, they’re the first to call you a bum and say you’re too old. You get labeled for life.” — Todd Ewen

Also interesting in that article: How coaches will often humiliate these guys if they don’t do as they’re told.

Along the same vein is this blog post from Adrian Dater of SI and the Denver Post, who recalls his interactions with hockey fighters over the years. You can read his full post here.

Writes Dater:

“I remember seeing Jeff Odgers after an Avs game in which he’d fought. He had a plate of food in front of him on a quiet, dark airplane. He put the fork in his mouth, but could chew with only the most painful-looking of effort. After a while, he just stopped, half the food still on the plate.”

An oft-overlooked side of this is the tough transition many players go through after leaving the game. It’s not easy to give up something that has defined your life, especially your 20s, when you really don’t know who you are anyways.

I came across a few Tweets this morning I found illustrative.

Here’s former Ottawa Senators agitator Jarkko Ruutu, who is still without an NHL contract at this moment:

jarkkoruutu 9:24am via Web

Drop from playing in the #nhl to retiring is HUGE. Most of the players have trouble dealing with it. This needs to be taken seriously.

jarkkoruutu 9:29am via Web

I feel that teams as employers should act instead of just releasing statements. Real action is required.

And here’s Brent Sopel, who is now playing in Russia:

@BrentSopel It’s true when you’re gone from the NHL it’s like you never played. We’re all just pieces of meat.

Time will shepherd positive changes (whatever they might be) along as well. Hockey fans are becoming more and more sophisticated, weighing the pros and cons of different aspects of the game they love. To some, Don Cherry and his ilk remain harmless, lovable defenders of all that is right about hockey. Toughness. Guts. Recklessness.

To more and more, they’re rambling antiques from a bygone era; ‘Old school’ hockey men who still shake their heads at any discussion of what they’d consider “weakness.”

Well, too bad. It’s here. Mental illness, physical pain, addiction. These are real problems faced by real people, hockey players included. It’s time to start dealing with them.

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