With three deaths in four months, all to the enforcer class of the NHL, the reaction is easy, and justifiable. Clearly the NHL needs to ban fighting, destroy the warrior class that has patrolled the league for decades. This is the best, or only way, to stem the tide of the tragedies; remove fighting, all fighting, from the game.
It is time for the NHL to be enlightened, to be wiser in its age, and to follow the path of other sports in which fighting is seen as a suspendable offense, not a five minute sit down. This will end the deaths, they say. It will help us remove depression and misery from the players. Help to return them to heroic status. It will help us to escape the darkness.
You've all read this in the past months, and particularly in the past 24 hours, right?
Make the jump and let's discuss the game we love. Openly, honestly, and among friends.
The Problem We Face
The line of thinking before the jump is becoming pervasive. The fans are to blame for enjoying the fights, the GMs are to blame for pushing the guys to fight with job offers and contracts, and coaches are to blame for tapping them on the shoulder to take the ice and do battle.
To a point, all of that is correct. Some players simply do not have what it takes to be a skill player in the NHL, so they use size, grit, toughness, and yes, fisticuffs to get there. They ply their trade, many despite a complete aversion to the method they have chosen to earn a living. Derek Boogaard wouldn't have harmed a fly off the ice. George Parros is Princeton educated. So many examples of enforcers who would have preferred to not be, but did anyway.
There are reasons, of course, as to why they do it. Not wanting to give up the game, the allure of big money, or to take care of their families in the only way they can see to do so. Many in the "real" world do the same everyday. We all have a career we would like, and we all have a career we have. They, more often than not, do not match.
This can lead to all kinds of stresses, and as a result, stress relief. Some find healthy outlets, others find destructive outlets. No matter the person or the situation, everyone finds... an outlet. Turning to friends, to hockey, to escapes from reality like movies or books. Others turn to drugs, to alcohol, or to violence. Some simply swallow it, never admitting there is an issue, to anyone. Not to their closest friends or to their families. Especially not to themselves.
Where the Problem Takes Us
We have zero proof that any of the deaths this summer are linked to depression. Rick Rypien was open about his battle with the disease, as part of being diagnosed as bipolar. Derek Boogaard may have been, we'll never know. Wade Belak is reported to have taken his own life. Depression is likely involved, but that is impossible to know now.
Still, fans across all mediums are talking about depression. You know what? Good on 'em. Even with absolutely no evidence that depression is tied into any of these deaths, it is still healthy and welcome to openly discuss the disease, its signs and symptoms, and the terrible results if left untreated.
The troubling part comes when people with no experience with the disease chime in with their paleolithic descriptions of both depression and of suicide. "Suicide is selfish" read one tweet last night. "Why don't depressed people go see a happy movie and get over it?" read another.
Stop for a second here if you feel the same way, and replace the words "suicide" and "depression" with the word "cancer." Now how do you feel?
Mental illness is a stigma laced, scary topic. One no one wants to discuss it, and yet is something everyone will likely have to deal with in their lifetimes. Whether it be yourself or someone close to you, someone in your life will battle mental illness, whether you know it or not.
Where We Have Been
When it comes to our sporting warriors, they are... different. We want them to be superhuman, perfect, masters of the universe. Nothing could stop the Boogeyman. Not after witnessing him silence an entire bench of Anaheim Ducks after Brad May sucker punched Kim Johnsson. Boogey was too big, too bad, too strong for any of it. We learned too late that we were wrong.
We mourned Derek, and we moved on. Then we were slapped across the face by the death of Rick Rypien. We openly discussed our sport, but we moved on again. This time, maybe a litter faster. This is too much to bear we said. Too much to think about. Too much to accept. Easier if we just move past it. Don't talk about it, don't think about it. Just. Move. On.
Hockey season will save us. October is just around the corner. August is gone. Nothing more can happen to our hockey family. It just can't. It was time for our heroes to return to the ice, to remove the pain and let us escape once again, unscathed.
Then, the news of Wade Belak came to us. Many of us, myself included, instantly went numb. The mental walls go up, the emotional guards stand ready. We block it out. Not this time, we say. It's not true. It isn't real. Surely, someone is just playing a cruel joke on us.
I was, to steal a phrase from Pink Floyd, comfortably numb shortly after reading the news. The emotional guards had won the battle. I prepared to write the post for HW that I had written twice already. Condolences to the family. Thoughts and prayers. We are well versed in this by now, right? Unattached. Beaten down. Numb.
Then, we read Wade left behind two daughters, ages seven and five. I don't know why, but that killed the numbness. A new level of pain was introduced into the equation. For those new to the site, I have two daughters myself, ages nine and three. When I read of Wade's children, it was real. The numbness ripped away and a new knife shoved into an all too fresh emotional wound.
We waited for shock to set in. It didn't. We were left to deal with it. Collectively alone.
Where Do We Go Now?
Humans are hard wired to find solutions, to find order in the chaos. We reach into the darkness and pull back anything we can hold tight enough. We search for fast solutions to our deepest problems.The darkness is terrifying, and when we cannot light it, it becomes even more ominous. We shout into it, begging the enemy to shows its face, and we are answered only by silence.
In that silence, we look around, we ask each other what can we do to help. What can we do to make it stop, to make it... better.
End fighting in the NHL. Wise up, guys, you're killing yourselves, we say. We admit they have a choice, and then hedge by saying that they had little other to offer. Damn you NHL, and damn you NHLPA, why don't you care? Why don't you do something? Fix this. Fix it for us. Take away our fear and our discomfort. Help us become numb once again. Why, oh why, oh powerful lords of our game, why do you not answer our calls? Show your faces.
We reach for the solutions in the darkness. We say "this will fix it."
End fighting. Eliminate the warrior breed.
The Problem Doesn't End There
To say that eliminating fighting in the game would eliminate the problem is simplistic. It is admirable that people want to do something, anything, to make it stop, but simple solutions to complex problems almost always make things worse. Complex issues demand complex solutions, and we don't seem to have the time for that.
Change in the world is painful, and it is agonizingly slow. We are in pain, and we want it to stop. We are blinded by the emotional blood in our eyes, by the very tears we use to clear our vision.
Eliminating the warrior class will not solve our problem. It will only make the darkness deeper.
Who takes the place of the warriors? We say if the league would just enforce the rules, the gladiators would not be necessary. No more head shots. There is a solution. A crackdown on the kind of hits that make the "goon" necessary. If the league would just get rid of Matt Cooke, everything would be fine. After all, our version of the Boogeyman isn't needed if there are no monsters, right?
Utopia. The world is our oyster and nothing can rattle us from our bliss. Hockey is only about scoring goals, about the beauty of the game. There are no subtexts, no grudges, no anger amongst the combatants. They take the ice, and at high speed flash their skills with the precision and beauty of a highly armed figure skater.
We have our solution, now the powers that be, in their lofty towers, simply must put it into place. We know what is best. We have faced the darkness for almost 24 hours, and we have other plans to attend to. Just get it done. Light this part of the darkness for us, so we can feel better.
The solutions are not that simple. Eliminating fighting from the game only serves to remove the darkness from our view. It does not light the path, it simply turns our attention away from it. It focuses us on a new, "safer" path. One on which the darkness is held at bay, just off the horizon, for someone else to deal with.
Eliminating fighting from the game does not make the players less human. It will not end drug abuse or addiction. It will not cure depression, or make it so another player never considers suicide. Removing fighting from the game is a noble quest. One I would not argue against, nor for. I have no stance on the issue, none at all. The game is what it is, and if fighting is removed, it will still be just what it is.
Fights will still occur, even if the rule book says they cannot. Players fight in baseball, they fight in football, and they fight in basketball. Competition gets the better of human beings, and they will fight to protect their honor or that of their teammates.
Embrace the Darkness
The only way to make this better is to embrace the darkness that is not only in front of us, but all around us. We want the negatives of life removed from our view when we enter our sports filled realm. We want the darkness banished, walled off from our escape, away from our hiding place from our own personal darkness.
Instead of fighting the darkness, and attempting to remove it from the aspects of our lives where it is not welcome, perhaps the message should be to turn and face the darkness. Together. To let it know that it will not envelop us, that we will stand and fight for our on ice "heroes," the way they fight for us day in and day out.
Perhaps it is time to escape the myopic view of seeing this as a hockey issue, and to start to see this for what it really is. A community issue. A societal issue. A human issue.
Rather than cast stones at those who set the laws, calling for them to make the game brighter, to banish the darkness for us, perhaps now is the time for each and every one of us to turn to each other, to make sure our friends and family are not caught in the darkness. Perhaps it is time to reach not into the darkness for a solution, but instead to put our backs together and say to one another "the darkness shall not take you while I am here."
Perhaps it is time to not only address the issues in the game we love so dearly, but also to address the issues that surround us outside of sport. Perhaps it is time for each of us to admit to ourselves what our weaknesses are, and accept the weaknesses of others. Perhaps it is time for the hockey family to fight the darkness together, as one. To rise up an army as large as the NHL fan base and beyond, and to fight the darkness. Together.
Perhaps it is time.