The NHL owners and the NHLPA have been fighting all offseason. While most hockey fans are experiencing the five stages of grief these days- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - what is lost in the mele is that this is a hockey game. Last year, at this time, most hockey fans around the world were begging for a new season for an entirely different reason: there were so many deaths and heartbreak off the ice. The hockey world lost 40 men. That's 40 men that didn't go home to their wives, parents, children, families and friends.
It started with Derek Boogaard. On May 13, 2011 Derek was found to have overdosed on prescription medication. In further investigation it was found that even though the NHL had contacted the medical staff of his previous issues with abusing narcotics, the doctors still gave him hundreds of pills. Sometimes even via text messages. His death had even the most ardent enforcer supporters questioning fighting in the NHL.
The 28 year old's childhood dream was making it into the NHL. Unfortunately, like many men, he didn't have the pure "skill" to play in the NHL without creating a niche for himself. His niche was fighting. The 6'7" giant was fearsome to his opponents. This was a double-edge sword. Because of his size, everyone wanted to fight him to make a name for themselves. He caught the attention of scouts at the age of 15. There was a fight in the third period, and when the refs brought him to the dressing room, he took offense to something a player said and jumped in their bench to fight them off. His parents were told: "For your kid to play, he has to fight". Derek made his choice and it led him to The Show.
The decision to become a fighter at an elite level caused him physical pain. When a hockey player fights, he isn't wearing gloves - he has no protection on his hands, he often isn't wearing a helmet or any other head protection. He is at the mercy of the other fighter. And when the other guy also "has to fight" to stay in the NHL, these fights can get painful. At the time of his death Derek was struggling with concussion symptoms, due to a fight.
After his death, it was found that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. He wasn't the only enforcer to be diagnosed with this disease over the summer. Both Rick Rypien and Wade Belak were found to have suffered from this debilitating disease. CTE can cause dementia, memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression.
Just a few months later Rick Rypien's body was discovered. Rick died August 15th, shortly before he was due to join his new team: the Winnipeg Jets. This tenacious young man was undrafted, yet he played parts of 6 seasons in the NHL.He was listed, generously, as 5'10 and 180 pounds. But that didn't stop him. He'd take on anyone. If they had eight inches or fifty pounds, it didn't matter. He had a goal: he wanted to play in the NHL. And play in the NHL he did.
His first regular season game was against the Colorado Avalanche and he fought Ian Laperriere. The next game Rick suffered a set-back: an injury. Throughout his all-too-short career Rick was plagued by injuries. But that wasn't the only thing he battled. When he was 20, Rick's girlfriend died while on her way to see him. But, "Rypien always kept his feelings to himself. It was just his way."
For Rick, his battle with depression wasn't a secret. He took two leaves of absences while with the Vancouver Canucks to get help. In 2008 Rick was granted a personal leave of absence to get healthy - both physically and mentally. On October 19th, 2010 Rick made headlines for having an altercation with a fan during a game. By late November Rick was the second leave of his career. After a ten year battle, Rick tragically lost his fight against depression.
Two weeks later the hockey world was once again rocked: Wade Belak's body was also found on August 31st, 2011. Wade had recently retired, and had joined Battle of the Blades - a Canadian television show that helps raise funds for Canadian charities by pairing a hockey player and a figure skater and pitting them against each other. Their first episode that year was in memory of Wade.
Wade was drafted in 1994 by the Quebec Nordiques. In 1996 Wade played a handful of regular season and playoffs games for the Avs. It took him until October 1997 to get on the scoreboard: one goal and an assist. That season Wade suffered from injuries and missed a number of games. In 1999 Wade was involved in a package deal that sent him to Calgary in exchange for Theo Fleury. In February 2001 he was picked up on waivers by the Toronto Maple Leafs. In February 2011 Wade Belak was once again placed on waivers. However, this time, no one claimed him. On March 8th, 2011 Wade officially retired, but stayed with the Nashville Predators in an orgaizational role.
After his death Michael Landsberg from Off The Record released an incredibly touching, heartfelt piece about Wade and his fight with depression. "I knew Wade walked with a limp. I knew it because he spoke to me about it. I have the same limp. It's how I refer to depression that doesn't disable us – even though we feel it every step of our lives.
Wade's limp, however, was worse than I knew. Seven days before he died, we chatted on e-mail. He had heard an interview I did for TSN Radio about my own depression and he had written, It was good."
Three players died in four months. Hockey players are a superstitious bunch, so are the fans. By this point in the offseason many were hoping for the season to start without another memorial piece. Unfortunately, that wasn't going to be the case. If the hockey world was rocked by the three deaths, it felt a tsunami on September 7th, 2011.
September 7th the KHL lost an entire team to a plane crash. The plane, carrying the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team, was heading to Minsk for opening night. The sheer number of players lost was staggering: Vitaly Anikeyenko, Mikhail Balandin, Gennady Churilov, Pavol Demitra, Robert Dietrich, Alexander Galimov, Marat Kalimlin, Alexander Kalyanin, Andrei Kiryukhin, Nikita Klyukin, Stefan Liv, Jan Marek, Sergei Ostapchuk, Karel Rachunek, Maxim Shuvalov, Pavel Snurnitsyn, Daniil Sobchenko, Ivan Tkachenko, Pavel Trakhanov, Yuri Urychev, Joseph Vasicek, Alexander Vasyunov and former Avalanche players Ruslan Salei and Karlis Skrastins.
The crash also included team personel: Yuri Bakhvalov, Aleksandr Belyaev, Alexander Karpovtsev, Igor Korolev, Nikolai Krivonosov, Yevgeni Kunnov, Vyacheslav Kuznetsov, Brad McCrimmon, Vladimir Piskunov, Yevgeni Sidorov, Andrei Zimin.
As with any plane crash, there was an investigation. Along with old planes that shouldn't have been in the air, it was revealed that both the pilot and co-pilot had falsified documents saying that they had received training to fly the plane. They hadn't.
Once the KHL heard news of the crash, they stopped a game that was already in progress. The fans and teams held a moment of silence before filing out out of the arena. The two teams that had been playing left the arena and went to church. The memorial service held for the team was attended by an estimated 100,000 people. Even though this didn't happen in the NHL, the hockey world is close-knit. Many of the men that perished had played in the NHL. Those that had were also memorialized by their previous teams. Karlis and Ruslan had their numbers -along with Wade Belak's - on a ribbon which was placed on every Colorado Avalanche player's helmet for the duration of the 2011 season.
Karlis Skrastins played eleven years in the NHL. Three full seasons were with the Colorado Avalanche, he got traded to the Florida Panthers halfway through the 2008 season. He was a tough man on the ice, playing through many injuries. The Ironman is best known for surpassing Tim Horton's record for the longest playing streak in NHL history for a defenceman. Tim had 487 games played in a row, Karlis made it to 495 games before having to sit out due to a knee injury. What makes this so impressive is that Karlis didn't shy away from physical contact, he made crushing hits and also was known to block shots more often than not. In 2007 he had the second-most blocked shots in the league. He played through many injuries, including a broken wrist. Let that sink in for a moment. A hockey player played through a broken wrist. Karlis was 37 years old. His wife was pregnant at the time of the crash. In an ironic twist of fate, he was traded for Ruslan Salei.
Ruslan Salei was 36 years old when the plane crashed. Ruslan played three years for Colorado, the third year, however, he missed a lot of games due to a back injury. He also represented Team Belarus at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic games. There was a touching tribute to Ruslan with sand art that can be seen here. He was a great man, who was quick to smile and joke around with those around him.
All these players are, and will continue to be, missed.