By: Nick Lanciani
Five years ago, the hockey world suffered collectively from several of the greatest tragedies in the history of the sport. In the warm months of 2011, the hockey world lost Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (KHL) team over the course of one offseason.
In the summer of 2011, I personally was celebrating the success of my favorite NHL team’s Stanley Cup championship. I had grown up dreaming of one day seeing them raise the Cup, but none of that seems to matter when you remember that at the end of the day, every player of the game is human.
Hindsight is 20/20 and we could say that there were warning signs and better ways we could’ve helped players like Boogaard, Rypien and Belak, but the fact of the matter is that nothing can bring them back and we must move on, remembering them, and committing ourselves to doing more. We have to do more.
Enough is enough when it comes to senseless fighting in the NHL. It’s not the 1970s anymore.
But even I seem to battle with the existential question of whether fighting in the NHL should be allowed to continue. In some respects it sets apart the sport from any other (but it is after all, still a penalty). In others, I can see where it is deemed barbaric.
If the league were to follow a protocol similar to the OHL’s newly introduced rules on fighting, I do not think it would be all that bad for the marketability of the sport. Hockey, in its purest form, will always go on. And the NHL will always be the top league in the hockey world for talent and superstar work ethic, skill, coaching and leadership.
Especially at the Junior level, we all have to remember, the players are just kids.
When Marc Savard suffered an estimated six concussions in his Junior days alone, we should’ve realized when to step in and step up. Sadly, new studies and discoveries about the brain are too late to repair the shattered and fragmented careers of far too many Junior players who went on or did not go on to see the days of life in the NHL.
Likewise, it’s too late to undo what’s been done to those former NHLers now suffering from Alzheimers, dementia and other debilitating diseases caused, in part, by head trauma.
In the summer of 2011, I was riding the highs of victory, but the dark shadows cast by the losses of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak cemented the fruition of what my eyes only see when I look at any player on the ice— another human.
They’re not heroes in the sense that they are far above me as an individual or that they are superhuman, but every NHL player is ultimately just another human being with a right to a life after their career. They are heroes in the sense that they get to play a game for a living that I’m sure most of us could only dream of ever doing for a living.
They are heroes in every win and every loss, but not every win or loss should come in the form of winning a lawsuit for the loss of a life.
The dark days of 2011 were only blackened some more when the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash occurred.
How could such joys of watching a team win the Cup be mirrored with the lows of tragedy?
I remember watching Karlis Skrastins, Pavol Demitra and Ruslan Salei at one point or another in person or on TV. I had never seen Brad McCrimmon play, but I remember hearing about him and his short stint with the Boston Bruins from 1979-1982.
I think of every member of that team, their families and that entire organization every September 7th. I remember how a community came together to memorialize them all and mourn as one family. I remember that so much good has come from so much bad and horrible memories of the summer of 2011.
We owe it to every player to do more. To be more as they’ve been more. To be with them as they’ve been alongside others.
Our lives are short. We never know when the last time might be.
But there is always time for a first time for a better tomorrow. And I want to see us live it well.
It sickened me when I heard last year that cocaine abuse in the NHL was on the rise. Both the NHLPA and the NHL have to do more to help their players— their colleagues, their friends, their fellow humans.
It disgusts me that NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, continues to deny a link between CTE and head injuries. The emails that were leaked earlier this year show that Brendan Shanahan should really be commended for speaking out and starting the conversation for change.
Even the NFL is beginning to take things seriously as they give studying head injuries a second thought.
The league has to do more. I’m not interested in whether or not the league accepts blame or admits defeat at this point, but rather that they will commit themselves to doing more to protect their players and help them move forward with their lives after hockey. Let’s start talking about solutions instead of finger pointing and blaming.
Let’s always remember the good times we had with Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak.
And let us never forget the tremendous people of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, the tremendous hockey players, coaches, trainers and more, that were killed five years ago today.
As we reflect, we move forward in their memory.