Sometime in the fall of 1957, a couple of NHL stars broke the unwritten rule against fraternizing with the enemy. Ted Lindsay of the Detroit Red Wings had been thinking for a while that it was unfair for team owners to keep players in the dark about how much they were bringing in at the gate, and how much they could expect to make when they retired from the game. The Canadiens' All-Star defenceman, Doug Harvey, was wondering the same thing. The two cautiously compared notes and agreed the only way players could expect a fair deal from the owners was if they joined forces and demanded one. They launched the first NHL players' association, but things didn't go well. The owners, predictably, feared any kind of interference from the players that might cut into their profits. So, Lindsay, Harvey and the other team representatives responsible for organizing the association were traded, demoted or otherwise diminished.
Ten years after that first attempt, the first incarnation of the modern players' association was born, led by the crooked Alan Eagleson. Since Eagleson's shameful departure in 1991, the NHLPA has seen one leader fired for stealing players' emails, another dismissed for murky reasons including mistreating staff, and one who took the players through a year-long lockout to avoid a salary cap, which ended in a salary cap.
The one thing common through the various versions of the NHLPA is money. Harvey and Lindsay formed the first one because they were sure they were getting shafted financially. Since then, it's been largely about how to get the most money for the players through negotiating collective bargaining agreements. To a great degree, the association has been successful in that regard. There will never be another superstar who leaves the game to spend his golden years selling fishing tackle out of his car trunk, as did Rocket Richard. Where the NHLPA has failed however, while it's been ensuring the best possible payday for its members, is in helping them cope with the psychological consequences of playing hockey professionally. That includes successfully leaving the game once the league no longer requires their services.
Perhaps there had been an early lesson in what the NHLPA's role should really have been in that very first association in 1957. Doug Harvey was a superstar and a very smart player, but he always liked to drink. When he was traded away from the Canadiens to the Rangers to become a player-coach in New York, the loss of that cameraderie with the other players was very, very difficult for him to accept. In the end, he was unable to find a life outside of hockey for himself and he died of complications of alcoholism.
There have been so many stories like Harvey's even since the formation of the players' association. Bill Gadsby, another Hall-of-Famer of the '50s and '60s era, endured a long struggle with alcoholism, saved only by a family intervention. Theoren Fleury plunged into drugs, booze and despair despite his talent. Rob Ramage is serving 15 years in prison for killing Keith Magnuson while driving drunk. Tim Chaisson, Tim Horton and Pelle Lindbergh are all dead before their time. Craig MacTavish spent a year in jail after taking a woman's life while drunk. John Kordic died at 27 after years of booze and drug abuse. Bob Probert's post-mortem brain at 45 showed signs of deep trauma that likely came from his hockey career and was exacerbated by drug and alcohol abuse. The great Terry Sawchuk died under strange circumstances after a lifetime of dealing with depression. Their experiences are, sadly, far from unusual. Although the salaries are better today, nobody's taking care of the players' other needs.
With the terrible news yesterday that Wade Belak has become the third player or former player this summer, after Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, to die young, the issue of player support is on many people's minds. That all three of the players involved played a fighter's role may or may not have been relevant in their deaths. One thing is certain though. All of those players needed help. In the closed circle that is NHL hockey, you can be sure other people knew about it. The question is, how much did they do to get these guys the support and health care they needed?
In the wake of Rypien's death, TSN interviewed a former Canucks teammate and asked him about Rypien's mental health. The player looked decidedly uncomfortable when he talked about how he was "sure Rick tried to get help for dealing with all that stuff." In the testosterone-driven world of NHL hockey, weakness...and mental illness is certainly still perceived by many as being weakness...is intolerable.
With that in mind, the NHLPA can't just provide counselling services. It's got to talk about mental health and teach players that it's okay to seek help. Hockey builds its fraternity on toughness and team bonding, and players grow up in that culture. When it all comes to an end; when suddenly grown men who've never had to stand alone must find an identity of their own, it can be psychologically devastating. When a player who's always been the best on his team until he hits junior recognizes that he'll have to sell his self-esteem for a diminished role as a tough guy if he wants to make it in hockey, it costs him mentally. When a man who's sustained physical and mental injury in a very tough, fast game gets older and the game is gone while the pain remains, he might not know how to cope with that.
Today, after the third young player in a matter of months has died, some NHLers are starting to say the same things. Former NHLer Tyson Nash tweeted "Ur entire life is dedicated to hockey and then one day it's all over and ur kicked to the curb! And the NHLPA does nothing to prepare u." Theo Fleury responds, "Amen, brother."
Brent Sopel, having been unsigned by the Habs this summer, went to Russia. He tweets: "It's true when you're gone from the NHL it's like you never played. We're all just pieces of meat."
One might look at those sentiments with a jaundiced eye and say it's the same in any job that ends. You're part of a team, then, suddenly you're not. It's not an easy thing for anybody to deal with. The argument in sport, however, and especially in hockey, is when you make your living with your body, your self-esteem and happiness revolve around your physical performance to an unnatural degree. Consider also the idea that these players spend all their strength, training and focus from childhood, often to the detriment of outside interests, to developing as a hockey player. Not many salesmen or factory workers can say the same. Then there's the drinking that's just as much a part of the off-ice game as fighting is on-ice. Add a player's reliance on constant approval from spectators and teammates and you've got the ingredients for a volatile emotional cocktail. Those factors mean hockey isn't just a job like any other. Players who need help in or after hockey may not either recognize the fact, or feel comfortable seeking it if they do.
The players' association does, of course, have an employee assistance program. Each player has a card with contact numbers should he need to call someone for help. The program is secret, and provides doctors and professionals who can help a player deal with any number of issues. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daley says the program is becoming more widely accepted among players these days, and family members and friends are referring players more often. Still, one has to wonder, if a guy has reached his breaking point and he's sitting in a hotel room all alone, whether he'll think to pick up that card and phone someone.
Last March, just five months before he died, Rypien was able to talk a little about his own struggles with mental health, and how he saw a need to provide extra help for players.
"The more that I go on, the more I can talk about it,"he said. "Hopefully, one day I can help other hockey players that might be experiencing difficulty with whatever they're dealing with off the ice."
Rypien never got the chance to be proactive in his wish to help other players deal with their troubles. His death, however, has underlined the need for the players' association to step in and shine a light on what has been a culture of macho disregard for anything considered "soft." Maybe it needs to actively include psychological counselling along with physical assessment for every player, whether he asks for it or not. After all, if everybody sees the shrink, nobody has to be the one saying "Yeah, I had to call for help." In a herd mentality like a hockey dressing room, an "everybody has to do it" approach might make all the difference.
When Doug Harvey and Ted Lindsay tried to start a players' assocation in 1957, they wanted life after hockey to be better for hockey players. They were talking about money, but the "chew 'em up and spit 'em out" character of the game was part of it too. These days, the NHLPA makes sure players get the most money they can from the game while they play, and ensures their pensions when they quit. A superstar like Doug Harvey will never have to live in a railway car again, if he doesn't choose to do so. Sadly, though, a player can still die early and many of them feel their association doesn't do enough to help prevent that.