Monday, September 19, 2011

Getting Back Up To Speed/Belak Coverage

Hockey is ramping up, with training camp beginning and hockey news starting to trickle back into people's consciousness. This is great news considering that the Rockies have left us for dead, practically begging for anything else sports-related to think about that won't include the words "Tim Tebow."  So, hooray for hockey! As hockey begins to get back up to speed, I hope to get back into my self-appointed and self-important duties of commenting on the Avalanche and the media coverage they receive.

Unfortunately, the hockey season couldn't begin without more bad news, from two continents: the sad death of former Av Wade Belak, and the tragic airplane crash that took the lives of an entire Russian professional hockey team, which included many names familiar to NHL and Avalanche fans. The loss of the Lokomotiv team is so huge that I am not going to try to combine it with my musings on the Belak story.

Belak and his daughter.
Adrian Dater broke the news of Belak's death to many in the region with this blog entry. In it, he gets an early jump on this story, reporting it when it was little more than a rumor, and due to the "scoop" nature of this blog there are very few details provided about Belak's death. Even so, Dater does a good job giving us a bit of background on Belak who, although he was only with the Avs for parts of three seasons, apparently made a positive impression on Dater, an impression which Dater relays somewhat sentimentally, but not distractingly so, to his readers (including the humorous revelation that, due to their similar appearance, Dater gave more than one autograph to Belak fans who would not believe his claim that he wasn't the Avs' enforcer). My only complaint about this blog is the way he casually ties all three enforcer deaths this summer (Boogaard, Rypien, and now Belak) together as suicides... but more on that later.

Dater's second blog related to Belak's death, posted one day later, is much less a reminiscence of Belak and his career than the first piece. This, rather, is a look into possible connections to the three enforcer deaths this offseason, and it is one of Dater's finest moments. It is, in my opinion, far too good a piece to have been "wasted" on his blog... this should have been a commentary in the newspaper proper, and a front-page one at that.

Dater takes a critical look into fighting in the NHL... but instead of using these tragedies as a reason to attack the need for fighting (as one might expect from Terry Frei, for example), AD goes further. In this piece, he uses the deaths of these three men - all of whom were viewed as career enforcers and little more - as a starting point to examine an issue much deeper than fighting itself: Dater looks at the effect fighting has on the men who hold the job of NHL enforcer.

Dater alludes to the obvious physical pain that an enforcer deals with every day, but the meat of this piece is the idea that in addition to the damage done to their bodies, enforcers may endure far greater damage to their minds and souls. Dater asserts that many of these men have low self-esteem and do not really enjoy the fighting aspect of hockey all that much. He writes that many of these players saw themselves as talented hockey players with a future in the NHL, but once they reached the big league, they were:

pigeon-holed as a fourth-line goon. Once that happens to a player, they almost never get out of that role. It’s such a vicious cycle for them; they want to play and score goals and be a real player, but they never get the ice time to do it. They get 20, 30 seconds a game many nights – that is, if they play – and that’s it. 

The research and time Dater clearly took in gathering supporting material for his argument set this article apart from Dater's standard blog fare. Rather than just telling us what he thinks, Dater instead refers back to his years covering the Avalanche, and relays stories told to him by Avs enforcers Brent Sevryn, Chris Simon, Jeff Odgers, Scott Parker, and David Koci to support his theme. In doing so, he paints a vividly sobering, if not downright sad, picture of the men who do this job. It's a picture that many hockey fans may have taken a quick peek at here and there, but which Dater here exposes fully in the wake of Belak's death, forcing the reader to look at hockey enforcers in a much different light than they are usually seen.

Dater also quotes Mike Milbury, Georges Laraque, and Keith Primeau, completing a compelling argument that the job of being an enforcer in the NHL has often-unseen effects on not only the physical, but also the mental and emotional heath of the men in the role. None of the quotes Dater uses are as direct and impactful as Primeau's, who said of the three deaths this summer, "My own personal feeling is I believe there’s a direct correlation with the line of work that they’re in.”

Various critics have called Dater's piece "alarmist" and "reactionary," asserting that the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak were tragic indeed, but their timing was merely coincidental and should necessitate no larger repercussions to the game. Others seem to think that Dater here is arguing that fighting is useless and that his agenda is to eliminate it entirely, but both of these camps are mistaken. The second criticism can be defeated by simply reading the piece... Dater does mention that the role if fighting may indeed change, but in the very same breath, he also refers to what is clearly his main point, and it's not about the elimination of fighting; it's about determining whether these men need more help than they are receiving, and then getting them the help that they need.

As far as the first criticism is concerned, there is certainly the possibility that these three deaths don't signal some larger problem... Boogaard died of an accidental drug overdose, Rypien reportedly had long-term, deep-seated depression issues that had little to do with hockey, and what motivated Belak is still unclear. However, even if there is no direct connection, the similarities between these three deaths - all within barely three months' time - is alarming, and the league should react... especially considering the opinions of so many other enforcers, many of which Dater used in this article.

The connection between the three deaths leads to the one issue I have with Dater's work here. In both blog articles, Dater mentions that all three men "took their own lives." While this is technically true, it is not fair to Boogaard to imply, as Dater does, that he was suicidal. Boogaard's death was an accidental drug overdose... the point can still be made that enforcers deal with unseen stress and unhappiness without insinuating that Boogaard meant to take his own life. Other than that, I think Dater was spot-on with both his blog entries here, and deserves full marks. I can only hope that the league and its players reach the same conclusions as he has.


No comments:

Post a Comment