Cruel Summer

Murph reflects on a tragic NHL offseason, and has a word with hockey colleague Barry Melrose.

As a fan of any sport, we only want a few things from our chosen favorite’s off-season. We want expediency. We want our team to improve, we want things to be smooth and without drama. We need to have the feeling that the next season is coming and that things will be back to normal soon in our sporting lives.

This is every summer for me. I wish that hockey was back, I dream about it, as I get anxious for the physicality and speed which makes up the most exciting game on the planet. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy baseball, and love the summer, but hockey is what fuels my sporting passion.

This summer started upbeat. It seemed that the offseason would be full of fantastic stories from the Boston Bruins and their Stanley Cup parties. They ran up a $150,000 bar bill at a casino back in June and we just knew they would enjoy the dog days of summer, and provide us with some off-ice entertainment.

There were of course a few questions we all wanted answered too! How was Sid, and would he play again? Would the Leafs make some big moves to break the playoff slump? Would greats like Lidstrom and Selanne come back for one more year? Fun questions, things that tickled our off-season hockey brains. Nothing serious, just things at the back of our collective hockey heads.

But all these nagging questions and fun thoughts to pass the summer were nothing compared to the events that would crop up and sink our spirits throughout the summer of 2011. The worst summer of all for the hockey community.

We actually had a glimpse of what was to come. It was to foreshadow a long period of sadness and grief for everyone around hockey.

Derek Boogaard (1982-2011)
RIP: Derek Boogaard (1982-2011)

A sad reminder of the frailty of life. The frailty of people no matter how tough they may be. May 13th will long be remembered as a shocking and sad date. It was the date that a larger than life player was lost to us forever.

Derek Boogaard the ‘Boogy Man’ was as big and as tough as they come in a hockey player. At 6’7 and 265 pounds, there weren’t many larger on the ice than Derek. Boogaard had a tough year in New York battling concussion and maybe his inner demons. Many surrounding the giant knew of his addictive personality and his past troubles. Despite these warning signs, no one could have predicted his death on May 13th after a night of drinking and drug taking.

His death was ruled ‘accidental overdose’ with the cocktail of booze and pills he had consumed before returning to his Minneapolis apartment that night. It was a huge blow. Derek had just returned from rehab, and seemed in high spirits to get back to his career and be healthy after the concussions and issues he battled last season. His death seemed pointless and unfair. It was indeed a wake-up call that life is precious, and we should always be on the lookout for friends and family who may have similar problems to the ones Boogaard bravely fought.

The hockey world mourned Boogaard. Life went on though. The NHL playoffs got more interesting, and the on-ice battles and triumphs helped us all move forward from the May tragedy.

In an eerie bit of coincidence, the Canucks were to be vanquished in seven hard fought games against Boston. They lost this fight without one of their toughest battlers.

Rick Rypien was a tough guy. He wasn’t as big as Boogaard, but at only 5’11 and 180 pounds Rypien packed a punch. He was missed by his teammates against the much more physical Bruins without a doubt in that final series.

Rick Rypien (1984-2011)
RIP: Rick Rypien (1984-2011)

Rypien was not with the Canucks to fight their battles because of his own demons. He was on leave from the club to deal with ‘personal issues’ away from hockey. The Canucks had granted him that time. He had in fact been on a similar break a few years ago (2008-09), again in the midst of a hockey season. His ‘personal issues’ were well known to his employers and teammates alike. Rypien had been dealing with a life-long struggle with depression.

It’s one of those taboos in the professional sports world. These men are larger than life heroes who are tough as nails right? They surely have no emotional problems or personal issues right? Well the whole system couldn’t be more wrong. Rypien’s death on August 15th was ruled a suicide, after a shocked family member discovered his body in his Alberta home. Despite the warning signs, despite the past history, no one could help Rypien. He had ended his life and his battle with a force none of us could possibly understand. He was no coward, we know that. But he was sick with a disease that is not supposed to prey on professional sportsmen in our macho psyche. He lost a battle off the ice that no one could help him win.

The hockey world again mourned the loss of one of our own. We thought that surely this was it for the tragedy this offseason. We thought it couldn’t get worse. We were wrong.

There was no one in hockey more liked than Wade Belak. Despite his years as a tough guy in the NHL, even the guys he fought liked him! Wade’s smile and self-deprecating humor were legendary. He had just retired as a player, but had many opportunities lined up. He had a wonderful wife and family. It appeared that Wade had so much going for him. Wade was another behemoth, at 6’5 and 230 pounds, there surely was nothing he was afraid of or couldn’t handle.

Then on August 31st our beliefs and our faith were once again destroyed.

Belak was found dead in a condominium he was staying at in downtown Toronto. He had been there preparing to appear on a Canadian Television show Battle of the Blades. The police said the cause of death was not ‘suspicious’ and the case was treated as a suicide. After the death had made the news, the truth started to come out. Belak had hidden his depression for years. Only those close to him knew about it. Unlike Rypien who had a more public battle, Belak had hidden his affliction with a big smile and a fantastic wit and sense of humor. How bad were his inner problems that all the success and love in the world could not stop him from wanting out? It was a sucker punch of epic magnitude. A death that shook us all and continued the horrible trend of hockey’s darkest summer. The loss of Belak proved that we could not possibly understand his disease. It was something that was immeasurable and left us all empty.

For all the sadness we had poured out for Boogaard, Rypien and Belak, we could never have been prepared for September 7th.

I was waiting for a flight in Lisbon, Portugal. I had been at an affiliate meeting for ESPN America. It had been a successful few days, and I was looking forward to getting on my flight back to London. I received a text from a hockey colleague in Toronto. The words on my phone will stay with me a long time “KHL team killed in plane crash, what are you hearing?” I wasn’t hearing anything. I was in shock. About to board a plane myself, and pretty much punch drunk from the summer’s earlier tragedies, this one took my breath away. I was a zombie. I did not tell my colleagues of the news. I didn’t want to speak of a plane crash as we were about to board one. It was surreal and I felt empty and confused about all the horrible news that had transpired since May.

The Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team was taken that day. Every one of them has perished. It is not a hockey tragedy. It was a world tragedy. They were on their way to a game in Minsk and the start of the KHL season. Excited about the start of a new campaign, and full of hope with new Head Coach Brad McCrimmon at the helm. McCrimmon was a fantastic NHL player and was an assistant coach in Detroit. He wanted to be a head coach and took his opportunity in Russia. It’s unbelievable.

Other former NHL players on the plane that fateful day were – Ruslan Salei, Pavol Demitra, Karel Rachunek, Karlis Skrastins, Josef Vasicek, Alexander Yasyunov, Alex Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev. All gone far too soon. All pursuing their love of playing hockey. If there is kind sentiment for their families it is indeed that fact – they died being what they loved – hockey players.

We all mourn in our own way. We all feel for the families of all those lost this dark summer. We pray that we will not have another period like this in hockey or otherwise. It has been a cruel summer.

In search of answers and maybe even some wisdom to make sense of it all, I spoke with my NHL colleague Barry Melrose about all the summer’s tragic news. His wise words summed up a lot for me.

“For those of us that love hockey, the start of this NHL season can’t come fast enough. I don’t think the hockey world has ever had a summer like this past one,” Barry told me. “Every bit of news was bad and every story was worse than the last one ending with the terrible plane crash in Russia. We need good news, good games, good stories and good thoughts.”

“The great game of hockey will help in most of these areas and our great athletes will do the rest,” Barry continued. “Make sure we don’t forget the stories of this summer, but from now on let’s focus on all the great things this time of year has to give us.”

Amen Barry … I think we can all agree with that.

Murph has been covering the NHL for five years. He also covers other sports and special events. Any comments or questions are welcome.

You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce

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