Monthly Archives: September 2011

Goons be gone

Fighting…it isn’t cool anymore. It won’t change the game, but maybe hockey fans need to change their perception of fighting. Very few hockey players earn the position of Enforcer. The tragic deaths of Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and Derek Boogaard have raised serious questions on depression, drug abuse and violence. The focus needs to be on the individual certainly, but as a hockey culture the promotion of violence sells.

Columbus defender James Wisniewski has been suspended four times since March 2008. He’s a repeat offender because his job description implies this. The regular season hasn’t started, yet Wisniewski will sit out the rest of the preseason and eight regular-season games for his hit to the head of Minnesota Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck. Clearly, James needs a performance review. His job is defender not retaliator. But how far apart are those two skills really?

Minnesota Wild forward Brad Staubitz was suspended for the rest of the preseason and three regular-season games for a hit from behind on Columbus Blue Jackets forward Cody Bass. His intention is as follows:

“I was on the forecheck, and it’s obviously not the outcome I wanted from the hit. I say I play hard but not dirty. … You’ve just got to be conscious all the time of what you’re doing. It’s tough. You’ve got to play hard, especially in the role that I’m in. It’s a narrow line.”

The Enforcers are the emotion of the team, raw emotion. These guys didn’t have character flaws as most read in tributes for Rypien, Boogaard and Belak. Their roles were to carry and defend the burden of the team’s angst. Being a defender isn’t being the emotional misfit of the team who can’t cope, rather they are the guys who go out every night watching the other guy’s back.

Rypien, Belak and Boogaard were the “burito” on the team. Teaching in urban Denver, I befriended many gang members who sat in my classes. These were not stupid guys, rather appeased at what their role was in society. “Burito” is the man in the gang who cleans up and does the dirty work, always involving someone who crossed the gang or a gang member’s family. That’s a “team” in North Denver who face poverty, murder and gun violence.

What about the team at the Pepsi Center? Cody McLeod is the goon for the Avs, and if you’ve ever seen him smile you’d doubt he’d pop a fist at all. The Colorado Avalanche are in no danger on the ice with poverty, murder or guns. Let Cody play his game, if he has one. Enforcers have a tough time breaking out of that role partly because their other skills on the ice don’t ring to the same tune as a Pavel Datsyuk or a Ryan Kesler. Both Kesler and Datsyuk have thrown down despite their excellent puck skills.  

Ryan Kesler

Ryan Kesler

Once the fighting is gone, then the NHL will be healed, right?  Apparently, not so. Preseason hockey has left a few tough guys out of the first week of regular play via suspension for blindside hits. It all evolves from the same defensive job.

There are always the guys who have to do the dirty work. Belak said he was okay being the fighter because that was his place on the team. How many men and women in the military prefer the raw combat? Tough as nails ones do. How many cops are eager to patrol the beat in Bayonne? If it’s a spot on the force, then they do it willingly knowing it will harden them. Rookies in the NHL do not succumbed to the enforcement pact. Only experienced goons take the slugs. Rookies make hits, which leads to more hits.

Police, soldiers, and hockey players all play an emotional game. Each career choice asks them to hand over their heart and dedicate it for the team. The NHL needs to protect the Enforcers to save their lives, is the nature of this beast. Bear hugging has been the alternate for hits and to a brawl taking the NHL from pissed to polite. Good sportsmanship never gets old.

The NHL wants to monitor the physical and mental health of its employees; other companies could benefit from joining this bandwagon. Corporate values have always been about the money, and if you don’t think the NHL is a corporation then you haven’t heard: our society has moved to care about money, not people. In today’s workplace you are replaceable if you are mentally or physically not tough enough, so goes it on the ice.

Blood, sweat and tears.

Devils Delight in Opening Night

It wasn’t Newark or Hoboken, but it was the home of the Albany Devils, the AHL affiliate of the New Jersey Devils, where the win over the New York Rangers revitalized a new Devils era in the Garden State.

The future is looking bright for the New Jersey Devils as they beat the New York Rangers, 2-1, in preasesaon action. For the first time since 1996, the Devils, who have won three Stanley Cup titles since 1995, did not make the postseason last year. This year the chances of a preseason playoff berth is clearly up for grabs.

Petr Sykora, a Stanley Cup winner for the Devils in 2000, scored the first goal in the Devils-Rangers preseason opener. Sykora, who hasn’t  played in the NHL since the 2009-10 season, was invited to Devils training camp.

New head coach DeBoer’s style was introduced during training camp and encouraged more open ice skating.

Defenseman Andy Greene likes the new direction. The Devils re-signed Andy Greene to a 4-year, $12 million despite his 14-point decline and a minus-23. Greene remains a conisitent puck-moving player on the blue line:

“Obviously, it’s still pretty early, but we all like the type of style that he wants us to play. It’s fast paced and up tempo, and that’s a style I really like. It encourages us to play freer and that’s a plus.”

DeBoer, previously the coach of the Florida Panthers from 2008-2011, led the Panthers to a 30-40-12 record and was dismissed at the end of the season.

Second-year forward Jacob Josefson added,  “I like the high-tempo practices. I like the fast pace. It makes you feel like you’ve been on the ice for a long time, but you really haven’t. Obviously, he has a game plan that he believes in and it’s up to us players to get into it. Things are definitely looking up this year.”

Rookie Adam Larsson has become the new defensive hope of the New Jersey Devils. The 18-year old rookie will have some veteran defenseman assiting in what should make for an intersting year. Returing veteran defenders include:  Henrik Tallinder (16 points, minus-6), Anton Volchenkov (125 hits in 57 games) and Bryce Salvador, who missed the 2010-11 season with an inner ear ailment.

Adam Larsson

Adam Larsson

Placing Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and Patrick Elias up front gives the Devils a front line to be reckoned with if the thin blue line can hold the army back. Travis Zajac is predicted to make a mid-season return. And if Andy Larsson does play in Jersey this season, he’ll give Parise a break from the matinee idol hysteria.

Zach Parise

Zach Parise

Hidden Hockey

Since I’ve been writing hockey, I’ve talked to many wonderful people in the hockey community. Everyone I’ve met has been so kind and forthright in their honesty about how great it is working in the world of hockey. But none have divulged any hidden secrets, rather “we’re just small town boys from Canada who just want to play the game we love.”  This Septemeber 11 a nation will remember the tragedy that changed the international landscape. For the hockey world, this summer has changed the landscape of hockey.

Fighting has always been a draw for fans of hockey, but recently the death of several enforcers have many  perplexed. The untimely deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak were related to depression and substance abuse. The three enforcers had a  total of 12 fights last season (7 from Boogaard, 2 from Belak, and 3 from Rypien).

The NHL has institued new guidelines to discourage blindside hits and curb fighting all together. Is there a link between the anguish of these players and the role they played on the ice?  There are strong links between brain trauma and addiction, which is to say that enforcers get hammered and most likely suffered some head trauma. With the phasing out of the fighting role under NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s reign, these players roles have diminished.

Dr. Robert Cantu is an expert on the link between brain trauma and addiction, and sugests that “the medial temporal lobe is associated with addictive behaviours and alcohol and drug abuse are addictions.” He futher elaborates on these specific cases that addictions are very common with Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Mixing brain trauma, depression and substance abuse leads to the lethal combination which lead to the suicide deaths of Rypien and Belak.

Belak’s depression came after his retirement from the NHL, despite securing an analyst job with the Nashville Predators. Though Belak was an enforcer, his hope was to score goals rather than fight but he wanted to be on the team and help in any capacity. If all you’ve ever done in your life is taken away, your identity is lost. Hockey players begin playing in pee-wee leagues and continue as far as they can go. Imagine beginning in your career at age 8 and retiring at age 35? Sounds great, but the emotions run high, self-esteem drops and your world becomes so small that your perception of the world changes along with how you fit in.

From the outside looking in, most people see athletes as living a glamorous lifestyle without obstacles. Hockey players are human beings in a physically and mentally exhausting game. While it is a joy for those who play, there still remains pressures and expectations from the player and the team- especially themselves. When we see the fighting on TV or from the stands, we never think these enforcers don’t want to fight.

Tough guy, George Laraque, didn’t hold back in talking to the media about the tragedies and the role of the fighter:

“What might surprise some people is that the mental part of fighting can sometimes be tougher than the physical part. A lot of the time, fighting starts a couple days before the actual game. You look at the schedule and get really worked up because you have a game against a team that has a top tough guy and mentally that’s tough. You think about the guy, you watch his fight on YouTube, you try to tell yourself it’s going to be okay but it’s not. No one can ever understand this pressure unless you’re a fighter yourself.”

Fighting has been an integral part of the game of hockey, yet it is the one thing that could detroy the game.

The hockey world represents our world in so many ways. This Septemeber 11 will be a day of remembering so many who lost their lives that day. Let us remeber all those people in our lives who have perished and take the time to rember those people who are still in our lives.