The NHL has always had the reputation of being a beer-drinking league since most players don’t hide the fact they like to tip the bottle every now and again. However, times have changed and over the years society has seen drug use rise to unacceptable levels. This is why all major sports leagues have some type of substance abuse programs in effect. But the NHL’s seems to be failing miserably with the recent deaths of two players who were enrolled in the program.

The latest was 27-year-old forward Rick Rypien of the Winnipeg Jets who was found dead on Aug. 15, while 28-year-old Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers was found dead back in May due to a mixture of painkillers and alcohol. It was reported that Boogaard also received counseling from the NHL’s substance abuse program.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league will speak with the players association to make sure both sides are comfortable with the programs that are currently in place. He said the league does as much as it can to help players, but perhaps more needs to be done.

Rypien was suffering from depression and took a leave of absence twice from the Vancouver Canucks while playing for them. But his isn’t and wasn’t an isolated case. Rypien and Boogaard weren’t what you’d call highly-skilled players. Basically, they were what hockey people like to call an enforcer, while others prefer to use the term ‘goon.’ They made NHL teams because they were good with their fists not because of talent.

The problem is, players like Rypien and Boogaard find jobs in the league because it allows on-ice fighting during its games. A player receives a five-minute penalty for fisticuffs, but is free to return to the ice after that. It’s not the players fault they’re in the league for one reason, but it puts a lot of pressure on them physically and mentally. Being an NHL enforcer can often lead to on-ice injuries such as concussions and depression can set in as their careers can sometimes be jeopardized.

The hockey mentality is to blame as is the NHL itself. Coaches and general managers utilize their tough guys like pieces of meat and when one of them is injured he’s quickly replaced with another player with similar limited skills. The upper echelon in hockey doesn’t realize what effect fighting has on an individual because they aren’t the ones taking bare-knuckled fists to the head.

Most enforcers only see a few minutes of action during a 60-minute game and it’s usually for the sole purpose of taking on their opponent’s enforcer. However, they face great risk each time they drop the gloves. Many players have received serious head injuries after falling to the ice headfirst during fights and some of them have had to retire because of it. A player in Canada died a few years ago after hitting his head on the hard ice during a fight.

You don’t have to be an expert to see the relationship between fighting and injuries, as well as degenerative brain disease, especially with somebody who may fight a couple of dozen times a season. Being sidelined for extensive periods of time can often lead to alcohol and drug abuse. Bob Probert, another well-known enforcer with off-ice problems, died last summer from a heart attack at the age of 45.

But the deaths of NHL enforcers isn’t really something new. Back in 1992, 27-year-old John Kordic died from a heart attack after taking steroids and cocaine and being involved in a disturbance with police officers. Steve Durbano, who was considered to be one of the most unpredictable NHL players ever, died in 2002 at the age of 50 after battling substance-abuse for many years. Former player Reggie Fleming died at the age of 73 and like Probert, was diagnosed after death with degenerative brain disease.

It’s a simple fact that NHL players can suffer serious injuries during fights and there’s a possibility that enforcers suffer from brain disease. Whether or not this can lead to substance abuse and death or not has yet to be proven. But even if there’s the slightest chance that it can, fighting should be abolished once and for all from the game.


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