As the NHL buries another player during this off-season, the discussion turns to what could have been done to prevent first Derek Boogaard and now Rick Rypien from passing away. How can they improve a system designed to help players deal with issues ranging from substance abuse to mental health?
The answer is not going to be found in problems with the system but rather the mindset that those like hockey players are hardwired with. That macho image of hockey players being "tough guys" is more of a problem than the support system in place.
Special NHLPA advisor former Ranger Mathieu Schneider basically said as much when he was quoted as saying:
“Maybe it would have been better had Rick been able to lean on some teammates and guys there for support,” said Schneider. “But those type of things have always been kind of taboo. You just don’t talk about it.”
To talk about such things would make a player look weak to his teammates and that foolish mindset is why more than just hockey players are scared to reach out to a peer and ask for help. It is more than just hockey as society as a whole expects guys to "man up" when the going gets tough.
Whether it is sports or the armed forces or every day life, it is seen as being weak when someone says "Hey something is not right with me." That is what has to change if anyone is serious about preventing more Boogaards and Rypiens as you can have 1000 support systems but you have to be not afraid to use them.
Truth is that reaching out and saying "I need help" takes far more courage then people think. Someone like a Derek Boogaard is supposed to be tougher than tough so if he turned to a peer for help then foolishly there would be some who would see that as a sign of Boogaard being weak.
We are still too quick to attach stigmas to things like drug abuse or depression as normal people are not supposed to suffer from these kind of things but they do. Rick Rypien sought help to fight the depression he suffered from so that does not make him a weak person in any way shape or form.
That right there is the problem as much in hockey as it is in many male dominated professions that you are not given the luxury of looking weak. Being weak means you cannot get the job done or that you can not be counted on when things get tough.
It is a stupid mindset that winds up killing more people than helping and no matter how perfect a system the NHL/NHLPA puts into place then it will never ever be able to prevent 100% of the Boogaards or Rypiens from falling through the cracks.
And this harsh reality about Derek Boogaard was that despite going through the NHL program in the end, Boogaard still used the very things he was seeking help for. It is not being mean or cruel because in the end it was Boogaard who made the choice to mix drugs and booze.
Sometimes no matter how good a system you have that is not going to always fix those who need fixing. You cannot blame the NHL/NHLPA, the Rangers or even Aaron Boogaard for what happened to Derek Boogaard.
You cannot even blame the addiction either as Boogaard was given the tools when he went through the program. It is way too easy to simply say that addiction for too strong for Boogaard to overcome.
Reality is Boogaard made a choice to go out partying that eventful night and sorry if this sounds cold and even cruel but it is the truth. Boogaard made a choice not to work the program designed to help him deal with his addictions.
In that case there was nothing in the NHL/NHLPA program that could have prevented what happened to Boogaard. It does not matter how Rypien passed away because sometimes even the best of intentions breaks down.
Having the NHL and NHLPA examine their system is not a bad idea as you can always look for improvements but it is never going to be able to prevent every death. What we have to pray it does do is raise awareness so that nobody no matter how big there are, no matter how tough they are or no matter who they are thinks that asking for help is a sign of being weak.
It goes bigger than the game as if a kid sees that it is OK for a guy like Boogaard to ask for help then maybe it might convince him or her to seek help themselves. We can only hope as if it helps even one person then it might bring some kind of meaning to losing Boogaard and Rypien.
There is the another mindset that ought to change which is "if I tell I will be a rat and not trusted by my teammates." Nobody ever wants to say "You know so and so is not acting right, should I ask if he is OK" or say to a coach or trainer "you know so and so has not been acting like himself."
Yes we know in both the Boogaard and Rypien cases it would not have prevented what happened to them but the saying is you do not know if you don't try. Reporting something that you think is hurting a teammate should not be viewed as breaching the locker room trust or being a narc.
We can all hope that something good can come out of both losses but the start is making sure that what ever message that the NHL/NHLPA team up to send does not fall on deaf ears. We have to hope against hope that even one player sees what has happened this off-season and does something whether it is for their own selves or in an attempt to help a teammate.
This is one "hat trick" we would rather not see happen.
(Boogaard courtesy of the New York Rangers)
8 hours ago