Philadelphia, PA – There hadn't even been enough time to grieve the loss of Rick Rypien when reports of Wade Belak's death came across the wire.
It was another reminder that tragedy has been all too common in the NHL this season. In the span of about four months, the league has lost Derek Boogaard, Rypien and Belak -- three players known primarily for their physical play. Of course, the three deaths are individual circumstances, but one can't blame those who are trying to find a common thread uniting Boogaard, Rypien and Belak.
Could the fact that they were all enforcers tell us why each man struggled with personal demons? Possibly, but the important thing is that we ask all the right questions and not simply try to force these tragedies into our own narrative. It's natural for humans to seek a deeper meaning when they encounter death because it forces us to contemplate our own mortality.
One hopes that in trying to make sense of the loss that Boogaard, Rypien and Belak aren't simply lumped together for the sake of convenience. Each man deserves to be remembered as an individual and for what made them special, and all three will, of course, be dearly missed by family and friends.
By most accounts, what set Wade Belak apart was his sense of humor. That's why reports that he took his own life were so shocking, more so than the deaths of Boogaard and Rypien, who had documented battles with substance abuse and depression, respectively.
Boogaard died of an overdose one day after leaving drug rehab, while Rypien, who was found dead on August 15 in circumstances deemed "sudden and non- suspicious" by police, had been dealing with depression for years.
However, Belak's mother, Lorraine, said in an interview with CBC on Friday that her son also struggled with depression, but that he "didn't talk about it all the time, or a lot."
Belak's case is also different not just because his public persona helped mask his personal problems, but also because he had recently retired, and was not still an active player like Boogaard and Rypien.
Retiring athletes are often faced with uncertainty at how they will spend their newfound free-time, but that shouldn't have been an issue for Belak, who was preparing to partake in the CBC reality series "Battle of the Blades" this fall. After the TV show, Belak was slated to take on his new career as a radio analyst for the Nashville Predators, the club with which he had spent the last three years of his career.
It was Belak's reputation as a character that helped him land those new jobs, but it's tragic that his well-known sense of humor couldn't save him from such a sad fate.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHLPA, released a joint statement Thursday to assure fans that they are investigating links the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak.
"While the circumstances of each case are unique, these tragic events cannot be ignored. We are committed to examining, in detail, the factors that may have contributed to these events, and to determining whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare and minimize the likelihood of such events taking place."
It's comforting to know that the league is willing to face the awful events of 2011 straight-on. Maybe someday the questions that are currently being asked in the wake of these untimely deaths will help prevent another NHLer from going down a similarly dark path.
It's human nature to try and extract something positive out of the bleakest moments. Hopefully, the memories of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak can spur us on to a deeper understanding of what led them to leave us so soon.