Retired Hockey Player Found Dead

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Recently retired pro hockey player Wade Belak was found dead Wednesday. This marks the third death of a hockey player this off-season. Belak, like the other deceased players Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, was a hockey enforcer — referring to players better known for their ability to fight instead of their ability to score. While no direct connection between the three is known, it is raising questions within the league about being a tough player and staying healthy. Robert Siegel talks with James Mirtle, hockey writer for the Globe and Mail, about this issue.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: It has been a bleak summer for the National Hockey League. Yesterday, a recently retired player named Wade Belak was found dead in a hotel room in Toronto, and he was the third NHL player to die in less than four months. One of those deaths was caused by an overdose; the other, believed to be a suicide. And reports suggest yesterday's death was also a suicide. James Mirtle writes about hockey for The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JAMES MIRTLE: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: There's one thing that links all three of these men - one other thing: They were all enforcers who were better known for throwing punches than for skating fast or for scoring goals. Is that right?

MIRTLE: That's correct, yeah. Yeah, it's pretty remarkable because that's a small group of players in the league.

SIEGEL: What can you tell us about Wade Belak and the two other players?

MIRTLE: Well, they were different people, you know, off the ice. Wade Belak was known as being very gregarious and outgoing, and he had a career in broadcasting lined up. Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, the other two players that died, were in their mid-20s and still had a lot of their career left to play, and were seen more as maybe more one-dimensional than Wade Belak.

SIEGEL: The coincidence of what all three men did, that they played the same role in hockey, of course, is - it's impossible to ignore, but there are other things happening in the world. Do we know if all three were having hard economic times, or were they all involved in substance abuse to some extent? Do you know anything like that?

MIRTLE: Right now, we don't know very much about Wade Belak because his death was yesterday afternoon. But Derek Boogaard, the first player that died, he had substance abuse issues, and they're saying it was an accidental death, drug overdose, essentially. And Rick Rypien had suffered from depression for almost a decade before he committed suicide.

SIEGEL: I suppose the National Hockey League could say what a strange set of coincidences has occurred during this off-season. Are they going to look into what happened and investigate in any way?

MIRTLE: There's been really limited public comments so far from the league, but I'll be very surprised if they try and sort of brush this under the carpet. I think what they're going to do is they're going to decide that there's going to be - need to be some changes made. And I don't know how they could come to any other conclusion, given how many deaths there have been in four months' time.

SIEGEL: I gather that people who follow hockey closely and people like you who write about hockey have been unable to ignore the fact that these three players played the same role, and that, possibly, the role has something to do with depression. Is that what you think?

MIRTLE: Yeah, yeah. I think that's a fair comment, or that the role is just a very, very difficult job to take on and that it affects people in different ways. But this is one of the ways that it affects some of them, and it has just - it's sort of a burden, I think, that a lot of the players carry around, especially when they have that role. And there's always a danger of injury or of having a really short career. The pay is generally low for these guys. These are players that only play two or three or four minutes of a 60-minute hockey game. So they - you know, they're anomalies on their team. They spend a lot of time on the bench. It's a very odd position in professional sports. It's very unique, and it's very difficult on the athletes.

SIEGEL: The hockey season starts in about a month. Players will soon return for camp. You assume this will be a major topic of conversation?

MIRTLE: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Training camp is going to get under way on September 16th, and I think this is going to be a topic, a major topic in hockey for at least the first two months of this season.

SIEGEL: Well, James Mirtle, thank you very much for talking with us about it today.

MIRTLE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: James Mirtle covers hockey for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. He spoke to us from Toronto.

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