NHL Weathers Dark Off-Season

The National Hockey League is mourning more deaths this week. At least six current and former NHL players were killed Wednesday in the crash of a plane carrying a professional Russian hockey team. They were the latest in a series of tragedies involving NHL players in 2011. Tom Cavanagh and Rick Rypien both committed suicide, Derek Boogaard was found dead of a drug overdose, and the future of the league's star player, Sidney Crosby, is uncertain because of injury.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: Sports can be an escape, but sometimes real life intrudes. No better example of that this year than pro hockey. Today in Yaroslavl, Russia, a memorial service honors the 36 players, coaches and staff from that city's hockey team. Were killed on Wednesday, when their chartered jet crashed moments after takeoff. Many on the team had ties to the National Hockey League, which has weathered one of its darkest off-seasons ever. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

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TOM GOLDMAN: On Russia's Kontinental Hockey League website, a video honoring Lokomotiv Yaroslavl features Beethoven, black-and-white photos of the 36 dead and the image of a burning candle. It's a poignant tribute to vital men dying young. The candle burns out after the 36th photo, that of Canadian-born Lokomotiv head coach Brad McCrimmon fades to black. Investigators are pouring over the latest apparent failing in an aging and distressed Russian system of air travel while hockey mourns.

National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman called the crash a catastrophic loss to the hockey world, including the NHL family which lost so many fathers, sons, teammates and friends. For Bettman, it's been an off-season filled with condolence statements.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: This kid is a monster, Boogaard, six-foot-seven, 245 pounds and he just got Gillies with a haymaker.

GOLDMAN: In May, 28-year-old New York Rangers forward Derek Boogaard died from what was termed an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol. In August, two more deaths; 27-year-old Winnipeg forward Rick Rypien and 35-year-old Wade Belak, who retired from the NHL in March, both reported as suicides. The deaths prompted sadness and concern.

All three players were so-called enforcers. They made their marks with the bare-knuckle fighting that's a part of hockey culture.

ADAM PROTEAU: In my mind, you know, there's no doubt that the role of enforcer casts a particular type of pressure on players.

GOLDMAN: Adam Proteau writes for the Hockey News.

PROTEAU: You know, even before these three players you had, you know, people that were hooked on drugs, made bad decisions in life, got arrested for being drunk in public, had to be tazered.

GOLDMAN: The NHL has a substance abuse and behavioral health program available to players. Rypien reportedly used it for treatment of depression. The New York Times reports after Rypien's death the NHL said it would review the program. Adam Proteau has a book coming out titled "Fighting the Good Fight: Why on Ice Violence is Killing Hockey." He says enforcers remain prominent in the sport because the NHL believes it has to sell itself with rough and tumble physicality.

PROTEAU: That's been the image that hockey has chosen to market and to kind of cultivate.

GOLDMAN: An NHL official angrily denies that. The official, who asked not be identified, also warns against what he calls leaps of logic in connecting the three deaths to the enforcer role and to the NHL's growing problem with concussions. Derek Boogaard's brain is being studied for signs of possible concussion-related disease. Meanwhile, the NHL's most famous player, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, continues to deal with the aftermath of a concussion that has sidelined him since January.

He said this week it's likely he'll be back this season but he won't be rushed. That uncertainty is as positive as it gets in an off-season of sorrow. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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