The brotherhood maintained by those who lead the NHL in fisticuffs every year would seem odd to anyone who doesn’t understand the game. These men are paid to pummel each other, and yet in many cases they pat each other on the back before skating to the penalty box, bloodied and beaten. They’re often friends away from the ice, and foes only for a few fleeting minutes on game night.
That’s the kind of relationship former NHL enforcer Kelly Chase had with Wade Belak, as the two become friends during Belak’s junior hockey days with the Saskatoon Blades. Adding to a day of reflection after the league lost another player paid to play with his knuckles bare and his fists flying, Chase spoke to theScore’s Corey Erdman earlier today.
Also a proud member of the Blades alumni, Chase praised the way Belak approached the game, and his demeanour off the ice.
“He was a raw-boned kid, an athletic kid who had this great spirit about him. He was one of those character guys that you kind of watched out for, especially because he was a Blade.”
When Belak officially announced his retirement and looked for a way to transition into his post-hockey life he turned to broadcasting, a role he was set to expand this fall. Chase worked with Belak on several occasions, and also told Erdman that he encouraged the 35-year-old to participate in CBC’s next season of Battle of the Blades.
Chase competed in the first season, and thought it would provide an athletic and adrenaline outlet for Belak, in addition to boosting exposure for his growing media career.
“I encouraged him. I said for him, leaving the game it’d great from an adrenaline standpoint, from an exposure standpoint it’d be great, and it would be a way for him to expand himself a little bit. Everybody knew him as this big, gregarious type of character. I just thought he’d be perfect for the show.”
The role of the enforcer in the NHL is one which comes with constant anxiety. That point was hammered home by former tough guy Georges Laraque when he spoke to the Toronto Star today, and Chase said the stress can quickly build. The average fan cheers wildly during a fight between two heavyweights, and then continues applauding while their warriors–and often their favourite players–skate to the penalty box.
Little thought is given to the notion that the mental preparation for that bout doesn’t just take place a few hours before puck drop. It starts sometimes several nights before the mitts hit the ice, a physiological cycle that’s repeated from October until mid-April, a time in the hockey calendar when fighting swiftly fades and doesn’t need to be part of the game anymore. Even the most brittle hockey dinosaur has difficulty defending the lack of playoff punch-ups.
Chase didn’t see any depression or signs of severe anxiety in Belak.
“If you have any type of depression, or, now we know concussions contribute to that depression, it becomes compounding anxiety. In Wade’s case, I’d never seen any of that.”
Each death this summer–first Derek Boogaard, followed by Rick Rypien and now Belak–has come with a different set of circumstances, but they’re all connected by a common link: fighting in the NHL. In a rare joint statement, the NHL and NHLPA recognized that link, saying that ignorance is not an option with a clear pattern emerging.
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. Our organizations are committed to a thorough evaluation of our existing assistance programs and practices and will make immediate modifications and improvements to the extent they are deemed warranted.
Eventually a drastic, decisive step could be necessary if we continue to hear tales of depression and head trauma among players who exist almost solely to fight.