Belak’s death exposes athlete trauma

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Linda Nguyen, september 2, 2011 – Calgary Herald

Professional athletes need more help to deal with the potentially lasting physical and psychological trauma that can be suffered while playing the game, say advocates from the hockey and medical worlds in the wake of the death of Wade Belak – the third NHL enforcer to die in the past four months.

“There needs to be some recognition as to why this is happening, what is causing this to transpire, and some type of evaluation done in order to understand its cause,” said Keith Primeau, a former captain of the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers, from his home in New Jersey.

“There’s something here that is not right and it needs to be addressed,” Primeau said Thursday, a day after Belak was found dead in a high-end Toronto hotel room.

Police have not officially confirmed the cause of death, but Belak’s father has been told the 35-year-old committed suicide. Lionel Aadland said his son was not showing any signs of depression or anxiety before he took his life.

“I wish I knew,” Aadland said. “It’s disappointing that he would choose that option, and totally surprising. We, as a family, didn’t – maybe naively – see anything. We’re somewhat distanced by miles from them, but we talk and we think we’re a good, tight family. We just didn’t see any signs.

“We thought that he was looking so forward to the change in his career and this Battle of the Blades. And, although the last time I talked to him he talked about how challenging it was, it seemed like it was something he really wanted to do. He seemed to be looking forward to it. We’re at a total loss.”

Jennifer Belak, the hockey player’s widow, said his family was “overwhelmed and deeply touched by the outpouring of compassion and support” since her husband’s death.

“Wade was a big man with an even bigger heart,” she said in a statement. “He was a deeply devoted father and husband, a loyal friend and a well-respected athlete. This loss leaves a huge hole in our lives and, as we move forward, we ask that everyone remember Wade’s infectious sense of humour, his caring spirit and the joy he brought to his friends, family and fans.”

Primeau, 39, retired from the National Hockey League five years ago after he admitted to suffering from ongoing postconcussion syndrome.

Although he didn’t know Belak, Primeau said many hockey players are afraid to admit they are having health or mental problems due to bravado or fears that it will automatically end their multimillion-dollar careers.

Former European hockey player Kerry Goulet, who with Primeau runs the organization Stop Concussions, said depression and suicide have long been linked to head injuries, along with anxiety, dementia and early-onset Alzheimer’s.

“This isn’t just hockey’s problem,” he said. “Until a proper diagnosis is done (on Belak), it’s all speculation. There are a lot of assumptions to be made. But we have to be realistic . . . over this past summer, we’ve lost three people, three humans, who had the same purpose in the game.”

Belak spent most of his career as an enforcer with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He is the third professional hockey enforcer to die this year. Last May, NHLer Derek Boogaard died in his Minneapolis apartment after an accidental overdose of alcohol and drugs.

And in August, former Vancouver Canuck Rick Rypien died in his Crowsnest Pass, Alta., home. The 27-year-old – who recently signed with the Winnipeg Jets – had been battling depressionΒ for nearly a decade. The causeΒ of death was not released, although according to police it was sudden and not considered suspicious.