Tag Archives: NHL

Men and suicide part 1

8 Sep

The hockey world has been rocked by the deaths of three players in the last four months. In May, 28-year-old New York Ranger, Derek Boogaard, was found dead of an overdose of alcohol and painkiller, oxycodone. August saw the deaths of former Winnipeg Jet, Rick Rypien, 27, and 35-year-old forward/defence man and former Maple Leaf, Wade Belak. Both apparently hung themselves. All young men made their livings as NHL “enforcers”, also known as “tough guys” or “goons”, and at least two of them suffered from depression.

The deaths of these three young men have sparked today’s difficult and complex post. There is so much to discuss that I have chosen to break it up into two parts. Today, I will attempt to discuss depression, suicide, and the masculine code of silence. Next week, I will examine the treatment of boys in our society, socialized sex roles and gender behaviour, and possible ways to support men – a stride to improve society at large.

NHL “enforcer”

Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak played unofficial NHL positions whose job it was to “deter and respond to dirty or violent play by the opposition. When such play occurs, the enforcer is expected to respond aggressively, by fighting or checking the offender. Enforcers are expected to react particularly harshly to violence against star players or goalies.” (Wikipedia)

The life of an NHL enforcer “involves hard hits and playing a role that may seem unnatural,” says Ross Bernstein, a sports journalist whose book The Code details the culture of fighting in the NHL.

“[The enforcer is] the toughest job in sports because 99 per cent of the battles are for other people, they’re constantly injured … and they know there are 10 guys willing to do their job,” he told the Montreal Gazette.

The Globe & Mail  reports that these three untimely deaths have led to calls to “ban fighting in hockey, to monitor concussions more closely, to address the abuse of prescription painkillers by athletes and to provide more post-career support to former hockey players,”  but something is missing from this list, something very important.

Rypien suffered from depression and took two leaves of absences in three seasons. Wade Belak’s mother has reported that her son suffered from depression as well. Both of these young men suffered in silence, a silence that for some reason is expected of men; an imposed silence that is very much to our society’s detriment.

Men’s depression

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) sees depression as the most common mood disorder, affecting 10% of us. Depression can bring on feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, constant tiredness, an inability to have fun, and thoughts of death or suicide.

“Experts in the field suggest that a suicidal person is feeling so much pain that they can see no other option. They feel that they are a burden to others, and in desperation see death as a way to escape their overwhelming pain and anguish. The suicidal state of mind has been described as constricted, filled with a sense of self-hatred, rejection, and hopelessness.”

Depression can be bleak, miserable, and dark. As someone who experiences depression from time to time, I can tell you that it is NOT a nice place to be and it is a very deep hole to dig oneself out of. As a woman, I will experience and express depression differently than the way a man will because if I decide to talk about it, it is more socially acceptable for me to express my feelings and ask for help, and I probably won’t be labelled as “weak” for it. In our present society, men are not granted the same empathetic response that a woman in crisis may receive, and sadly, he may be ridiculed or otherwise mistreated for what he cannot control.

National Post columnist, Aaron Sands, wrote an excellent piece this week discussing his own depression and the stigma attached to Wade Belak’s mental illness, which Sands believes is Belak’s true cause of death. If we want to take a step forward in masculine social support, it is imperative that we take men’s mental health seriously and give men a voice to express themselves. This should not be thought of as a sign of weakness, on the contrary, it should be thought of as being human.

“Men have a hard time with depression because it is seen as weakness,” says Owen Williams, relationship coach at Toronto’s The Work of Men. ”In the world we live in, despite all the technological advances that we have made, the one area that we fall short on is redefining masculinity. To be a man still means to be strong, having it all together and fighting the “good fight” which in short, means to suck it up. We are still in the dark ages here.”

Sociologists Michael S. Kimmel and Jeff Hearn, in Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities, describe men’s learned or socially-imposed stoicism as violence toward the self: “stuffing” their emotions and trying to reach a traditional masculine ideal that rejects feminine emotionality. Young men are discouraged to express emotion (with the exception of anger, which I believe has become a default emotion for males because they have been taught to recognize few others), and “they often fail to learn the language with which they could describe their feelings, and without language it is hard for anyone to make sense of what he feels.”

During the men’s movement of the 1990s, the Iron John period when men were encouraged to (re)discover masculine archetypes, go to the forest, beat on drums, and unleash their Wild Man, Warren Farrell wrote a book called The Myth of Male Power. In it, he challenges men to be responsible for themselves and their actions, including the responsibility of helping themselves to express their emotions and depression.

At least at the time the book was written, Farrell unfortunately did not see a lot of men taking this initiative.

“Men are still most likely to buy adventure books, financial journals, and sports magazines that teach men to solve problems, overcome barriers, or repress feelings. There are few men’s shelters, “masculinist” psychologists, men’s crisis lines, or men’s centres.”

I think the world is a little better for men since Farrell wrote his book, and men’s services, from spas to image consulting to psychotherapy are taking hold and offering men freedom and safety to explore and appreciate themselves. The world is slowly recognizing the need to take men seriously, but the shame of reaching out for help still burns within so many.

Depression can lead to suicide

Globe & Mail columnist, Andre Picard, recently explained the stigma attached to mental illness for men. Picard recognizes the social expectation of boys to silently internalize their pain, act tough, and not show their natural feelings.

“This silence can be fatal,” he says, “Yet the continuing carnage that results – more men die by suicide than in motor vehicle collisions – is largely hidden away and invisible.”

The Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention (CASP) says that suicide is one of the top ten leading causes of death. In 2005 in Canada, suicide accounted for 3,743 deaths in 2005 with a male to female suicide ratio of 3:1. The World Health Organization’s international suicide rates reflects this trend and reports that in some countries, male suicide rates are over 6 times higher than women’s. It has been noted that elderly and very young men (15 – 25) constitute these high rates of suicide.

Kimmel and Hearn say that “[o]ne explanation for boy’s higher rates of lethality from suicide attempts is that males adopt more traditionally “masculine” methods (i.e. guns or knives) and psychological postures (e.g. aggression, goal-directedness, passion to succeed, and denial of feelings) when attempting to kill themselves.”

Masculine silence is one of our key problems in trying to keep men and boys healthy. This rather bizarre and unnatural practice of teaching boys not to recognize and express their feelings, insisting on their constant strength, and not allowing them a voice is not doing anyone any favours, especially the boys themselves. By supporting the idea of keeping men stoic and silent, we’re expecting men to fend for themselves in a world they were not properly trained to operate in, a world that denies them the outlets and the support they deserve. If a more supportive system for males existed in our society, our three late enforcers might still be with us.

“We really need to offer men a comfortable and empathetic environment to express themselves,” Warren Farrell says, “Anything less is a crime against masculinity.”

Uh, this may help

27 Jan

Today I want to talk to you about getting your messages across clearly.

It seems to me that as a society, we fear silence and feel compelled to fill gaps with words and sounds that have no meaning or purpose and we end up sounding a little thick in the process. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Though I’m personally trying to banish gap-filling sounds when I talk (hard lessons learned from working with the media), I sometimes consciously breathe out an “u-u-uh” in mid-speech as an indication that I don’t want to be interrupted because I am still thinking. Sometimes the insertion of a deliberate time-filler can work, but most times it doesn’t do us any favours.

Over the course of our lives, we go through stages of speech which, while we’re young at least, conform to peer pressure and often we use filler words that don’t mean anything and merely take up space. Take for example the word ‘like’ and the way it is used by young people (including me when I was a kid), as in “I’m like… and she’s like… and I’m all like,” etc. It serves no purpose, exists purely as filler, and definitely doesn’t make us look any smarter.

Using words or sounds that serve no purpose fills the space that our words are meant to hang in, where we could actually be making a point or saying something interesting instead of talking for no reason. Listening to impotent drivel can be rather tiresome, reduce our credibility, cause people to think less of us, and not take us seriously.

It is possible to eliminate these habitual gap-filling sounds if we become conscious of them and think about what we say before we say it by editing ourselves while we talk and getting a better bang for our verbal buck. Eloquence is lovely and makes a wonderful impression, but it takes practise.

For those of you who follow this blog, you’ll already know the way I feel about hockey and you may find it odd that I spent a couple of hours on You Tube watching interviews with hockey players for today’s post. Why did I do this? Hockey players are notorious for peppering their speech with hesitant filler sounds that drain meaning and punch from their statements, which makes me wonder if they’ve taken one too many pucks to the head.

To illustrate my point, I have transcribed some interview clips for you:

During a 2008 media scrum, Sidney Crosby was asked what he expected for that year: “Uh, I don’t think we’re changin’ our expectations, uh, everyone wants to win the Stanley Cup, but we all uh, realize that uh, the season’s long and there are a lot of things that can happen but um, it’s got to be short-term goals…”

It’s different in print, isn’t it? Try again Sid.

When asked about representing Canada at the Olympics, Crosby retorts, “Yeah, that would be uh, a great experience, um, I’ve played for Team Canada before but you know, we’re talking about the Olympics, that’s uh, a whole new stage and a whole new experience, so u-u-um, if given the chance, uh, that would be great and uh, it’s one of those things where uh, timing is everything and uh, the team is based on the Olympic year so it’s uh, easy not to get too caught up in it because you know, it’s uh still a ways away but it’s sneaking up on us here… uh… it would be a great experience.”

Whatever he’s trying to say gets lost in a murky sea of “uh” which, when bolded to draw your attention, overpowers his points and doesn’t resonate very well. A bit flaccid, one might say.

I didn’t want to pick on young Sidney, so I had a look at some vintage hockey interviews (because we all know I don’t know who plays the game currently, so I tapped into names I remember from the past). I watched clips of good old prairie boy, Lanny McDonald, who not only spoke at a brisker pace, but kept the filler to a minimum. During his interview with sports announcer, Dave Hodge, he talked about his delight having Don Cherry as a coach:

Dave: “I know you’re very happy in Denver to play for Don Cherry and you have nothing but good things to say about him; [now] he’s gone, Billy McMillan is there… has it been difficult for the players who were so close to Cherry?”

Lanny: “Oh, it was a very trying time over the summer to realize that Don Cherry wouldn’t be back, uh, for me, he put the fun back in the game; I just loved playing for the guy and it was a highlight in my career, and now Billy has stepped in and between him and Terry Harper, they’ve done just a super job. Terry’s done really well with the defense and uh, as you can see, uh, we’ve had good results out there.”

Lanny, I dig what you’re saying and I’m sure Don, Billy, and Terry all appreciate your sentiments.

Though rather tight-lipped and monotone, I was impressed with Paul Coffey who almost never used filler while he was interviewed. His responses to questions were brief and to the point. In the interview I watched, the announcer asked him how he felt about playing against his old teammates from Edmonton for the first time as a Pittsburgh Penguin: “Well, it’s a little strange, there’s no doubt about that. I think uh, you know, I was very fortunate to spend some good years in Edmonton and I really appreciate the time I had there, and I think that anytime you have to face your old teammates, it’s a little tough.”

That rolled a lot better, didn’t it? Mr. Coffey’s remarks are much more pointed and clear. Nicer to read too.

It seems to me that hockey players would be a gold mine for media trainers, though the training doesn’t seem to be employed often enough for some reason. Hockey is entertainment after all, so besides being slick on the ice, it would be beneficial to the players who speak to the media to be equally as polished to cast a good light on themselves, their team, and the entire NHL.

We are like these hockey players in the sense that we may be talented at our jobs and in our lives, but if we sound like mumbling dumb-dumbs when we speak, we’re really doing ourselves an injustice.

I hope you’ve all caught my drift.

Over and out.


4 Nov

Hockey captures the essence of Canadian experience in the New World.  In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the chance of life, and an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.  ~Stephen Leacock

I am well aware that many people in Canada and around the world really like hockey, but I am not afraid to tell you that I have absolutely no interest in it. As a matter of fact, I have negative experiences with the game, or rather, the way the game affected men in my life.

When I was a kid, Saturday nights during the fall and winter were scary because I could hear my father yelling at the TV, but I didn’t know why. (Sat. nights were also irritating because of that nasal-voiced 1970s  CBC sports announcer. Gainey… Gainey… Gainey.” )  As an adult, I lived for a few years with a man whose father had been drafted into the NHL, and consequently, my guy, who we’ll call Vincent, essentially grew up in a locker room.

Vincent was and probably still is obsessed with hockey. Obsessed. So obsessed that it became masturbation. During hockey season, he watched every game and dove into the Toronto Sun ‘s sport section on hockey day when the weekly hockey statistics were released, studied them, and recorded them into the binders he kept full of numbers. When his family and friends called long distance, they didn’t talk about their lives or how they were doing, they’d talk about that week’s hockey game.

As I was new to Toronto, I wanted to go out and explore, so every weekend when I’d ask him to go out, his response was, “nah, I’m going to stay home and watch the game.” (Hello, sports widow.) Eventually I stopped asking him and because I needed more attention, I went outside of the relationship for it. (Shrug.)

Red ice sells hockey tickets.  ~Bob Stewart

The language used in sport is interesting to me as a non-competitive person because it’s all about one being better than the other: me / my team against you / your team, I beat you, your team sucks, etc. One against another can only breed hostility, and the terms that are used in association with hockey are reminiscent of war and conquest:

  • the Vancouver Canucks obliterated  / axed / annihilated / shellacked the Calgary Flames
  • players can be enforcers, snipers, attackers, or goons (whom I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley)
  • “fight straps” are worn on hockey jerseys to keep from being pulled over a player’s head during a brawl

Now admittedly, it’s hard for me to follow the game because I’m not sure what they’re doing except trying to slide a piece of rubber into a net, and it’s hard for me to follow, let alone find the puck on the screen. Until I see blood on the ice, I don’t understand what’s going on.

During my research for today’s blog, I watched some terrible visuals and read about some horrifying injuries from slashed throats to ruptured testicles, and collected some startling statistics about concussions in hockey:

  • 759 players have been diagnosed with concussion since 1987
  • concussions rose by 41 % between 2005 – 2007 in the NHL
  • 17 players suffered a total of 21 concussions in 52 games in Ontario Junior Hockey last year

Try as I might, I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the appeal of this game.

How would you like a job where, every time you make a mistake, a big red light goes on and 18,000 people boo?  ~Jacques Plante

Despite the fame, the glory, and the salary, I imagine that playing professional hockey would carry a huge amount of stress for various reasons. Hockey is pretty big business – Forbes reports that the average NHL hockey team is worth $223 M and NHL league revenue is $3 B (source), so imagine what rides on a player’s performance – the fans, the merchandise, the bookies, the kids, all that money. That’s a lot of pressure for a young guy to shoulder. What about the shame of making a mistake on the ice and the people without anything better to do making humiliating Youtube videos of your screw-up, setting it to music, and sending it forth to forever float through cyberspace.

Though a professional player has plenty of time to plan for his inevitable retirement from the game with a well-padded bank account,  knowing that after a certain age, his sports career is over and his body, now toothless and battered,  can never be restored to its once prime condition. Sounds terribly depressing, though probably much more bearable if you have tens of millions of dollars in the bank.

Sports are a chick flick for guys. ~Michael Kimmel

In Guyland, American sociologist Michael Kimmel explains how important sports are to men individually and in the company of other men, suggesting that “Guys like following sports partly because it’s a way to talk with other guys without having to talk about your feelings. It’s a certain conversation starter in any uncertain social situation – walk into a party, a bar, a classroom, and say, “Hey how ’bout them Mets?” Instant bonding.”

I interviewed some adult league hockey players and they mentioned bonding and “hanging out with the guys” as part of the appeal of hockey. I personally support any opportunity for men to spend time together, even if they’re not talking about their feelings (though I think there is a chummy, affectionate relationship between sports buddies). I think that men get a charge out of being amongst their own because like dogs – pack animals, they thrive in groups and they’re happy together.

I expect that playing a game of hockey is one hell of a workout and I know guys enjoy the physical challenge and the exercise. Gets the blood flowing. Hockey is also a healthy outlet for stress, one of my interviewees tells me (“I leave my problems on the ice”), and another fella says he skates off his aggression. Oh, and Jim, one of the players who spoke to me, said that he plays in a “beer league” – “I play hard so that I deserve beer later.”

Now that I’ve looked a little further into the game that unfortunately became the vehicle of Vincent’s emotional inarticulation, I kind of understand the appeal of hockey, though hockey obsessions won’t do anyone any favours. Hockey should not be used as a way to avoid your emotions; time with the fellas is important,  but there must be a balance between hockey time and non-hockey time, especially if there are women present. If Saturday nights are reserved for Hockey Night in Canada, don’t neglect your women and maybe make Friday nights a date night – we’ll love you for it.