The NHL has experienced an unfortunate number of tragedies this summer. We saw our own Derek Boogaard pass away. Then there was the death of Jets and former Canucks forward Rick Rypien. And almost a week ago we saw the death of Wade Belak. Athlete suicides are not unprecedented but they are infrequent, and to experience three in one offseason is definitely baffling and unfortunate. Of course, all three of these guys had the “enforcer” role in the NHL, so there’s been a large outcry for the NHL to “do something about fighting.” Here’s one journalist demanding it. And here’s another. There are many more like this and that’s just from the media. There plenty more of where that came from from all people. However, such a knee-jerk opinion is ignorant and not really well thought out. Want to know why? Keep reading.
I am by no means an expert when it comes to any kind of math, and that includes statistics. However, one topic that I do know about is false causality. The idea is that a correlation between two variables does not necessarily mean that one is the cause of another, and that perhaps there is at least one other variable that leads to these two being correlated. For example, statistics show that on days where ice cream sales are up drowning deaths also increase. Now does that mean that eating ice cream causes people to drown? Of coure not. More people buy ice cream in the summer than at other times. More people go swimming in the summer, meaning more will inevitably drown. An outside variable, the presence of summer, causes these two; ice cream and drowning have no direct connection.
So what does that have to do with the topic at hand? Here’s a quote from Jack Todd of the Montreal Gazette, whom I linked to earlier:
Wade Belak’s death during the NHL’s tragic summer, following the deaths of his fellow enforcers Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, should be all it takes. Never mind that we can’t prove that the deaths of three gladiators in one season are all linked to their roles as NHL fighters – this isn’t a connection you can prove in a courtroom.
Three people died. These three happened to primarily be enforcers in the NHL. Therefore fighting caused the death of all three. There’s the logic of Jack Todd and many other people. There’s an example of false causality. I could just as easily make the observation that all three used a right-handed stick. Should the NHL force everyone to play lefty?
Let me offer up one alternative explanation that might be that missing variable I discussed earlier: their roles in the NHL. And I don’t just mean enforcer itself. By being an enforcer in the NHL you are essentially at the bottom of the food chain. On a good night you get on the ice for 6 minutes. For half of the season you don’t even sit on the bench. And the shelf life for enforcers is not very long. A guy like Paul Bissonnette deals with it by being self-deprecating and overall seing the humor in being a “plug.” But for many guys it’s difficult to deal with. I once talked to the agent of a former NHL enforcer whom I will not name, but this guy got multiple suspensions towards the end of his career for vicious plays on the ice. Ultimately, he was more or less forced out of hockey altogether. He told me that Player X was dealing with an identity crisis of sorts, and that let to him losing his mind. You have to remember that guys who are borderline NHLers were quality players in junior leagues. Riley Cote scored 28 goals in his final WHL season. Ryan Hollweg was a point-per-game player in the WHL. Imagine dominating, or at least being productive, at something your whole life only to reach a level where you’re now at the bottom of the pyramid, and within a few years you’ll most likely not even be involved. Player X couldn’t deal with that.
I am against staged fighting. I think the “enforcer” role is obsolete in the NHL now and I really couldn’t care less if Erik Godard and Cam Janssen drop the gloves. In fact, I think it’s unfortunate that there are players who can actually contribute something on the ice stuck in the minors so that goons can rot on a bench for 56 minutes per game. That being said, getting rid of fighting isn’t the answer. Get more psychologists around the team, and make them a part of the players’ lives. Simply having them there and putting the burdon on players to seek help is clearly not enough. Have the NHLPA set up better programs that will help players on the tail-end of their careers find work elsewhere. Simply finding something the three guys had in common and blaming that for their deaths might be the easiest thing to do, but unless you can provide legitimate evidence that getting punched in the head led to their deaths it’s ignorant to assume as much.