The Physical and Mental Effects of Fighting in the NHL

Posted August 24, 2011

Photo by Alena Schwarz

On August 15th 2011, the hockey world mourned the loss of Rick Rypien, an enforcer who played several seasons with the Vancouver Canucks before signing a $700,000 contract this offseason to play with the Winnipeg Jets. Although the cause of death has yet to be announced and the toxicology reports have yet to be released, Rypien’s long battle with clinical depression have been linked to his passing. This is not the first piece of news this offesason to rock the hockey world as Derek Boogaard was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment on May 13th. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner found Boogaard’s cause of death to be a deadly mix of alcohol and the painkiller Oxycodone. While these untimely passings are unique, there are similarities, too.

First off, let me start off by stating that I thoroughly enjoy watching fighting in hockey. I am a frequent visitor to, and I know I’m not alone when I say I youtube hockey fights. Fighting can turn the momentum of a game back to a team and can get the crowd back into the game. However, nobody except the players themselves can truly understand the physical and mental toll it takes on a player. Studies have shown that depression can stem from concussions. Maybe in Rypien’s case it wasn’t from concussions. It could be from several things, such as abuse, conflict, death of a loved one, genetics, major events, serious illness, or other personal problems (I’m not stating Rypien had any of these things occur, I’m just paraphrasing from WebMD.) Rypien had taken many leaves of absence from the Canucks to deal with personal issues, but it is unknown if he was ever enrolled in the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program.

In Boogaard’s case, he was enrolled in the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. While people in the league wouldn’t go into detail about his progress in the program, many people who were close to Boogaard were impressed about his progress and were excited for him in this upcoming season. He played just 22 games this past season before sustaining a concussion by Matt Carkner of the Ottawa Senators and then requested a leave of absence about a week before the end of the season to deal with unspecified issues.

These two young, great hockey players both share the fact that they were both enforcers, players who stand up for their team and defend their players by any means necessary. Scientists are still doing research to determine how much brain damage an enforcer in the NHL receives during his playing career, but new research is coming out about TBI’s (Traumatic Brain Injuries) and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). CTE is a degenerative brain disease that results in behavior similar to Alzheimer’s Disease. The biggest difference between CTE and Alzheimer’s is that CTE is purely caused by repeated brain trauma and is completely preventable. Other effects of brain injuries include anger, depression, insomnia, anxiety, violence, inappropriate actions, alcohol and drug abuse, lack of self control, poor self-awareness, and emotional outbursts.

The first thing the league can do is downplay the role of the enforcer. I asked Ted Starkey, a Web editor for the Washington Times and author of the book “Transition Game: The Story of the 2010-2011 Washington Capitals” this question. “I think the enforcer is certainly becoming a rarity at the NHL level with the need to keep competitive rosters, as tough guy today certainly need to have skill to justify their spot in the lineup. Not a lot of teams can afford the luxury to dress a guy that plays a few shift a game – as Capitals fans saw last year with D.J. King. While some may keep their spots in the league as a deterrent, I think you’ll see the role picked up by tougher guys who can also skate their way in the lineup, say, like a Matt Hendricks.”

While I agree with Starkey, I say the league takes it one step further and completely stops premeditated fighting between enforcers. I understand completely if Hendricks wants to throw a few at someone for taking a cheap shot on Alex Ovechkin or if George Parros wants to get revenge on someone for injuring Corey Perry, but the nonsense fighting between two people just because they can needs to stop.

The second thing that needs to happen is the NHL needs to educate the players about mental heath issues to take away the stigma from those who seek help. I know it’s very hard for players to ask for mental health assistance in an alpha male society like the NHL, but the more you educate and inform, the easier it will be for people to ask for help. When I was a medic in the military, I always educated my soldiers on mental health issues and that it was okay to ask for help. I had a handful of soldiers seek counseling because of my talks, and because of this, their everyday lives improved.

The last thing the league needs to do is have a team psychiatrist on each teams payroll. When I asked Starkey about there being room for psychiatric evaluations in the NHL he said, “It’s a tough game, and a brutal grind of an 82 game schedule, and when you get nearly 700 individuals playing in the NHL at once, there certainly are going to be players with problems. The NHL is a bit of a reactionary league, however, they tend to only address a problem when it’s visible rather than being more proactive towards the mental health of their players.” The more the league involves themselves in the mental health and well-being of their players, the more it can prevent more tragedies from occurring in the league.

Like I stated before, I enjoy fighting in hockey and I don’t want it to be completely banned from our game, but without more regulations with fighting and more mental health education in the league, I am afraid there may be more casualties down the road.

Also read A Tribute to John Kordic, a former Capital who died 19 years ago after battling drug and alcohol problems.