Mental Illness In The NHL

Mental illness is a very serious issue that impacts everyone, whether it’s directly or through someone we know or look up to. All major sports leagues have had issues with how they handle Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and other brain injuries, and the National Hockey League is no different. We have days like ‘Bell Lets Talk’ to raise awareness and to assist those who have struggled with mental illness and help them deal with it.

The NHL and Mental Illness

The NHL is currently dealing with a lawsuit with former NHL players about the concussions they suffered in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. With hundreds of players coming forth during the lawsuit, the odds for the NHL are not looking good. With the knowledge we have today about concussions and the links to mental illness it would seem as though the NHL would be heading in a better path, but we continue to see flaws with it in today’s game.

In Game 6 of the second round against the Washington Capitals, Sidney Crosby went head first into the boards just three games after being removed because of a concussion from a hit from Matt Niskanen. Crosby should have been taken out of the game to be evaluated, but the concussion spotters could not remove him because the hit “did not meet the criteria”. The criteria to be checked includes that a player “takes a blow to his head or upper torso from another player’s shoulder, his head hitting the ice or from a punch to the head.”

With a player that is as concussion prone as Sidney Crosby, who was coming off of one just days before, it seems only logical to be on the safe side of things, but instead they let him play on. This is a large reason why the NHL is experiencing a lawsuit of this magnitude, by putting players back in the game from taking contact to the head.

Other pro leagues have had nearly identical lawsuits in recent years. The National Football League is just now wrapping up the $1 billion lawsuit that has gone in favour of the former players, and has set a precedent for the NHL. With the NFL settling, this all but assures they put players out on the field with brain injuries. The NHL is in an almost identical situation as the NFL, and even though it looks like the ex-players could win the case, it is nothing next to the life they could have lived. Recent studies show that up to 59% of former NHL players are prone to mental illness.

Rick Rypien and Others Affected By Illness

Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and Derek Boogaard are three former NHL enforcers that all passed away. The similarities continue beyond just their on ice role and the fact that they left the world too soon. All three passed away within a four month window of each other, and each one struggled with mental illness.

Rypien dealt with depression throughout his entire NHL career battling depression and first came forward to teammate Kevin Bieksa about it. Bieksa helped Rypien through his struggles and even helped friends and family locate him when Rypien disappeared. He was found dead in his apartment just months after signing a new contract with the Winnipeg Jets.

Derek Boogaard suffered from depression, very similar to that of Rypien. He claimed to have even said that his memory lapses that came from taking too many punches. Wade Belak was the last of the enforcers to pass away in the four month span and fought with the mental illness all the way until he retired only 4 months before he passed. The details of whether Belak’s death was accidental or intentional are not fully known.

Matt Johnson is a living example of how mental illness can affect you. The former NHL enforcer had played until the 2003-04 season. After the lockout season, his family attempted to get Johnson into rehab but were unsuccessful in doing so. Johnson had not returned home since, thought to be living homeless, and was missing for more than 10 years until he finally resurfaced on January 31st, 2017 when he caused a disturbance destroying property in Santa Monica.

Bell Let’s Talk

The common theme between these players is the fact that they were all enforcers, all got continuously hit, and hit in the head. They all suffered mental illnesses and in some cases severe substance abuse. The NHL has not done a good job in the past to prevent this from happening and is still struggling to stop it from happening in the future. Bell Let’s Talk allows for everyone to end the stigma of mental illness and provide help to those in need. This affects everyone, including the superhuman athletes that we look up to.


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