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Jack Sisson's TBI Blog

A hug is duct tape for the soul.

In May, Derek Boogaard, a forward for the New York Rangers, died from an accidental overdose of painkillers and alcohol. In mid-August, Vancouver Canucks forward Rick Rypien committed suicide. Two weeks later, retired Nashville player Wade Belak was found hanging in a Toronto hotel room. Officially, the death also has been listed as a suicide.

In July, 2010, former NHL forward Bob Probert, after surviving issues with drugs and alcohol during his career, collapsed and died of heart failure at the age of 45.

An obvious relationship between these deaths is professional occupation. All four were NHL "enforcers," players whose careers essentially were based on a willingness and ability to fight. Connecting the dots from these premature deaths directly to the violent hockey job would be erroneous. Ignoring the common denominator would be irresponsible.

The job specs for "NHL tough guy" surely are among the most mentally taxing in sports. Imagine a job that pays you upwards of $500,000 in salary and makes you instantly recognized and coddled in your host city. While you are expected to train and prepare identically to your co-workers, your job is only marginally related to theirs.

In fact, your job is to enforce a law of the jungle that allows your fellow workers to do their jobs unimpeded. Your job is to engage in hand-to-hand combat, without hesitation. It requires you to fight while standing on ice, supported by a 1/8-inch thick blade, slamming your bare knuckles into the head of someone wearing a hard vinyl nitrile helmet, while he does the same to you. And along with the job comes a peculiar public dynamic, one you can't escape.

A study released by the NHL last March showed that only 8 percent of the league's reported concussions were the result of fighting. Forty-four percent of the incidents were caused by legal hits, while 17 percent were the result of illegal hits. The study also showed 26 percent of reported concussions were the result of accidents, unintentional collisions between teammates or opponents, trips and falls, or being struck by a puck. The remaining 5 percent were undefined.

But Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon who heads up a Boston University program to study the brains of athletes in contact-oriented sports, said many enforcers suffer concussions that go unrecognized or unreported.

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