The story of Wade Belak's death hit me yesterday like one of his short left-handed jabs as I drove home from work. It stung, it surprised, and it only set me up for the bigger wallop yet to come.
An untimely death is one thing, but suicide just seems so much tougher to accept. How could the NHL's Man of a Thousand Anecdotes, a guy about whom riotous tales are spun by teammates, opponents, and members of the media, decide to end it all?
Wade was by all appearances a happy and productive man who was making as seamless a transition to his post-playing days as one could ask for, engaging in new commitments with "Battle of the Blades" and a weekly show on Nashville's new sports radio station. Earlier this week he was described as his usual self around the team's offices, joking with the coaches about how tough he'd be in his upcoming job as bench reporter for TV broadcasts.
Those aren't usually the indicators of someone who's looking to escape. But all too often, suicide comes without warning signs.
The bitter truth is that many times we just don't know what leads to such horrible things. Someone could be hurting inside while putting up a brave front, or they may not be depressed at all, and react to something which happens to them, like Jordin Tootoo's brother Terence, who took his own life in 2002 after a drunk driving arrest. For every 100,000 men in the US and Canada, between 17 and 18 will take their own life each year. Now, in the span of just a few weeks, we have two from the world of hockey, both of them scrappers. They follow by just a few months Derek Boogaard's accidental death due to a mix of pain killers and alcohol.
It's a dangerous game to draw conclusions from the recent deaths of these three men, as tempting as that might be. It's easy to blame the league, of course, and claim that they need to review the Substance Abuse/Behavioral Health policy (which, it should be said, is not known to be relevant to Wade Belak's story at all).
But ask yourself this, my fellow Americans. If you had an issue with substance abuse or behavioral problems, would your employer provide you with inpatient treatment, and keep paying your full salary while you got your life in order? I didn't think so. While it may not be perfect, the NHL's program offers far more than what is available to most people.
But it can't prevent everything. Mental health simply doesn't work like a muscle sprain, with a clear expectation and timetable for an athlete's return to action.
The terrible, frustrating fact here is that no matter how many support systems you put in place, these things can happen. And to be clear, with Belak's case we have no reason as of yet to believe that depression, substance abuse, or anything other warning signs were present.
We just don't know why this happened.
And we may never know.