Nobody ever sees this kind of thing coming. Everyone is shocked. The hockey world collectively clucks its tongue and laments the terrible tragedy. And it almost always involves a player who dropped his gloves and fought for a living. After all, when was the last time a skilled forward was found dead far before his time under mysterious circumstances?
And so it goes with Todd Ewen, who joins the likes of John Kordic, Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Steve Montador in a club of which nobody wants to be a part, but one whose membership is growing fairly rapidly. Ewen, a former NHL enforcer for four teams, died this past weekend at the age of 49. Police in St. Louis County have confirmed that Ewen’s death is being investigated as a suicide.
Nobody can say for sure whether Ewen’s decision to take his own life was related to the psychological perils of his profession or as a result of the trauma he suffered doing it. But we do know a few facts. We know that Ewen fought 150 times in his NHL career and his family has said he struggled with depression. We also know Rypien was depressed. We know Belak was depressed and we know Montador was depressed.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is saying at every opportunity that there is no scientific evidence linking concussions to chronic traumatic encephalopathy. He sounds a lot like a climate change denier, but he’s technically correct. We have no direct link between fighting and early, tragic deaths. All we have is the knowledge that there seems to be an inordinate number of tough guys dying young and from either accidental overdoses or by their own hands. Fighting apologists can say that nobody has ever died in an NHL hockey fight, and they’re right, but what about the delayed effects?
It’s not an epidemic, but it’s far too many. There are a lot of players out there who are concerned that not enough is being done to help players adjust to their post-career lives, but there was no outward reason to think Ewen had any mental health problems. He was working in real estate with his wife in the St. Louis area, was active with the Blues alumni association, was involved in minor hockey and had helped St. Louis University start a Division II hockey program. Off the ice, Ewen was a gentle soul who was far deeper in spirit and sensitivity than his on-ice persona. During his career, he illustrated children’s books that featured Hop, a guitar-playing frog and Whisper the dragonfly.
Even though the police report alludes to the fact that Ewen spoke in the past of committing suicide, those who worked closest to him were in shock that it was suicide. Terry Yake was a teammate and roommate in Anaheim who spoke regularly with Ewen because both were members of the board of the Blues alumni association. He saw absolutely nothing that would lead him to believe Ewen was depressed or suicidal. “I watched Todd fight with a broken finger that he couldn’t move, that was broken to pieces, to protect me and his teammates,” Yake said. “And I think that was the mentality he carried with him for the rest of his life, not letting people get inside and help him.”
The majority of enforcers come out of the game and adjust to post-hockey life just fine. And mental health and addiction concerns are certainly not limited to those who primarily fought for a living. But it seems strange, does it not, that those who are dying recently all followed basically the same career path? And if people who are as smart as Terry Yake and Reed Low can’t see any of the signs, how are others supposed to see them? That’s what makes all this so scary, particularly since suicide is almost never an impulsive act, but one that is elaborately planned out and considered.
No, we don’t know for sure that fighting and these early, tragic deaths are linked. But there’s enough anecdotal evidence to suggest the NHL and the hockey world should be doing something about it, or at the very least investigating it more completely and not simply chalking these deaths up to unfortunate tragedies that can’t be prevented. Yes, they can. If the hockey world were truly concerned about the possibilities, it would ban fighting. There are more than enough players out there who carry the scars with them. Reed Low, another Blues tough guy, is a successful businessman who left the game on his own terms, but said, “On some level, I deal with the effect of concussions on a day-to-day basis.”
The NHL pre-season began Sunday night and there was a fight between Seth Helgeson and Tommy Cross, two players who are longshots to have a full-time NHL career. If history is any indication, there will be somewhere between 70 and 100 fights in exhibition games this fall. Almost all of them will be inconsequential and having nothing to do with the outcome of the game and almost all of them will involve players whose ability to punch will be their No. 1 quality as a player. Fighting is way down in the NHL, but there’s still a good amount of it going on in the minors and junior hockey. And those leagues won’t do anything about it until the NHL does.
We can only hope the young men who are putting themselves in those situations don’t end up depressed 10 or 20 years from now. And we can only pray that none of them suffers the same ultimate fate as Todd Ewen.