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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2011

Interview: Paul Dennis on suicide, depression and hockey

Paul McLaughlin

Illustration by Dushan Milic

The hockey world was shocked this summer when three tough guys (one just retired) died unexpectedly, one from an overdose of alcohol and pills and two others by suicide. When Wade Belak, a popular, seemingly happy former Toronto Maple Leaf hanged himself while in Toronto for the taping of CBC’s The Battle of the Blades, it affected many in the hockey world very deeply. This talked to sports psychologist Paul Dennis, who worked for the Leafs for 20 years as what he calls “a mental skills coach,” and who once coached the Toronto Marlies of the OHL, about depression and hockey.

THIS: In general terms, how do hockey players deal with depression or mental illness?

DENNIS: It’s a taboo. The evidence seems to be that for athletes in general, between nine and 15 percent will report symptoms of depression. It’s almost double that for the general population.

THIS: Is it also a taboo topic with management?

DENNIS: No. That’s the irony of the whole thing. Because the people I’ve worked with, whether it’s Brian Burke or Pat Quinn or Ken Dryden, those three in particular, they would want people to come forward. They would be there for them and make sure they would get the social support to deal effectively with this. But the athletes themselves wouldn’t take advantage of it.

THIS:: What’s their fear?

DENNIS: For the most part, they fear it’s a sign of weakness. Professional athletes are all supposed to be tough-minded and not be vulnerable. Not have any demonstration of mental weaknesses even though we know that depression, for example, is not a sign of being mentally weak. They’re not well-educated in that regard.

THIS: Does the league educate them?

DENNIS: They do. There’s a program they have. At the beginning of each year the player’s association sends around a team of experts. One psychologist and one or two people in the substance abuse area. They talk about anxiety disorders. They talk about depression. And here’s the confidential number they can call if they need help. What was disappointing during the summer when these three tragedies occurred, the NHL and the PA were criticized quite heavily for not having a program. But they do have one. It’s just not publicized.

THIS: What can you say specifically about Wade Belak?

DENNIS: I knew him very well for seven years when he was with the Leafs. I’m not sure anyone in our organization was aware [of his mental issues].

THIS: I think his suicide is particularly hard for people in the sports world to accept because no one saw it coming. And they’re saying, if Belak can do this, anyone can do this.

DENNIS: That comment has been expressed to me by players, almost word for word.

THIS: Are they rattled by his death?

DENNIS: Incredibly rattled by it, for that reason: happy guy, great family, financially secure, a lot to look forward to.

THIS: What does his suicide tell us about depression?

DENNIS: It’s similar to the concussion in that it’s the invisible injury, an invisible disorder. There are signs and symptoms we can look for, but if they aren’t there we automatically assume everything is okay. We don’t even make that assumption. It means people can mask it very well.

THIS: Will his death have any positive impact on how the NHL in particular, and maybe sports in general, deals with depression?

DENNIS: I hope it does. We used to think that because an athlete is depressed after he retires and he withdraws socially it’s because he misses the game so much and therefore he becomes depressed. Now it seems research is telling us that the blows to the head…there’s something organic going on in the brain that’s causing this depression.

THIS: I’ve interviewed several enforcers and they all said they hated fighting.

DENNIS: I recall having conversations with Wade about how difficult his role was. Who likes to get hit? Who likes to fight and take blows to the head? They do it because they have to. It’s their livelihood. I think players today fight because it’s a strategy, a tactic. It energizes their teammates. It energizes the crowd. It’s for all the wrong reasons.

THIS: Hockey might be the only place that bare-knuckle fighting is allowed. You can’t do it in a boxing ring or in mixed martial arts.

DENNIS: Remember Don Sanderson [the 21-year-old who played for the Whitby Dunlops in a senior league and who died after hitting his head on the ice during a fight a couple of years ago]? I thought fighting would be banned after that.

THIS: But it wasn’t.

DENNIS: Just last night I said to my wife that if Sidney Crosby plays in a game [on a Thursday] and he gets punched in the head and falls to the ice and dies, by Saturday fighting would be banned in hockey. But that’s the total disregard for human life they have. What difference does it make whether it’s a Sidney Crosby or a name we’ve never heard of before? It’s a human life.

THIS: What’s a bigger taboo in the NHL? Admitting you’re gay or admitting you’re severely depressed?

DENNIS: Geez, that’s a great question. I think they’re on the same plane.

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