Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011
Posted: 10:27 a.m.
By Chris Boden
READ: Two former Blackhawks die in plane crash
The puck cannot drop soon enough.
Blackhawks fans have been feeling that since shortly after last April's first-round playoff elimination. But all hockey fans can't wait, and for reasons beyond the anticipation early September brings as NHL training camps prepare to open.
Unfortunately, they'll only provide a distraction, not answers to what Jonathan Toews characterizes as the worst summer the sport has ever experienced.
Three popular people off the ice who put on their enforcer faces when they took the ice apparently took their own lives, either by mistake, or by design. Then came news Wednesday that 43 other lives were lost, many with NHL ties, in the plane crash carrying Lokomotiv, Russia's Kontinental Hockey League team that finished in third place last season.
Locally, the crash - and the losses - hit home for a handful of Blackhawks, besides the deaths of two of their former players, Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev. Joel Quenneville coached Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, and Karlis Skrastins, and undoubtedly knew head coach Brad McCrimmon well, as an opponent during his playing days and as a longtime assistant coach around the league. New Hawks Brandon Segal was a teammate of Skrastins, Andrew Brunette with Salei, and Jamal Mayers with Demitra. And the player most deeply affected is Marian Hossa, whose body gained a much-needed rest this off-season, but who'll report to camp with a huge emotional burden. He was a close friend with fellow Slovakian Demitra, and were linemates during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Hossa also played under McCrimmon during his days as an assistant coach in Atlanta and Detroit.
It's unfathomable how fate led McCrimmon and those players to that team. McCrimmon left Mike Babcock's staff in Detroit after three years to pursue head coaching, and he wound up there. There are probably general managers around the NHL who thought of offering some of those players contracts or tryouts, but didn't. Or the players chose a more secure situation with Lokomotiv. That's how Cup-winning former Blackhawk Brent Sopel wound up signing with another KHL team, and he was among the dozens of current and former players who tweeted out their shock, sadness, and condolences upon hearing the news.
What made the crash shortly after takeoff more disturbing was the age of the aircraft being used, and how other similar jets had already been phased out after being used for more than three decades. Some Europeans countries reportedly wouldn't allow them in their airspace.
The NHL already had enough "hows" and "whys" to seek answers for already this summer following the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak. Give the league credit for being so proactive over the past couple of years in concussion prevention and treatment. Now, it has a new, albeit related, concern it must address with the trickle-down effects of fighting on players' mental and psychological health. By all accounts, Belak was a warm, happy guy to be around, until family members revealed after he reportedly hanged himself about his battle with depression. It's a connection that Mayers admitted to my colleague Tracey Myers the other day is "awful. It certainly raises a lot of questions as to 'Why?'"
The connection opens the debate about fighting's place in the game, just as hits to the head did for the concussion debate. The focus must be placed on the prevention of another Belak, Rypien, or (former Bear) Dave Duerson from happening. There's no telling how many former players have managed to be lucky enough to persevere through those symptoms.
This offseason's been full of press releases from Commissioner Gary Bettman expressing sadness on behalf of the NHL over these losses that run so much deeper than the ones in the standings. Teams soon begin taking the ice here, and cheers from packed arenas will follow, a welcome diversion from this summer filled with so many dark clouds. If anything good is to come from it, the NHL, and KHL has more on its plate moving forward in finding ways to prevent anything like these incidents from happening again.
Chris Boden is the host of Blackhawks Pre and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet.