Reflections on a Sad Summer

This is not a sermon about the dangers of fighting in hockey or a debate about its place in today's game - there has been and will continue to be better times and places for such discussion.

This is not a public service announcement about mental health and the need for better treatment, better awareness, better education. A worthy issue in its own right...but not today. Not now.

This is instead a reflection of sorts on what has rapidly turned into an impossibly sad summer.

The NHL has hundreds of players, thousands of employees and millions of fans around the world. And yet it is times like this in which I am reminded of just how small and tight-knit the hockey community is. There is plenty of vitriol and bitterness to go around but it is in moments of great happiness and incredible sorrow that we are able to put aside team allegiances and past hatreds to come together as one. As cheesy as it may sound, it is a family - dysfunctional and insane (like all good families are) but a family nonetheless.

And lately our little family has been through hell.

Tom Cavanagh, 28. Derek Boogaard, 28. Rick Rypien, 27. And most recently Wade Belak, 35, far too young in his own right and yet stunningly the oldest of the group - all taken from us too soon.

News of each one's passing has hit like a ton of bricks, the pain of each one made worse by the memory of the one that came before. Losing one is more than enough pain; to lose four in less than a year (and more among the off-ice ranks) is unfathomable. Our hearts break for their families that knew them best off the ice, for their teammates, coaches, trainers and staff who knew them best on it; for the writers who recorded quotes and forged relationships with them; for the fans who rooted for them and who bought their jerseys, and for those fans who often times were rooting against them. We all share the pain in having lost these men who may have been strangers to us in the truest sense of the word but whom we knew and loved nonetheless.

I never met Wade Belak. I never had a chance to talk to Rick Rypien or hang out with Derek Boogaard, and I barely even knew the name of Tom Cavanagh until his passing. Even links to the Caps are indirect and few, the impact on us as Caps fans presumably minimal. Yet I've had tears in my eyes each time I've had to read the news of another premature passing. It's left me searching for rhyme or reason, something to explain how this could happen - but there is none. No pattern to be found, no great mystery solved; there is no great conclusion to be made right now, not when the wounds are still fresh. There are no answers...not really. Just the sense of loss that is palpable.

I was struck by a comment made earlier today by fellow blogger and Vancouver Canucks fan Alix, wise in its simplicity: "[G]rieve for these guys as individuals. No one has the same story. They deserve that much." How often we forget the individual side, the personal side, that (consciously or unconsciously) is part of why we love these guys in the first place. Hockey players, yes, but people as well, with families and issues and history and things that made them laugh and cry, just like us. Human, just like us. If nothing else, this summer is a stark reminder of just how human these guys can be.

And so we shouldn't waste time quarreling over the how or the why or trying to turn them into poster boys for some agenda, at least not today; later, when time has healed and recovery has begun we can try to honor their lives by learning from them and hopefully improving the lives of others. For now, simply remember Wade and Rick, Derek and Tom not for the tragedy that is scattered across the headlines but for the good times and fond memories - whether it's a goofy, toothless smile or a quote that made you laugh or even a goal they scored on your own team.

Take care of each other, members of my hockey family. We're all in this together.

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