It was the summer of death in the National Hockey League.
In the span of three months in 2011, three famous enforcers died — Rick Rypien and Wade Belak reportedly by suicide, Derek Boogard from drugs.
The pall that darkened the hockey world extended to North Charleston, S.C., where James McEwan sat in the closet of his apartment, tears streaming down his face, wondering if he would share the same fate.
McEwan, 24 at the time, was a pro hockey fighter and a former captain of the Kelowna Rockets.
He was all too familiar with the symptoms suffered by his fellow enforcers. Drug and alcohol abuse, depression and thoughts of suicide were taking over his life.
He drank often and abused Percocet, Tylenol 3s and morphine pills — the prescription drugs intended to ease the pain from the fights.
But while McEwan would eventually find healing, he knows other players won’t be so lucky.
‘A lot of emotional pain’
Looking back at the devastation caused by his more than 200 hockey fights, he says it’s time to get fighting out of hockey. Especially for children who play in the junior ranks.
“I was reading up on Rypien and Belak and seeing what they were going through, and feeling like, ‘Aw man, I think this is happening to me,'” he says now, looking back on some of his darkest days.
“There was multiple times where I definitely had suicidal thoughts. There was a lot of emotional pain.
“There’s been times when there’s literally been a knife to my wrist, and … it was this self-destruction that wanted to happen.”
McEwan discovered the illicit hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca, an Amazonian Indigenous medicinal plant. He says it turned his life around.
Addictions specialists like Dr. Gabor Mate in Vancouver say that, when used correctly, ayahuasca can put people in touch with their repressed pain and trauma.
Now 30, McEwan has undergone 12 ayahuasca treatments and is a kundalini yoga practitioner and meditation coach in Kelowna.
Though McEwan credits the drug with his recovery, there is no medical consensus on its efficacy. And some recent ayahuasca ceremonies have resulted in death.
“We need to stop violence in hockey and stop fighting”
McEwan still respects the players who fight.
He calls them “warriors” and says they fight out of love, for their teammates, and coaches.
And he remembers that he started fighting on ice because he was chasing a dream, that quintessentially Canadian dream of one day playing in the NHL.
But now, he knows the fallout and devastation from brain injuries just aren’t worth it.
“Fighting is linked with CTE and it’s caused suicides, it’s causing mental illness,” McEwan said.
“It was a direct link to, I believe, my own trauma and challenges which put me to the edge, very close to taking my own life multiple times.
“Knowing what we know now, when you’re cheering and supporting these fights, you’re also cheering and supporting the things that have helped cause suicides of guys like Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, Steve Montador and many others.”
The Developing Brain and CTE
We know more now than ever before about the long-term impacts of traumatic brain injuries.
A punch from a bare fist, a head slamming into the ice after a fight — those can not only damage the brain, but change its very makeup forever.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, can lead to dementia, depression and suicide.
The latest research shows that the young developing brain takes far longer to heal than the developed adult brain.
UBC neuroscientist Naznin Virji-Babul says she has studied teenagers who have suffered one single concussion.
“Their symptoms are pretty much gone after about one month … but there are changes in their brain that continue for up to one year after their initial concussion,” Virji-Babul said.
Virji-Babul says allowing fighting in junior hockey means allowing kids to get hurt.
“It’s time for us to change the culture of violence we’re promoting in youth ice hockey,” she said.
The Decision Makers
If you ask Western Hockey League administrators and owners, they say the amount of fighting is down in the league, and they’re happy with that.
Indeed, fights are down about half over the past ten years. On average, they used to happen every game. Now they happen about once every two games.
But even still, there have been more than 100 fights in the WHL this year and more than half the fighters have been minors.
And when you consider that fighting in major junior this year happens at about twice the rate as it does in the NHL, you can’t help but wonder why it’s so much more pervasive in junior than it is in the pros.
“I guess hockey has had the feeling in the past that if two players want to settle their differences for whatever reason … that has been a part of the game and we continue to have discussion on that aspect,” said Richard Doerksen, vice-president of hockey for the WHL.
When asked about the struggles faced by his former player, Kelowna Rockets owner Bruce Hamilton says he’s concerned for McEwan, and adds enforcers no longer exist in the WHL.
“The skill side of it wasn’t his game. His game was to be an intimidating player out there, and that part of the game is gone today,” Hamilton said.
“I don’t know if (what McEwan went through) is all related to hockey.”
‘Don’t give it energy’
After seeing a fight at a recent Kelowna Rockets game, James McEwan is as steadfast as ever that fighting needs to be taken out of the junior game.
And he says it’s up to the league, the owners, the sponsors, the parents, the players, but also the fans, to spur the change.
“To the fans … I ask do not stand up and cheer for fights. Sit down and don’t support it,” McEwan said.
“Don’t give it energy, don’t support violence in hockey. Don’t give it life.”
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