NHL deaths seem to be a rarity, especially in comparison to other sport leagues like the NFL, who have staggering numbers when it comes to player deaths. The NHL, on the other hand, is extremely clean in comparison and has undergone minimal amounts of controversies throughout the league's history.
Though, we cannot say the league is perfect. Over the last couple of years, some protocols have been questioned, specifically relating to concussions. In the past, this has turned problematic, causing retired players to endure many difficulties away from the game. Some of the families of players that passed away are also suing the league for their past treatment of this issue. We will take a look at some of those forgotten players that dealt with those issues in this story.
This article will also take a look at a variety of player deaths you probably forgot about. The list includes enforcers and players who were involved in the tragic aircraft disaster that took place in Russia back in 2011.
Here is a list of 15 former NHL stars you forgot that passed away.
15 Wade Belak
Wade Belak was a great person both on and off the ice. During his days with the Leafs, Belak reached new heights of popularity due to his personality and constant love for the game, despite putting up average numbers. He barely ever scored, but his game was really more than that. He played the role of an enforcer, protecting his teammates while providing some great energy on the bench due to his infectious personality.
Sadly, on August 31st, 2011, Belak took his own life at his condo in Toronto. Apparently, Belak was apparently very depressed according to his mother. According to friends and family, Wade had been taking “happy pills” for the last several years to treat his disorder. His death was quite shocking at the time, considering he was the third NHL enforcer to pass away in the previous four month time frame. We'll take a look at the other two a little later in this article.
14 Sergei Zholtok
After beign drafted by the Boston Bruins in the third round of the 1992 NHL Draft, the team had high hopes for the Russian. His AHL campaign got the Bruins extremely excited, as he would put up over 20 goals in three campaigns down in the minors. Unfortunately, his success wouldn’t translate into the NHL and his talents would constantly see him play with different teams. His best year by far was as a member of the "bleu, blanc et rouge," putting up an impressive 26 goal campaign. Not too shabby, especially in a market like Montreal.
He had a decent run in Minnesota and would eventual end his career in the Belarusian League. Sadly, his playing days were cut short after Sergei passed away in November of 2004 due to a heart failure. He was only 31.
13 Steve Montador
The tragic death of Steve Montador is one of the most recent passings to shock the NHL community. Steve’s life was tragically cut short in 2015 at the tender age of 35.
Steve was a prototypical journeyman defenseman in the NHL, playing for six different teams throughout his career. Like so many others in the past, Steve suffered from concussion-like symptoms throughout his career. He spoke openly about the issue and made the announcement that he would be donating his brain to medical research once he passed away. According to Steve’s brother, he somehow knew that he didn’t have much time left.
On February 15th, 2015, Steve passed away in his home. The cause of death was said to be heart failure. His family would file legal action against the NHL, suing for concussion related incidents involving their beloved family member.
12 Rick Rypien
We discussed Wade Belak earlier in the article and just before his tragic death another enforcer in Rick Rypien passed away.
Like Belak, Rick wasn’t known for his scoring prowess. He was strictly an enforcer, loading up on penalty minutes. He spent his entire NHL career as a member of the Vancouver Canucks, while also spending some time with their AHL affiliate down in Manitoba.
Suffering from depression, Rypien struggled behind the scenes. Kevin Bieksa and the Canucks were made aware of the problem and offered a helping hand. Just as Rick seemed to be getting better, he was found dead in his Alberta home. The cause of death was sadly another case of a former enforcer committing suicide. According to his peers, Rick had an on-going battle with the disease for the last ten years before his passing.
11 Josef Vasicek
Drafted 91st overall by the Carolina Hurricanes, Josef Vasicek had a solid NHL career. He played most of his career with the Canes, before splitting a season and a half as a member of the Nashville Predators and New York Islanders.
He would ultimately leave the NHL and move to the KHL in Russia. His numbers would improve dramatically, as the forward would put up two 20 plus goal campaigns as a member of Lokomotiv Yaroslavi.
Things were at a high point when the unthinkable happened. On September 7th, 2011, Josef was part of the fatal aircraft crash that killed 42 passengers. The entire Lokomotiv team was on that flight, which included Vasicek who was barely into his 30s at the time.
10 Ruslan Salei
Another member of the tragic flight crash in Russia was former NHL defenseman Ruslan Salei. The former NHLer was a part of 44 other passengers who lost their lives during the crash.
The veteran was a valuable asset to his team and beloved for his tough and hardnosed style of play. He was a “meat and potatoes” type of guy, which endeared him to his teammates during his NHL days. Salei spent the bulk of his career manning the point as a member of the Ducks. He also spent some time with Florida, Colorado and Detroit.
He left the NHL during the summer of 2011 inking a deal with Lokomotiv Yaroslavi of the KHL before he sadly passed away.
9 Alexei Cherepanov
This story was especially tragic, considering Alexei Cherepanov was only 19 years old and had his entire life ahead of him. The Russian prospected was a highly touted draft pick who was selected 17th overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Rangers.
Before even getting a chance to dawn the famous New York jersey, the highly skilled forward passed away in October of 2008. His tragic passing unfolded during a KHL game which saw Alexei collapse during the third period. Following his shift alongside Jaromir Jagr, Alexei just didn’t seem right on the bench. Despite attempts to save his life, Cherepanov passed away at the hospital from a heart attack. Following his passing, Avangard Omsk of the KHL retired his number seven jersey.
8 Luc Bourdon
Selected 10th overall in the 2005 NHL Draft, the Canucks used their pick on a d-man they believed would lead the team on the back-end for many years. Bourdon actually slipped down the board, as the defenseman was actually ranked number six prior to the draft. He was a fantastic skater and endeared scouts with his brilliant two-game.
In May of 2008, the unthinkable occurred when Bourdon lost his life in a tragic motorcycle accident in New Brunswick. Luc’s inexperience at driving motorcycles was said to have been a factor in his sudden passing. Both Kris Letang and Alex Burrows were close to the former Vancouver Canucks first round draft choice and took his passing very hard. Several memorials in various arenas acknowledged his tragic passing.
7 Dan Snyder
Sadly, Dan Snyder’s passing became more about the cause of death than about a young man losing his life at such a young age. The situation created a great deal of controversy, as former NHL star Dany Heatley caused the accident by crashing his Ferrari 360 Modena. Heatley lost control of the car driving over the speed limit and would crash the vehicle into a pillar. Both men flew out of the car and sadly it resulted in the passing of Dan Snyder, who would fail to regain consciousness from the whiplash following the accident.
Heatley found himself in serious hot water after the crash. Heatley was initially sentenced to 15 years in prison for vehicular homicide, although that was cut short thanks to Dan Snyder's family who showed forgiveness and asked for his sentence to be reduced.
6 Bob Probert
Bob Probert was one of the toughest customers in the NHL during his playing days. It didn’t matter how big you were, as Probert had no problem dropping the gloves with you. His playing days were unique, as he split time with both Original Six franchises in the Detroit Red Wings during the 80s and 90s, followed by a run with the Hawks that spanned from the mid 90s into the early 2000s.
While enjoying his retirement out on a boating trip, Probert died of a heart attack during a terrible heat wave. After experiencing chest pains, Bob collapsed and was unable to get revived following a CPR treatment. His funeral was held in Windsor, Ontario and was attended by some of the very best the game has to offer, including long time teammates Steve Yzerman, Doug Gilmour and Tie Domi.
5 Tom Cavanagh
A lesser known name on this list, Tom Cavanagh passed away back in 2011. The American was found unconscious in a parking garage of a mall. The former San Jose Shark suffered from schizophrenia and was in and out of various hospitals just before his passing. His condition caused his AHL team of Springfield to release the forward from his contract in November of 2010, just a couple of months before he took his own life in a tragic suicidal passing.
The center was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the 2001 NHL draft. He played 18 games for the club, but spent the majority of his career with the team’s AHL affiliate, the Worcester Sharks.
4 Karel Rachunek
Karel Rachunek was a solid defenseman during his playing days, becoming a force with the Ottawa Senators. His plus/minus numbers were excellent and he was one of the more underrated workhorse players of his time during the early 2000s. He would later bounce around several leagues from the Russian Superleague to the AHL and back to the NHL. He would follow the same route a little later before leaving for good and joining Dynamo Moscow of the KHL.
Karel would eventually sign with the the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team. Like various others on this list, Rachunek was on the tragic flight that crashed and took the lives of 40+. Just as the plane began to gain some altitude, the parts of the aircraft disintegrated causing the brutal disaster.
3 Steve Chiasson
Drafted in 1985 by the Detroit Red Wings, Chiasson would enjoy a lengthy career at the NHL level. Steve was a hard-nosed blueliner that played the game with intensity each and every night. His contributions were a valuable asset to all the teams he played for throughout his career, which included the Red Wings, Flames, Whalers and Hurricanes.
His passing was tragic and one nobody saw coming. Following his team’s playoff exit, Chiasson got into a car accident on his way home from a party that was being held by teammate Gary Roberts. His teammates told him to take a cab home, but the player insisted on driving. His alcohol level was later announced to have been three times higher than the legal limit. Teammate Cory Stillman celebrated his Cup victory in 2006 honoring his late friend and teammate.
2 Derek Boogaard
We close out the tragic series of enforcer deaths with the late Derek Boogaard. If the NHL had a World Championship belt for best fighter, Boogaard would have held the strap for years and years. When it came to going toe-to-toe with Boogaard, players rarely stood a chance. It literally came to the point that not even the enforcers in the league wanted to drop the gloves with the massive 6'7" monster.
Returning back home, Boogaard went out for a night alongside family and friends. While consuming some drinks at a steakhouse, Boogaard supplemented his alcohol consumption with a 30-mg Percocet tablet. After heading home, Derek was acting strange and just really couldn’t sit still. Once he finally went to bed, he never woke back up. The player had passed away due to an overdose. His brain was later given for a medical study. The Wild held a memorial video following his tragic passing.
1 Pavol Demitra
Drafted 227th overall in 1993, nobody could have predicted the success Pavol Demitra would have in the NHL. He found his footing during the mid 90s as a member of the St. Louis Blues. The forward was absolutely dynamite, enjoying career years which saw him put up back-to-back 35 and 36 goal campaigns. He would enjoy the same amount of success playing with both the Kings and Wild. His last played in the NHL when he suited up for the Vancouver Canucks jersey during the 2009-10 season.
After his last NHL season, the veteran took his talents to the KHL. In his first season, the former NHL star put up a remarkable 60 points in 54 games as a member of Lokomotiv Yaroslavi.
Sadly, he was one of the more recognizable names from the horrible plane crash in 2011. Demitra was 36 and survived by his wife and three children.