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Sheldon Kennedy warns removing fighting from NHL won't prevent depression

File photo: Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy appears as a witness at a Commons public safety committee on Bill-C23B: Eliminating pardons for serious crime on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday Nov. 24, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Banning fighting from hockey won't stop some players from suffering depression, says former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy.

"Depression is a huge societal issue," Kennedy said Thursday at the Canadian Psychiatric Association conference. "It's not just fighting.

"Just eliminating fighting from the game is absolutely not going to deal with the depression issues that we have."

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Kennedy, who spent five years as a roommate with former NHL enforcer Bob Probert, believes fighting still has a place in the NHL. He thinks it can actually reduce instances of players suffering concussions due to cheap shots.

"I'm not against fighting in the NHL," said Kennedy. "Since we've really started to control the game, instead of letting the game control itself, it's kind of got out of control.

"I know it's a little barbaric but when (Probert) went on the ice, the game was a lot cleaner than when Bob Probert wasn't on the ice."

Kennedy, 42, was sexually abused by coach Graham James while playing junior hockey with the Swift Current Broncos. He battled depression and drug addiction and now serves as a spokesperson for violence and abuse prevention programs.

What worries Kennedy is the culture of every sport, including hockey, still gives coaches and managers tremendous power over players. Individuals who are frustrated or unhappy with their roles are afraid to speak up, so remain silent.

"Somehow we have to eliminate the silence," said Kennedy.

That silence can breed depression which affects a 50-goal scorer as much as a player whose job it is to fight.

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"You don't speak against the coaches," said Kennedy, who played over 300 NHL games with Detroit, Calgary and Boston in an eight-year career. "You don't ruffle feathers.

"That's an unwritten rule and it's a major fear. That's what we need to eliminate. We need to be able to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable to deal with the way they feel and be OK with that. I've been there. I've been that guy that was scared to say anything."

Kennedy participated in a panel discussion on the psychological consequences of violence, abuse and harassment in sport.

The hockey world was shocked this summer by the deaths of former tough guys Derek Boogard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. All dealt with depression.

The deaths have rekindled the debate over whether fighting should be banned in the NHL.

"It's an interesting debate for sure," said Kennedy. "I think the sad part is there are a ton of people being hurt through body contact and a lot of concussions happening through body contact.

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"We need to look at that."

The pressure put on players of all ages can result in depression, said Kennedy.

"The game has pressure," he said. "It's not just fighting.

"You have a job to score goals. If you don't score goals you are down in the minors. It's no different than fighting. "

Joining Kennedy on the panel was Maxwell Taylor, who was a rising start with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League. He dealt with depression when his career was cut short after suffering four concussions over a two-year period.

Taylor said fighting does result in some concussions but he isn't sure it should be eliminated.

"Fighting is there and it keeps people accountable in some way," he said "It doesn't allow people to run around and maybe go head hunting with a clean check."

Kennedy was asked about Don Cherry's comments on a recent "Coach's Corner" where he criticized three former enforcers who have spoken out against fighting.

"When I hear what Don had to say, it totally goes against what we are trying to do and trying to educate all the coaches and players and parents," he said. "We need our leaders on the same page.

"Some of these issues that have come up this summer have really given a platform for these guys to make changes. Let's hope they continue to do so."

Dr. Saul Marks, a sports psychiatrist on the panel, said Cherry "is from a different era.

"The scientific-based studies show very different data than what Don Cherry is talking about on television."

Kennedy said since he first spoke about the abuse he suffered society has taken many steps to try and protect young athletes.

"I think abuse is always going to be part of our life," he said. "I don't think we are ever going to eliminate it.

"I think we can drastically reduce it and I think we have."

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