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Long Overdue
Addressing mental health and addiction issues in the NHL
10/13/21 - By Ryan Hall
Things are changing in the NHL.

Not only is the league skewing younger, faster, and more data driven. It is also adopting a far more humane character, one that – frankly – has been long overdue.

For years fans and media alike have joked about the rote, robotic answers that players give during the ubiquitous “between period interview”. We can all quote the usual platitudes about ‘giving their best’, ‘those other guys are a talented team’, and ‘working real hard out there’. While that’s good for a laugh, it hardly creates a sense of authenticy.

Enter Carey Price.

No matter what you think of him or the Montreal Canadiens, it was hard not to feel a touch of empathy as it was announced Carey Price would be entering the leagues Player Assistance Program as he seeks to deal with mental health struggles. If that wasn’t enough, the press conference by General Manager Marc Bergevin revealed the depth of care, concern, and affection the whole organization has for Mr. Price. Hearing Bergevin choke up as he spoke about Price’s struggles, and the way the dressing room responded, was a glimpse behind the static façade. It was refreshing. Needed. It was human.

While Price isn’t the first person to go through mental health struggles, something about his experience feels different. Think back a year ago when Jonathan Drouin, also a Hab, entered the same program as he sought help for his own mental health concerns. While not a star of Price’s caliber, it still made waves. At that time, the general reaction was lukewarm, yet supportive.

There were a few voices who called Drouin mentally weak, but they were in the minority. It was certainly less than in 2018 when Robin Lehner, then of the Buffalo Sabres, left the team and entered the NHL’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program due to addictions related to mental health. At that time a larger chorus labelled Lehner a ‘headcase’, or worse. Same with Bobby Ryan in 2019. The list goes on.

Still, the fact that Lehner and Ryan reached out for help was a big departure from how the NHL traditionally viewed mental health. Most of us can think of players in the last 20 years that we knew “weren’t right” and yet we brushed off that uneasy feeling or else made jokes. Anyone who saw Ray Emery understood that something wasn’t right. Players themselves did the same thing, often with tragic consequences such as in the case of Wade Belak. Sadly, throughout its history the NHL has often failed players when it comes to mental health.

However, the tide appears to have turned, judging by the league, and fan, reaction to Price's announcement. That’s a welcome change as more and more former players are coming forward about their own mental health challenges. For some, such as Corey Hirsch, Clint Malarchuk, and Jordan Tootoo, they tell their stories to educate and encourage others to seek help if they need it.

Their goal is to make sure no one suffers needlessly, and to ensure the supports are there for players. And the message appears to be getting through. This year several current NHL players have opened up about their own struggles and have found support from the league and one another.

As the NHL gets ready to drop the puck on a new season it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how different things are now then five years ago. The interviews may still be painfully cliché, The ‘unwritten code’ may be as obscure as ever. But for the first time ever players are beginning to feel comfortable showing their vulnerabilities. The league is starting to be a safe space to share mental health struggles.

If nothing else, that is worth standing up and cheering.


Contact Ryan at at ryanhall@letsgosharks.com

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