The hockey community is full of a variety of different people. Fans of different races, genders, backgrounds, upbringings, and sexualities all come together to watch and appreciate the game that they love. However, an aspect of life that isn’t often talked about in this community is mental health, or, more specifically, mental illness. Nearly one in five adults in the United States are affected by mental illness every year, and the statistic is the same for Canada. In recent years, the issue has begun to come up in the sports world, specifically in hockey.
Multiple players have suffered from issues with mental illness and medication, most notably Rick Rypien, who committed suicide in 2011, and Derek Boogaard, who overdosed and died in 2011. Furthermore, former NHL goaltender Clint Malarchuk has spoken out about his multiple suicide attempts and how he lives his life differently since then. Since then, a few teams in the NHL have made more of an effort to raise awareness about mental health. While most are pleased to see the progress, some don’t think that it’s quite enough. In addition, the NWHL is known for their work to show that it’s okay and perfectly normal to talk about mental illness.
The Different Ways Mental Health is Impacted by the Hockey World
For many, watching hockey can be an escape from real-life struggles. Many fans find solace in taking a few hours to become immersed in a game that has nothing to do with the problems that they’re currently dealing with, whatever they may be. Just like fans of bands or artists say that music has saved their life, many hockey fans have come out and said the same thing about this sport. When asked about this topic, Alyx Farias said in a tweet, “[The New York Rangers] honest to God are the reason I’m still here, they gave me something to look forward to every two days and gave me something to be hopeful about.”
Another aspect of mental health and hockey is the thought of the toll that the sport takes on a player’s mental state. Especially for players who get a lot of hate at games or on social media, or those who are “underperforming” or in harsh media markets, it can be hard. Trade rumors are constantly swirling, which can be hard for the athlete themselves to swallow, as well as their family.
Felix Chow (@TealTownGhost on Twitter) was definitely familiar with this concept, saying “athletes go through a lot, even though they’re paid thousands and millions of dollars.” He adds, “…it rings true especially with social media. I remember seeing screenshots a while back that showed how bad Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs was treated on Instagram, and just being so angered and frustrated by how far a lot of the comments went to trash him.” Finally, he reminds us of how big of a part mental health plays in the sport, and that it’s so much bigger than the game. “This isn’t just limited to sports,” he reminds us. “It’s outside of sports, but mental health is such an important issue in hockey… it absolutely plays a major role in how these athletes function and do their jobs out there on the ice.”
Victoria Ranieri (@vicr1011 on Twitter), who plays recreational hockey and is a big fan of the NHL, says that she sees this in her own life as well as the professional league. “As a player, bad mental health will have a direct [effect] on my game. If I get in my own head too much, [I’m not going to do well]. I see the same thing with the people I play against, especially goalies… Imagine how it is for professional athletes who have so much money on the line?” Conrad (@atrodorsus on Twitter) agrees with Victoria here. “I started skating during my junior year of high school, then tried to join the team my freshman year… some other stuff happened that prevented me from actually playing that year, including being deeply depressed and feeling uncomfortable with then-members as someone who presents rather feminine but is non-binary… hockey’s been… a major way for me to fight off my seasonal depression. it forces me to get out of the house and interact with friends.”
One of the most interesting responses received during this process of trying to get feedback from this article was from Emily Wilburn (@originalfreckle on Twitter). She was kind and brave enough to share her own story of experiences involving hockey and depression with me. “When USA Hockey first started taking concussions really seriously… almost overnight, posters appeared in every rink in the state, listing the signs and symptoms. Coaches explained at parent meetings the risks of pushing a kid to play through a concussion. Before every game, we had to stand on the blue line while the referees checked our mouthguards. The impact of those policies stayed with everyone in my generation. Imagine if we could do something like that for mental health.” This raises a big point that hadn’t been talked about yet in my research for this piece: what does the hockey world, including the NHL, do in regards to mental health? And, perhaps the scarier question, is it enough?
Efforts Made by the NHL
Multiple NHL teams have had “Mental Health Awareness Night” held at one of their games at least once over the past few years. These teams include the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Vancouver Canucks.
This past January, The New York Islanders hosted their first event of the kind, calling it “Do It For Daron Night.” The event itself was organized by the Islanders’ assistant coach Luke Richardson along with his wife Stephanie. The Richardsons’ 14-year-old daughter passed away from suicide in 2010, which urged them to create “Do It For Daron”, an organization named in her honor. It started out in Canada and has since reached the United States. The Richardsons are trying to raise awareness about topics like depression and suicide so young people, like their late daughter, can be educated and have the resources they need to overcome these obstacles. At the game, the Richardsons dropped the ceremonial first puck, both wearing their daughter’s favorite color of purple, and many players wore “Do It For Daron” hats at warmups as well. By the end of the night, over $34,000 had been collected for the cause through donations and merchandise. The Ottawa Senators’ Mental Health Awareness Night was also centered around D.I.F.D. and was a huge success. The Senators also began awarding the Daniel Alfredsson Scholarship in 2016 to students who are “dedicating their research to improving mental health.”
The Canadian NHL teams have also been involved with an initiative called #HockeyTalks, sponsored by Bell, a Canadian telephone company. “Hockey Talks” hats were sold, raffles were held to raise money for Canadian mental health initiatives, and many players participated in making #HockeyTalks signs or videos with words of encouragement to those struggling with mental illness. Connor Brown of the Toronto Maple Leafs shared that this topic is close to his heart since he knows so many people who have fought battles against mental illness. He stresses the importance of breaking the stigma and realizing that it is okay to talk about your struggles, just like it would be okay to talk about a physical injury. While he was still on the Oilers, Mike Cammalleri spearheaded this project. When the campaign was taking place in January 2018, he shared that he got “pretty emotional” when listening to some stories about mental illness and that he believes most people can relate to that feeling of “being irrational at times and questioning our own thoughts.” Like Brown, he made sure to highlight how important it is to start “removing the stigma” and “being able to communicate with one another” about these things.
Perhaps one of the most notable cases of mental illness in the NHL was Rick Rypien. He played 119 NHL games over the span of six seasons, all for the Vancouver Canucks. Though he only racked up nine goals and seven assists for a total of 16 points over his entire career, his offense wasn’t exactly what he was known for. Rypien had collected 226 penalty minutes by the time he was finished in the NHL. He was known as an enforcer, the player who was always ready to stand up for his teammates using his physicality. At 5’11” and 190 pounds, Rypien was always getting into fights and defending his “goon” status whenever he appeared in the Canucks’ lineup. After six seasons with the Canucks, Rypien signed with the Winnipeg Jets on July 2nd, 2011. Just a little over a month later, he was found dead in his home on August 15th, 2011, at just 27 years old. He had committed suicide after multiple bouts of depression had caused him to take multiple leaves of absence from hockey since 2008 when the Canucks were made aware of his mental state.
The team could have dealt with his death in a variety of ways, and they probably dealt with it in the best way possible. For their home opener, the Canucks showed a tribute to Rypien on their jumbotron. Following the video, one of Rypien’s closest friends and teammates, Kevin Bieksa, presented his family with the final jersey that he had worn on the ice. It was also announced that a $500,000 donation was made in his memory to the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation in order to structure a mental health program.
Bieksa has continued to show his support for his late friend as well as mental health initiatives even since his departure from the Canucks to join the Anaheim Ducks in 2015. He tells stories and makes speeches about Rypien a couple times every year. They range from sweet, feel-good stories about things like the enforcer’s love of kids and huge heart, to gut-wrenching tales of depression and wondering what could have done to prevent the untimely end to his life. It’s evident that Bieksa took on a mentor role towards Rypien, even taking him into his own home at times. Why keep talking about this, even coming up on the seven-year anniversary of Rick Rypien’s death? To Kevin Bieksa, it’s very simple: “Rick’s story is one that I don’t want to go away.”
Efforts Made by the NWHL
The NWHL, though only entering their fourth season, has done a lot in the area of mental health. This past season, members of the Boston Pride wore purple jerseys for a game to support the D.I.F.D. movement mentioned earlier in this article. In addition, all of the teams have had players who have shared their experiences on social media, expressing how important it is to reach out and ask for help when you feel like you’re in a bad place. I got in touch with Anya Battaglino, a player for the Connecticut Whale and the current director of the NWHL Player’s Association. She has spoken out on Twitter (@battaglinoa) and other platforms about her struggles with mental health and her sexuality in the past. She had a lot to say on the topic, and I’m so glad that she did. Every point that she makes here is extremely important.
“Playing hockey has always given me a safe haven to channel my emotions. It has always been a soft place for me to land. When I was in high school battling my darkest battles, it was the family I had made within my hockey team that supported me when I needed it most. Hockey is more than a sport, it’s a community of people who become family. That family saved my life.”
“The NWHL has been an extremely open space to further these discussions. Being a part of a league that takes these major strides to normalize the conversation around mental health has been a blessing. I am so empowered to be uniquely me and so proud that people all around the world know that it’s okay to struggle and it’s okay to open up about that. It starts with one person reaching out to begin that conversation. Be the catalyst to changing the stigma, talk about your feelings, it doesn’t make you weak it makes you strong enough to admit you need a little help. I have done it, and I still do.”
Is it Enough?
Throughout this article, we’ve assembled just about everything that the hockey world has given us in regards to mental health. From real-life players, in professional and recreational leagues, to big names like the NHL and NWHL, to heartbreaking stories like Rick Rypien. Now we must face the big question: does the hockey world do enough to support those struggling with their mental health? Obviously, they make a great effort. Mental health awareness nights, donations, and players speaking out are all things that definitely go a long way. But with the nature of the sport, there is always more than could be done.
For many players, specifically in the NHL or male-presenting, the attitude has always been to “suck it up” or “get back out there”, regardless of how they’re feeling. That’s what working towards breaking the stigma means. We, as the hockey community, need to start pushing that point that asking for help is okay, and it doesn’t make you weak. It could even save your life.
Someone who was really passionate about this aspect of the article was Shannon, @shannonre929 on Twitter. She pretty much sums this topic up perfectly. “I think hockey tries to appeal or pander to fans and prospective fans by being pro-mental health awareness. And individual players or teams have shown they do actually care. Those individuals, be it players or teams, show they care through actions. The NHL as a league though has shown through multiple actions that they don’t really care… I think a lot of it is culture based, around the ‘tough guy’ mentality and toxic masculinity, but the NHL as a league is not doing anything to prevent that kind of thinking.”
Big thanks to the following Twitter users for their help; @originalfreckle, @shannonre929, @alyxthepigeon, @battaglinoa, @vicr1011, @atrodorsus, and @TealTownGhost! Although I was the one who wrote this article, it was definitely a team effort. To everyone who shared my tweet asking for thoughts on this subject and everyone who reached out to let me know what they think, thank you so much.
What are your thoughts on mental health awareness in hockey? Let us know by tweeting us: @PuckItUpBlog.