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Former NHL Goalie Clint Malarchuk Shares His Battle with Mental Illness in The Crazy Game

Former NHL Goalie Clint Malarchuk Shares His Battle with Mental Illness in <I>The Crazy Game</I>

No job in the world of sports is as intimidating, exhilarating, and as stress-ridden as that of an NHL hockey goaltender. Now imagine doing that job while suffering high anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and depression, and having your career nearly cut short by a skate slicing across your neck. Clint Malarchuk shares his extraordinary and heart-wrenching life story—which includes his long battle with alcoholism and almost ending his life by a gunshot to the head—in his new memoir, The Crazy Game:  How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond. In an interview with The National Post yesterday, Clint discussed his past and his goal to help end the stigma surround mental health issues:

On Monday morning, Joanie Malarchuk was sitting in an upscale restaurant on the ground floor of the Park Hyatt hotel, in downtown Toronto, six years and about 4,000 kilometres from the ranch where her husband shot himself. The murmur from a breakfast crowd helped fill the silence as she weighed her words, tears welling in her blue eyes.

“I never thought I would be here,” she said.

Silence returned to the table.

“Bad breath isn’t sexy,” her husband said, suddenly.

There was laughter.

“I just read that on that cab,” he said, motioning out the window.

Clint Malarchuk, the retired NHL goaltender, was sitting next to Joanie. He is a trim 53, with an intense gaze and a handshake of molded steel. His presence at the table was just as surprising as hers, considering the frank disclosures loaded in his autobiography, The Crazy Game: How I Survived In The Crease And Beyond.

Malarchuk is famous for nearly dying once, on the ice. His jugular vein was slashed during a 1989 game, when he was playing for the Buffalo Sabres, when an opponent’s skate caught him in the neck in front of the net. The video of the incident remains as chilling as it was 25 years ago.

What the general public did not see, what Malarchuk managed to hide from view for so long — often with humour — was ultimately more dangerous than any skate blade. His mental illness, improperly diagnosed and misunderstood throughout his formative years in Alberta, would become his life’s biggest challenge.

As laid bare in the book, written with Dan Robson, Malarchuk struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder from childhood. He suffered acute anxiety, his mind racing through the night, keeping him awake. He has been diagnosed with clinical depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He has battled alcoholism.

He wrote that his father had been an alcoholic, violent and terrifying when he drank. He broke the windows in the family home after being locked out one night, in a blur of rage and flashing police lights that lodged deep in his son’s memory.

After the accident with the Sabres, the problems seemed to swirl together. He tried new treatments, tried medication, but they did not work. Three years after his injury, he was out of the NHL and playing in a third-tier professional league.

“You’re hoping and thinking you’re doing better, and believing maybe you are,” he writes. “But you don’t know because you’ve been screwed up in the head so long. You’ve got nothing to measure your state of mind against.”

He rarely left home. His said his wife at the time — he has been married four times — floated the idea of visiting an exorcist. He thought about suicide constantly, praying for some kind of relief: “God, either fix me or take me.”

At one point, he estimated he would drink 30 beers in a day. He would rage, often at Joanie, unleashing a torrent of verbal and emotional abuse. His anger manifested in other ways outside the home. In 2007, he drove to a gym in Reno, Nev., successfully picking a fight with the biggest weightlifters he could find, just to release some of the rage.

“He would start self-medicating,” Joanie said on Monday. “So in the morning, there was about a two-hour window where he was OK. And then, once he started going … you knew, in about four hours, ‘We’re going to go for a ride again — we don’t know where it’s going to go, but we’re going.’”

A year later, after an arrest and a forced stay in a state mental hospital, Malarchuk had a rifle pointed at his face. Initial reports would later say he had shot himself accidentally, with the .22-calibre rifle firing into his chin after he had been hunting rabbits around the property in northern Nevada.

It was a suicide attempt.

The bullet left a hole in his chin, ricocheted off his molars and lodged in his forehead. And beyond the miracle of his survival, Malarchuk emerged without any catastrophic physical effects. With help from the NHL Players’ Association, he entered a rehabilitation centre in San Francisco. It was a long stay.

“I’m way more grounded,” he said on Monday.

Malarchuk said he is in a 12-step recovery program. He said he takes his medication with religious fervour. He said he tries to be more attuned to what he is feeling, and when his anxiety rises, he searches quickly for the root cause, rather than reaching for a drink. He said he is working hard.

“This is what I’ve got to do,” he said, before motioning out the window again. “I mean, tomorrow, I could be on top of that building, on the ledge. I hope not, and I’m taking the steps to get through today. But to say anything different would be misleading.”

He had a relapse while writing the book, the painful memories of his past dredging up his anxiety. He was the goaltending coach for the Calgary Flames before entering rehab, but was not invited to return.

The book, with its raw and powerful honesty, was written with the aim of helping others, Malarchuk said.

“For the rest of my life, I’m going to have to work hard to handle my depression, my OCD, not drink, and handle my PTSD,” he said. “As much as taking my medication, I have to do the other things religiously — daily, hourly — to keep me from stepping off that ledge.”

By Sean Fitz-Gerald/The National Post/October, 2014