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Mind Game: Mental Illness Still Carries Stigma, Says Former NHLer

Mind Game: Mental Illness Still Carries Stigma, Says Former NHLer

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 with a gunshot—in his relentless effort to help end the stigma of mental illness and to help others who may suffer as well. With Bell Let’s Talk Day today in mind, we’re pleased to share this recent interview Clint did with the Windsor Star:

It wasn’t until years after his tenure as a major junior netminder with WHL’s Portland Winterhawks that the cause of the lifetime of anxiety he’d dealt with and the anguish he suffered through was finally explained to Clint Malarchuk.

He was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and clinical depression after a horrific on-ice accident nearly claimed his life.

On March 26, 1989, Buffalo Sabres goalie Malarchuk almost died after his jugular vein was accidentally sliced by the skate of St. Louis Blues forward Steve Tuttle.

The frightening experience left Malarchuk unable to sleep without dreaming about his throat being slit, but any thought of talking about his ordeal with a mental health professional was never entertained.

“After my accident, counselling was not brought up, nor did I even consider it,” said Malarchuk who wrote about his lifelong battle with mental illness in his book The Crazy Game. “It just was something that no one thought about.”

Within 10 days of nearly losing his life, he was back in the net, left to deal with his anxiety and sleep-depriving stress in private.

“I think part of that was my fault, because I came back so quickly,” Malarchuk said. “I was telling people, ‘I’m good,’ but I was running on that adrenaline to prove to the hockey world and to myself that I could come back and play.”

Within two years, Malarchuk’s life was a wreck and he began a downward spiral that ultimately led to a 2008 suicide attempt when he put a shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger. The bullet remains lodged in his forehead, just below his brain.

Malarchuk’s descriptive of junior hockey life in the 1980s, doesn’t sound much different than what today’s players are facing.

“The stress level is cranked way up,” Malarchuk wrote. “The possibility of living your dream is just an impressed scout away. You have to grow up fast. It was a gut-wrenching combination for me.

“That first year in Portland, I was so homesick I almost quit hockey altogether. It was a constant feeling that I was a long way away from where I was supposed to be.”

Players of that era swallowed their fears in a mask of bravado, not wanting anyone to sense an ounce of weakness in their character.

“I think it was just the way we grew up, especially for me from a blue-collar town and a blue-collar family,” said Windsor Spitfires coach and co-owner Bob Boughner, who was raised in Windsor. “It was more, ‘Get on the train and we’ll see you in a month or two months from now.’”

When Boughner was struggling with issues as a 17-year-old rookie with the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 1988, the last thing he would ever consider was telling someone about it.

“There was no going to your coach and sitting and talking about your ice time or what’s going on in your school life,” Boughner said.

Today the OHL has partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association to offer counselling services to struggling players through its Talk Today program. The Spitfires make psychologist Jay McGrory available to players.

“You’ve got to give the league credit,” Boughner said. “There’s a lot of league-mandated initiatives to make these players aware of circumstances they may deal with on a daily basis and here are the resources to help you deal with them.”

Former Spitfires captain Paul McFarland played in the OHL from 2002-06. In his first season as coach of the Kingston Frontenacs, he’s seen further evolution in the openness of players to dealing with problems.

“In today’s game and age, people feel more and more comfortable to come forward with any issues that they are having,” McFarland said. “Kids, whether you’re a hockey player or just a student going into Grade 12, can have issues.

“Every kid needs an opportunity to deal with those issues and feel comfortable coming forward with them.”

Malarchuk applauds the OHL for the Talk Today initiative, but from his own experiences, believes there remains a certain level of stigma when it comes to mental illness.

“I think we’re making strides, but I still think that we’ve got a ways to go,” Malarchuk said. “It’s society as well. If you have an ailment, you’re going to go to your boss you are seeking treatment.

That’s all good, but if you’ve got a mental illness, are you going to go tell your boss? No, you feel like you’ve got to hide.

“That’s where we’ve got to get to that point where it’s no big deal, where it’s treated like any other ailment.”

Bob Duff/Windsor Star/January, 2015