Out of the Shadows
As one of the best female hockey players in the world, Hayley Wickenheiser has spent years engrossed in the world of sport. Hayley’s experiences have shown her there’s more to athletes than the physical strength and endurance we’re used to seeing; many are struggling with and losing the battle to mental health. In this piece beautifully penned by Wickenheiser, she speaks to the recent loss of a good friend in hopes of shedding light on this dark issue:
In February, I lost one of my best friends and finest men I’ve known in hockey, Steve Montador. Monty played in the NHL for 12 seasons, typically as a 4-6 defenseman. He was physically gifted, a beast in the gym, and could absolutely crush guys on the ice. He was also known in every locker room across the NHL as one of the good guys. On the surface, he had it all under control. But underneath it all, Monty was swimming. He was 35 years old when he passed away. Many have speculated that he died because of the concussions he sustained over the course of his career. He certainly had his fair share — as many as 12 documented. Without a doubt, these cause real havoc on a person’s mind and body. But I think Monty’s situation is a lot more complicated, and a lot more common, than most people know. For me, Steve died of a broken heart. Literally and figuratively.
Years of living in the fast lane surely didn’t help his situation. The loss of his livelihood: Check. Depression and concussions: Check. Being discarded after he finished playing: Check. Add up all those factors and you have the recipe for a tragic death way too soon.
Many people clicking on this article might come in assuming that Monty’s story is a carbon-copy of other early deaths in pro sports. But his life was more complex and beautiful than a news story can capture. He was outside-the-box. He had interests outside of hockey: He meditated. He read everything. He volunteered in Africa. He sought counselling to try to gain peace and balance. Yes, he struggled with addiction, but fought hard to get sober and was proud of that.
Steve was loved by so many. Lots of people say after someone passes away, “Oh what a great guy.” Monty was the definition of a great guy, and there is not one person inside or outside the NHL who would tell you differently.
But if those people are honest and they really knew Monty, they will also say, “He struggled quite often to find his way.”
Depression and anxiety are the worst kept secrets in professional sports. In every locker room across the NHL, there are guys who are struggling with the fear of everything — the fear of a bad shift, the fear of pissing off their coach, the fear of getting traded or cut and letting down their family. What also happens in every locker room is that there are teammates, trainers and staff who stay silent too long when a guy struggles.
In the week after Monty’s death, I had two current and two former players call me. They called for two reasons: they too are struggling, and they want to help other players in the game. For the guys who are retired, they are struggling with finding meaning after playing. For the guys currently playing, they are struggling finding meaning for what they are doing and scared it could be them next.
I am not really qualified to advise these guys on what to do, so the best I could do was listen, so they know they are not alone. We need to do more. The entire hockey community, including league officials, teammates, coaches, trainers, the NHLPA, and the hundreds of former players out there, need to come together and solidify a comprehensive support system for those struggling with depression, anxiety and the aimlessness that comes with finding a second life after hockey.
Not in the future. Not next season. Right now.
You might be thinking: Why is it so hard for pro athletes to transition after they finish their careers? When I wrote my blog about Monty’s death on Facebook, I had hundreds of people chime in with their comments. Everything from “suck it up you overpaid princess, life is hard” to “I don’t feel sorry for him because he had all the money in the world” to “It’s a moral and ethical duty of these pro leagues like the NHL to look out for their assets, even when they are finishing their careers.”
I obviously believe the latter, but I understand the first two comments and the thinking of the average person out there. Life is hard, we all have struggles. Heck, that’s sometimes how I feel, as an Olympic athlete who does not make millions and millions of dollars as Monty did. But that is not why they struggle. It is not the money. Actually, the money is part of the problem. Most of these players are under the false assumption that they will never have to worry about their finances, so why think ahead to what you’re going to do when your career ends?
The broader culture of “you’re a hockey player, suck it up,” plays a role in why players bury their pain. It is also why teammates stay silent instead of stepping up to support the guy who is struggling. We leave it too much up to the player who is hurting to seek the help. Truth is, you can have the best resources out there, but if you don’t have the ability in the moment to access it, what’s the point?
When every single shift, every single fight, and every single game is under a microscope, it’s impossible to understand the concept of, “You are not what you do.” When I was younger, I had no grasp of this concept. If I was good on the ice, then I was a good person. If we failed, then I failed. We are so much more than what we do in life, but you wouldn’t know that by reading your Twitter mentions after a bad game. We get pigeonholed by what society thinks we should be and wants us to be and what the media says we should be. I say pack sand! It takes courage. Courage to reinvent and redefine yourself. Some athletes have the tools and ability to do that without guidance, but many don’t.
This is where the problems begin. This is what Steve wrestled with and this is why he struggled to find that peace. He was so much more than a hockey player. The guy could have been a poet by day and moonlighted as a janitor by night. He wore so many hats (literally). He was an original, and there were not a lot of peeps in his circle that he could relate to.
Because the world of pro sports is sanitized, professionalized, and boring-as-shitalized. There is no time in pro sports to embrace the individual, or to develop life skills or set athletes up for success away from the game. The priority is results, fans in seats, revenue, and the score at the end of the game. This is why the players and staff of teams must look out for each other. Some teams do it better than others.
In every single NHL locker room, there’s a giant white board hanging on the wall. There’s magnets attached to the board with every player’s name and number. The coaches move the magnets around every single day to set the lineup. For some organizations, this magnet mentality extends outside of the rink. In order to have true positive change, we need to see players not just simply as numbers on a board or trade assets, but as human beings.
Yes, even when their time with the team has come to an end.
These are people. I don’t care if this is Steve Montador we are talking about or one of my national teammates who make about $30k-a-year, if they’re lucky. When it’s over, it’s over for so many. No transition plan, no long term goal setting, no one telling you what to eat and where to be 24/7. You are on your own.
What if captains on each team came together to have a dialogue and create a plan for how to help out teammates who are struggling?
And what if the NHL teams or NHLPA established a roster of business consultants, financial planners and psychologists — not just in Toronto, but in every single NHL city? It’s not unheard of. The Canadian Sport Institute in Calgary has a life services manager that helps current and former Canadian Olympians transition out of sports. If I want to go back to school, or need a job, or need to know how to manage my money, the life services manager is there for me.
The irony is that Olympians are the athletes who probably understand what real life is like the most. We only live in “The Bubble” for about 11 months every four years. Then the day after the Olympics are over, we’re thrown back into the real world. I go home and do laundry and go to the grocery store. It’s a much-needed wake-up call and it forces you to develop life skills. NHLers never leave the bubble, until sometimes it’s too late.
Whether an athlete has $10 million in the bank when they’re done or $10, it does not necessarily determine how he or she will cope with life after sport (and trust me, there are more players living paycheck-to-paycheck than you would ever believe). What determines it are the values they were raised with, the support system in place around them, the growth of their talents and personalities within their career and the people to care for them when its over.
I know of a few pro athletes who are currently doing this for themselves, including one NHL superstar who is taking university online courses. This is the exception, not the norm.
It is a moral and ethical duty for all pro sports franchises to develop their athletes as people, to help them transition to life after, and to set them up for success along the way.
Think about it. These guys are often plucked from normalcy before they have chest hair. These kids (because that’s what they are at the start of their career), don’t get the opportunity to experience reality before it even begins. How can they be expected to adjust to normal life when it is all over? They have likely not experienced it as an adult.
It is also crucial that teammates step up and be accountable to each other. This is true for the trainers and medical staff as well, because sometimes it’s just too easy to prescribe a pill to just make the immediate pain, mental or physical, go away. That solution is short-sighted at best and enabling at worst.
When I think of Monty now, I think of how he went out of his way to be nice to everyone — from the janitors in the arena to the equipment guys to the superstars. Monty treated everyone the same. He just wanted to help make your day. The only person he couldn’t help was himself.
His struggles were not just one dimensional. He was not just an addict. He was proud of his sobriety and worked hard at it. There were many other factors at play.
I’ll always ask myself what more I could have done. The NHL, the NHLPA, players, staff and greater hockey community – even at the grassroots level – should work together and ask the same.