By Robert Olson, Centre for Suicide Prevention

Several hockey memoirs have been published in the last decade that deal with men’s mental illness.  While these books are primarily accounts of the lives of professional hockey players, issues like PTSD, alcohol and substance abuse, depression, and anxiety appear as prominently in the player’s career trajectories as fall training camp or the National Hockey League (NHL) draft.

Child sexual abuse is bravely addressed in Sheldon Kennedy’s Why I Didn’t Say Anything (2006) and Theoren Fleury’s Playing with Fire (2009). Its traumatic repercussions are detailed by describing the crimes of their predatory coach, Graham James. The disclosing of these crimes have greatly impacted both the NHL and the Canadian public. Other recent memoirs that put the spotlight on mental health include Jordin Tootoo’s, All the Way: My life on Ice (2014)Clint Malarchuk’s The Crazy Game: How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond (2014), Patrick O’Sullivan’s Breaking Away: A Harrowing True Story of Resilience, Courage and Triumph (2015), and Derek Boogaard’s biography, Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard (2014).

These are not your average sports superstar memoirs. These stories suggest that any player can be at risk in this hyper-masculine environment – which, in Canada, might better be labelled the hyper-masculine environment. The reader can identify more easily with the plight of these regular NHL players than if they were reading the megastar story of a Gretzky or Crosby -These are the stories of the journeymen or hockey’s everyman. This is hockey stripped of any glamour or hype, and is not about the realized boyhood dreams of a life in the pros. Between these covers, we see hockey as it is lived by flesh and blood suffering men.

What these players are doing is hugely important – they are breaking through the stigma that surrounds speaking out about mental health with open discussion.  This is contrary to the norm; generally, if Canadian men are in psychological or emotional pain, they tend to suffer in silence. In Canada, 3 times as many men die by suicide than women; this amounts to nearly 3000 male lives lost every year. The recent downturn in Alberta’s economy has been particularly hard on males. There has been an increase in suicides in 2015, with 75% of those being men. There is a lot of suffering – and too much silence.

As men, we’ve grown up learning how to be tough, hide our feelings, and not to ask for help.  A woman in distress is likely to talk to her friends, while a man is not. Men do not typically reveal weakness or vulnerability, but we need to. We are more likely to suffer alone until the pain becomes unbearable, and only then do we take action – sometimes decisive, fatal action in the form of suicide.

Hockey players have always been Canadian role models, and we place them on pedestals, superstars and journeymen alike. When we were kids first learning the game on the neighbourhood rink, we looked to these men for inspiration.  Now, in our adult years, we must take further inspiration from these players and, when in personal crisis, reach out for help.

If our hockey players can tell their stories of pain, struggle, addiction, suicidality, and depression then why can’t we? If these icons of masculinity can let their guard down and admit their vulnerability and weakness, we can too.

We admire their strength for revealing their mental health issues, despite the potential stigma that this topic still lugs around. We applaud them for speaking up despite the very real possibility of being shunned or ostracized. We need to take a similar leap of faith and believe that our loved ones will also support us and be there to help with our struggles. Let’s follow the lead of our hockey heroes.

If you are in distress call the Distress Centre in Calgary at 403 266-4357 (HELP)
If you are in distress in Canada, click here to find your local crisis line.


The Books

Why I didn’t say anything: The Sheldon Kennedy story by Sheldon Kennedy (with James Grainger). (2006). 234 pp. Insomniac Press.

Playing with fire by Theo Fleury (with Kirstie McLellan Day). (2009). 337 pp. Triumph Books.

Boy on ice: The Life and death of Derek Boogaard by John Branch. (2014). 371 pp. HarperCollins.

All the way: My life on ice by Jordin Tootoo (with Stephen Brunt). (2014). 224 pp. Viking.

Breaking away: A Harrowing true story of resilience, courage and triumph by Patrick O’Sullivan (with Gare Joyce). (2015). 301 pp. HarperCollins Publishers.

The Crazy game: How I survived in the crease and beyond by Clint Malarchuk (with Dan Robson). (2014). 256 pp. HarperCollins publishers.