Player X still has an entry-level contract in the NHL. He plays for the United States national team, but he is from another country and doesn’t know when he will be able to see his family again. He rents an apartment and admits that the surroundings are a bit sparse. During training camp, he began to have trouble falling asleep and noticed that he was bothered by FaceTime calls to his parents or girlfriend – sometimes even leaving calls unanswered, which is unusual for him.
Going to the rink and being able to skate has always been a pleasure, he explains.
But I began to be afraid to go home alone, he says. He thought that once the season started, things would get better. That’s not the case. He thought his team’s first trip would be a distraction. That’s not the case.
But Player X isn’t the only NHL player struggling with mental health issues in this extremely isolated 2020-21 NHL season. His agent first put us in touch with him and said you really should talk to one of my guys. I think his experience is comparable to a lot of guys in the league. More than a dozen players interviewed by ESPN over the past six weeks said they felt more anxious than usual and had an overwhelming sense of loneliness.
I’ve never had anything to do with mental health issues, says Player X. But this season, I’ve had a lot of issues. But this season… It’s hard for me to describe it, I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t feel myself.
Same problems and concerns as everyone else
To play on the pandemic, almost everyone in every NHL organization is making sacrifices. They also agreed on a set of strict rules, which have already been tightened twice after several teams faced outbreaks of KOVID-19 last month. Players, coaches and their families must not only show up early for daily coronavirus tests, go to all sorts of virtual meetings and remain socially distant even in the locker room, but also limit all outside social interaction.
According to Rob Blake, general manager of the Los Angeles Kings, there is one thing the NHL and the players union can be credited with. Bring them to your attention, tell them Listen, this is going to be different. Things will change, routines will change. And no one questions it because they know they’re doing it to keep everyone safe.
The other reason players submit most often? Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom summed it up: It’s hard, it’s different, but we’re happy playing hockey. It would be much harder for everyone if we didn’t have hockey.
It’s always an adjustment. The energy on the team is very different this year, one veteran said. One player said he usually takes CBD infusions on car rides when I’m stressed. He passed just two bottles last season, and is already on fourth down in 2021. Another player said he knew several teammates who wanted to meet with the team’s mental skills coach, probably for the first time.
Some also described the fear and shame that results from being on the COVID-19 protocol list, whether they are positive or not. It’s guilt, which is weird because you’re not supposed to feel guilty, Minnesota attacker Marcus Foligno told The Athletic. But you do, and if you’re the first, everyone will see your name pop up first, creating a domino effect throughout the team.
Boundary restrictions create additional problems by separating some families. My son lives in Penticton, B.C., and I haven’t seen him in a long time, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. We were always talking about FaceTime, but it’s no fun not seeing it. He joined the Blackhawks in Chicago for training camp in early January and has not seen his son since his arrival.
Playing in empty arenas is also unnatural. In the first month of the season, only five teams admitted fans, and at a very low capacity. By the end of March, more than half of the teams plan to open their doors. Although the rules vary from country to country, the crowds are still only a fraction of what players are used to. The Dallas Stars, for example, normally host 20,000 fans, but are limited to 4,200.
Playing in empty arenas this season has presented NHL players with unique challenges. Rich Lam/Getty Images
The other thing that stood out was the guys’ ability to focus on the game without the fans, Anaheim Ducks coach Dallas Eakins said. It is possible to incorporate fan noise, and I think that really helps, but it’s not far off from having fans inside and riding the wave of building emotions. The players have approached me, it’s a challenge.
And while traveling teams now stay in the same city for four or more days – a significant change from the usual round trips – players typically stay in hotel rooms when not on the ice. You’re lucky if you share a meal in the dining room, two feet apart, said Tyler Motte, an offensive player with the Vancouver Canucks. The rest of the time you’re stuck in your room. The only acceptable reason to leave the hotel is an emergency or a trip.
By his own admission, Player X sat alone in his hotel room one night and stared at the television screen for nearly two hours, unable to choose a streaming service, find a game to watch, or continue playing another video game.
If some guys have problems, it’s because they’re used to being locked up, whether it’s at home or at the rink. The moth said. They don’t have the opportunities they’re used to.
Although the stigma in hockey is crumbling, thanks in part to players like Motte who have spoken openly about their mental health issues, many players are still hesitant to talk about their experiences for fear of appearing insensitive. You know how many people are affected by the pandemic. And there is always the feeling that professional athletes are paid well to play sports and therefore should be grateful.
I still hate that excuse: These guys are millionaires, Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. If we really take everyone seriously, that excuse is also part of the problem. In general, I can say that hockey players are down-to-earth people who have the same problems and concerns as everyone else. So it’s not surprising that a lot of guys struggled this year, because everyone does.
I miss the courtyard.
When the NHL resumed operations this summer, it was working from two angles. The Eastern Conference teams started in Toronto, while the Western Conference teams played in Edmonton. All teams stayed in the same hotels, which were within walking distance of the rink and offered limited dining and entertainment options. The Stanley Cup finalists ended up staying for two months, and although the players were initially told that family members could join them in the final rounds of the conference, border and government restrictions made this difficult. Only a handful of other important people ended up doing that. The installation was not perfect.
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I don’t think many fans realize the emotional impact of the bubble on some guys – the isolation, the work, being away from our families and loved ones during a very stressful time, one player told ESPN in September. Honestly, I noticed after the first few days that a lot of guys were more depressed than normal.
The NHLPA listened to the complaints and recognized the importance of restoring normalcy.
There were a lot of problems, and that’s probably the main reason we didn’t seriously consider the bubble, said Mathieu Schneider, executive director of the NHLPA. That would be the last thing we would want to do this season.
But after two months into the 2021 season, many have realized that some aspects of life on the bubble aren’t so bad. We did a good job on the bubble, Nick Foligno said. Then the hardest part was transitioning from the bubble to the present moment, when you can’t even enjoy some of the things you enjoyed in the bubble anymore. We can get together, have dinner in a restaurant. Do you realize how much freedom we had?
In the Edmonton bubble, the players’ lounge was the area between the hotel and the rink. Organizers had set up picnic tables and basketball courts and brought a Tim Horton’s food truck. The area was fenced and brightly lit at night. The players now call it the courtyard.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, texted one of the West Conference players. But I miss prison.
Mark Crawford, the Blackhawks’ assistant coach, said he regularly speaks with the coaches and general managers of all 12 teams in Edmonton. It was a pleasure to communicate. Fast forward to this season.
I’ve probably had two interactions with coaches this year, Crawford said. After our game [against the Detroit Red Wings last week], I ran into Jeff Blashill in the hallway. We had to talk for two minutes, we both wore masks, but we still felt like….. Am I doing something wrong?
The NHL has asked all players and coaches not to communicate outside their homes. In the weeks leading up to the start of the season, the NHL and players’ union continued to cut ties with the players’ families and demanded that their interactions be restricted as well. All meetings were held virtually. Dressing rooms and dining rooms are socially separated. As Eakins explained, we still go on the ice together as a team, but almost every other element of the team has been removed.
Nick Foligno says his biggest concern is not really getting to know the players who joined the Blue Jackets this offseason. Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images
Foligno Blue Jackets says there is so much self-control, even in the small things. For example, I want a coffee. So I have to ask: Should I get a coffee? Now you’re probably going to have a coffee.
But I think what bothers me the most, especially as captain of this team, is not being able to get to know the guys, especially with so many new faces, he said. I was a little embarrassed about how I had gotten them on the team, because I couldn’t invite them to dinner, couldn’t spend time with them off the ice. It’s crazy how we try to connect with people in different ways. Like, thank God for Zoom, but do you really recognize anyone for Zoom?
Hey, we’re here
The NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Mental Health Program was established in 1996. It is designed to provide privacy and support for players and their families who are struggling with drug addiction, alcoholism or mental health issues. The program was very successful in helping players get back into the game, but Schneider knows it also had a fundamental flaw.
Schneider said there is definitely a stigma in the SABH program. The program was introduced when the wheels fell off when something really bad happened.
This past season, the NHLPA stopped calling it SABH and generally refers to it as the Player Assistance Program, as that better reflects its nature. But Schneider knew he had to work on those messages with the players and help them understand what resources are available to them before they hit rock bottom. Ultimately, mental health is on a spectrum.
According to Eric Cousin, founder of the global health movement Here’s the Same Thing, society is often associated with asking for help with serious problems. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
At the 2020 All-Star Game in St. Louis In January, Schneider convened a meeting with Dr. Joel Gold, a psychiatrist from Brooklyn, New York who provides advice to the NHLPA, Dr. Brian Shaw, who co-founded and still oversees SABH, and Jay Harrison, a former NHL defenseman with a degree in psychology who now works as a consultant to the NHLPA.
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We started talking: How do you stop these guys… from going in there? Schneider said. How do you get people to face what they are experiencing?
Then the pandemic started and we said: All hands on deck!
We knew it was a difficult time, whether it was the concerns about the virus itself or the uncertainty about the season, the status of the contract, anything could happen, Schneider said. I think the first contact, the first catch, is sometimes the hardest thing a player can do. We try to keep it as simple as possible, and then experts point them in the right direction.
After each round in the bubble, Harrison sent messages to each player. Hey, we’re here, available if you have the time and inclination to talk. Harrison simply asked the boys if they wanted to flip a smiley face with a thumbs up or thumbs down.
We’re always trying to learn and find a better model, Schneider said. But the first step is to make sure they know and understand that these resources are available to them; they are at their fingertips.
In 2019, the NBA requires every team to have at least one mental health professional. The NHL and many other major professional sports leagues don’t have a similar mandate, but a quick survey revealed that almost every NHL team has someone who fits the profile (though their functions are sometimes unclear). And the NHLPA hopes its constituents know they can always turn to her and help a player find the right resources in their town, whether that’s a therapist, psychiatrist or whatever.
Everyone thinks the life of a professional athlete is so glamorous, Schneider says. And everyone makes $6 million a year and everyone plays 15 years, so how can you complain? The truth is, it’s very different from here.
Life on the road, in a suitcase, for days and weeks. The highs and lows of the season. Uncertainty in contracts. Our careers last less than five years on average. The boys are certainly lucky to make so much money and be leaders in the community. But there’s a lot involved.
You have to start somewhere.
The players are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The vaccines are being rolled out across North America and some qualified players have even received their first dose in the United States. By the end of the month, 15 of the 31 NHL federations will be welcoming their fans back inside, but at a much lower capacity. At its peak, the NHL’s COVID-19 list had 59 players; today there are only two.
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And as attitudes to mental health change in society, players feel more comfortable opening up.
‘What’s been amazing this season,’ Eakins said, ‘is that I bet I’ve had more one-on-one conversations with players than in the last two or three years combined.
Aikins said the conversation usually starts about his game. And it always depends on what they have in mind, he said. And they go through a lot.
The coach tried to help his players put their experiences in context. This does not necessarily mean that many people are worse off than we are or that they are positive. But isolation sometimes increases anxiety and can make problems worse.
We were able to find each other to a certain extent; we were able to follow our passion, Eakins said. I think you just need to be clear about what you are getting and what you are getting out of it. The league and the hosts have given us the assurance that we can come back and play.
And there’s one thing Eakins is trying to break through: Agency.
I believe in that choice, Eakins said. There’s no drink in it. You need what you need. You just have to do the right thing, and of course that requires a very different mindset. But you must decide to concentrate. You have to make a commitment. You must choose to fight, to stay alone, isolated or otherwise. And that’s exactly how we did it.
Which brings us back to Player X, who we sought out three weeks after our initial conversation.
I wouldn’t say I feel much better, he said. But I started telling more people about what I was going through.
One of them was a friend from home who suggested a meditation app. Player X downloaded it, and he really likes it. He falls asleep easier.
One step at a time, right? You have to start somewhere.
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