The young man stood in the bookstore in an Edmonton-area mall and waited until the book signing was over before he approached Clint Malarchuk. He wanted a minute alone with the former NHL goaltender, who’s just written an autobiography called A Matter of Inches: How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond, in which he details the two near-death experiences that have pretty much defined his life.
“I’d say he was 20 or 21 years old,” Malarchuk said, his voice wavering a bit as he recalled the conversation. “And he came up to me and said, ‘I want to thank you for saving my life.’”
The young man, a hockey fan, told Malarchuk that he had planned to commit suicide, but that somehow his father had discovered his note and managed to track him down and stop him. The father had then told his son Malarchuk’s story -- about the former goalie’s failed suicide attempt, and about how he learned about his depression and anxiety -- and the young man was inspired to seek help
It was in that moment that Malarchuk believed, beyond a doubt, that things happen for a reason. He was lucky to be alive, and lucky to have endured so many setbacks, including a relapse while he was working on the book. But this moment spoke to him.
“I played in the NHL; I coached in the NHL, but to save a life, for me, that moment was unreal,” Malarchuk said. “That young man made me realize that maybe this book will give people hope. Maybe they won’t feel alone. I have a calling now. I used to think my purpose was to play. And then my purpose was to coach. But those things were temporary. And those are things that got me where I am today. To be able to speak out and help people, to carry the message -- I think I went through all the adversity for a reason. I think this is the grand scheme.”
A little more than 25 years ago, Malarchuk was involved in the most gruesome play in NHL history. While playing for the Buffalo Sabres, he nearly died in the crease when his teammate Uwe Krupp and St. Lous Blues winger Steve Tuttle became entangled with him by the side of the net. It looked like a normal hockey collision, the kind you see dozens of time during any NHL game, until Malarchuk fell to his knees and ripped off his mask. His carotid artery had been slashed by Tuttle’s skate blade. Blood gushed onto the ice. Malarchuk would later describe his horror, feeling blood leave his body with every heartbeat. Miraculously, the training staff was able to save his life. There was virtually no time to spare.
Malarchuk returned to action less than two weeks later. He says now that was bravado. The same bravado that carried him through another four NHL seasons and five more in the minors.
“I had no counseling. I didn’t even bring it up, that I was struggling mentally,” Malarchuk said. “I felt I had to show the coach, players and GM I was going to be the same goalie. But looking back, within a year or two of that accident, the post traumatic stress disorder was pretty apparent. I may have been predisposed to it. But after the accident, everything magnified and I spiraled down into depression and anxiety to where it overtook my life.”
Malarchuk recalls it was a long, drawn out process with different doctors, drugs and medication to finally find the right one to help him achieve equilibrium. But then, over the next decade, he says his body became immune to medication and another downward spiral was underway.
“I’m very calm, not explosive,” Malarchuk said. “But I got very violent and acted out. Where does that come from? Where does that anger come from? It’s very overwhelming and powerful. I know for me and I’m sure for a lot of people, it was almost like blackout rage. I didn’t remember what happened. Friends and family would ask, 'Do you remember doing that?' And I did not. It was like going to a different planet. I had nightmares for quite a while after the accident.”
Still, he held himself together well enough to serve as a goaltending coach for several NHL teams. But in 2008, he saw Richard Zednik of the Florida Panthers go through a similar on-ice accident, having his carotid artery cut by the skate blade of teammate Olli Jokinen.
“The media came hard to me, asking me about my accident, because that was the first time it had happened since my accident,” Malarchuck recalled. “I was bombarded. I started to relive it.”
Eight months after Zednik suffered his injury, Malarchuk found himself deeply depressed and self-medicating with alcohol. While on his ranch in Fish Springs, Nev., he tried to take his own life with a .22 caliber rifle. A self-inflicted gunshot to the chin left him wounded but alive. He says he has the clarity now to realize that this two near-death experiences are linked.
“We’re perceived as bullet proof,” Malarchuk. “Males in general. We don’t want to be perceived as weak. I know for me, as a goalie in the NHL, you’re supposed to be so mentally strong under pressure. The last thing you want is to be perceived as mentally weak. I thought it was a weakness I had. Now I know it was a sickness. I look back and realize now, I was really mentally tough, dealing with a mental illness and the job pressures of being an NHL goalie.”
Writing A Matter of Inches with Dan Robson was not therapeutic, Malarchuk says. “Absolutely not therapeutic. I went through all the therapy and all the hard work, and when you do that, you try to put things behind you. So, for me to go back into it, to be asked what I was thinking at the time, to go deep. For me, it was really hard. Painful and hard to do. I was sober and it made me relapse. That’s how painful it was. But now that the book is done, with the feedback I’m getting, I’m really grateful that I found the strength to finish it.”
The emails flood his box. Many from members of the military and the police force. Malarchuk says he is overwhelmed and humbled by it all. He points out the statistic that 22 military veterans who have served in the wars in the Middle East commit suicide every day. It touches him every time a vet writes him and tells him it helps to know they’re not alone.
“Having played and coached in the NHL gives me a platform,” Malarchuk says. “It also gives me credibility. It gives people a chance to see that you don’t have to hide this. Hiding it you’re not going to get help. The only way to get help is to come out. You can balance your chemical imbalance. If you think of it as a chemical imbalance, like diabetes, you’re sick, not weak.
Malarchuk has stepped away from hockey this year for the first time in many years. He now works in the horse business, as a horse dentist and chiropractor, from his ranch in Nevada.
But more than anything, he’s trying to be an advocate on mental health awareness, continuing the message of the book. And as he learned that day in Edmonton, he is saving lives.