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A New Mindset: Mental Health and Hockey

Athletes across the sporting world are speaking out about mental health – and more andmore NHL players appear to be taking the message to heart.
Riley Sheahan

The Year of Near-Normal. The Year of New Normal? The Year of Revival. As we look ahead to the 2021-22 NHL season, there’s going to be a lot on everyone’s plate, and while we certainly don’t have to define it, this may also become the Year of Mental Health.

On the ice, we’re going to experience the usual wonders carved out by the likes of Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Andrei Vasilevskiy, but it’s the advancements being made off the ice that could represent The Big Change.

The public stances on mental-health awareness made by athletes such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka put this issue on the global map, and we have also seen inroads made by hockey players such as Robin Lehner and Tyler Motte speaking out.

It feels like a groundswell is upon us. Agent Cam Stewart recently opened up about his story, which is shared in full on Stewart, who played in the NHL during a time when issues of both physical and mental health were brushed aside, sustained nine documented concussions (three that rendered him unconscious on the ice) and countless other undocumented ones in the 1990s, cutting short his career and forcing him to face some mentally strenuous years. 

Now, he’s helping the next generation of players reach their dreams, and he doesn’t want anyone to feel bad about any struggles they might be enduring. “You are the only one who knows how you are feeling,” Stewart said. “Mental-health awareness is getting there, but there is still a stigma, trying to be a tough guy or not wanting anyone to know about it. People have to be comfortable and know there are people out there who will help and they just need to reach out.”

Veteran NHLer Riley Sheahan knows exactly what that is all about, and he’s trying to make a difference now as well. Sheahan has started a podcast focused on mental health, and for someone who was diagnosed with depression in his early 20s, it’s a topic he wants to unearth in hopes of helping others.

Early on in his career, Sheahan was arrested for drunk driving – he was wearing a Halloween costume when he was pulled over – and while a lot of people had fun at his expense when the news broke, it was an incredibly nerve-wracking time for a kid who didn’t know if he had just spiked his NHL career before it had really begun. It’s also when a psychiatrist identified his depression issues.

Luckily for Sheahan, the Detroit Red Wings were supportive, giving him the time off he needed to get right. “When you have people in your corner, you can be at ease,” Sheahan said. “It definitely opens up your thinking patterns and allows you to be stress-free.”

For Sheahan, the key has been to find balance in his life. When he’s not at the rink, he tries to focus on other things, whether it’s a hobby like guitar or working on relationships with his wife and family. He has also started keeping a journal, writing a little every morning on what he’s grateful for in life.

There are surely some old-schoolers out there who blanch at the idea of an NHLer keeping a journal, but the culture is changing, and it doesn’t make the game any less exciting. It’s a culture that allows Sheahan to find support from his peers, and it’s also one in which Nashville Predators prospect Luke Prokop felt comfortable enough to come out this summer, becoming the first openly gay player with an NHL contract.

So in the vein of Biles and Osaka, is it possible we see NHL players taking games off if their mental health is not in a good place? Sheahan believes it’s a possibility. “If you see a guy’s not really there, being a little absentminded and has been dealing with some things, that’s probably the best route,” he said. “Separate yourself from the sport a bit and get your life figured out.”

Left unchecked, things could otherwise get much worse. Stepping away might not be for every player, but Sheahan believes that dressing-room atmospheres are changing already when it comes to things like nutrition and recovery. So maybe we’re not far off.

Maybe, this is the year that it all begins. 



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