Note: This story originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2019 issue of The Hockey News magazine.
Anyone who has watched the NHL Awards show over the years knows there is never a shortage of cringe-worthy moments. The 2019 version was no exception. But there were two moments that were truly magical, that almost made all the awkward ones worthwhile. One was when Carey Price surprised Anderson Whitehead, telling the grieving young boy everything would be all right as he wept in Price’s embrace. A very close second was Robin Lehner’s moving speech after winning the Masterton Trophy.
Perhaps one day the hockey world will regard Lehner simply as an elite NHL goaltender. Actually, he’s been one of those for a while now. Seriously. In the past four seasons, only two goalies with 150 or more starts – Ben Bishop and John Gibson – have a better save percentage than the .920 mark Lehner has posted. That particular statistic might have eluded you and if it has, you’d be excused for the lack of awareness, since it was so easy to overlook. And starting this coming season, Lehner, 28, will show off those talents in Chicago after signing a one-year, $5-million deal with the Blackhawks.
At the same time, Lehner is happy to carry the flag and be known as the NHL goalie who happens to be mentally ill. And he is still mentally ill, because there is no cure, no panacea, when it comes to mental illness. The trauma of the past cannot and will not ever change or be erased. But everything that has happened in Lehner’s life has led to this, to this higher purpose he has found. It’s actually pretty amazing what a person is capable of accomplishing when the shackles of the past are removed and the guilt and shame of addiction shrivels like a vampire by being brought from the depths of darkness into the light.
I’m not ashamed to say I’m mentally ill,but that doesn’t mean I’m mentally weak – Robin Lehner, in his Masterton Trophy acceptance speech at the NHL Awards
When Lehner came forward this past season with his struggles with bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as his addiction issues, he did so against the backdrop of the best season of his career. It was no coincidence.
“You didn’t know,” said Isles coach Barry Trotz. “You have to take a leap of faith, and that was a leap of faith Lou (Islanders GM Lamoriello) took because of the fact we needed goaltending, and he was the most talented goalie out there. We didn’t know how it was going to play out, but we did know he was going to get all our support and all our ability to help him. You can’t be a good player and sustain any kind of success unless your personal life is in a good place. You might be able to do it for a short time, but you won’t be able to do it long-term.”
Sports in general and hockey in particular often talk a good game when it comes to accepting mental illness and both have come a long way in recent years. But coaches and GMs still have games to win, and in order to do that, you need a goaltender who can stop the puck. It turns out when that goaltender is clean and sober and in the best frame of mind he’s ever been in his life, well, that becomes achievable.
The Islanders were one of the NHL’s most improved teams in 2018-19, in large part due to their transformation from being the most porous team in 2017-18 to the best defensive team this past season. But those who look under the hood at the analytics maintain the Islanders were not that much better defensively and that much of their success was due to Lehner and Thomas Greiss. “Everyone has ups and downs, and the problem before with me was my downs were very low and pretty long and same with my ups,” Lehner said. “Now I’m diagnosed and medicated, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount on how to deal with my issues. I still have a lot to learn, but it’s incredibly manageable.”
It has been a long time since Lehner could use the word “manageable” in relation to anything in his life. Although he has not opened up about the specifics of his childhood trauma, he did say in a piece he penned himself for The Athletic that his young life consisted of a “seemingly endless wave of horrible violations” and that his family “surrounded me with the stress of addicts and other nefarious people on a day-to-day basis.” He also spoke of seriously contemplating suicide and expressed regret that his wife endured “the mental suffering of watching her husband killing himself slowly.”
As a result, Lehner medicated both with alcohol and drugs. And it all came to a head in March 2018 when he was with the Buffalo Sabres and couldn’t go on living the way he was living. He went to rehab at The Meadows, a renowned facility in Arizona, and with the help of the doctors in the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, began the road to recovery that took him to the stage in Las Vegas the night of the NHL Awards.
The level of play had actually been pretty good for Lehner prior to that in Buffalo, which was quite incredible considering the load he was carrying with him. Many of his teammates on the Sabres didn’t even know anything was wrong. “But that’s one of the big things when it comes to both mental illness and addiction,” Lehner said. “We’re very good at suffering in silence. We’re very good at going about our own business and trying to hide it. We don’t want anyone to see it because it’s going to affect your professional life and how people think of you.”
In that respect, hockey players still have a ways to go. But perhaps it will be a little easier now that Lehner has blazed a trail. And if anyone is worried about the effect it might have on their on-ice performance, all they have to do is look at Lehner’s stats from 2018-19.
That said, Lehner took a huge risk in disclosing his issues during a summer in which he was trying to get a contract. Last summer, the Sabres had already made the decision, in large part to give Lehner a fresh start, to move on with their goaltending situation. Only two days after free agency opened in 2018, Lamoriello signed Lehner with full knowledge of his past.
What others may have seen as a weakness, both Lamoriello and Trotz viewed Lehner’s willingness to come forward as a strength. And a team that looked as though it would be a contender for No. 1 draft pick Jack Hughes instead rode a wave of momentum and stellar goaltending to the second round of the playoffs.
“I’m really happy for Robin because he had a lot of things that he was starting to lose in his life, the important things, and he got them back,” Trotz said. “He knows he doesn’t have them back forever unless he keeps working hard at doing what he’s doing to maintain that level of happiness and discipline that he has to have.”
Part of managing all of this, at least from Lehner’s perspective, is continuing to tell his story and be the face of mental health in the NHL. There are players who share Lehner’s issues, some are better off and some are worse, but we rarely hear about those ones. And it’s not imperative that those players step forward and tell all the way Lehner has, but the important thing is they come out of the shadows and into the light to get the help they need.
Former NHL goalie and now broadcaster Corey Hirsch, who has also been very open about his mental-health struggles, said he spoke with Lehner early in the process and credits him with having the courage to come forward. “Here’s the deal, secrets are toxic,” Hirsch said. “That’s the first thing you learn with mental health. When you’re hiding a mental-health issue, you’re hiding shame, you’re hiding embarrassment, you’re hiding guilt. Once you get it out there, it loses its power.”
There was a time when a lot of teams would not have gone near Lehner. The Islanders did so because they were desperate for someone who could stop the puck and because both Trotz and Lamoriello have been involved with the game for a long time and they’re both progressive. From a financial standpoint, the risk was small, a salary of $1.5 million, which included a $200,000 signing bonus, on a one-year deal.
There was probably nobody in the game who would’ve thought at the beginning of the 2018-19 season that a goaltending tandem of Lehner and Greiss, whom Trotz said was just as good and doesn’t receive enough credit for his part in all of this, would go on to win the Jennings Trophy for the league’s lowest goals-against average. “Robin took a chance on himself,” Trotz said. “He had great support from his teammates. That’s what made it special. And then he stopped the puck.”
Indeed he did. So now, as Lehner continues on a career path that still has a good number of years ahead, he can now perform to the best of his abilities less encumbered than ever by his issues. There are other players, to be sure, who are suffering in silence because that’s what the numbers tell us. There are estimates that up to 20 percent of the general population is dealing with some sort of mental-health issue, so if you apply that to a 31-team league with rosters of 23 players each, there are as many as 150 NHL players who are carrying something with them.
Now one of those players, or perhaps one in junior or in the minors, can look at everything that coming forward did for Lehner’s career and make the same decision. “What he’s done for mental health, he’s blown the doors off everything,” Hirsch said. “He really has, especially for hockey.”
As Lehner accepted the Masterton Trophy, he said he had a difficult time holding back tears. Had he cried, they would have been tears of joy. Lehner said he recently had dinner with the doctors from the NHL/NHLPA behavioral program and they said more players have already come forward and asked for help because of the example Lehner provided. He said because he was so open about it, the program for the first time was able to work together in conjunction with the team.
“The problem is not everyone is going to come out to the team,” Lehner said. “Because as soon as that comes to light, it’s going to affect your financial future, negotiations, contracts. More people are talking about it, but there’s a lot more work to be done. It’s fine to talk about it and all, but changes need to be made.”