It's not supposed to be personal in the world of hockey punditry, but this time it can't be anything else.
I've known Clint Malarchuk for decades and though I haven't seen or talked to him for too long a period of time, I can say with certainty that he is a friend and has been ever since his NHL playing career ended in 1986.
It gets that way in hockey sometimes. You're supposed to keep a professional distance and, for the most part I not only subscribe to that dictum, I embrace it. But sometimes the line does get crossed. In the case of Malarchuk, who is about as likable a person as you could ever hope to know, well, friendship happens.
I make that statement up front because you may have read about Malarchuk's most recent problem. He was alone at his ranch at Nevada when a .22 caliber rifle in his possession went off. The bullet struck the him in the face, injuring him to the point where he had to be flown to a nearby hospital for emergency treatment.
The very first reports of that incident raised an "uh oh" among the network of people who care for and about Malarchuk, and I include myself among them. The initial response went to a sort of red alert when investigators for the Douglas County Sheriff's Department ruled the shooting was "accidental under suspicious circumstances."
"Accidental under suspicious circumstances" translates into the sheriff's department believing that Malarchuk perhaps tried to injure himself, but they can't prove it with no witnesses and not enough forensic evidence. This notion is not unreasonable for those of us who know him.
My attempts to reach Malarchuk by phone in the wake of the accident have been futile, but there was an incident in Buffalo, where I first got to know him during the late 1980s, that resulted in a brief hospitalization and concerned talk in the medical community. Malarchuk said he simply made a mistake with a combination of prescription medication and alcohol that he consumed at a party without having had enough to eat. Possible, but according to some who were there, it was a great deal worse. Some of Malarchuk's teammates quietly expressed fears to me about alarming things that he had said.
Malarchuk has had other problems. He and I once sat for hours as he told me of his battle with a battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a debilitating affliction that causes victims to struggle with bouts of endless repetition of seemingly mundane things like washing one's hands or feeling obligated to do the same tasks without end and without reason.
Malarchuk suffered from OCD for years before he knew it was a clinical problem. When he found out, he sought treatment and later discussed it openly and at length in the singular hope that someone reading his story, especially some young person who couldn't comprehend what was happening, would learn that they need not suffer alone.
Malarchuk later talked openly of the anxiety that overcame him after he had his throat slashed by an errant skate blade while playing for the Sabres against the St. Louis Blues in 1989. He discussed it again after Florida's Richard Zednik suffered a similar injury last season, prompting countless telephone calls and constant reminders of the physical and mental suffering that had gripped him.
Most recently, the Columbus Post Dispatch, the newspaper that covers the franchise where Malarchuk is now a goalie consultant, detailed his battles with depression, anxiety attacks and the violent physical abuse he suffered as a child. His most recent incident came on the heels of one last year when he was arrested after a scuffle in a bar in Nevada and another -- a reported bar fight -- in Nashville. Clearly there's a pattern, one that strongly suggests that Malarchuk still struggles with a variety of problems.
Now those problems have likely put his job with the Jackets in jeopardy. That's unfortunate because they are a better team, especially with regard to goaltending, because of his efforts. The easy thing would be to pick up on the herd mentality regarding mental health issues and quickly and quietly drop Malarchuk from the payroll. Lots of companies, especially companies in the public eye, do that. Almost anyone who has struggled with mental health issues can tell you that.
But what the Jackets could do is what Malarchuk has tried to do most of his life: they could acknowledge that a member of their franchise, a part of their extended family, has a problem. They could allow him the time and professional help he needs to deal with his latest problem and they could at least consider assisting him, after a suitable period of recovery, in not only continuing his work with their goaltending talent, but speaking out about the difficulties of coping with a type of illness that far too many of us try to ignore.
Surely that would take courage. It would also mean taking a road less traveled. Hopefully, GM Scott Howson's recent visit to Nevada to assess the situation is a step in that direction.
There would be risks, of course, but helping Malarchuk wouldn't just be the right thing to do, it would be the courageous thing. He might have setbacks that create a public relations problem. It's also possible that Malarchuk, knowing he has no reason to fear for his livelihood, would understand that he is no longer alone in his fight. He could take strength from that and perhaps recover faster and more completely than if he were to be abandoned at a time when he needs his hockey connection most.
It must be said that the Blue Jackets didn't ask for this. Malarchuk never played for them, Howson or coach Ken Hitchcock. One could argue that the organization, aware of Malarchuk's history, has already done more than could be expected simply by giving him a job. But should the Jackets take the harder road, the reward could be, well, rewarding.
The Clint Malarchuk I know is as loyal, caring and honest as any man I've ever known. Should the Jackets stick by him, he will return the favor tenfold and they will continue to have an instructor who coaches and players love and the goalies truly need. They will also have the satisfaction of making a difference in someone's life. Malarchuk will have the chance to change the course of his life while continuing to provide for his wife and family. He would an inspiration to the many people who are suffering with the same issues he has battled for so long.
Clint Malarchuk links his sense of self, self-worth and well-being to his time spent in hockey. If the game were to turn its back on him now, it would be a setback from which he might not recover. This is one case where doing the right thing for one person can help so many more.