MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Stefan Legein was a junior star with the IceDogs before issues with anxiety and addiction scuttled his once promising chances of an NHL career.
Now he’s back in Mississauga, hoping his story can help the next crop of Ontario Hockey League players avoid his mistakes.
A 2007 second-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Legein appeared poised to have success at the next level after scoring 67 goals and 112 points in 94 games over his final two seasons with the IceDogs.
However, Legein started facing off-ice struggles after suffering a shoulder injury while helping Canada win gold at the 2008 world junior hockey championship.
"I wasn’t in a good place," said Legein, now a video coach with the Steelheads. "Everyone really embraced me as the guy from the IceDogs that who won the world juniors, probably took advantage of it a little much.
"I was at the point where I thought I was smarter than everyone. I had all this money that was continually going to be coming in and I could just make things happen as I saw fit."
Miffed at the Blue Jackets’ decision to have him play just two shifts over the course of two AHL playoff games rather than represent Canada at the 2008 world championship, Legein neglected his off-season training and spent the summer partying excessively.
Once the realization set in that he wasn’t ready for training camp, Legein feared failure in Columbus and decided the best course of action was to retire at 19.
"He wanted to quit hockey and it was a real mystery for us because here’s a kid who had everything going for him," said Scott Howson, general manager in Columbus from 2007-13. "So then you’re sitting there three years later and he’s lost his passion — was a mystery to us."
Legein regrouped, worked things out with the Blue Jackets and rejoined the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch in January 2009. However, just two games into his return he broke his hand and missed over a month of action.
The issues off the ice escalated for Legein. While rehabilitating his hand, he was introduced to prescription pain medication. Over the course of the next three years, Legein self-medicated his anxiety while trying to fulfil his childhood dream of playing in the NHL.
"It’s like anyone who has a problem, you’ll do literally everything, right? Stealing and lying to get (pills) to buying off shady guys," Legein said. "I did some other stuff that I will probably never release to the public. At that point I was willing to do anything."
Legein admits he was worried about the stigma surrounding his anxiety issues and withheld information from the clubs he was involved with.
"It’s definitely a problem that’s been brought to the forefront a lot more than it was in (my) day," he said. "For us, people would’ve helped, but nobody was willing to talk because it was still that kind of situation of nobody wanted to say anything because then there’s something wrong with you."
It wasn’t until a team party at the end of the 2010-11 season, while playing with the Adirondack Phantoms, that Legein finally decided to seek help.
"We’re in Wilkes-Barre for the last game of the season, I was healthy scratched, took a bunch of pills before the game, continued taking them, then we had a team party," he said. "Woke up in the morning, no recollection of the party, couldn’t find any of my stuff, I tracked my phone down to a ditch in the middle of a forest in Adirondack. Then I kind of just looked at myself driving back from picking up my stuff thinking: ‘What the (expletive) are you doing?’
"I knew I had great support at home. I knew it wouldn’t be a problem to get clean once I knew that I needed to."
Now 17 months removed from his final pro game with the ECHL’s Tulsa Oilers, the 28-year-old is focused on getting to the NHL in a coaching capacity.
"Looking back, I wish I would’ve done a million things different," said Legein. "I’ll find my way to the NHL under a different venture.
"To get to the NHL as a coach, is that any different than being a player? You’re at the top level at your respective field so maybe that’s the whole purpose (of) all this: I was never made to be a player and I was made to coach."\