Maple Leafs’ Babcock working to change mental health conversation

Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock discusses whether or not he feels there's a rivalry between his club and the Washington Capitals, based off last year's playoffs.

TORONTO – Mike Babcock lost his mom to cancer.

Two of the hockey coach’s close friends, including former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien, lost their sons way too early to brain tumours.

We are compelled into action when a disease hits close to home.

So it was natural for the Toronto Maple Leafs coach and his wife, Maureen, to pour time and energy into raising money and awareness for cancer research.

Babcock works with Jeffrey Thomas Hayden Foundation, he created a McGill hockey scholarship on behalf of himself and his university roommates last year, and he hosts patients from Toronto’s Sick Kids children’s hospital at Leafs home games.

In recent years, however, Babcock’s philanthropy has expanded to mental health.

“I still have cancer kids to the game, every game,” Babcock says in an interview.

“Then what happened is, in our life where I am at Emma Lake in Saskatchewan in the summer [of 2013], we lost two close friends. One lost their son, one lost their dad to mental health.”

The dad was Saskatoon lawyer and mental-health advocate Ian Buckwold, who was killed by his son Alvin, who was dealing with schizophrenia.

The son was 23-year-old Jordan Chartier, who took his own life after a four-year struggle with mental health.

“I remember going to the funeral, and the dad of the son [Greg Chartier] said to me, ‘Mike, you gotta get involved in this,’ ” Babcock says.

“I’m blessed with my job and some of the notoriety I have, so why wouldn’t I stand up and try to make a difference?”

Babcock contacted good friend Dr. Dee Dee Maltman, medical director for the Centre of Integrative Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, and the two began to planning the Neural Health Project.

Since then, he’s worked the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital, and other organizations that have approached him for support.

“I didn’t even know [mental health] existed, to be honest with you. Educating myself was a big part of it. It helps you be a better human being, understanding what’s going on. I’m real blessed it hasn’t affected any of my kids at this point. But as a parent, it’s something you have to be very cognizant and watch for. Kids leave home to play junior hockey. Kids leave home to go to college. There’s lots of things that can bring it on,” Babcock says.

“Just because you’re a good athlete doesn’t mean you can escape mental health issues that affect people. Bringing awareness to it is important. Bringing funds to it to make a difference is important. By doing this, we do both.”

Babcock’s latest initiative, Ahead of the Game, is a collaboration with Movember, Babsocks, and the Greater Toronto Hockey League to raise money for youth mental health in sport through the sale of limited-edition Movember Babsocks at Babsocks.ca/GTHL. (Yes, these are gloriously mustachioed Babcocks.)

“Everyone thinks I own Babsocks,” chuckles Babcock, who discovered the clever start-up through one of his company’s lawyers. “I’ve never worn a pair in my life, but I’ve given lots out.

“It’s funny. Lots of people send me stuff with them wearing their Babsocks. They’re two young guys, and they just went out on their own. I support them. I like the Babsocks guys. They’re good guys. They’re doing a lot in the community.”

So is Movember, an organization which has been “outstanding,” Babcock says, for men’s health, but one whose original method of fundraising doesn’t exactly jibe with the Maple Leafs facial-hair policy.

Rest assured, the coach has no plans to bring back the lip hair he rocked back in McGill playing days.

“I haven’t been doing any of that since I coached in the NHL, and I don’t plan on doing it any time soon,” he said, smiling.

Some 40,000 GTHL players on 560 minor hockey teams are selling the $20 Babsocks, Girl Guide cookie style, and the club that raises the most money will be treated to a practice run by the Maple Leafs coaching staff at MasterCard Centre.

“The prize is great and all that, but that’s not what this is about. This is about trying to reach out and make a difference in the community,” Babcock explained.

“As much as the stigma of mental health is disappearing, it’s still there. I don’t think [NHL] guys are ready to jump out and talk about it as you’d like.”

Former NHL players such as Corey Hirsch, Gino Odjick and Daniel Carcillo have gone public with their mental health struggles in retirement, but it’s still a taboo topic in the dressing room.

In Canada, three out of four suicides are men, and each day eight Canadian men die by suicide. Globally, more than 500,000 men take their own life every year. That’s one per minute.

Babcock says there’s no question he’s coached NHLers trying to cope with mental health issues. It’s one of the reasons he tries to communicate year-round with his players.

“One in five Canadians are affected by it. If you think of one in five on a 23-man roster, that means four guys gotta have it. We still have a ways to go in that area, but the dialogue is so important,” said Babcock.

“It’s something we should be talking about.”