One of the most difficult moments of my life came after I finally reached out for help.
It was November 1996 and anxiety and depression had finally overwhelmed me. It was almost crippling, forcing me to pull myself out of a starting assignment in New Jersey because I thought it was best for the team. After the morning skate, in front of my teammates, we had a team meeting and the message from coach Tom Renney was simple: “Hirschey” was not feeling well, and Mike Fountain would be starting in my place.
By that point it was not a secret to my teammates that something was seriously wrong. I had dropped down to 140 pounds. I was now wearing my illness physically as well as mentally.
I showered, changed, got on the team bus and sat in an empty seat upfront and away from everyone. I felt so alone, ashamed and so deeply embarrassed with my head in my hands knowing full well that as my teammates shuffled by one-by-one, I had just thrown away my NHL career. And I did. After that season I would spend the rest of my career trying to get back in the NHL while doing damage control.
The day before, in the basement of Nassau Coliseum in New York, I had reached out to then Vancouver Canucks trainer Mike Burnstein. But it was only because I was at a point where I had no choice and I couldn’t carry on. Mike put me in touch with a psychologist, which led me on the path to recovery.
I was finally on my way to getting help, but the damage had been done. The years of trying to hide my illness from my teammates and others had taken its toll. It would take a long time to unwind what years of living in hiding and not getting help would do. To this day I can’t help to think that if I had been able to get help sooner it may have prolonged my career.
Since coming out last February with my own personal struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I am regularly asked if I think there are more players in the NHL fighting mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and addiction.
My answer is always the same: a definite and resounding “yes.”
And while I will never speak for anyone, and I have no direct knowledge of any players struggling, the statistics are well documented: one in five Canadians struggle with a mental health issue. There are 713 players in the NHL, so you do the math. I am living proof that because you play in the NHL, it doesn’t grant you immunity from mental health issues.
Unfortunately, players do not come forward because they have 20 teammates relying on them to win. Their coach and general manager are continually under a microscope and there are six players lined up behind them waiting to take their job with millions of dollars on the line. Most players feel as though they can’t show the team any weakness or vulnerability, or they will soon be shipped out or buried somewhere in the system.
But the biggest reason?
Confidentiality off the ice as a professional athlete isn’t always so confidential.
Recently on a French language radio station in Montreal, Mario Tremblay suggested that Montreal Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk had been in and out of rehab twice.
Tremblay — who did not make himself available for comment when contacted by Montreal newspaper La Presse — did not say where he received this information. And even if it was true, why would he share it? It’s none of his business and it’s certainly not his place to discuss it publicly.
What Tremblay probably didn’t realize at the time was that his comments will most likely result in other players currently considering asking for help, to remain in hiding. Tremblay has not publicly apologized for the comments.
The NHL, its teams and the NHLPA are not the problem. They have some amazing programs and doctors ready to help at a moment’s notice. There is no question they have helped many and have definitely saved some lives. But unfortunately, as is the case with any large organization, there are too many people within it and it is impossible to keep everyone and every situation quiet.
Put it this way: if something as simple as a trade can leak out, why should we expect players to trust the industry to keep supposedly other confidential elements of their personal lives from leaking?
So what is a possible solution and what may have helped me?
I have spoken to some former NHL players that have also struggled with anxiety, depression and addiction. We agree that if there had been an independent, anonymous support group or helpline for professional athletes-only, one that was not affiliated with the NHL, NHLPA, we most likely would have reached out for help sooner, and it may have prolonged a few careers along the way.
I am not suggesting we do away with the current NHL program. It is wonderful and extremely necessary, and I strongly urge anyone struggling to please reach out for help before it’s too late. What I am also suggesting is that players need an additional option and it has to be an independent, players-only option. An option that a player would be more likely to use before they get to a point of desperation like I did.
I hope this one day becomes a reality, because then, just maybe, we would see more professional athletes seek help instead of suffering in silence.
They could get the help they need before it’s too late, and confidentiality would be what it is supposed to be, confidential.