EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — A sign hangs above the door between the locker room and the ice at the New York Islanders‘ practice facility that reads, "GET BETTER TODAY."
It carries a powerful double meaning for Robin Lehner, who before the season disclosed his struggles with mental illness and is now a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. He was a huge reason the Islanders returned to the playoffs after a two-year absence.
"It’s been a fun year," Lehner said. "I feel like I’m playing good. … Obviously I made some changes. Yeah, it’s clicking."
It’s finally clicking in every possible way for Lehner, who has figured out how to manage a bipolar disorder and thrive on and off the ice. The 27-year-old Swede set a career high with 25 victories, posted a 2.13 goals-against average and .930 save percentage and, in tandem with Thomas Greiss, helped New York go from worst to first in the league in goals allowed.
Lehner stopped 130 of the 136 shots he faced in a first-round sweep of the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to get the Islanders into the second round against Carolina. He didn’t do it all himself, but teammates are quick to say Lehner shouldered the burden to solve his problems.
"Robin’s handled a lot of this with his support staff and his family and people that are closest to him, and he’s done a wonderful job with that," captain Anders Lee said. "The biggest thing is just being there for him, letting him know that we have his back and if he needs to reach out to any of us, just being an outlet."
Lehner first detailed his demons and diagnosis of bipolar 1 with manic phases in an essay published by The Athletic in September. He documented his suicidal thoughts, the game that forced him to seek help from the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse & Behavioral Help program and his path back to the ice.
Islanders winger Matt Martin recalls meeting Lehner last summer. Lehner was fresh out of a stint in alcohol rehab and had just landed a contract.
"He was kind of on his way back," Martin recalled. "He had a clear head, but he still had a long way to go from a fitness standpoint and he worked hard every day. He was here all summer getting better."
It had been a rocky road. After he was revealed as a Vezina finalist, Lehner said eight or nine teams were interested in him as a free agent last summer before that list shrunk to two after he and his agent were transparent about his coming out of rehab; one meeting "didn’t go well at all."
Conversations with new Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello changed Lehner’s life.
Lamoriello signed Lehner to a $1.5 million, one-year contract that is known in hockey circles as a "prove-it" deal. Lehner has outperformed it by leaps and bounds and the organization has helped him.
"It’s not like I’ve been a special case that I need someone holding my hands," Lehner said. "They’ve been incredibly supportive and open-minded and nonjudgmental and all that stuff."
Lehner said plenty of people deserve credit for his spectacular season, from Lamoriello and new coach Barry Trotz to goaltending guru Mitch Korn and goalie coach Piero Greco. But those around the league believe Lehner also deserves a lot of credit for the courage to tell his story.
"We are extraordinarily proud of him both in terms of what he’s been able to accomplish for himself and his family personally," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "I do believe that players and the league based on the profile we have can be role models, can let people who are not processional athletes but who adore the games and professional athletes understand that everybody can have problems and everybody can have issues, it doesn’t matter what your walk of life is and that there is hope and that you can address these things."
Attitudes in hockey have changed since Corey Hirsch tended goal in the NHL and dealt with his own mental health issues, largely in hiding. He, too, has disclosed details publicly to help others learn and understand.
"You’re seen as mentally weak. … I know what I went through and I know the strength you have to have to get to practice every day," Hirsch said this week. "The excuse that we don’t want someone who has mental illness because I can’t win a Stanley Cup with them or have a successful team, Robin Lehner just blew that out of the water."
Lehner did so after the Islanders made him part of their plan at goaltender after struggling at that position last season. They’ve since watched him turn into a leading piece of a playoff run for a franchise starved for post-season success over the past quarter century.
"Robin has got his life in order," Trotz said. "When your life is in order, your career is in order. It’s amazing how it sort of goes hand in hand. If it’s not in order, I guarantee you it will fall apart. He’s done a really great job. Really proud of him for getting all that stuff in order and he’s been rewarded with a real great year."
The Islanders by extension have been rewarded for their belief in Lehner, who has been in an ongoing battle while having a career year.
"I know if I go into depression, if I go into mania, I know now and my wife knows, ‘OK, maybe I need to fix something, tweak something,’ and I’ve had to do that throughout this whole season," Lehner said. "I’ve had bad days. I’m always going to have them. It’s like everyone else on their team, they’re going to have bad days. It might get a little worse, but I know how to handle it now and it’s nothing to be scared of."
Lehner revealed his struggles as a way to educate the public and try to influence others who are dealing with similar things.
That, more than anything else, is what impresses teammates about how Lehner has handled his journey.
"He just really wants to help other people now because he’s been obviously in a dark place and he wants to help other people out of that dark place because he’s an example of kind of that sort of success story," Martin said. "I’m sure it’s not easy for him. I’m sure he still has his demons, I guess, on a day to day basis, but he’s done a great job and we’re all here for him."