Excerpt: The save of Clint Malarchuk’s life

Malarchuk played for the Sabres from 1989–92. Early in his Buffalo tenure, he incurred an injury that would affect him for years to come. (Denis Brodeur/Getty)

On a cloudy fall day in 2008, Clint Malarchuk put a gun under his chin and pulled the trigger. The former NHL goalie had reached the breaking point of a seemingly endless battle with himself. He had never fully dealt with the effects of an injury that nearly took his life when a skate blade sliced his jugular during a game in 1989. Nearly two decades later, the anxiety and depression that had been building since then caught up with him, and in an act of blind rage and desperation, he tried to kill himself. Once again, Malarchuk survived by a matter of millimetres. The bullet ripped through his chin and mouth, but stopped just before reaching his brain. Initially, the suicide attempt was covered up as an accident, but Malarchuk shared the truth about the shooting and his ongoing fight for survival with Sportsnet magazine for the first time in May 2012.

In a new memoir, Malarchuk digs deeper into his battle with mental illness to uncover the early roots of his anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder in a tumultuous childhood, and revisits the unseen wounds that festered through his NHL career, where “toughness” was valued over honesty. Caught in a destructive spiral, Malarchuk turned to alcohol to numb the monster rising within him. When the bullet didn’t end his pain, Malarchuk found himself in rehab, facing the broken pieces of his life. In this exclusive excerpt from The Crazy Game, written with Sportsnet senior writer Dan Robson, Malarchuk recounts the anger and rage he felt during his months of treatment—and his eventual breakthrough with the help of a fiery, no-nonsense counsellor named Tina.

Rehab was like jail, but it was also a lot like elementary school. As part of the program, we’d have mandatory group sessions every day. These were particularly annoying. We were assigned to specific groups with about five or six other patients. We’d sit there and bullshit about everything. “How are you feeling? What are you thinking about?”

We all had different problems. Most of the people in rehab had a dual diagnosis—some sort of anxiety or depression that had developed into alcoholism or drug addiction as a way to cope. But I convinced myself that the other inmates had nothing in common with me. Like the big gal who wouldn’t stop eating; or the woman in her eighties who shopped so much her own goddamn kids put her away; or the heroin addict from L.A.; or the geriatric millionaire with a booze problem. What the hell am I doing here with this cast of weirdo screw-ups and addicts?

We’d gather morning, afternoon and night in various rooms that seemed pretty much exactly the same—the assembly room, the common room, the meeting area, etc. Always a circle of chairs and hour after hour of emotional show and tell.

The counsellors gave us assignments to complete during our free time. It was always weird shit. One counsellor wanted me to write a letter about why I love myself. Another wanted me to write a letter saying sorry to myself. I thought it was stupid and refused to do it at first. I’m not going to write some corny letter to myself. I knew where it was going and I wasn’t going to fall for it.

The whole time, I kept a journal in a blue notebook. I’d asked [my wife] Joanie to buy it for me while I was lying in that hospital bed in the ICU back in Reno. There was something about writing that I enjoyed. Getting it all out on paper was cathartic. But who wants to share that with a group of crazy strangers? What’s the point? I wondered. Are we all going to hug it out after?

Eventually, though, I gave in and wrote a letter to myself. It was still corny—but OK, fine, it felt kind of good. After the exercise, we went around the room complimenting each other. Also corny. But again, it felt pretty damn good. I went back to my room and wrote down everything they had said about me in the blue notebook. They told me my “heart could heal the planet” and that I was “hilarious and a leader and a great speaker,” and someone said that she saw “nothing but strength in me in every way.” Another person complimented the beard I was growing, and one woman noted that I looked like the actor Hugh Jackman, while another said she liked my eyes and wished I wasn’t married. I scribbled those things down, too.

“You make me feel safe,” one person said.

“You’re a warrior,” said another. I wrote it all down, because putting it on paper made it all seem real. I felt good about myself for the first time in a while, and even if that was something small, it was still something.

After several months of rehab with little progress, Malarchuk finally experienced a breakthrough.

I first learned about post-traumatic stress disorder in January 2009. Tina kept bringing it up, suggesting that there might have been more to my jugular injury than the scar across my neck.

I thought it was complete bullshit. I was a professional hockey player, not a Vietnam vet.

“Clint, you’re messed up,” she said. “And do you know why you’re messed up? It’s because of that accident in Buffalo.”

I blew her off. “Whatever, I was back playing in 10 days,” I said. “I would have come back sooner, but they said I couldn’t until the stitches came out. I was brought up tough. You get on the horse, you get bucked off, you get up and get back on the horse. When that’s your mental makeup for 48 years, you stand by it. Don’t give me this crock of shit.”

“Well, what was your life like after the accident?” she asked.

“Severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, my depression got really bad, constant nightmares and eventually insomnia,” I said. “And then I started self-medicating.” Shit.

She focused on the skate-blade accident as the catalyst for my psychological issues, but also tied in the things that had happened to me earlier in life. I had nightmares for years after my dad smashed in those windows in the middle of winter. The cop-car sirens haunted me and the cold consumed me. I thought we were going to freeze to death. Then he left one day and didn’t come back. There’s trauma in that.

After the accident, the effects of that trauma sent me into even more of a spiral. I swallowed a handful of sleeping pills and chased it with a bottle of whiskey. My heart stopped. My NHL career ended. There’s trauma in that, too.

The rage has always been there. That switch goes on and I’m a monster. I was channelling things I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Suddenly, I was drinking my face off, taking on cops, and walking into gyms and picking on the biggest goons I could find. Normal people don’t do that shit. The roof of my mouth was barely healed, and there was a bullet lodged millimetres from my brain.

Yeah, I knew something about trauma—but I had no clue how to deal with it. I kept fighting Tina on this. Post-traumatic stress? Was she crazy? My entire career was defined by that injury and my ability to come back from it quickly. That wasn’t my problem. It was proof that I could take on anything.

It took me a good month to buy into her reasoning.

“No,” I said. “This is all bullshit.”

“Did you think you were going to die?” she replied.

“Well, yeah, I thought I was going to die. But we’ve been through this. I handled all that.”

“Don’t you think it was traumatic?”

“I got over it in a few days. I was fine.”

Tina started doing these exercises with me, like word association and listening to the noises you’d hear in a quiet room—stuff like that. It was amazing how this shit just poured out of me. I cried for three days, uncontrollably. She didn’t know it was going to be a three-day deal. It takes most people three hours. Every time she saw me, I broke out in tears.

“I don’t know—you did some voodoo shit to me,” I said. “Now I’m a frickin’ blubbering baby.”

I cried more than I’d ever cried in my life. Two decades of unaddressed trauma poured out of me in three days. I think it scared Tina to see how deeply messed up I really was.

When you leave rehab, they put on this big graduation ceremony for you. Everyone shows up like it’s high school. Most people are in rehab for a short period of time, but because I’d been there for half a year, all the counsellors and doctors and staff members showed up. That had never happened before. I was the longest-standing resident they had ever had.

All of the characters I met there helped me in some special way. As much as I wanted to push them all away, we became a sort of team. It didn’t matter if we were in there because of heroin, alcohol, overspending, overeating or attempting suicide. We understood each other because we could see that we all had broken pieces. We just needed a little help to find our way to wholeness. I hope I gave them back a fraction of what they gave me.

I stood at the front of the room and talked about everything I had gone through and about how painful the last six months had been. It hurt like hell, but I knew I was a better man for it.

Most patients there dealt with addiction, but I had a bullet in my head. I was crying. I can’t remember everything I said. When I was done, everyone got up—the doctors, the counsellors, the patients—everyone I had dragged through this hell with me. They all stood and clapped and cheered while I cried.

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