Acceptance of Carey Price’s decision a positive step for hockey

In preparation for the soft launch of our new radio endeavour, I picked up Nick Kypreos’s new book “Undrafted” to get some more background on the guy I was about to spend my every day with. Real Kyper and Bourne is going to be a blast to do, though it had to kick off this week from our respective homes. The good news is we’ll be in studio in time for the start of the Leafs season, and our focus will be just that: How does this (everything) affect the Leafs? The book was great, and part way through, I came across a very familiar story that feels relevant today.

Kyper was on a positive offensive run during one of his most effective seasons, but after picking a fight with Ken Baumgartner he felt a sharp pain in his abdomen. He didn’t want his “overprotective trainer” to add him to the list of guys on the shelf with ab and groin injuries, so he kept his mouth shut. He was constantly jockeying for his role in the lineup and ice time and couldn’t bear the thought of handing off that opportunity to someone else. You know how this sort of thing goes: within weeks he was shut down for the remainder of the season with a major tear in his abdomen, resigned to the press box to watch other players take advantage of what had been his minutes.

What’s relatable is not mentioning an injury to not give up your roster spot and ice time, only to do something much worse, and cost yourself much more severely. It’s not just costing yourself either — if your team prefers you in the lineup over other players, missing a bigger chunk of time hurts the squad too. It’s not only that I’ve done it, it’s that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with half a hockey career who couldn’t tell a similar tale.

Which brings me to Carey Price, and the idea of getting help when you need help before you’re beyond help. It’s all related, and tied to the idea that sometimes not showing up is showing up when you zoom out.

I don’t claim to know the specifics of Price’s situation, nor do I have interest in speculating about why he’s in the NHL’s player assistance program. But I do know that I’m both sorry that he and his family have to go through whatever it is and happy they’re taking care of an issue that surely didn’t just show up over the past week.

I’ve been close to some struggle in my life, and one thing I’ve learned is that when someone needs help, their issue must become their number one priority, no matter what else they feel responsible for — kids, teammates, spouses, their career, whatever. For alcoholics, they’re told to write down their priorities by importance, including family, finances, sobriety, employment, safety and on and on. After it’s done, it’s explained they must be willing to lose everything they prioritized above sobriety. Without it, everything else is gone.

That’s just one issue (and again, unrelated to the specifics of Price’s), but it’s the same for substance abuse, mental health and a host of other off-ice complications. If you can’t take care of one thing that’s pulling you down, you can’t properly give yourself to the other things and the whole thing is going to fall apart. Like an ab tear for a hockey player, you have to be willing to face what feels like small signs of a problem before it becomes a major tear.

This concept — addressing and fixing small issues so you can show up for your friends and family and teammates — used to garner the opposite of respect in the hockey community. Players are supposed to be tough, right? Hell, men in general aren’t supposed to show weakness in our culture. Twenty years ago and beyond it was even worse. But there seems to be a growing acceptance that not only is taking care of oneself a benefit to the person involved, it allows them to get better and to show up at their best in the big picture. In that Kypreos example, maybe he only has to miss a few games to rest that ab muscle, which keeps him in the lineup for his teammates down the stretch. Sorting out non-physical ailments is no different.

The Canadiens haven’t been perfect in terms of putting hockey aside and focusing on people, which was in focus after their 2021 draft selection. But to their credit, they did support their own in Jonathan Drouin — a player who was struggling with anxiety and insomnia — and they’ve welcomed him back for a fresh start this season. I’m hopeful both parties reap the rewards from allowing the player to step away.

The Habs are a great example of a team navigating — at times imperfectly — what’s been a changing path from the “win at all costs” mentality that defined the earlier eras of NHL hockey. You just can’t burn through actual human beings on your way to success anymore and claim it was worth it. I can’t fathom a team a couple of decades ago accepting one of their top players sitting out as they went on a Stanley Cup run with full support, which bodes well for the direction in which league-wide understanding has moved.

That course is only going to become clearer as the years go by because teams stand to benefit. Helping people with themselves will help teams get the best out of them, whether the ailment is physical or mental. This environment should create fewer “whatever happened to that guy, he was so promising” stories. In the hours since the news broke, the Canadiens management and players — and players league-wide — have shown nothing but support for Carey Price in finding the best version of himself. I haven’t heard a soul — in public or private — say “The guy is making a lot of money, he should put his head down and grind it out.” We’re making progress.

The reality in competitive sports is that players are always going to push through roadblocks in hopes of issues working themselves out. That’s OK, too. Working past discomfort is part of what helps elite-level athletes achieve that status. It’s just important to know that these days, they have options. Pushing through isn’t mandatory. That when there are issues holding them back, nagging issues that could be harmful to let linger, that it’s acceptable to ask for help, step back and re-engage when they’re ready.

We’ve seen too many former players suffer and regret decisions they made when they played. If hockey culture shows it will be there for them now, it will help them and everyone around them find a much more fulfilling life later.