Canadiens’ Drouin easy to root for in comeback from anxiety, insomnia

Tim Micallef and Jesse Rubinoff discuss Montreal Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin opening up about his mental health.

“We in the media don’t root for teams, but we do root for people.”

Our own Jeff Marek likely borrowed this line from someone, but he’s repeated it often to Elliotte Friedman on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast and it’s resonating with me right now.

I’m sure I won’t be the only reporter rooting for Jonathan Drouin this season. In exclusive interviews with RDS and TVA Sports that aired Monday night the 26-year-old opened up about anxiety and insomnia that plagued him for years before it became insuppressible and had him decide to step away from hockey last April. He said that, now that he’s prepared to return, all he wants is to do is play the game and enjoy it, and as someone who’s gotten to know Drouin — not as well as his friends and family, but as well as he’s allowed reporters to know him — I sincerely hope he gets what he wants.

I’m not just rooting for him, but also for every player who has dealt with similar issues and faced them head-on. It takes a great deal of courage to acknowledge a problem exists and even more to open up about it, and if we’re not behind the people who exhibit that type of courage, we’re only exacerbating the problem.

Drouin made the harder choice back on April 23, but he said he’s better for it now. His anxiety and insomnia had gotten to a point where it was making him physically ill. Rather than continuing to internalize it, he decided it was time to do something about it.

“I’m very happy I did it,” he said.

I hope he’s happy he talked with Chantal Machabee, Renaud Lavoie and, consequently, Canadiens fans across the country about what he went through. I hope he’s as at peace with it now, and feeling as good and as healthy as he appeared in the interviews.

“I played with it for several years without really knowing what it was,” he told Machabee. “Even in my first years, when I was dealing with my anxiety problems, it was difficult for me to speak to someone about it and to get help. I wasn’t even sure what the problem was or didn’t recognize it. But last year, it clicked, and I went to get help and some people to support me.

“Now I understand what’s happening. I understand the little moments when you feel anxiety and things like that. So, I’ve taken care of it and know how to handle it now.”

If that propels Drouin to the best season of his career, that’s a story I’d be thrilled to cover.

I took no joy from the one that left him on personal leave from the Canadiens for undisclosed reasons and for an indeterminant period of time, and I know none of my colleagues did either.

It was 44 games into last season that Drouin stepped away from his biggest passion and left everyone concerned for his health. The weeks leading up to his pause were as unpleasant as any he had lived in his tumultuous four years with the Canadiens — mired in a terrible slump, at odds with the media, visibly unhappy — and it was obvious.

It was easy to assume when Drouin took a leave of absence that he was dealing with something more serious, and now we know he was.

“I wasn’t in rehab,” he told Machabee. “I didn’t read social media, so I don’t know what the rumours were, but I didn’t have a drug or alcohol issue. It was really just problems with anxiety and insomnia.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Drouin told Lavoie they got worse with each passing day of his pandemic-restricted existence.

“There were times we were stuck in our hotel rooms four, five days straight, never going out. It didn’t help,” he said. “I had these issues for many years before the pandemic hit, but it definitely exacerbated this whole situation.”

Until it became untenable.

“I got out there for warmup (on April 23, in Calgary) and I had no energy to play hockey, no strength in my body, and wasn’t well mentally,” Drouin said. “It was really there that I took a decision to step back from hockey, take care of myself and ask for help.”

It was four days later that Drouin flew back to Montreal with the Canadiens and informed coach Dominique Ducharme he was taking a leave of absence.

“I had tears in my eyes,” he told Lavoie. “It wasn’t like I had just played 10 games; I had played (44) and we were two weeks away from playoffs. It was difficult for me to leave the group right before the playoffs.

“It’s what you play hockey for and what you go through the whole season for, but I hit a wall where hockey wasn’t working for me and it wasn’t fun. So, it was time to step back and enjoy life a bit more.”

When asked if he had any doubts in his decision while the Canadiens were making their way through the playoffs, Drouin cited the support he received from GM Marc Bergevin, Ducharme, the coaching staff and his teammates as reasons he didn’t.

“I was tempted to come back right away,” Drouin added. “Even right after I stopped, I went to go see some psychologists and was feeling good. But I also knew that even if I was feeling well, there were many steps to take before getting back to hockey and getting back in the entourage of the team.

“When I made my decision, I knew I was going to stop playing hockey for the year no matter what happened.”

Still, the Ste. Agathe, Que., native wasn’t as far removed as it seemed. He was watching every game, revelling in the good feeling enveloping his home province, and staying in touch with his teammates and Ducharme throughout the post-season.

“It was really important when I took my step back to not feel alone in all this,” Drouin told Machabee. “I was lucky to have my teammates, Dominique and all that; I felt that I was still a part of the team. Obviously wasn’t wearing my equipment, and I wasn’t practising or playing in games, but I still felt a part of the team.”

Drouin told Lavoie that he informed Bergevin and Ducharme in July, shortly after the Canadiens lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Tampa Bay Lightning, that he wanted to continue being part of the team for this coming season — and for years to follow.

“Marc traded for me four years ago and I still want to show Marc and everyone else why he traded for me,” Drouin said. “I’ve had good years and bad ones with the Canadiens, but I wanted to stay here. I want to stay with the Canadiens. My coach is here, and he’s an extraordinary coach, so it’s easy for me to come back and play here.”

It’s a challenge Drouin said he’ll approach differently this time around.

“I think it’s less nerves, but more just go enjoy the moment,” he said. “I want to have fun. You do things every day, and I want to give my best every day. It’s cliché, but if there’s days where the fun isn’t there or there’s too much going through my head, I don’t want that.”

“Just going to be more calm, more in the moment, more capable of not thinking about what’s happening next or what happened yesterday,” Drouin continued. “For me, that’s one of the big things I’ve tried to change in my life. Forget about what happened yesterday, move on to something else. I’m not afraid to talk about it, and I’ve talked with a lot of players.”

He said the support from the entire Canadiens organization, from all of his teammates and several rival players across the NHL has helped him enormously.

They won’t be the only ones in his corner.

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