Hockey world slowly making strides when it comes to mental health

Vancouver Canucks' Ethan Bear lines up for a faceoff during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils in Vancouver, B.C., Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022. (Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

EDMONTON — Ethan Bear missed a National Hockey League game on Saturday night because his dog died.

If he were a fan, and he simply chose to stay home and mourn the passing of his pup, most everyone would understand. If that fan took a day off of work, would anyone bat an eye? 

That Bear is a defenceman on the Vancouver Canucks however, caused some — not all, but some — to question his commitment. 

It’s to be expected, frankly. In a sport where players were once made to attend a team practice ahead of the birth of a child, taking a game off after the death of a pet is quite a change indeed. 

Or is there another word for it? 


“Some people would be completely fine. Sad and upset, but it wouldn’t affect their day-to-day life,” said Oilers winger Zach Hyman, whose family dog is a Husky named Lady. “And for some people, it would absolutely crush them. They wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. 

“You can’t judge somebody on how they feel. It’s an individual question.” 

The hockey world has always been a hard place, when it comes to displaying emotions. Only in recent years have we come to the realization that the size of one’s pay cheque does not run in direct proportion to their ability to handle stress or sadness. 

Today, Stuart Skinner is granted leave from a road trip to be at his wife’s side for the birth of their first child. Fifty years ago, a player wouldn’t even have asked. 

“You didn’t even miss a practice,” said Gerry O’Flaherty, whose NHL career played out in the 1970s. “It was a different story, a different life, a different game. 

“I don’t want to condemn the old ways. The game treated me very well. It gave me a life. It’s just how the guys were back then. The old GMs, it was hockey first.” 

Brent Sutter played a decade later on the New York Islanders’ dynasty teams. 

“Mr. (GM Bill) Torrey and Mr. (Coach Al) Arbour, they would have let guys come home. No question they would have,” Sutter said on Tuesday. “But to be honest, during those Stanley Cup years I don’t ever remember a player missing a game for that. Mr Arbour would have said yes, but I don’t remember a single teammate ever asking.” 

As a 21-year-old summer student at the Edmonton Journal back in 1987, I went to work the same day my 16-year-old dog went down. Coco had been around for virtually my whole life, but I’d only had that coveted job for a couple of months. 

So down to the Canadian Cycling Championships I went, where the legendary Curt Harnett — who’d made the mistake of asking me how my day was going —  gave me as good an interview as I’ve had in the ensuing 35 years, because he was a dog guy. 

He knew. 

Would I go to work today, if we lost our family pet? Or would I call it a mental health day and stay home? 

“A lot of people are going through things within their own mind that are hard to cope with,” said Darnell Nurse, who has a pair of Doberman Pinschers at home. “If you could go around the room — go around your work, go around your family — everyone’s been affected in one way or another. 

“It’s important to take into account,” he said. “Athletes go out there and perform. Play the game and get paid lots of money. But there’s still a mental aspect to it. I think that gets lost for sure.” 

In the playoffs last season, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’s dog Sophie died between Games 4 and 5 of the Oilers’ series against Calgary. Nugent-Hopkins played Game 5 because it was a playoff game — the responsibility is baked into him — but reckoned on Monday that if the same scenario unfolded in the regular season, he’d likely take the night off. 

“It hurt to see him go through that, because it affected him and Bree (wife Breanne),” said Nurse. “For him to play, it wasn’t easy.” 

And, respectfully, Nugent-Hopkins wasn’t great in that game. Who would be? 

Fans look at players like part of the ticket price; entertainers who are cheating us out of part of the admission fee. 

If you pay NHL prices to see the Oilers, you damned well expect to see Connor McDavid play — and his dog or his personal life isn’t part of the equation. 

But should the player have the right to a night off for his child’s Grade 1 graduation? What about if that child needs their father when the family pet ceases to be? 

What’s more important here? Parenting, or pulling an NHL sweater over a head that is elsewhere? 

“It’s no different than if a player is dealing with anxiety or depression,” Hyman said. “Guys deal with emotions and feelings differently. Some people go through really hard times. 

“It’s a different type of injury, right? You go seek medical help.” 

Maybe when a player has the courage to call the coach and tell them, “Man, I just can’t play through this,” we’re getting somewhere. 

Maybe they’re becoming humans who play hockey, and not simply “hockey players,” like some painted steel cut-outs on a table hockey board. 

“Back in the day, were dads given paternity leave? No,” stated Hyman. “But they give them paternity leave now. So it’s not a hockey question anymore. It’s a societal question. 

“We’ve matured as a society to be understanding of different circumstances. It’s not that old, ‘Be a man,’ type of persona. I think that’s changed.” 

And we can thank Ethan Bear and his dog (rest in peace), for keeping that change going in the right direction.

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