When we were 11, I remember my coach, an ex-marine, telling us that if we were injured enough to cause a stoppage of play, then we better require a stretcher and hospital visit. I have never caused an injury stoppage of play. This is the hockey culture that I was raised in. This is the toughness that I love. Toughness is one of the things that makes hockey so great. It is the ‘team above self’ attitude, and it has helped me push through a lot of adversity in my life.
When it comes to mental health, however, the hockey model doesn’t work, and it can be hard to make the two worlds harmonize. When you strive so often to push yourself through pain and ‘suck-it-up’ in solitude, it becomes really difficult to open up about needing help. Hockey wasn’t always an environment where I could be open about my depression (even with myself) and it contributed to my delay in getting help for a long time.
Hockey taught me to push through things. For the most part, that served me well. I got through four years of Division I hockey while completing an academic program with a > 50% drop out rate each year. I walked away with an Ivy League Engineering degree and a work ethic that has served me ever since. My college experience required an absurd amount of perseverance but my challenge was exacerbated because it was interwoven with a backdrop of insomnia and depression. The challenges posed by my mental health might have been made easier to combat if I didn’t feel obligated to lie and say I was just tired, when in reality, I wasn’t okay. Toughness and a fear of weakness can manifest in the same way, but they are not the same thing. I don’t know how we remedy that mindset – but I do think we need to talk about it more.
I’m happy to see NHL players coming forward about mental health, even if only in the specific frame of concussion recovery. The hockey community is also where I have found my best friends. The kind of friends that you wonder how you aren’t actually family. In my time with the Calgary Inferno, they have been thoughtful and supportive through dark times. In return, I try to be the kind of teammate that finds compassion and kindness instead of judgement. Someone who gives the people around them the benefit of the doubt that they might be having a harder day than they let on. I believe more of this approach to team culture would be a good step in the right direction for the hockey community, and it doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our toughness.
I’m excited to be a part of the CMHA Ride Don’t Hide Event and to have my team with me as co-ambassadors. The Calgary Inferno have worn special Do It for Daron purple jerseys and advocated for youth mental health the past several seasons. We have had player-mentors in local schools starting dialogues with kids about mental wellness.
I am proud that every year when we wear those purples jerseys we might remind someone out there that it’s okay to not be okay.