Teaching the next generation of hockey players about mental health

Boynton

“I’m a person who has always tried to kind of do things on his own. But I’ve actually come to realize that’s all sort of just … bullshit. And I’ve gotten so tired of telling people that everything’s O.K.

I’ve lied for too long. I can’t lie anymore. Everything’s not O.K. Things have actually been pretty awful for me in a lot of ways. And I’m tired of the act.” – Nick Boynton

When we think about professional sports, we’ve come to expect athletes to be strong all the time and to never show weakness.

Except this mentality has dire consequences.

As a perennial tough guy, Nick Boynton spent his 11-year career as a fighter and a hard-nosed defenseman; one of the last of his generation in the new NHL.

Boynton opened up to The Players Tribune in the summer of 2018 to pen his mental health story. And like many professional athletes that have openedup about their struggles, it pulled back the curtain and provided us with a very real and very scary look into what happens off the ice for so many athletes.

“If you die now, without speaking up or saying anything … what good will that do?”

It takes a lot of guts to open up like that

“Turns out that less than a month after I’d gone to my team and asked for help, I got traded away to another city. I asked for help, and I got shipped out. Lesson fucking learned.”

As the audience reading this, we might ask ourselves, why now? Many athletes like Nick have all come to the same realization that these difficult experiencescan’t stay bottled up anymore, and they have to come out.

But the truth of the matter is that regardless of how far we’ve come with breaking barriers on mental illness, behind the scenes discrimination and lack of understanding like Nick describes still happens all the time at every level, and not just in sports.

“This is real life. As real as it gets. Guys are suffering. In some cases, people are dying. And it simply doesn’t have to be like that.”

Guys can be afraid to speak up because of how they might be perceived

“Sometimes you have to let your guard down and ask for help. Sometimes that’s part of growing up. As a professional we all fight a fight no one knows about. When you’re comfortable and content in your own skin you’re not afraid to speak up, and I think that’s what really exemplifies a true man, showing emotion, asking for help, communication.”

– Jordin Tootoo

Every time we hear stories about people’s experiences with mental health, the momentum grows and gets stronger. There’s a lot of positive energy associated with this. The snowball effect where brave guys go out on a limb and tell their story is powerful, and encourages other guys to follow suit. There’s no need to keep masking pain and pretending to be okay when you’re really not.

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed, scared, lonely and sensitive – it’s what makes us human.

Breaking down mental health barriers in sports

We can all do our part in making sure that the younger generations have mental health support and resources readily available to them, as well playing a role in chipping away at the residual stigma that still lingers.

Here’s a quick snapshot of how current and former NHL’ers are leveraging their platform to further the message.

  • Paul Martin hosted his first annual charity concert for Shine A Ligh7, which helps raise awareness for those affected by bullying, depression, and mental health issues.
  • Kevin Bieksa lost his best friend and Vancouver Canucks teammate Rick Rypien in August 2011 after he took his own life. Bieksa committed himself to promoting mental health awareness by teaming up with the Canucks organization to create a website for those suffering from mental illness.
  • Corey Hirsch made his post-hockey goal to educate the next generation on mental health. “If I would have known at that time what was happening to me – the next day I could have got help. If we have a sore shoulder as a player, and you go into the locker room, it’s seen as okay. You get help and there’s a protocol to get better,” says Hirsch. There needs to be a better protocol for mental health.

With a misguided masculine culture still lingering in hockey, we need to support guys while they’re playing the game, and not just when they’re done, so they can be open about mental health in their locker rooms.

Whether it’s at the professional level, house league and everything in between – we can collectively do a better job at teaching our younger generation of athletes across every sport that you don’t have to keep everything bottled away from the world – it’s okay to open up and ask for help – just like what Nick Boynton did.

“I can only plow ahead. And my story actually isn’t all bad. I’m happy to say that I’m actually more hopeful and optimistic right now, at this very moment, than I’ve been in years. Part of that has to do with being able to get my story out there like this.”

Nick Boynton

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