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Shining a Light in the Dark World of Hockey

Shining a Light in the Dark World of Hockey

SOUTHAVEN, Miss. — November is one of my favorite months. My oldest son’s birthday is on Halloween, so we always enter November in a spirit of celebration and joy. My birthday is just two and a half weeks later, with Thanksgiving (for us in the US) usually a week or two after that. There’s family, fun, parties, and good food all month long.   
November is also my least favorite month. 
Movember. No shave November. Prostate and testicular cancer. Men’s mental health. Suicide.
I love that there is an entire month dedicated to raising awareness for these issues, but I hate that there’s still such a stigma surrounding it all.  
I’d grow a mustache if I could. I overcame all of my fears, self-doubt, and insecurity to put myself in a position of simply being kind to hockey players in the hopes that they’d know they’re not alone. Growing a ‘stash would be simple in comparison. Even if no one else was showing them kindness and they felt they had to operate at 110 percent all day long, they could see me and know there was someone who wanted nothing from them — someone they could turn to and trust without fail.   
I have wanted to revolutionize the ways of pro hockey, to change the world possibly. I’ve seen the statistics and read the stories from former and current players discussing their struggles with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. I’ve seen it first hand in players I know. Even when they know I can see that they’re not okay, they always keep up the facade of being okay.
I think it’s a habit, that’s what they’re trained to do. That’s the culture. Can’t show anything that could be taken as weakness; you could be mocked, ridiculed, or even lose your place on the team. If you lose your place on the team, what happens then? Who am I if I’m not playing hockey?
Here’s the kicker, though. You all have the same insecurities and fears; everyone does. Even the people who seem to have it all together, are so successful and happy – they’re insecure too. Those insecurities and self-doubts are sneaky, and they can grow into something more damaging and long term when you pretend it doesn’t exist. I think that’s why men’s mental health has become such an issue, they’re trained to not deal with it, to be “men” about it, and it just grows into something bigger, or pulls them into a deep dark hole they can’t climb out of alone. 
I haven’t managed to change the world or the way people view and treat pro hockey players, but I like to think I’ve made at least a small difference to some of them. I love the beauty of hockey, photographing it is my favorite form of self-expression and art. The people in the photographs are the real reason I do what I do.  
This month, The Sin Bin team was encouraged to speak out about their struggles or experiences with mental health for Movember. I’m not really a writer and definitely not a man, so I’m probably not the most qualified to write about men’s mental health, but I wanted to share my view on it.
I could write about my struggles; how I was still in high school when I had my first panic attack while driving, which would’ve left me dead if I hadn’t had a friend in the car who took the wheel after I’d let go and tried to throw myself onto the floorboards. Or how I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression shortly after that, the medications and therapy, crippling postpartum depression after the birth of each of my three children. The panic attacks I still get in a moving vehicle when I’m tired, or I let my guard down, the irrational fears and worst-case scenarios always telling me no one likes me and trying to hurl me back down into the darkness – I will gladly share my story with anyone, just reach out and ask. If you’re just curious or if you want to feel less alone, I promise you’re not alone. Everyone has their personal darkness they’re dealing with, just as everyone has a light.  
Thanksgiving is this week, and like every year, I’ve been reflecting on what I’m thankful for. The constants in my life like my family and friends, my amazing church family, my dog Chloe (she’s a good girl), and The Sin Bin for giving me a home after losing the RiverKings. In particular, this year, I’m thankful for hockey players and the light they’ve brought into my life. Not because they’re entertaining both on and off the ice, or because of the quality photo opportunities, or just because I’m a hockey fan. But because they push me to be better and do better, because they’re more important than my fears and doubts, because they’ve taught me more about people and myself than anything ever has. For the ones who let me call them “bro” and “homie” unironically, for allowing me into their world when I had no business being there. For trusting me with their public image, and letting me see the most blinding brilliant light and the darkness that makes them up. For being the brothers I’ve always wanted.   
They are the most complex and beautiful people I’ve ever seen. Most of them are at least three different people. Goalies are more like five different people. They are fascinating and the purest form of humans.
Their job is hard, impossible for ordinary people, and the lifestyle they’ve chosen for themselves is uncertain and scary, but they handle it with a grace few people possess. Imagine you’re at work, and there’s a point system in place. Every time you’re at work, you’re competing against half of the people there, all while people sit there screaming at you, some in encouragement, others trying to tear you down. When your workday is over, win or lose, you are mobbed by the same people who were screaming at you; some want selfies, or your autograph, or just a bit of your attention. You smile and take the pictures and sign the autographs and give fist bumps to the kids. At some point, you get a little older, or maybe you get injured, and the same people who were asking for your autograph are now saying you need to go, you’re not good enough. You’re worthless. Your boss randomly calls you into his office and tells you you’ve been let go. You are replaced by someone newer and younger. Everything you’ve been working so hard for is just… gone. You have no say in it, pack your stuff and move on to the next city, or let go of your dream and go back home to find something else to do. Could you do it?
This is the reality for pro hockey players. It’s easy to understand why substance abuse and mental health issues are so high. 
I hope someday it will change that players will be able to speak freely about how they feel and what they’re struggling with. For women, it’s a little easier in some ways. It’s become almost cute and trendy to post a sad picture on Instagram with a caption “So depressed lol,” not that that’s what depression is, but at least we can speak freely about it. Depression is more like staying in bed, shutting everyone out, not washing your hair because it’s too much work, feeling guilty, wondering what the point of things is, being agitated, not wanting to eat, feeling sluggish like you’re moving in slow motion or underwater, and a whole host of other things. It can mean wanting to die, or maybe not wanting to die but not really caring if you live. It’s giving up hope and succumbing to the deep dark hole that’s pulling you down. 
Don’t give up. Don’t let it pull you under. You might not care if you live, but I do. It looks and feels different for everyone, and you probably feel like you’re all alone, but I promise you, you’re not. You are not alone.   
So for all of my former RiverKings, new friends, and the players I haven’t met yet, I’m thankful for you. Regardless of how many goals you score, points you have, or saves you make. You’re not alone in this, and whatever you’re facing is not forever. Keep your head up, your mustache well-groomed, and know that I’ve got your back. 

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