I’m not famous.
And as strange as it might sound, I think that’s one of the big reasons why I wanted to write this. Because, in some ways, I’m more like you than I am like the top players in my sport. I’m not a superstar, or a transcendent talent. I’m just a hardworking goalie who busted his butt to become a pro and then bounced around the lower professional leagues for a few years and is currently playing overseas in Germany.
You’ve never heard of me.
You don’t know my name.
But it’s Ben.
And I’ve got a story I’d like to share with you if you have a few minutes to spare.
Imago via ZUMA Press
It’s about a kid who loved hockey so much that he forgot to love himself. And what it feels like to want nothing more than to do all you can to break into the NHL and make your childhood dream come true … while at the same time knowing that you’re not well. That something is very wrong. But that if you tell someone, or let it be known that you’re struggling, you may never play professional hockey again.
It’s about what it’s like to be just another guy. A name on a roster. Nothing special. But to still have dreams about one day playing on the biggest stage, against the best in the world.
And it’s about what I believe to be a serious mental health issue in the world of minor league hockey. One that doesn’t make the headlines and is pretty much being ignored by most people in the game.
It’s also, though, about getting to a point where you’re so depressed — about hockey, and life, and just the way things are — that you very nearly kill yourself.
And then what remains when you decide not to go through with it.
Before I really dive into what I’ve gone through the past few years, I need to give you some context for why struggling with mental health issues as a minor league player can be especially challenging.
In short: Minor league hockey is very different from the NHL.
With most professional leagues in North America — everything below the NHL and AHL — your salary is negotiated as a weekly amount that includes health care coverage and housing costs. You make $450 a week, or $1,000, or whatever it is … basically whatever the team that signed you is willing to pay.
For me, that meant earning $500 a week. Pre-tax. Before agent fees and union dues are deducted. So, take-home, it was more like $395.
And, look, that’s not me complaining about the money. People like me … we choose this path. Most of us would play for free because we love this game so much. So we understand. You’re not going to get rich playing minor league hockey. We get that.
What’s more distressing, though, is the week-to-week part of things. Literally everything about your livelihood in the low minors is week-to-week, including your ability to see a doctor and whether you have a place to live. The way contracts are structured means that at any given moment, with no warning, a player can be waived and have nothing. NHL or AHL players report to the team’s lower-level affiliate when they get sent down, but guys in the ECHL and SPHL? We just get cut and … go away.
If you get really lucky, maybe another team in your league will sign you. But if that doesn’t happen after the 48-hour waiver period closes, you kind of just head back home … and that’s basically that.
When you’re at the bottom rung, there’s nowhere else to go but home.
The very real possibility of losing your status as a professional hockey player — your entire livelihood, really — in a flash … well that can weigh on you. And if you’re already dealing with mental health issues, or having a difficult time in some other aspect of your life, that do-or-die situation in the low minors can make everything so much worse.
But for a lot of guys down in the minors, deciding whether to reach out for help becomes a lose-lose proposition. If you speak up and tell someone that you need to miss time for an injury that’s not necessarily visible — no broken ankle or sprained wrist — not only do you lose your spot on the roster while you’re out, it could mean that you lose your job as a professional hockey player altogether.
Teams at that level have razor-thin profit margins, so they aren’t looking to have a ton of guys earning paychecks while sitting on IR. And while they can’t technically cut you due to an injury you suffer on the ice, something like depression or anxiety might not be seen as an “injury” that leaves you physically unable to play. So a team might be able to move on from you in those situations. And when you’re hurting and struggling and battling depression, or anxiety, the last thing you want to do is something that could result in you suffering even more by potentially leading to the end of your career. In a lot of ways, that “end of the line” element to everything makes minor league hockey players even less likely to speak up about mental health issues than guys in the NHL.
Players are even more likely to clam up. They make that call based on everything they’re seeing going on around them, and on a desire to keep the dream of playing in the NHL alive.
But let me tell you … for some of us, it can become a nightmare.
Christian Murdock/The Gazette/AP
I’m a person who has struggled with depression, anxiety and OCD for a long time. Growing up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I never fit in with the cool crowd, and I was bullied relentlessly in school. I found it tough to trust people, or to open up, because of the teasing and bullying I experienced.
And even from a very young age, playing a heavily team-centered sport like hockey was a big challenge for me. I struggled socializing with teammates and was constantly worrying about what they thought of me. I truly loved playing goalie, and excelled on the ice, but everything else about being a teammate was difficult. I was just always anxious and nervous about every little thing. By the time I began playing at American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts, I had also developed a fear of crowds and large groups of people, and I always imagined that when people saw me in public they’d be whispering about me, or saying negative things. And that didn’t even have anything to do with hockey. I just worried that people would think I was weird, or uncool … and then would be mean. I was living in fear at all times.
When it came time to play professional hockey in the ECHL, that way of thinking meant I was constantly worried about getting cut. And having OCD meant that during my time in that league, I actually knew how many goalies were gunning for me.
I fixated on the numbers. I did the math.
I knew that there were 98 professional teams in North America … so there were exactly 196 jobs for goalies. I’d always come back to the fact that in North America alone there are usually around 320 free agent goalies from D-I, D-III, Canadian colleges, SPHL, AHL, ECHL and the NHL, fighting for what amounts to only a few open spots at any one time.
I had nothing against any of those guys, but in my mind they became my enemies. And lots of times it seemed like I could actually feel them breathing down my neck. All 320 of them.
That made me even more anxious and paranoid and … afraid. Most of my waking hours were spent worrying about losing my livelihood and being out of work and falling short of my dream.
I always knew exactly how many free-agent goalies were available at any given time. I was obsessed. I’d have browser windows open on my computer from every league so that I could track goalie movement. And when I read something about a college goalie standing on his head, or saw something on the wire about an NHL trade, or that an AHL guy got injured, or what have you, my mind was already spinning about which goalie was coming for me. I was convinced that my walking papers were already being drawn up.
Every. Single. Time.
It was debilitating.
Imago via ZUMA Press
When moves were made that directly involved me, it was even worse. Even if I was moving up the ladder instead of down, I’d be absolutely convinced that the end of my career was near.
Back in 2013, when Viktor Fasth was playing for Anaheim and was forced to miss some time because of an injury, I was playing for the Ducks’ ECHL affiliate in Utah. And as soon as Fasth went down, things moved fast. The Ducks called up an AHL goalie, I got called up to Norfolk of the AHL, and another goalie was signed to replace me in Utah while I was gone.
Well, not really.
As soon as Viktor was healthy, I was returned to Utah, and the goalie who replaced me there was released. That’s just the way it works. Every move has a trickle-down impact. No big thing. But, for me, when that happened it was just a vivid reminder that I was only one step away from that same fate — that I could very easily be the guy going home next time around.
There was no margin for error. My job was in jeopardy at all times. And for whatever reason, I never spent much time thinking about potentially moving up. It was always the fear of being released. I was constantly stressed, and the anxiety just kept building.
I found myself in tears daily. I was having panic attacks. I was afraid of anything and everything.
I mean, forget about a fear of leaving the house. I was a few levels beyond that. At the time I was living with two other players, and there were lots of days when I couldn’t even leave my bedroom because I was too scared to see my roommates. I felt like if I walked out into the living room, they would see me and ask how I was doing, or what was wrong … and I had no idea what I was going to say.
All I could think about was the hundreds of goalies out there in the world ready to jump up and take my career away, and it was making me miserable. But when I considered trying to get some help, I always knew the deal.
Putting me on IR for mental health reasons would mean paying me my full salary not to play the game and paying the full salary of my replacement. Maybe a team would do that. But maybe they wouldn’t. And I wasn’t willing to take that chance … even when things got really bad.
I found myself in tears daily. I was having panic attacks. I was afraid of anything and everything.I’d be up most nights pacing, worrying, panicked, having anxiety attacks, feeling like I was inches from death. If I was able to get some sleep, when I opened my eyes each morning, I was positive that it was going to be the day that my professional hockey career ended. And then, while I was awake, my mind wouldn’t stray far from those thoughts.
I’d have panic attacks at home, in the car, on the ice. It was never ending.
Sometimes, out of nowhere, my leg would just start shaking. I’d have rapid heart rate increases, tingling in my limbs. I’d get dizzy for no reason one minute and then be crying uncontrollably the next.
I was in a total downward spiral, and my goaltending suffered right along with me. Nothing at all seemed to be going right. I eventually even got to the point where my OCD had me thinking about harming myself.
It was just … all bad. Beyond bad, actually.
But in my mind, if I said, “Coach, I need some help because I have severe anxiety, and my OCD is running wild,” I would be giving up my dream of making it to the NHL. I felt that if I said something, or asked for help, one of those other goalies out in the world would be on a plane to take my spot.
And I honestly believe tons of guys in the minors feel the exact same way. They may not be dealing with the same issues I was, or have reached the same depths, but they’ve been kind of conditioned to keep quiet if things aren’t going well. I can tell you point-blank that there are lots and lots of guys I’ve played with who struggled with depression and other mental health issues, but chose not to tell the coaches or trainer because they were scared of jeopardizing their pro careers.
It’s too big a risk.
So lots of guys like me just keep quiet.
We bottle everything up and do our best to get through each day without breaking down. Just like tons of other players we know.
But that’s no way to live. You can’t do that forever.
When I found myself standing on that chair in my apartment, with the noose around my neck, I’d reached a point where it felt like there was nothing left to live for.
My game wasn’t progressing the way I had hoped, and everything just kept snowballing on me. Thoughts of suicide had been with me for probably three or four years. But I never told anyone. I was afraid they’d judge me, or tell my coach, or … just think I was crazy.
In my darkest times, I specifically remember thinking a bunch of really scary things — stuff about a will, or what I’d write in my suicide note. And, for whatever reason, the one thought that kept popping into my head was….
What would be the least messy way to do this?
I didn’t have a gun, and I didn’t really know where to get one. So I started thinking about maybe using pills, but then it was like, Where do I get the pills?
When I started thinking about hanging myself, I struggled most with the fact that someone would have to walk into a room and find me hanging there. But I kept telling myself that it would probably be someone who didn’t know me, and not a member of my family. That was huge for me. I didn’t want a gruesome sight for them.
I also figured they’d want to see my body in the morgue. And I didn’t want it to be something where they wouldn’t be able to recognize me. I thought maybe they’d want an open casket, too. So I figured hanging myself would make the most sense.
On the surface, I was living a great life. I mean, I was playing professional hockey for a living. I had a family that supported and cared about me.
But it wasn’t enough.
None of it mattered by that point.
My skills for coping were no match for the pain and sadness and fear I experienced on a daily basis. And on that afternoon, I just couldn’t take it anymore.
I was playing professional hockey for a living. I had a family that supported and cared about me. But it wasn’t enough.I somehow still got myself to practice, though. And, honestly, it wasn’t even a tough decision to make. I knew I had a job to do, and that, no matter how bad I felt, I owed it to my teammates to be there with them, putting in work.
But after practice got out, on my walk back home to my apartment, I found myself bawling the entire time. I just couldn’t stop crying. And that’s when I decided to head to the hardware store for the rope.
I was living alone at the time, and as I was setting everything up in my apartment, I just kept thinking about how people would react if I went through with it. My family, of course, and how sad they’d be. But since I had practice the next day, I also wondered what my teammates would think when I didn’t show up. They weren’t aware that I was struggling. I didn’t open up to them. So I thought about how shocked they’d be.
The other thought running through my mind, though, was something that I couldn’t seem to shake while I was standing up there on that chair. I just kept asking myself….
What’s going to happen to me after I do this?
And, as strange as it might sound, that’s what kept me from going through with it in the end. That fear of what would happen next.
I knew that if I was alive, I’d wake up the next morning scared and fearful and nervous, like I always did. But at least I knew what that day would look like. I could know that I was going to wake up and I’d have … something. I’d be alive.
But that fear of what comes next after you die really got to me for some reason.
I don’t know anything about the afterlife. I wasn’t raised in a religious family. So I didn’t know what would be next — or if there would even be a next — and that was really scary. I kept thinking about if I had lived a good life, and if I had done right during my time in the world.
After a few minutes of standing up there, I took the rope from around my neck, stepped off the chair, and laid down on the floor.
I cried for what felt like forever, but I made it through to the next day.
I’m only alive today because I ultimately did reach out for help.
Earlier this year, over in Germany, after struggling for so long, and saying nothing to anyone because I was scared I’d lose my livelihood, I somehow found the courage to get some help and meet up with a psychologist.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that it saved my life.
That saved my life. Had I not gotten help at that point, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this.
Once I found help, and I was diagnosed officially, there was this massive sense of relief that washed over me. And since then, I’ve come to better understand the mental health issues I’ve been battling for so long.
I no longer feel like I’m broken beyond repair, or that I’m dealing with something that no one else could possibly understand. After finding someone to talk to about this stuff, everything became just so much more manageable, if that makes sense. Suddenly I felt like, with a lot of work, and help, I might be able to overcome the issues I’ve been dealing with and create a new life for myself — a life where happiness was actually a real possibility.
I hadn’t felt that way for years. And it’s almost hard to even put into words what it feels like. But I guess the best I can do is to use the word hope.
There is hope for me again. And with hope comes a sense of optimism and empowerment.
Imago via ZUMA Press
But, look, don’t get me wrong: Things aren’t all rosy for me now. I still sometimes struggle with depression, and I have my bad days for sure. I’m still working. Still fighting every day to stay above water and remain positive.
Opening up, pulling back the curtain, digging in and exploring your problems … that stuff is not easy. I understand that this is a long-term battle for me, though. And I’m proud to say that I’ve been doing a pretty good job with it.
I really enjoy playing professional hockey in Germany, and, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I’m genuinely happy. I now see every single day as a blessing — as something special and exciting and filled with opportunity.
I can’t tell you how much better it is to live like that. It makes all the difference in the world.
And it really does all go back to me reaching out to get help.
Literally everything about my life turned around when I was finally able to work up the courage to speak up about my struggles. It took me years and years and years, but I eventually got there. And that’s by far the most important thing.
When I look back on my time in the minors, it’s definitely tough not to be kind of sad about how everything played out for me. Because I truly believe that the way things work in minor league hockey made it even harder for me to put myself out there and ask for support. For the longest time, it just seemed like everything about the minor league setup was leading me to keep quiet and struggle in silence. And I just hope that it won’t have to be like that for players in the future.
Going forward, I’m hoping that more teams will begin employing mental health professionals who can get to know all the players and become trusted allies and advocates when guys need help. It won’t necessarily make it a ton easier to come forward, but once you have someone you know and trust and can reach out to when you’re struggling, it can make a real difference. Some teams have sports psychologists on the payroll to deal with on-the-ice stuff and performance issues, but that support is less about day-to-day mental health struggles.
That’s not good enough at this point, in my opinion. We need to do more.
I challenge teams and leagues to take a hard look at this issue, and to step up and make some changes for the sake of their players.
But, you know what, at the end of the day … this is actually something that’s so much bigger than hockey.
It’s about all of us, and the importance of reaching out for help when you need it.
So if you only remember one thing from my story, please let it be me saying to you right now that, as hard as taking that first step to get help can be, it’s just … absolutely worth it in the end.
It’s the best thing you could ever do for yourself, and for those who love you.
And, look, for real, if you’re struggling right now, and anything about what I’ve written here has resonated with you, and you’re not sure where to turn, I’d be happy to connect up and support you in any way that I can.
That’s not just me saying that, either. I mean it. I’m serious. Get in touch. You can reach me at email@example.com.
Most people know me as Ben. But if you want, you can call me “Meis.”
I’m just a hardworking hockey goalie out here trying to get by in this world, and if you need me….
I am here for you.