A gruff cowboy leans against a wall in the Courtyard Marriott Hotel in Calgary, his hat pulled down low over his eyes.
It’s one of the last places you might expect to see a vintage, boot-wearing wrangler – especially outside of Calgary Stampede season – but there he stands, one hand in his pocket and a serious look spread across his weathered faced.
Clint Malarchuk, 55, has seen plenty of things – both on and off the ice – over nearly 40 years involved in hockey.
What most people remember about Malarchuk’s playing career is the fact he survived a scary incident in which an errant skate blade severed his carotid artery and jugular vein while tending goal for the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.
Combine that incomprehensible tale of survival with the hardened exterior of a cowboy and Malarchuk is the last person folks might expect to deal with mental health issues on a daily basis.
But in 2008, Malarchuk shot himself in the head – an incident that came following a long ordeal with deep depression. It’s no secret and something he’s detailed in his autobiography, “The Crazy Game.” Despite the attempted suicide, the battle-tested cowboy survived another seemingly fatal trial.
Now, Malarchuk is a regular speaker for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and it’s precisely that which brought him to the Courtyard Marriot for the Western Hockey League’s General Managers and Coaches Seminar on Tuesday, Sept. 13.
On hand to address WHL management and coaches regarding the importance of supporting their players mentally and emotionally, Malarchuk spoke to the pressures and realities faced by amateur athletes in this day and age.
His presentation came in conjunction with the soft rollout of Talk Today – a comprehensive mental health program launched by CMHA Ontario for amateur sports in Canada – that the WHL has implemented and included as a new piece within its extensive WHL Players First Program.
Malarchuk is striving to help end the stigma surrounding mental illness, not just within hockey, but in society in general.
“I think as a society we’re getting better on this, and with hockey players, especially these young guys just trying to make it,” Malarchuk said in an exclusive interview with the WHL. “They’re so full of the goal and yet some of us struggle. And I say us, because I was right there as a Western Hockey League player – nowhere to turn. It would be looked at as maybe weak, so you hide it – you hide your struggles.
“Now, with what we’re doing, players don’t have to suffer in silence.”
The eccentric goaltender suited up for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks from 1979 through 1981. “Full of the goal,” as he put it, Malarchuk was drafted in the fourth round (74th overall) by the Quebec Nordiques at the 1981 NHL draft.
But it wasn’t so simple then and one might argue it’s even more complex today than it was during Malarchuk’s tenure in Portland.
“These kids are away from home, they’ve got a tremendous amount of pressure of trying to be the best they can be to get drafted and to go to the next level,” Malarchuk said. “The pressure and stresses of life – for a guy that’s 17, 18 – oh my God, this is enormous. Enormous. You can’t sleep at night. You really can’t sleep at night. I know what these kids are going through.
“If there’s an element to that, that maybe they’re from a family like I was that was abusive – my dad was an alcoholic and kind of abusive – it’s very frustrating for these kids. We need them to know that we are there for them as coaches, GMs, me – a mental health advocate – and the Western Hockey League.
“We’re making strides to help these guys.”
Fresh for the 2016-17 WHL season is Talk Today – a mental health support program being added under the extensive umbrella of the WHL’s comprehensive league-wide player support system known as the WHL Players First Program.
“In today’s day and age, people at the age group that we have as our players are under enormous pressure,” said Cameron Hope, president and general manager for the WHL’s Victoria Royals. “For them to know that there’s a group of people that have got their back is important.
“The biggest challenge is one of the ones you always hear about with young men – although they’re one of the most vulnerable groups, they’re also the least likely to want to step forward and talk about [mental health]. Traditionally, people felt that shows weakness when, in fact, it shows strength. That message is getting through with this generation of players and young men, it seems to be getting through more than it was with us old guys. But that’s really the important thing about having a formal standard across the league – they understand that everybody all around the league, locally and nationally, has their back in this.”
Talk Today features four key pillars – mental health training for players and support staff, a designated CMHA mental health coach for each Club, a local Mental Health Champion acting as an advocate within the community, along with a series of Talk Today Community Events set to be hosted in each WHL market during February game days this upcoming season.
“The WHL is, first and foremost, doing a great deal of player development with their Players First Program and player support,” said Joe Kim, director of communications for CMHA. “It’s commendable, for sure. We’re happy to be included in that Players First envelope of services.”
According to Kim, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 24 in Canada. On top of that, 70 per cent of mental illnesses have an onset during adolescence.
“It’s important to break down stigma around mental health issues at a young age so that young people can feel comfortable coming out and speaking about any challenges they might be having,” Kim said, “so they can get the treatment that they need… so they can go on to lead productive lives and in this case, lead productive lives on and off the ice.”
Talk Today was originally introduced in the Ontario Hockey League in 2014 – in part, a response to the tragic death of 20-year-old Terry Trafford, a former player with the Saginaw Spirit, who took his own life just as it was about to enter a new chapter.
Since the program was introduced in Ontario, Kim said there has been widespread impact and positive reception as Talk Today takes its place within amateur sport.
Kim said Talk Today has provided mental health training and suicide-prevention workshops for 600 OHL players, 160 billets and nearly 80 coaches. The goal is for Talk Today to have the same effect, if not better, out west.
“What we’re hearing from them is that they’re taking this training and using it, not only at the rink, but outside in their regular lives,” Kim said. “We know some players have helped classmates, schoolmates. They’ve helped friends who have been struggling for one reason or another. We know billets who have taken the course, the workshops, and they’ve helped individuals at work who might have been struggling and contemplated suicide.
“We’re always hearing anecdotal stories as to how the people taking the workshops are using what they’ve learned and translating that into everyday life.”
Now, the Western Hockey League and its Member Clubs are aiming to help Talk Today grow even more, with the goal of ending stigma surrounding mental illness while helping to provide better support for staff and players, alike.
“If that’s the difference between whether a player is aware, or whether a player gets to the stage where they feel comfortable coming forward and talking, that can save a life,” Hope said. “It can save someone from a lot of aggravation and anxiety. If what we do brings that awareness level up one notch, just to help one extra player, that makes it worthwhile.”
As the sun set on the WHL General Managers and Coaches Seminar this past week, Malarchuk moseyed on out, having challenged those men to step up and take ownership over the health and safety of their players. Having been through his own internal war, he only hopes today’s player doesn’t have to suffer through the same.
“I lived in my own hell, anguish,” Malarchuk said. “Now, we’ve got a place that, if there is a kid that is suffering or disoriented in any way mentally or physically, he can turn to a program. I think it’s just astronomically great for Ron [Robison, Commissioner of the WHL] to implement this program. It’s awesome.”
With his final parting words, Malarchuk wished to deliver a message for players as important as the program catered for them.
“Do not, do not, do not suffer in silence,” he said. “It is not a weakness. It is a sickness or an injury… where you’re going through something and you need help. Do not suffer in silence. Reach out. We are here. The league is here, the coaches are here, the GMs are here and the CMHA is here.
“We can help you. Just reach out. Don’t live this ordeal alone. Reach out and get help. You can be happy.”
The Western Hockey League is a world leader in the development of players, coaches and officials for NHL, CIS and Hockey Canada, while offering the finest player experience and academic opportunities.
Talk Today is simply one piece within a wide scope of support initiatives provided to players by the Western Hockey League’s Players First Program, while the WHL Scholarship and Education Program continues to guarantee post-secondary scholarships.
The WHL Players First Program includes the Red Cross RespectEd Seminars, Respect in Sport certification, Police/Player Impact Program, CHL Concussion Management Program, CHL Drug Education and Anti-Doping Program, WHL Career Counselling, Talk Today as well as the WHL Security Network and WHL Club Liaison Officers.
The WHL was awarded with a national citation by the Canadian Red Cross in 2013 for its contributions to the prevention of harassment and abuse in the game. As a part of the WHL Players First Program, Red Cross RespectEd seminars are mandatory across the league, designed to create a better awareness of healthy relationships, bullying and harassment.
Respect in Sport, an organization co-founded by Wayne McNeil and Sheldon Kennedy, provides WHL management, coaches and support staff with certification on prevention and awareness of bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination.
The WHL Security Network requires each Member Club to assign a Club Liaison Officer to its players. The role of WHL Club Liaison Officers is to serve as a mentor for all players and provide support services.
The WHL’s mandatory Police/Player Impact Program is administered by the WHL Club Liaison Officers. Established prior to the 2015-16 campaign, the WHL Police/Player Impact Program was designed in collaboration with the Calgary Police Service and Calgary Flames. It covers topics such as social media, relationships and consent, the risk of drugs, alcohols and gambling, diversity and leadership to ensure a safe and respectful environment for all players.
The CHL Concussion Management Program was implemented in 2006 and provides baseline testing of players, injury and post-injury evaluation protocols, and standardized return-to-play protocols.
For each season played in the WHL, the WHL Scholarship and Education Program guarantees one year of post-secondary scholarship to each player, which includes tuition, compulsory fees and required textbooks. A player is guaranteed the WHL Scholarship by signing a WHL Standard Player Agreement, provided he does not sign a professional hockey contract in the NHL, or in some cases, with a top-level European club. A player is allowed to play minor professional hockey (AHL, ECHL, etc.) before he must activate his scholarship.
Each year, over 180 WHL Scholarship recipients further their education while playing elite hockey at the CIS or collegiate level. Additionally, over 300 WHL graduate players attend post-secondary institutions on full WHL Scholarships at over 80 different institutions across North America.
Since 1993, the WHL has awarded over 5,800 scholarships to graduate players representing an investment in excess of $21 million by WHL Ownership.