Mind Games: Mental Health, Hockey Fandom, And How What You Love Can Nearly Kill You

Note. This post will contain swearing. It will also contain discussion of potential triggering topics like self-harm, suicidal ideation and verbal abuse. If you feel vulnerable to be triggered by any mention of these, feel free to stop reading at any point. In short-if you want sunshine and rainbows, then in this post you’re in the wrong place. 

People follow hockey, like any sport for many reasons. Some love the competition, some love the sense of community, some love to watch athletic feats very few are capable of.

Hockey, for me, is an addiction. I need the sound of an Easton Synergy striking a puck, the shhrip of skates on ice, the sight of a forward going end-to-end before beating a goalie, or the primal yowl of a goal horn like a crack addict needs a fix or a drowning swimmer needs oxygen. It flows through my blood like water. Whenever there’s a game on there’s a good chance I’ll be trying to find a way to either read about it on Twitter or watch it live.

So far, so “obsessed sports fan”. This post isn’t different to many others, is it?

Except for me, it is. One of the reasons I watch hockey so obsessively and it dominates most waking moments is because the thought of missing the next game and the community around it has, at times, been one of the few things keeping me alive during my battle with clinical depression.

People who’ve never suffered it get funny ideas about mental illness. They think that it’s something that people “bring upon themselves” or “choose to be miserable”. They think it’s something that can be joked about-“banter” in the hateful modern sense of the word. They also think that because you can’t see evidence of mental illness the first time you meet a person, or even often any evidence of suffering, that it’s somehow not a “real” thing.

And I envy anyone who can dismiss mental illness like that. Because they’re fucking lucky.

Depression, and indeed any mental illness is a cast-iron fucking bastard of a thing-because unlike most “physical” illnesses it’s not something you can get rid of after a while with the right plaster or a few days bed-rest. It also appears to have no discernible cause. You can’t “catch” mental illness, or take measures to avoid it through healthy lifestyle/exercise or whatever else. It either hits you or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, bad fucking luck.

It’s a thing that sufferers have to fight with every single day just to function like “normal” human beings. In the case of depression-imagine having a vicious demon sink its claws into your back, tear your soul to pieces in front of you and then spend every moment of every day whispering in your ear that the world would be better off without you in it…that you’re a burden on everyone and everything you love, and that every accomplishment and sense of self in your life has no value.

But also imagine that every so often, that demon leaves you for a little while, and so you get a glimpse of how life can be for those “normal” people. You think you’re doing better. Then, back they come again and every single thing you’ve done seems utterly pointless. And imagine that when you go to bed each night, you simply don’t know whether your own mind will leave you in peace for a little while or do its level best to kill you the following day.

Depression lies to you. It plays with your head, view of the world and everything you know about yourself like a dog playing with a chew toy. On its worst days, depression makes the endless black hole of oblivion sound almost welcoming compared to what its putting you through.

On its worst days, like it did with me last year, depression can lead to you standing by a level crossing with the gates down, listening to a train approaching and hearing a seductive, evil whisper in your ear, over and over again.

Go on. Step onto the track. Then all the hurt will go away and I’ll leave you alone. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Just one step onto the track. What’s stopping you?”

In my case, one of the things that stopped me was the thought “if I don’t step onto the track, I’ll still get to go and play hockey tomorrow”.

The struggles of hockey players with mental health have been well documented. Cases like that of Theo Fleury, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and others have gone a long way to publicising player mental health issues among hockey fans. They’ve been dealt with in print by me previously, and also far better by other people elsewhere so I’m not going to touch upon them here.

But here’s a thought…it’s struck me massively in my travels through hockey writing and hockey fandom that while there appears to be slow improvement across the hockey world as far as player mental health goes, the hockey community still seemingly has a lot of people who can’t accept that there are hundreds of thousands, possibly millions among them who are fighting their own daily battles with the black dog.

This brings me on to the second part of the post…hockey fandom. Whilst there are many, many supportive hockey fans out there who have either suffered their own struggles with mental health or know people who have, there are many, many others who seem, still, to think that diseases of the mind are things to joke about, belittle, attack, and ignore. Or who simply don’t realise that being sad about a player’s death and then in the next breath viciously abusing a fellow fan on social media, using terms like “mental” to describe player actions or generally attacking people is doing far more damage to the mental health cause than they realise.

Some of those elements of hockey fandom (some of whom like to set themselves up as “prominent mental health advocates” nearly contributed to me stepping in front of that train. They likely push others to consider doing the same, all over the world. Probably without even realising it.

The worst thing, still, is that whenever people like me try to speak out against the stigmatising and marginalisation peddled by some in the hockey community (notably, for British hockey fans, a team owner disparagingly referring to a rival as “mentally ill” live on a TV broadcast to get a cheap laugh) we’re told WE’RE the ones with the problem, not the attackers.

After all, making jokes about mental health to a whole community is exactly the same as calling someone a cunt on social media, threatening them, firing misogynistic or homophobic insults around amongst your friends about people who have a different opinion to you. It’s just…banter, right? It’s only words. Stop choosing to be offended! Lighten up a bit!

It’s not. Comments like those in the UK of Nottingham Panthers’ Gary Moran, or the regular horrendousness found in comment threads and sites like Barstool Sports in North America, and the dismissal of our concerns over it by the “cool kids” in hockey fandome is something that, for me and many others, makes one of the things I love the most not only something that keeps me alive, but at times something that makes my and many others’ battle with themselves harder. And it’s something that could be avoided so easily by people taking a few seconds before sending that abusive message, Tweet or yelling that homophobic or racist slur at a player who’s annoyed you and thinking “is this REALLY the best way to express myself here? How would I react if the same thing was fired at me?”

At the moment, mainly due to the above, hockey fandom is far from an ideal place for people like me. However, the number of people who are working to change that and make it a supportive, welcoming place is growing. It’s struck me recently how many people out there use hockey, both playing and watching, not just as a leisure activity, but as balm for wounded souls. It’s also struck me how many of them are now refusing to be ashamed by their feelings, and asking for help, or admitting that yes, they are mentally ill but whatever the black dog might say, they are still valuable.

Surely that’s a good thing. Surely a hockey fandom in which people can feel welcome whoever they are and whatever they’re suffering is better than one in which team owners can make jokes about it uncensured, and people can claim to be sad about one person’s depression and its effects because they happen to be a prominent hockey player while trivialising and even exacerbating it for many others.

Today is “Bell Let’s Talk” day in North America. It’s a yearly exercise run by the Bell telecommunications company to raise money for mental health causes. It’s also aimed at spreading the conversation about mental health and removing the stigma attached to it. It’s something prominently supported by North American players in the UK every single year.

Maybe it’s time that hockey in the UK followed the lead of North America, and began to publicly support mental health charities and causes.

Maybe it’s time to make a change.

Because those of us like me, who are hockey fans and also happen to suffer from mental health problems aren’t going away. There are far more of us than you realise, and it’s our sport too. For some of us, it’s part of a life-support system.

We’re here and we want to talk.

The question is, hockey…do you want to listen?

If you do, then the sport will be better for all of us.

So come on. Let’s talk.


5 thoughts on “Mind Games: Mental Health, Hockey Fandom, And How What You Love Can Nearly Kill You

  1. Paul, Would you mind if I post this as a link to a few thousand people? Tremendous article and please never stop getting tired of slaying the Dragon!



  2. Brave MAN this is SPOT ON PAUL this if read Can help those who suffer To Understand they are not Alone and there is HOPE NICE ONE 🙂 UNDERSTAND ING THIS IS AND DOES HELP TO DEAL WITH IT .I KNOW IVE BEEN THERE 🙂

  3. I came across this post while trying the search engines to find my new website (link is below if you’re interested!) and I’m wholly impressed 🙂 This is a fantastic article. I got into hockey as a way to keep myself going after some really bad years and without that and my music I definitely wouldn’t be here today.

    Sometimes my relationship with hockey is not healthy, and I realise that, such as when I’m stick-checking, shoving and hassling to get a fight, or matching speed in a chase for the puck just to get a check because it makes me feel alright. Or when I use hockey as my emotional outlet, skating until it hurts, crashing into the boards instead of stopping, foregoing my preferred snapshot for a full-bodied slapshot…but I have never self-harmed. So it can’t be that bad, right?

    I am sorry you have faced issues with Hockey fans. IMHO, if someone says they’re a hockey fan, but they are disrespectful in any way on purpose, they are not a true hockey fan.

    Someone put a question on Yahoo Answers not so long ago about whether it was ok to support two NHL teams. Another person posted a reply along the lines of “x hates y hates z” (I think one of them was ‘Flyers hate Oilers hate Canucks’) which is bull. Sure there’s rivalry but it isn’t hatred. My response was the following:

    “No it most definitely is not. You root for whoever the hell you want to root for.

    I guess the thing that makes me proud to be a hockey player and fan is the fact that despite it being the most violent sport that isn’t a martial art or boxing, it has one of the lowest rates of off-ice or fan violence, hatred, prejudice etc.. From my anecdotal experience alone, the team I train with were having a post-session debrief the other day and someone jokingly suggested that one of the other players might be gay, and we had a bit of a laugh at the guy’s expense (he started digging himself into a hole) but then the manager made it clear that it wouldn’t be a problem even if it were the case and everyone agreed. The guys at hockey were also the first people to which I came out as trans and they were also the first people who knew who were cool with using the right pronouns for me and accepting me as ‘one of the guys’.

    I was born in Peterborough (UK) so naturally I support Peterborough Phantoms, by default. Since I moved up North, my nearest rink is Blackburn Arena, and I train with the U18s so I support Blackburn Hawks. I’m also a fast-set Nuck at heart. But I also support players individually. Like, I’m a huge Nathan Gerbe fan, and an Eric Staal fan, so when Hurricanes are on, I’ll root for them. I’m also a pretty big Gretzky fan (who isn’t?) so even though he’s retired, I’ll still root for Oilers if Nucks or Hurricanes aren’t playing. Sure, it gets awkward if I’ve got two of my top teams playing against each other but what does it matter? Hockey is hockey.

    Yeah so hockey has its moments. Like when that Nuck got sent off and a fan made a crass remark and next thing you know the Nuck has the fan by his collar. Or the Punch-up in Piestany back in ’87. There have been personal rivalries between players and fans.

    But what about the rest of the time? The Canucks, not so long ago, invited a transgender Goalie to join them on the ice at a game. The ‘If You Can Play, You Can Play’ campaign has been taken right on by the NHL and EVERY NHL team has a video for it. The NHL Lockout Video was another time when you just had players from loads of different teams basically saying that everyone should have the right to play hockey, whatever team they play in. The amount of abuse referees and umpires get in so many other sports is reduced to almost nil in ice hockey. I’ve seen so many football matches where one country’s national anthem plays and NOBODY from the other country even stands up to show respect and just talk right through it or even boo it, but in every ice hockey match I’ve seen the other countries always stand up and stay quiet at least while one country’s national anthem plays. And lastly – though there are many more examples I could give – ‘Ned C’ says that ‘Flames hate Oilers hate Canucks’…but when Luc Bourdon died, at the Nucks v. Flames opening match of the ’08-’09 season, EVERYONE showed absolute respect throughout the little tribute, and many Flames fans joined in with the stick tap and cheers in memory of him, even though he was from a main rival team, and even though they did not support Luc, because hockey is about beating the **** out of other people on the ice but respecting and accepting everyone off the ice. And that is why I fricking love ice hockey.

    So basically, no. It isn’t wrong. You root for those teams. And so long as you don’t break that unwritten code of respect towards players, goalies, referees, linesmen, coaches and fans, there shouldn’t be a problem. Like Tom Cochrane said, “You never can tell what might go down/You never can tell when you might check out/You just don’t know, no, you never can tell/So do right to others like you do to yourself in the Big League”.”

    I forgot a few other events in there. Like the Rangers fans who cried at the Rick Rypien tribute at the Rangers vs. Canucks game after he died. Or the fact that when Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s plane crashed, they had to cancel the game and instead turned it into a memorial service at the ice rink. All the fans of the other team could’ve had their tickets refunded easily…but they all turned up anyway and showed such respect.

    And even something as simple as the handshake line. Not to mention the really bad press someone gets when they abuse the handshake line (*ahem* Lucic *ahem*).

    Sorry that was so long 😛

    Here is the link to my new website, Mind Games, which aims to raise awareness of mental illnesses in ice hockey players:

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