'We have to try to help each other': Goalie using platform to drive conversation about mental health

"You're not supposed to show your weaknesses or show defeat [in hockey]," Robin Lehner said. "It's a culture thing. We have to try to help each other, and it all comes back to education and being open. And that's why I talk about it." AP Photo/Amr Alfiky

For nearly a month, Robin Lehner was wracked by night terrors.

He woke up most nights sweating -- or sleepwalking. He often looked around and had no idea where he was. Lehner had checked himself into The Meadows, an addiction and psychological trauma treatment center in Arizona, on April 4, 2018. The first step was a detox. He was secluded in a small room. "I started having consistent, vivid dreams," Lehner said. "I honestly don't know if that first month was real."

The veteran goaltender had become so dependent on alcohol and sleeping pills during his NHL career, he said, that he "probably didn't have REM sleep for eight years."

That changed during his detox. "I was seeing things -- like really crazy things," he said. "But it was just my brain catching up on sleep, and that's when I saw how powerful it is. It's tough when you start realizing what you've done to yourself."

Lehner was initially scheduled to remain at The Meadows for six weeks. He chose to stay for nearly three months. "I think he was scared to go back to the real world," Lehner's wife, Donya, said. "He also had more work to do on himself."

The Meadows had a gym, but Lehner had little desire -- let alone the energy -- to work out. After detox came therapy. Lehner attended group therapy sessions in the morning and individual sessions in the afternoon. At night he could choose between Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He alternated between both. As his doctors got to know Lehner better -- and he told them about how he had self-medicated and had thoughts of suicide -- they realized his issues went beyond addiction.

Lehner was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder, as well as ADHD and post-traumatic stress that resulted from childhood trauma. Donya was back home in Sweden with their children -- Lennox, a toddler, and Zoe, an infant -- when her husband called with the news of his diagnosis. "It wasn't scary as much as ... a relief," Donya said. "It just made so much sense. It explained why he was the way he had been."

When Lehner left rehab last summer, he finally felt like he had the support tools to thrive as a father, husband and NHL goaltender. He began taking medication prescribed by his doctors. He would keep meeting with those doctors and continue his therapy. He was committed to sobriety.

He felt stronger than ever.

But Lehner was coming off a so-so season with the Buffalo Sabres -- who did not extend him a qualifying offer -- and was now a free agent. Coming forward with his story was a risk because of the stigma attached to mental illness. His agent, lawyer, wife and close friends all advised him not to speak out. "I didn't have one person around me who thought it was a good idea," Lehner said.

Lehner had entered rehab under the guidance of the NHL and NHLPA's joint Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. The program is confidential, meaning nobody in the NHL knew he was there.

"The program is made for you to hide," Lehner said. "It's all secret. In the program, you work with some of the best people, but after you leave, [contact with them] is limited. They urine-test you, they check in with you once in a while, but it's limited."

Lehner knew that he would have to interact with his teammates. He'd also be dealing with team doctors and trainers, plus management and coaches, not to mention the media. As he committed to his mental health and well-being, Lehner wanted to live openly -- and with accountability. He didn't want to hide anymore.

Lehner signed a one-year, $1.5 million, prove-it deal with the New York Islanders on July 1, and was transparent from the start with Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello about what he was going through. And then Lehner took his newfound openness a step further.

Last September -- despite that trepidation from his inner circle -- Lehner wrote a first-person essay for The Athletic describing his journey in vivid detail. He unapologetically announced to the world exactly who he was and what he was dealing with.

"I had never had a sober season of hockey my entire career," Lehner wrote. "With those manic swings, I could see the pattern. When I was hypomanic and in a good mood, I was a solid goalie. The depressive state, not so much."

The response was both far-reaching and profound. "I think we are living in a time where transparency and authenticity is valued," commissioner Gary Bettman said. "But I can't remember another player in my time in the NHL who has been this open about such issues."

In 2018-19, Lehner had the best season of his career -- by far. The Islanders became a surprise playoff team (and swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round) as Lehner was named a Vezina Trophy finalist thanks to a .930 save percentage and a 2.13 goals-against average. Lehner and teammate Thomas Greiss won the Jennings award for allowing the fewest goals in the league. Lehner was also awarded the Masterton Trophy, given to the player who best exemplifies "the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey."

Dressed in all black, Lehner accepted the trophy at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas in June. "I'm not ashamed to say I'm mentally ill," Lehner told the crowd -- as well as a national TV audience. "But that doesn't mean I'm mentally weak."

The crowd cheered. It felt like a watershed moment for the NHL. After several pro basketball players, including Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan, publicly shared their own mental health experiences, the NBA introduced an expanded mental health policy for 2019-20. It requires every team to have at least one mental health professional on retainer and mandates that each organization identifies a licensed psychiatrist available to help manage any mental health concerns for players. The NHL does not have a similar policy in place. Lehner, however, was driving the conversation forward.

Still in his prime, Lehner, 28, was poised for a big payday this summer as a free agent. Instead, his contract negotiations with the Islanders fell apart, and less than two weeks after his speech, New York gave Semyon Varlamov, who is 3 years older than Lehner and five years removed from his Vezina finalist season, a four-year contract.

Those fears that the members of Lehner's inner circle expressed a year ago about coming forward? It felt like they were coming to fruition. On the open market, Lehner couldn't get a team to commit to a multiyear deal. The Chicago Blackhawks, meanwhile, were looking for a veteran goaltender as insurance behind starter Corey Crawford. "We only wanted to sign someone for a one-year deal," said Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman, explaining that his team needed future salary-cap flexibility. "And, quite candidly, we were surprised Lehner was available. So our talks began late in the process."

Lehner signed a one-year, $5 million deal with Chicago on July 1. The contract was quite a bargain for the Blackhawks, considering they landed a guy coming off a Vezina-finalist season.

In the NHL, contracts are guaranteed, something collectively bargained for by the players. Lehner wonders whether he might have been better off if that weren't the case.

"If I could have put a clause in my contract that it wasn't guaranteed, I truly believe I would have gotten a long-term deal, probably in Long Island," Lehner said. "I think if you add a rule into the CBA [allowing non-guaranteed contracts], a lot more people would be open and honest about their issues. Because then we put the risk on ourselves. We get to take the choice. A lot of people don't say things like [I have] because they think they will be punished in [negotiating] contracts. And the reality is, they probably will."

The NHL's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Program is designed to be confidential because it encourages players to seek help without consequence from their teams. But, after going through the program, Lehner believes it would behoove the player to involve his team and continue treatment in partnership with his employer.

"You get punished by the corporate structure for having issues, but the best way of dealing with those issues is getting everyone on the same page," Lehner said. "To do that journey in silence, or with limited help from people who are in your life on a regular basis? It's not a good rehabilitation plan."

As a child growing up in Sweden, Lehner played soccer and didn't show much interest in hockey. At age 10, Lehner says, his father, Michael, suggested he try being a hockey goalie.

Michael, a goaltending coach who would later work with New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist before Lundqvist reached the NHL, purposely put his son in older age groups to test him. He pushed Robin hard to help him catch up.

"It was tough, because I started late," Robin said. "I wasn't very good at the beginning. I had a lot of catching up to do."

In addition to coaching, Michael owned several rehabilitation facilities for drug addicts and criminals in Sweden. Robin would often visit his father at work. "So I grew up seeing all types of people on a daily basis," Lehner said. "I was around it quite a bit. Mental [illness] runs in my family; both of my family trees are quite complicated."

Lehner says there is a history of suicide and alcoholism in his family, including some close family members who have tried to kill themselves.

"I thought suicide was the most egotistical thing in the world," Lehner said. "That's because I didn't understand it, and I think that's the general perception of it. But people who don't go through depression -- who have never gone through depression -- they will never understand."

In 2009, the Ottawa Senators selected Lehner in the second round of the NHL draft. The next season, at age 18, he moved to North America to play for Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League.

"I wasn't in the best place back home in Sweden," Lehner said. "And when I moved over, I tried to start over new. It was good. I had a lot of freedom. But I was still young and immature."

Lehner said he lived with a great billet family while he played in the OHL, but he spent only one year there. The next season, the Senators moved Lehner, a highly touted prospect, up to their American Hockey League team in Binghamton, New York. Then, at age 19, he made his NHL debut when Ottawa's No. 2 goalie was injured. Lehner played eight NHL games before returning to the minors and leading Binghamton to the Calder Cup and being named AHL playoffs MVP.

Lehner invited Donya -- whom he'd been dating since they met in Sweden two summers earlier -- to move to Ottawa. She joined him there, and they both quickly grew to love their adopted city, and even bought former Senator and fellow Swede Daniel Alfredsson's old house. In 2014, Lehner signed a three-year, $6.675 million extension with Ottawa. The same year, he and Donya welcomed a son, Lennox.

Lehner says he struggled with how much alone time he had on the road as a professional hockey player. He liked game days best because there was more of a routine.

Lehner never had a problem taking naps during the day, but at night, he was restless. He was first introduced to sleeping pills in the AHL. He could get ahold of them from the team, and said that when he entered the league, doctors were more liberal about dispensing them. ("It was a lot easier earlier on," he said.) Lehner would drink a few beers after home games, and Donya initially thought nothing of it. After all, his job was stressful. It seemed like a normal way to unwind. But she noticed that he was drinking more and more. Whereas he used to bring home a six-pack after home games, Lehner soon started buying entire cases -- and drinking them by himself.

In 2015, Lehner was traded to the Sabres. His drinking habit worsened in Buffalo, Donya said. From time to time, she would say, "I think you're drinking too much." So Lehner would find ways to hide his drinking from her. He stashed empty bottles in the garage where she wouldn't find them.

Lehner would wait for Donya to go upstairs to put the kids to bed. "That's when I would hear the front door opening," Donya said. "And I knew he was leaving to go buy beers."

Lehner was also becoming less engaged at home. He was always looking at his phone, and Donya often had to repeat herself to get his attention. "He didn't have much patience for our son at the time," Donya said. "We wanted to do normal family stuff on his day off, and he just didn't have the energy."

Lehner told his wife that he was having trouble sleeping, and she started noticing pills strewn around their house -- in the kitchen, in the bathroom, "everywhere," she said. Lehner's unpredictable behavior put a strain on the family, and Donya often turned to her sister, Mona, whom she describes as her "rock."

When Lehner was on the road, it wasn't much better. "I didn't know what he was doing, if he was out partying, who he was with," Donya said. "I had a newborn baby at home, and I was worried for him. I didn't sleep much during that time."

Bipolar disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is "a mental illness that causes dramatic shifts in a person's mood, energy and ability to think clearly." Lehner said that before he was diagnosed, "I would question why I had a lot of energy and be wired [at times]. I was also a bit delusional. I felt like I was on top of the world. There's a lot of dangers that come with that way of thinking."

People with bipolar disorder experience high and low moods -- known as mania and depression -- which differ from the typical ups and downs most people experience. "I could be in a hypomanic phase for four, five months," he said. "And my depressive phase was very long, too. It was kind of like I was three different people. I was a different person in all of those stages -- in the neutral stage, too -- and all of those stages had their dangers."

The fact that he was a goalie -- the most isolated and arguably the most stressful position in sports -- likely masked some of his struggles from teammates. "I also don't think people are educated enough, or organizations are educated enough -- or any type of corporation is educated enough -- to recognize signs [of bipolar disorder]," Lehner said. "Most people don't think of things in terms of mental health."

Lehner had suicidal thoughts. He says he never thought about exactly how he would go through with it, but he thought about putting himself in bad situations where it could just ... happen. He often felt like he was stuck in his own head but felt he couldn't confide in anyone.

"When I went into depression, I didn't have any energy, I stopped helping out," he said. "I stopped being a good husband, wasn't great with my kids. So I started hiding a little bit more, and I started giving excuses. It creates a lot of guilt. Guilt is a terrible, terrible thing because it spirals your depression like 10 times further."

Everything came to a head for Lehner on March 29, 2018. As he detailed in the story for The Athletic, he started a game in goal for the Sabres. He felt exhausted, and then started to feel pain in his chest and had a hard time breathing. By the end of the second period, he realized he was having a full-blown panic attack.

Team doctors and trainers helped calm him by talking to him. His GM came to check whether he was OK. Lehner didn't want to go to the hospital because "it's Buffalo and if I went there, it would end up in the newspaper," he said. So Sabres doctors sent him home after the second period.

After waiting it out at the arena for a few hours -- he didn't want any fans to see him leaving early -- Lehner finally made it home. In his Athletic essay, Lehner said that he stopped for beers on the way. Donya didn't attend the game because Lennox was sick. She was sleeping by the time her husband came home.

Lehner woke her up and said: "I need to go away."

He had considered going to rehab multiple times before but never followed through on it because he feared repercussions. What would it mean for his family? Would he lose his job? Would he get another one? But Lehner realized that he needed to get help -- or he might not be there for his family at all.

"It was a tough decision because everything was in shambles," Lehner said. "I had to make the decision to stop faking my way through things. I didn't really know what was going to happen with my career. But at the time, it didn't matter. It didn't matter anymore, because I was going to die if I kept on like this."

After Lehner finished his rehab at The Meadows and signed with the Islanders, he committed to being fully transparent.

"I told Lou [Lamoriello] that I had my issues. I told him I am an alcoholic and I drank a lot," Lehner said. "I created a trust. Because if I didn't tell him all the bad stuff that was going on with me, how was he going to believe me when I tell him what I'm going to do to prevent it?"

Lehner then gave the Islanders' trainer his medications. "Come into my office in the mornings," the trainer said. "And I'll give them to you."

No need, Lehner told him. He didn't have anything to hide.

"You can give them to me in front of the other players, in the locker room," he said. "I don't care. I put my pill bottles in my locker. I don't try to hide any of it. Other guys have vitamins in their lockers. I'm not trying to compare it, but it's a normal thing I'm treating. And I guarantee a lot of other guys are going through it, too."

Being open also created safeguards for Lehner. If his teammates hadn't known that he had just left rehab, he could have picked up a beer on a plane ride or ordered a few drinks at dinner, and nobody would have blinked twice. Now they would look out for him and hold him accountable.

"The reason I went public was to help a lot of people," Lehner said. "But it would also help myself."

Throughout the season, his Islanders teammates -- as well as players on other teams across the league -- sought out Lehner. They wanted to know more about his story. Sometimes, they wanted to talk about themselves. "By being open, I just wanted to take the scariness away," Lehner said. "Being bipolar -- everyone thinks we're crazy. But they can see that I'm normal and can live normally. And also that getting help is possible."

Although he didn't reach an agreement with the Islanders this past summer, Lehner has nothing but good things to say about the people within the organization -- from Lamoriello to coach Barry Trotz to his former teammates. It was the most gratifying season of his career.

Lehner's new team has welcomed him, too. "His story shows it doesn't matter how successful you are, everybody is going through something," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "When you have someone in the public eye like that who can eloquently talk about it, and has the courage to put it into words, and look vulnerable in front of a lot of people, it's good for them. Because it could give a lot of other people strength, too."

Since Lehner went public, he has received countless messages -- emails, letters, Instagram direct messages, Twitter replies -- from people who are either going through something similar or know somebody who has. Donya gets messages, too. A few weeks ago, Lehner received a Twitter message from the father of a 19-year-old. His son had just received a bipolar diagnosis and was "freaking out." The son had been admitted to the hospital and put on heavy medication. Lehner replied with his cellphone number and arranged a call. "Tell me what is going on," Lehner told the father. "Tell me your story."

It's a fine line for Lehner to walk. It can be overwhelming, given everything else he's balancing -- a new job in a new city, parenting and tending to his own mental health -- so Lehner must pick and choose who he responds to. And he doesn't want to overextend his reach. "I'm not a doctor. I'm not a psychiatrist. I'm no therapist," Lehner said. "Some people grab on to things I say, and I don't want to give them advice. I say, 'This is what worked for me, but the best thing you can do is consult professionals and listen to them.'"

As Lehner begins working on creating his own foundation, he has partnered with Same Here, an organization dedicated to ending the stigma around mental health in sports, as an ambassador -- and his Blackhawks helmet will feature the words "#SameHere" this season.

"#SameHere is an expression which means: I've faced challenges in life too," Lehner tweeted. "Those challenges have affected my mental health. It's a sign that we hope will unite the world to once and for all, normalize how universal this topic is."

In choosing to sign with the Blackhawks, Lehner was forced to bet on himself.

"Taking a one-year contract, especially with a team like Chicago that doesn't know me, who I am as a person and what I do to stay healthy [was a risk]," Lehner said. "And hopefully I can build the trust there, too."

Lehner said the Blackhawks are different from any other NHL team he has played for because they employ two mental skills coaches, James Gary and David Marks. Both are licensed clinical professional counselors. GM Stan Bowman says Gary was on staff even before he arrived in 2001. Marks joined the franchise in 2016 so the two could spread their time between the Blackhawks' NHL and minor league players. According to Bowman, Gary or Marks are available to players at any time to discuss whatever they'd like to talk about -- family, hockey, finances or mental health.

"Everybody wants to know what the league needs to do or change to address mental health issues," Lehner said. "A few things have to change, eventually. But it's the players who have to change, too."

And hockey culture itself needs to change.

"You're not supposed to show your weaknesses or show defeat [in hockey]," he said. "It's a culture thing. We have to try to help each other, and it all comes back to education and being open. And that's why I talk about it."