New U.S. hockey forward Sophia Shaver shares her recovery from grief after brother's suicide

Former Wisconsin forward Sophia Shaver will suit up for Team USA in two scrimmages against Canada this weekend in Pittsburgh in her first call-up to the U.S. senior women's national team. M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Sophia Shaver's sophomore year at Wisconsin felt totally normal until suddenly it wasn't.

Shaver had just begun her second season with the Badgers hockey team. They opened with a two-game sweep of St. Cloud State in which she scored two goals and notched an assist.

A few days later, Shaver's parents called her from back home in Minnesota. Her brother, Drake, had taken his own life. He was 17.

Shaver had a hard time processing the news. Drake had always seemed so happy.

"He lifted any room that he went in," she said. "He was the one always goofing around, smiling all the time, being a daredevil."

Drake also played hockey, but Sophia guessed that he mostly liked it for the social aspect. Drake really liked lacrosse, but his true love was the outdoors. Sophia remembers going to the family's cabin in Crosslake, Minnesota, a two-and-a-half-hour drive north from their home in Wayzata, Minnesota. At the cabin, Drake would wake up at 6 a.m., when the rest of the family was still sleeping, to start fishing before other boats would get on the water. He loved hunting. He was always running around the house with boundless energy.

"One of the reasons we were shocked by what happened was that he was always the happiest person," she said. "I'm sure he had some mental illness that led him to do this, but we had no idea what he was going through. We had no idea. You would have no idea being around him."

After the call, hockey was the last thing on Shaver's mind. She was upset and confused. She got in a car with Badgers assistant coach Dan Koch, and they began driving from Madison, Wisconsin, to Wayzata. Shaver's cousin Craig met them halfway and drove her the rest of the way.

Shaver spent a week at home, and then she returned back to school. She felt like she had to. She didn't know what else to do.

This weekend, Shaver will suit up for Team USA in two scrimmages against Canada in Pittsburgh. The 22-year-old's invite to the joint training camp this week was her first call-up to the U.S. senior women's national team. It's something she dreamed of since she was a kid. Shaver graduated from Wisconsin last spring after captaining the Badgers to a national championship in 2019. Playing with the national team is a way to extend her career.

"It's nice that the hard work that I've done for so many years is being noticed," she said.

It also became an opportunity for Shaver to tell her story. She wanted to open up, she said, because she knows there are many people out there just like Drake -- people who appear happy and give no indications of their inner struggle. Talking about Drake's suicide might be a way to battle the stigma.

But Shaver also wanted to talk about how she was affected the past three years and lessons others can learn about grieving.

"I want people to be willing to open up to their friends and especially their family because holding it in and letting it bottle up will only last so long," she said. "It's much more freeing to speak about what you're going through because you'll start to realize -- as I have -- that there are a lot of people going through tough times and a lot of people who can relate."

After Drake's death, Shaver isolated herself. She became hyper-focused on not falling behind on school work and returning to some sort of normalcy: class, gym, class, practice, study and right back to her dorm room to sleep.

Players from across the Western Collegiate Hockey Association sent Shaver cards or Instagram messages. Badgers players helped create a memory box for her with pictures of her brother on the outside and hand-written notes of encouragement inside.

Even though Shaver knew her teammates were there for her, she preferred not to talk to them about her feelings.

"I didn't want to bring things up right before practice started or before a game," she said. "I didn't want to be a burden. I know that seems dumb, but it's just the way I felt at the time. I knew they had their own stresses in their own lives, so I definitely kept to myself about a lot of things."

A lot of her peers didn't know what to say. Sometimes they resorted to clich├ęs, such as "everything happens for a reason," which didn't help Shaver feel better at all.

Wisconsin had sports psychologists and a therapist available. At the urging of her parents, Shaver began seeing the therapist. But the only time the therapist could meet was in the middle of the day, and the office was at the athletic facility.

"Obviously, I would be sobbing to this person," Shaver said. "Then I would have to walk out and walk past all my athlete friends, and they could tell I was just crying. I really didn't like that experience, so I just stopped going."

It all built up inside her.

"My own mental health started going downhill," she said.

Shaver felt disconnected from her friends. She felt guilty anytime she started having fun or feeling happy. When she got on the ice, she was distracted.

"Hockey wasn't going well for me," she said. "If any one thing went wrong, I was so emotionally fragile, I would just crack. I would hold back tears on the bench because obviously I didn't want to be crying. I love hockey so much that all of the emotions I was holding in the whole week through classes and practices would just come out when I was playing. It would be really hard for me to focus on a game because I would feel so empty inside."

The way she coped was by becoming detached. There were several games in her sophomore and junior seasons in which Shaver said she didn't even feel like she was present.

"I just remember being on the ice and not feeling like I was in my own body playing," she said. "It was an out-of-body experience, like I wasn't even there because I wasn't in that mental space to bear down and play hockey. While my situation is completely different than a lot of other people who may be dealing with mental health, you can't play hockey to the best of your ability when you're struggling like that."

Shaver regrets returning to campus only a week after Drake's death.

"I wish I would have taken more time off," she said. "I just felt some kind of obligation -- not from anyone else but for myself -- to get back. I didn't want to fall behind on classes. We were playing games every weekend. But I regret not giving myself time to process the information as well."

Shaver was especially comforted by Maddie Rolfes, then a junior defenseman for the Badgers. When Rolfes was in high school, her younger brother took his own life.

"She would send me texts all the time when she knew I would be feeling down," Shaver said. "It was nice to have someone who had been there. I don't think people really realize what you go through -- behind closed doors, not when you're putting on this face for everyone else."

Rolfes explained to Shaver that certain days were just going to suck -- such as the first anniversary of Drake's death. Shaver had two exams that day and, as is typical, buried herself in school work so she didn't have time to think about it. Sometimes, Rolfes said, she might break down in a car if she heard a song that made her think of her brother. Sometimes she might just be angry at the world.

"At this point, I would consider it more of a sisterly relationship instead of just friends," Shaver said. "I think it helped her as well because when it happened, she didn't feel like she had anyone to share it with. I also feel terrible because it brought up a lot of her own emotions, and I know she was going through a very hard time as well."

Rolfes was brutally honest about everything. She said things that were tough to hear, including that things were going to be really difficult for a while. She told Shaver that there would be a time when people around her would become less sensitive and might even tell jokes about taking your own life. Over time, people would pay a little less attention because they would assume she was doing better.

It was true. The rest of sophomore year was hard for Shaver. The next year was even worse. "The shock had worn off," Shaver said. "And it was really starting to settle in that he was gone."

By her senior year, she found herself able to focus more on hockey. She began feeling like herself on the ice more regularly.

"I'm still going through it," she said. "But it gets a little bit easier each year. Especially this year having some time off of school, I've had some time to heal. I can finally play hockey without this weight on my shoulders."

Being back home in Minnesota has been helpful. Shaver's mom, Christen, loves telling stories about Drake. She nudges her daughter to do the same and talk about how she feels.

Last month, on the third anniversary of Drake's death, Sophia, her older sister, Crosby, Christen and her dad, Tom, went out to dinner. They laughed, told their favorite Drake stories and teared up. "It felt really good," Shaver said.

This fall, Shaver has been trying to work on things that will help her with hockey. She trains at a gym in Minnetonka, Minnesota, where she has begun to teach group fitness classes (the gym also lets her use its physical recovery lab). She is an assistant coach for varsity girls hockey at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

Looking back, Shaver wishes she had felt more comfortable talking about what she went through.

"That's the whole point of mental health," she said. "People think you're OK because you act OK in your daily life. If you don't have those people you can talk to -- like for me it's my parents -- then it can be very tough because you feel isolated and alone. Even if you know you are not alone, you feel that way."