The NHL's struggles with mental health this season: How players are confronting anxiety and isolation

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Player X is having a hard time. "I never thought I would be doing an interview like this," he says. "But yeah, this season hasn't been easy."

Player X is still on his entry-level NHL contract. He plays for a United States-based team but is from another country and is unsure when he can see his family again. He is renting a condo and admits the decorations are a little sparse. During training camp, he began struggling to fall asleep and noticed himself getting irritated on FaceTime calls with his parents or girlfriend -- sometimes even letting calls go unanswered, which is unusual for him.

Going to the rink and being able to skate always felt awesome, he explains.

"But I started dreading going home, all that time alone," he says. He figured once the season got going, it would get better. It didn't. He thought his team's first road trip would be a distraction. It wasn't.

But Player X isn't the only NHL player dealing with mental health issues during this highly isolating 2020-21 NHL season. His agent first put us in touch with him, saying, "You should really talk to one of my guys. I think his experience is similar to what a lot of guys in the league are going through." Indeed, more than a dozen players interviewed by ESPN over the past six weeks describe experiencing more anxiety than usual and expressed an overwhelming sentiment of loneliness.

"I was never someone who experienced mental health issues," Player X says. "But this season ... I have a hard time describing it, I don't really know how to explain it. I just don't feel like myself."

'The same problems and cares as everyone else'

In order to play through the pandemic, nearly every member of every NHL organization has made sacrifices. They've also agreed to a stringent set of rules that have already been enhanced twice after several teams experienced COVID-19 outbreaks last month. Besides arriving early for daily coronavirus testing, shifting to all-virtual meetings and staying socially distant even in the locker room, players, coaches and their family members have been asked to limit all social interactions away from home.

"The one thing that should be credited is the NHL and the players' union's education to the players," Los Angeles Kings general manager Rob Blake said. "Making them aware, saying, 'Look, everything is going to be different. Things are going to change, routines are going to change.' And nobody really questions it because they know they're doing it to keep everyone safe."

Another reason players are generally compliant? Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom summed it up well: "It's hard, it's different, but we are happy we get to play hockey. It would be so much harder for everyone if we didn't have hockey."

It's still an adjustment. "The energy on the team is just different this year," a veteran player said. One player said he typically brings CBD tinctures on road trips, "for when I'm stressed." He went through two bottles all of last season; in 2021, he already is on his fourth. Another player said he knows several teammates who have sought meetings with the team's mental skills coach, likely for the first time.

Some also describe anxiety and shame associated with ending up on the COVID-19 protocol list, whether they have a positive test or not. "It's a guilty feeling, which is weird because you shouldn't feel guilty," Minnesota Wild forward Marcus Foligno told The Athletic. "But that's just how it is, and when you're the first one, everyone kind of sees your name pop up first and then the domino effect throughout the team after that."

Border restrictions have presented more challenges, keeping some families apart. "My son lives back in Penticton [British Columbia], and I haven't seen him in a while," Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "We've been talking all the time on FaceTime, but it's not fun not seeing him." He joined the Blackhawks for training camp in Chicago in early January and hasn't seen his son since arriving.

Playing in empty arenas has felt unnatural too. For the first month of the season, only five teams allowed fans -- and all at significantly reduced capacities. By the end of March, more than half of the teams have plans to open their doors. Though regulations vary from market to market, crowds are still a fraction of what players are used to. For instance, the Dallas Stars typically welcome 20,000 for games but have been limited to 4,200.

"The other thing that has come up too is the guys' ability to really focus in on the game without fans," Anaheim Ducks coach Dallas Eakins said. "They can stream that fan noise in there, and I think it does help, but it's not remotely close to having fans out there, and to ride the wave of emotion of the building. Players have brought it up to me; it's a challenge."

And while road trips now have teams in one city for four or more days -- a big change after usually jetting in and out -- players are mostly confined to their hotel rooms when they're not on the ice. "You're lucky to share a meal in the meal room, six feet apart," Vancouver Canucks forward Tyler Motte said. "The rest of the time you're stuck in your room." The only permissible reason to leave the hotel is for an emergency or a walk.

One night, Player X said he sat alone in his hotel room, staring at his TV screen for nearly two hours, unable to choose a streaming service, find a game to watch or rev up yet another video game.

"If some guys are struggling, it's adjusting to being so locked in indoors, either at home or at the rink." Motte said. "They don't have outlets they're used to having."

Though the stigma in hockey is eroding -- thanks, in part, to players like Motte who have been open about their mental health disorders -- many players still showed reticence talking about their experiences, wary of sounding insensitive. They know how many have suffered in the pandemic. And there's always the perception that professional athletes are paid handsomely to play a sport for a living and therefore should simply feel grateful.

"I always hate that excuse: 'Those guys are millionaires,'" Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. "If we're actually being serious about treating everybody alike, then that excuse is part of the problem too. For the most part, I can say hockey guys are down-to-earth human beings and have the same problems and cares as everyone else. So it's no surprise a lot of guys have struggled this year, because of what everyone in this world has been facing."

'I miss the prison yard'

When the NHL returned to play over the summer, it operated out of two bubbles. Eastern Conference teams began in Toronto, while Western Conference teams were in Edmonton. Teams were all housed in the same hotels, which were within walking distance to the rink and included some limited restaurant and entertainment options. The Stanley Cup finalists ended up staying for two months, and though players were initially told their family members would be able to join them for the conference final rounds, border and governmental restrictions made it difficult. Only a handful of significant others ended up making it. The setup wasn't ideal.

"I don't think a lot of fans realize what an emotional toll the bubble took on some guys -- the isolation, the grind, being away from our families and loved ones during a really stressful time to begin with," one player told ESPN in September. "To be honest, after the first few days, I noticed a lot of guys were more down than they usually are."

The NHLPA heard the complaints and knew it was important to reestablish more normalcy.

"There were a lot of challenges, and that is probably the biggest reason we weren't seriously considering a bubble," NHLPA executive Mathieu Schneider said. "It would have been the last, last thing we wanted to do coming back for this season."

But two months into the 2021 season, many have realized that some aspects of bubble life weren't so bad. "We got our hands held pretty well in the bubble," Nick Foligno said. "Then the hardest part was you go from the bubble to now, where you can't even enjoy some of the stuff you enjoyed in the bubble. We could hang out with each other, go to dinner together at a restaurant. You realize how many freedoms we had."

In the Edmonton bubble, the players' hangout space was a pavement lot between the hotel and rink. Organizers installed some picnic tables and basketball hoops, and they brought in a Tim Hortons food truck. The area was fenced in and at night was illuminated with harsh lighting. Players began calling it "the prison yard."

"I can't believe I'm saying this," one Western Conference player texted. "But I miss the prison yard."

Marc Crawford, an assistant coach with the Blackhawks, said he was regularly having conversations with coaches and GMs from all 12 teams in Edmonton. It felt good to connect. Fast-forward to this season.

"I've probably had two interactions with coaches all year," Crawford said. "After our game [against the Detroit Red Wings last week], I caught up with Jeff Blashill in the hallway. We probably talked for two minutes, we both had our masks on, but it still felt like ... 'Am I doing something wrong?'"

The NHL has asked all players and coaches not to socialize outside their house. Weeks into the season, the NHL and the players' association clamped down either further, asking players' families interactions to be limited, as well. All meetings have been held virtually. Locker rooms and eating areas are socially distant. As Eakins explained, "We still get on the ice together as a team, but nearly every other element of team has been stripped away."

The Blue Jackets' Foligno said there's "so much self-policing, even on the little things. Like, I want to get a coffee. Then I have to ask, 'Should I go get a coffee?' Now you're second-guessing going and getting a coffee.

"But I think the thing that's bothered me the most, especially as the captain of this team, I can't get to know guys, especially with so many new faces," he said. "I've been self-conscious to some degree for how I'm able to bring them to the team, because I haven't been able to take them out to dinner, spend time with them away from the rink. It's wild how different it is to try to connect with people. Like, thank God for Zoom, but do you really get to know someone over Zoom?"

'Hey, we're here'

The NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program was founded in 1996. It is designed to be confidential, supporting players and their families struggling with drug and alcohol dependency or mental health issues. The program has produced some tremendous success stories in helping players get back on track, but Schneider knows it also had a fundamental flaw.

"There's certainly a stigma attached to the SABH program," Schneider said. "The program was put into place for when the wheels come off, when something really bad happens."

Over the past season or so, the NHLPA has internally stopped calling it the SABH altogether, generally referring to it just as the players' assistance program because it better reflects the nature of it. But Schneider knew he needed to work on that messaging with players and help them understand there are resources available to them before reaching rock bottom. After all, mental health falls on a spectrum.

"Society often associates getting help with having major problems," said Eric Kussin, the founder of the Same Here Global Health Movement. "But it shouldn't be that way."

At the January 2020 All-Star Game in St. Louis, Schneider called a meeting with Dr. Joel Gold, a Brooklyn, New York-based psychiatrist who consults for the NHLPA; Dr. Brian Shaw, who co-founded and still oversees the SABH; and Jay Harrison, a former NHL defenseman with a psychology degree who now works with the NHLPA as a consultant.

"We started to have the discussions: How do we prevent guys from going there ... getting to that place?" Schneider said. "How do we get guys resources to deal with things they're going through?"

Then the pandemic hit, and it was all hands on deck.

"We knew it was a challenging time, whether it's anxiety about the virus itself or about the uncertainty of the season, contract status, whatever the case may be," Schneider said. "It's really that initial contact, that initial outreach, I think, is sometimes the most difficult for a player. We try to make that as easy as possible, and then have the experts point them in the right direction to go."

After each round in the bubble, Harrison would send texts to every player. Hey, we're here, available if you have some time and want to chat. Harrison would simply ask guys to send back a thumbs-up or thumbs-down emoji regarding whether they wanted to talk.

"We're still trying to learn and come up with what we think is the best model," Schneider said. "But the first step is, we just want to make sure these guys know and understand these resources are available to them; it's all at their fingertips."

In 2019, the NBA required that every team have at least one mental health professional on their staff. The NHL and many other major professional sports leagues do not have a similar mandate, but a quick survey found that nearly every NHL team had someone who fits the bill (although their job titles can sometimes be disguised). And the NHLPA is hopeful that its constituents know they can always come to them and that they can help a player find the right resources in their city, whether it's a therapist, psychiatrist or something else.

"Everybody thinks that being a professional athlete is this glamorous life," Schneider said. "And everybody's making $6 million a year and everybody's going to play for 15 years, so how can you complain? The truth is, it's much different from that.

"Living on the road, out of a suitcase, for days and weeks. The ups and downs of a season. Uncertainty about contracts. Our average, career length is less than five years. Guys are fortunate, no question, to make the kind of money that they do and to be public figures. But there is an awful lot that comes along with that."

'You have to start somewhere'

Players are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines are rolling out across North America, and some qualifying players have even received their first doses in the U.S. By the end of this month, 15 of the 31 NHL franchises will have welcomed fans back into the buildings, albeit at much reduced capacities. At its peak, there were 59 players on the NHL's COVID-19 protocol list, but now there are only two.

And as attitudes around mental health are shifting societally, players have felt more comfortable opening up.

"The one thing that has been incredible this season," Eakins said, "is I bet you I've had more one-on-one meetings with players than I had in the last two or three years, together."

Eakins said the conversation usually starts about their game. "And it always gets to what is really on their mind," he said. "And a lot of it is what they're going through."

The coach has tried to help his players put their experiences into context. It's not necessarily saying, a lot of people have it worse than us or forcing positivity. However, isolation sometimes heightens anxiety and can make issues feel a lot worse.

"We've been able to come back somewhat together; we're able to follow our passion," Eakins said. "I think you've just got to wrap your head around what we are being given and what has been taken away. We have been given a lot here by our league and our owners to be able to come back and play."

And there's one point Eakins tries to drill home: agency.

"I'm a big believer in choice," Eakins said. "There's no magic potion to this. It takes what it takes. You just have to do what's required, and it certainly takes a much different mindset. But you have to choose to be focused. You have to choose to be engaged. You have to choose to fight through being alone or being isolated or whatever that is. And that's basically how we've been going about it."

Which brings us back to Player X, whom we checked in with three weeks after our first conversation.

"I wouldn't say I'm feeling a lot better," he said. "But I have started to talk to more people about what I'm going through."

One of those people was a friend from home, who suggested a meditation app. Player X downloaded it, and he likes it a lot. He is falling asleep easier.

"One step at a time, right?" he said. "You have to start somewhere."