NHL: Spotlighting Hockey and Mental Health Initiatives

The National Hockey League (NHL) is made up of players from all walks of life, each trying to make a living playing one of the more violent sports known to man.

Guys hit and take hits daily, some leaving these men dazed and confused, sometimes even seeing stars. Yet they all keep going as if nothing’s wrong.

That’s the way the NHL works. If you stay down following a brutal hit at center ice, collision with a goal post or come off as depressed, the backlash and judgement from teammates and opponents alike could be enough to make the strongest people feel alone in this world.

The 2011 offseason was difficult for the hockey community, as Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard and Wade Belak all took their respective lives. Delving deeper, you see that all three played the role of enforcer on their teams, something that had them constantly absorbing blows to the head on a daily basis. They couldn’t tell anyone though, fearing that such an admission would end their career before it started.

When you lose players it’s always a wake-up call. For the NHL, losing three players the way they did in the summer of 2011, the wake-up call came quickly. The league implemented a policy stating that any player that absorbed a blow to the head would be required to leave the ice and enter a quiet room to make sure they exhibited no concussion symptoms.

Players who made a living looking to knock out opponents long-term by targeting the head received stiff penalties. Some of those came in the form of harsh suspensions that could cost their team a championship, as was the case with former Pittsburgh Penguins enforcer Matt Cooke in 2011. The message sent via this suspension was loud and clear: Hits targeting the head of an unsuspecting player without the puck in his possession would not be tolerated.

It wasn’t just the league taking action though. Players, coaches, and teams took the losses of their own to help raise awareness regarding mental health issues.

Former Vancouver Canucks and current Anaheim Ducks forward Kevin Bieksa served as the spokesperson for the In One Voice video campaign. Launched in early 2012 by the Canucks For Kids Fund and the Vancouver Canucks, the campaign urged young people to record and upload their own video pledge focusing on the importance of recognizing the signs associated with mental health illnesses and getting help early among other things.

Another reminder comes from Bell Let’s Talk Day. Beginning in September of 2010, Bell Let’s Talk began a conversation about Canada’s mental health. It was a big hit, with millions of Canadians engaging in an open discussion about mental illness, offering hope to those who struggle daily.

On January 25th each year, Bell donates an extra five cents towards Canada’s mental health initiatives for every text, call, tweet, Instagram post, Facebook video review and Snapchat geofilter used.

In advance of Bell Let’s Talk day, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock weighed in on the importance of raising awareness for mental health initiatives on the Maple Leafs weekly radio show “Leafs Lunch”, stating that there’s a difference between mental toughness and mental illness.

With so many people stepping forward and making the necessary changes, it will only be a matter of time before the stigma surrounding mental health illnesses are gone from not only sports but life in general. A win for all athletes nationwide, one that wouldn’t require lacing up the skates and constantly putting their body on the line.



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