ARTICLES, HEALTHY LIVING & WELL BEING. EATING DISORDERS
NHL Goalie Shares Mental Health Struggle in Hopes of Making a Difference
National Hockey League goaltender, Robin Lehner was on the path to stardom only a few short years ago. The Ottawa Senators drafted him in the second round of the 2009 entry draft. The Swedish goaltender seemed to be trending upward after making the move to play in North America that year. He backstopped Ottawas farm team, the Binghamton Senators to a Calder Cup championship where he was awarded the most valuable player of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
In July 2014 the Ottawa Senators inked him to a three-year contract. They planned for Lehner to be their goalie of the future. However, that season he had a disappointing campaign. He played in 25 games only collecting nine wins. A year removed from his new contract, Ottawa traded the Swedish goalie. He struggled with his new team over the next three seasons, not that the Buffalo Sabres were much of a good team altogether. News came this past summer that the team would be parting ways with their netminder as well. He would be a free agent for the first time in his career. After watching many of the goalies’ sign early during free agency, Lehner was finally picked up by the New York Islanders.
How could a once-promising talent have turned into a goalie that had to wait days for a contract? Well, Robin Lehner would help answer that question. He recently stunned the hockey world by penning a detailed article for The Athletic about his bipolar 1 diagnosis and his struggles with depression, alcohol, and sleeping pills.
The Last Game With The Sabres
He had left the Buffalo Sabres before the end of last season. He had left the March 29th game with what the team called a lower-body injury. In reality, Lehner had come to a crossroads at that point in his life and career. The night before the game he called the Sabres goaltending coach, “I told him that I was personally in a bad place and was not sure that I would be able to play in the game we had the next day. I was having trouble making up my mind if I could suit up. I was mentally and physically battling a lot of things. The conversation ended with him telling me we could talk about it in person at the rink in the morning. When I arrived, I said I was good to go… as I always did.”
Lehner started in net that night, but would struggle throughout the game with exhaustion, chest pain and heavy breathing. He thought that possibly he was having a heart attack, but in actuality was having a panic attack. Lehner goes on to state that he was in a bad place at this time, contemplating suicide even.
“The phone call I made to Andrew the night before? I was drunk,” Lehner wrote. “I wanted to kill myself. I was extremely close multiple times. The battle playing hockey was nothing compared to the battle inside my brain. It was at its worst.
He realized that he needed help and entered The Meadows rehab facility in Arizona where he completed a three-week detox which he described as “one of the worst that they had seen.” He had been taking sleeping pills for the last seven years and drinking alcohol on a regular basis. Two weeks later he was diagnosed with bipolar 1 with manic phases. Lehner was able to associate many of his actions with the symptoms.
When I am manic I usually feel great, but I make a lot of impulse decisions and dangerous mistakes. When I was on the manic extreme I didn’t care about any type of consequence or repercussions. I didn’t care about anything that was going on around me. My ego thrived and my personality changed. I thought I was the best at everything and all my thoughts were the right ones. I was usually an easy person to be around at these manic stages. I had lots of energy and didn’t need much sleep. I would never take pregame naps and my confidence was at its peak.
Then the other extreme was depression, which was total hell. I could not function properly performing basic life skills without a lot of effort. If I really needed to get something done and didn’t want to really do it, it would not happen. Family didn’t matter. Nothing did. I was always so paranoid in this stage. I felt that everyone was against me and wanted to hurt me. I was constantly angry, irritated and tired. The depression didn’t just affect my mind but also my body. I was physically hurting every day. I didn’t want to practice. I barely wanted to play in games.
Because of his choice to seek help, Lehner has gone from contemplating suicide to a clean, healthy life. Lehner is still in contact with the treatment facility, and his former General Manager from Buffalo calls to check in on him from time to time.
Getting Back To Hockey
Now with a new mindset and lifestyle, Lehner decided he wanted to return to hockey. He found the process of trying to find a new team especially difficult on him. He felt that he couldn’t share his diagnosis. He said the experience was so brutal that he nearly relapsed.
My agent received a few calls, which was encouraging, but most teams were hesitant because I had a reputation. Those meetings with teams were some of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life, now sober. I couldn’t tell them I was bipolar. I couldn’t tell them anything.
One meeting in particular was worse than any other. I was bombarded with questions about why I was a bad person or a bad teammate and I couldn’t say anything. I just took it for hours. I was told that I was a bad influence and I had less than one chance or I would be buried in the minors and that would end my career. Sitting and hearing from these people who don’t know me and think that I am a bad person was extremely hard. I was crushed.
The scary thing was all I wanted to do after these horrible meetings was to drink. I was put down for so long and could not defend myself, all from fear of my diagnosis going public. After one meeting, I was in the airport staring at the bar, so I picked up my phone and spoke to friends and my wife for a long time to get through it. I walked past that bar and got on the plane sober.
Why He’s Sharing His Story
Lehner isn’t sharing his story to make excuses for his past actions, he wants to help destigmatize bipolar disorder.
It’s important to know that I am not blaming any of my actions in the past on my conditions or diagnosis. I take ownership of what I have done. I let myself become what I was. I never had the courage to get help earlier.
I am not sharing this story to make people think differently of Robin Lehner as a professional goalie. I want to help make a difference and help others the way I have been helped. I want people to know that there is hope in desperation, there is healing in facing an ugly past and there is no shame in involving others in your battle.
My journey is still new. Every day is a battle and each day a new chance to grow as a man. It is time to take the “crazy person” stamp from bipolar disorder. I am working hard to become the latest to battle this unfair stigma. Our battle together is just beginning.