Blades of steel: Johns spotlights mental health in hockey

stephen johns
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Stephen Johns worked out at the rink, trying to get back to playing after a concussion. Dallas Stars teammates asked how he was doing but never quite understood.

“They kind of went on about their days not really knowing what was really going on, kind of the thoughts I was having and the severity of the depression and anxiety,” Johns said. “Once I started being more open about it, guys would come out and say, ‘Man, I had no idea you were going through that,’ and ‘I wish I would’ve known, wish I could’ve helped.’”

Johns figured out last year he couldn’t keep playing hockey, hung up his ice skates and eventually strapped on rollerblades with the goal of helping others. The 29-year-old who recently announced his retirement from the NHL is rollerblading across the U.S. and making a movie about it to bring awareness to depression and anxiety, which could be another major stride for a sport still trying to raise acceptance and management of mental health concerns.

“With mental health, it’s such a personal thing and it’s almost selfish in your eyes to make it about yourself,” Johns said by phone while traveling across South Dakota. “There’s a lot that needs to be talked about and changed.”

The deaths of players Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak within a five-month span a decade ago put fighting and head trauma in the NHL on the front burner and began to push mental health to the forefront. But hockey has been seen as slow to address this very specific “upper-body” injury.

“Ice hockey is about the last major sport to accept sports psychology and mental skills training,” said Ted Monnich, a retired goaltender-turned-sports psychology consultant who works with athletes and specializes in the mental needs of hockey goalies. “And that tends to be because it’s very insular and is a bit resistant to outside intervention.”

While tennis’ Naomi Osaka, swimming’s Michael Phelps and basketball’s Kevin Durant have put mental health among athletes in the spotlight, Johns and Vegas goaltender Robin Lehner are leading the charge to bring hockey up to speed. Lehner has shared his own mental struggles and been a proponent of fellow players talking about their problems.

“There are tools all the teams and organizations and stuff can implement to help with those things and make it better for their employees and players,” Lehner said Saturday. “We need as many people as possibly shining light on it. It’s something we all go through at certain stages and in different ways.”

It struck Johns on what he called probably the worst night of his life. It was Aug. 8, 2020, in the bubble playoffs in Edmonton, and he was a few shifts into his fourth NHL game after an absence of more than two years because of post-concussion syndrome.

He realized immediately when he got to the bench he couldn’t play anymore. Johns called his mother, cried and that was it.

“I knew my career was over in that moment,” he said. “That was pretty taxing on the soul.”

In the months since, Johns felt himself becoming self-destructive and said he ruined the relationship he built over four years with his girlfriend and lost many friends. Realizing he “let anxiety and depression pretty much strip away everything,” Johns decided to ’blade across the country so others in the sport and beyond could know his story and learn from it.

It’s something experts believe can help other athletes avoid a similar result. Dr. Kensa Gunter appreciates any steps that help sports crack the stigma of mental health that is even deeper than in society.

“We have to expand our idea that toughness is not just about powering through,” said Gunter, who is certified as a mental performance consultant by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “It is sometimes about asking for help and learning how to manage what’s going on so that you can continue to move forward.”

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association founded the Player Assistance Program in 1996 to give members ongoing assistance in their daily lives. Professional counselors are available in each NHL city, there’s a confidential phone line to call for help and the union added health and wellness team for extra assistance during the pandemic.

“No different than if they blow a knee — it’s all health,” said Monnich, who is also an adviser for “Lift the Mask,” an organization dedicated to providing free mental health and performance resources for goalies. ”(We) provide resources and we even provide fees for them to be able to see a consultant if they need that assistance and we can then refer them to counselors or therapists.”

That kind of help is needed, based on research done among Olympic and collegiate athletes. Trent Petrie, professor and director of the Center for Sports Psychology at the University of North Texas, said elite athletes “report levels of depression, anxiety, substance use, sleep disturbances that are comparable to the general population and in some cases higher than.”

“While we at one point had thought that athletes were protected from such mental health concerns and psychological distress, we’re seeing especially now with this younger generation — Generation Z and young millennials — that they are indeed experiencing the higher levels of mental health concerns that we’re seeing in the general population,” Petrie said.

Osaka, Phelps, Durant and others have brought those things to light in other sports. In hockey, Johns’ history of concussions and head trauma add another layer to the issue, with prominent voices like Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden making the case to penalize any kind of head contact, even if unintentional.

“When you talk about the impact of something like a concussion or head trauma, we know that there is such thing as post-concussive syndrome and we know that with that there may be some emotional impacts of that physical trauma,” Gunter said. “Wwe have to be more aware of attending to all of it at all times as opposed to separating a physical injury out from an emotional concern.”

It all blended together for Johns, who recently “started getting some dark thoughts again and was going down a bad path.” After coming to grips that mental illness “truly is a sickness” like any other physical ailment, Johns figured he could do something about it with his cross-country journey that he hopes to complete in early July, before the Stanley Cup is handed out.

“As soon as I announced what I was doing, I realized that this wasn’t even almost about me,” he said. “It’s way bigger than me.”

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    Bruins set NHL record with 12 straight home wins to start season

    Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
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    BOSTON — The Boston Bruins set the NHL record for most home victories to start a season with their 12th straight, topping the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime with a power-play goal from David Pastrnak.

    The Bruins broke the mark of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    “That felt awesome,” Bruins first-year coach Jim Montgomery said. “We talked about it after the second (period) going into the third. There’s been a lot of great teams in this league and you’re able to set a precedent, break a record. It’s pretty special and it doesn’t happen if those guys don’t believe in themselves like they do.”

    Boston, which trailed 2-0 late in the second period, tied it with 9:33 left in regulation when David Krejci scored his second of the game on a shot from the right point.

    “It’s never fun being down going into the third, you’re sitting in here (in the locker room) trying to figure it out,” Krejci said. “You want to come out and do the job, something special on the line. It’s hard to win in this league. To get 12 in a row at home is pretty special.”

    In overtime, Carolina was playing shorthanded after being called for too many men on the ice when Pastrnak one-timed a pass from Brad Marchand inside the far post from above the left circle.

    “It was a big win for us, obviously, coming from behind,” Pastrnak said.

    Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Stefan Noesen each scored a power-play goal for Carolina, and Pyotr Kochetkov made 38 saves. The Hurricanes lost their fifth straight.

    In a rematch of last spring’s opening-round playoff series that the Hurricanes won in seven games, Carolina shutout the NHL’s highest scoring team for nearly two periods and jumped ahead a pair of power-play goals in the opening period.

    “We took too many penalties. That’s hurting us right now,” Kotaniemi said. “I think 5-on-5 we’re doing a really good job. We started good tonight and couldn’t keep that up.”

    Boston’s tying goal was originally disallowed because of goaltender interference on Nick Foligno but overturned on a coach’s challenge after it was ruled that he was nudged into the crease by Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce.

    Boston starting goaltender Linus Ullmark made 28 saves but had to leave with 13:03 left in the third period with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Teammate Connor Clifton had jumped on him to block a shot during a scramble. Jeremy Swayman made six stops in relief.

    Carolina’s Noesen scored at 6:34 in to make it 1-0. And with five minutes left in the period, Kotkaniemi collected the puck near the side of the net after Seth Jarvis‘ shot bounced off the back glass and slipped it inside the post at 15:05.

    Krejci scored for Boston with 31 seconds left in the second.

    Boston came in with a league-high 82 goals in 20 games (4.10 per game), but it was held to relatively few chances despite getting a 5-on-3 power-play advantage early on.

    TAKE NOTE

    The Bruins honored captain Patrice Bergeron, who recorded his 1,000th career point when the team was on the road against Tampa Bay, with a message on the Jumbotron. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

    Bergeron became just the fourth Bruin to reach the mark, joining Hall of Famers Ray Bourque (1,506), Johnny Bucyk (1,339) and Phil Esposito (1,012).

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Host the Calgary Flames.

    Bruins: Host the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    Predators postpone 2 games due to Nashville water main break

    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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    NASHVILLE, Tenn. —  The Nashville Predators postponed two home games because of a water main break that soaked their downtown arena.

    Hours after the Predators decided they couldn’t play against the Colorado Avalanche, the team announced it also postponed the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Makeup dates for the two games will be announced later.

    The NHL said the water main break that occurred “significantly impacted the event level” of Bridgestone Arena. Team locker rooms and the ice surface are on the event level.

    Predators President and CEO Sean Henry told reporters that the water in the event level ranged from 3 inches to 3 feet.

    “We’re assessing it right now. We’re remediating it,” Henry said. “The good thing is, the water got shut off, the city responded in a pretty fast manner. I don’t think anyone is ready for things like this the Friday after Thanksgiving.”

    Video posted by a WTVF-TV reporter shows the water puddled up on the main floor’s concourse area and the team store. The team was forced to close the store until further notice, pointing shoppers online for Black Friday specials.

    The Predators’ next home game is now scheduled for Tuesday against the Anaheim Ducks.

    The water issue also resulted in a switch to a different venue for a college hockey game between Northeastern and Western Michigan. They also had been scheduled to play at Bridgestone Arena, a game that was moved to Ford Ice Center Bellevue.

    Rangers trade Ryan Reaves to Wild for 5th-round pick in 2025

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — The New York Rangers traded enforcer Ryan Reaves to the Minnesota Wild for a 2025 fifth-round pick.

    Reaves had been a healthy scratch for eight of the past 12 games for the Rangers. He gives struggling Minnesota some extra muscle and a veteran presence.

    The 35-year-old is signed through only the rest of this season at a $1.75 million salary cap hit. He has no points and 12 penalty minutes in 12 games of his second season with New York.

    Reaves has played in 869 NHL regular-season and playoff games for the St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Vegas Golden Knights and Rangers. He was with the Golden Knights during their inaugural season in 2017-18 when the reached the Stanley Cup Final.

    Toronto’s Morgan Rielly placed on long-term injured reserve

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    TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs placed defenseman Morgan Rielly on long-term injured reserve with a knee injury.

    Rielly was hurt in a collision with with New York forward Kyle Palmieri early in the third period of Toronto’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Islanders at home.

    Rielly has no goals and 16 assists in 20 games this season and is averaging 23 minutes of ice time.

    Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said following practice that the 28-year-old Rielly doesn’t need surgery, adding there’s no firm timeline for his return beyond the minimum 24 days and 10 games required for going on long-term injured reserve.

    Toronto’s defense is also missing Jake Muzzin with a neck injury and T.J. Brodie with an injured oblique.