Q&A: Riley Sheahan on his mental health podcast, dealing with free agency

riley sheahan
Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

Riley Sheahan wanted to do something different. The veteran NHL forward has started the “Speak Your Mind” podcast with the goal of getting guests from the sports and music world to come on and discuss mental health issues.

“When I first was thinking about it, [I was thinking] there’s no way I could do this,” Sheahan recently told NBC Sports. “It was really uncomfortable. I think that was one of the reasons when I’d sit and think about why I wanted to do it was because it’s something different. And if I could get some guys to speak about it and tell their stories and maybe get a little following, inspire some people to get help or face their inner demons, that’s the end goal.”

The 29-year-old has teamed up with TorchPro, a sports media company started by Joe Pavelski. Getting people out of their comfort zones is one of the main goals of the company. Sheahan does a lot of work on mental health, and when the idea of a podcast was brought up, it took off.

Upcoming guests include Tyler Smith from the Humboldt Broncos and Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner.

“Those are two guys who have dealt with a lot of stuff,” Sheahan said. “I never had a bad childhood or a traumatic event, I just deal with these issues as a human being. I have a lovely family, good support group. I just wanted to put it out there that you can be normal and you can have issues, too. It’s just trying to hit that.”

We spoke with Sheahan about the podcast, his experiences with mental health, and more.

Enjoy.

Q. If someone comes across the podcast for the first time, what’s the main takeaway you want them to have after listening?

SHEAHAN: “The biggest thing would be the idea of vulnerability. It’s okay to be vulnerable. If you’re in a chaotic time in your life and you have some issues that come up, it’s inevitable and it’s okay to reach out and ask other people for help and to feel upset or angry. In saying that, there’s ways to be proactive and there’s resources out there that can really help. It doesn’t have to be a concrete thing where you wake up every day feeling upset.”

Q. You mentioned on an episode you began having these thoughts and feelings around age 10 or 11. How did you handle that as you headed into your teenage years?

SHEAHAN: “That’s what one of my goals is, is to get kids to think more proactively. If they start to feel these kind of things, it’s not like it’s bad, but take care of yourself and notice your pattern. As I grew up and I started playing junior hockey when I was 15, then I went away to school, I never acknowledged them and I started drinking and started ignoring those issues where I would start to feel a little stressed or anxious. Then when I got into a position where there was more pressure on me, it started to unravel and be a little bit more nerve-wracking and I felt like I didn’t have control of it.

“If you can start young and you can acknowledge that you like to think and maybe sometimes you get yourself in those spirals, I think if you can put that out there and realize it and find the stuff that works for you to battle through it, it can be huge.”

Q. During your decade in the NHL how have you seen fellow players change from being reticent to open up to feeling comfortable speaking about these topics.

SHEAHAN: “It’s definitely changed a ton. When I first came into Detroit is when I first started feeling these issues. I brought them up to Ken Holland and [Mike Babcock] was our coach then. They were nothing but supportive, they were unbelievable. … I think now you see guys take care of themselves off the ice. It’s such a big advantage to be healthy, to recover well. I think a lot of that, if you can be proactive in how you take care of your body then a lot of that transfers over into how you feel mentally. You see it more and more guys focusing on their health, focusing on their breathing, the way they work out, all these different things that relate back to how they feel mentally.”

Q. The alcohol issues in Detroit that led to your arrest, did that incident make you realize you needed some help.

SHEAHAN: “Yeah, I definitely think that was a little bit of a wakeup call. I don’t think that issue was a one-off thing for me. It was just a matter of time that I got caught doing something really stupid. Even then, it still is a process to figure it out. I was fortunate enough as I grew older I started to really understand and I started to build a little bit of a fear and anxiety towards drinking, which was good for me to start to figure out how to cope with those stresses. That was an eye-opening experience that allowed me to start learning more about myself and try to figure some things out.”

Q. That happened during your rookie year. A lot of young players may not think to go get help. How did the organization assist you during that period?

SHEAHAN: “They were supportive in me getting help and whatever I needed to do to figure it out. That was meaningful to me and it was a relief to me. Being at that age, if you need help and you need to go get it, obviously you’ve got to do it and I don’t think anyone will judge you for it. Just at that age being cognizant of some of the feelings, if you’re going to go out and have a good time, that’s awesome. I think there’s a lot of camaraderie, things you can build [going out]. But I think if you’re drinking to the point where you’re starting to have these crazy thoughts and you’re blacking out, maybe you’ve got to learn from it and don’t be shy to start to dig and do some self-thinking and maybe some of those issues can be brought to the surface and you can learn from them.”

Q. One misconception that some fans have is that you’re immune from mental health issues because you’re well-paid professional athletes. Is that something you see in locker rooms from other players, that they themselves feel like mental health issues can’t affect them?

SHEAHAN: “You definitely see it, especially in males. Nobody wants to put their problems out there or act like they need help or need advice. You do see it sometimes. I think, too, now with everything coming to the forefront you have more conversations so I think it’s a little bit more of a comfortable topic. As a male athlete, there’s still a little bit more of that culture where you can’t show any weakness. 

“I think it’s great when guys bring it up, when guys talk about it. It’s not like you have to bring it up in the locker room or have to talk to your teammates about it. But if you do have some issues maybe it’s something you talk with your family about or talk to the people close to you or if you have a therapist, it’s great. If you can be a little clear in the head and be a little more satisfied with your personal life it can translate onto the playing field.”

Q. And there’s still more work to do in making fans understand what athletes go through and that you’re people — husbands, wives, fathers, mothers. Just look at the reaction to Simone Biles at the Olympic.

SHEAHAN: “That’s a great example. I know there was a lot of people who had issues with it, but big picture you have to take care of your mental health before anything.”

Q. I was amazed that some people immediately went to attack her instead of trying to understand what would cause a world-class athlete to make that decision.

SHEAHAN: “Exactly. I think now in the age we’re in with the ability to access everybody’s personal lives and social media, it’s really easy to just judge people right off the get-go and not really know the facts behind things. It takes a lot to be curious about what that person’s dealing with and ask questions rather than immediately judging Simone Biles or whoever the person may be and calling her this and calling her that. What I would love people to do is just be a little more curious and maybe just give people benefit of the doubt more often than not.”

Q. For a player like yourself who’s been on several teams the last few years and is currently unsigned, does that weigh much on your mental health or you understand that it’s part of the business?

SHEAHAN: “It’s definitely tough. You always want stability. For me now, I also understand it’s part of the business. You just look at the positives, like you get to play this game that I’ve dreamed of playing since I was young, and I get to meet all these new people and experience new cities. [My wife and I] have a baby coming and she would definitely like to be stable in that way, but big picture you can only do this job for so long. You’ve just got to grind it out. These things that I incorporate into my daily routine revolving around mental health definitely help that.”

Q. You’re going to be 30 soon, you’re married with a baby on the way. How much has age played a role in your comfort level now? If you were to have a mental health conversation with an 18- or 19-year-old Riley Sheahan, do you think he would have been open and receptive?

SHEAHAN: “No chance [laughs]. I don’t think I would have been receptive. I don’t think I would have acknowledged that there’s maybe some underlying issues with me. I don’t think I really ever would have given it a thought. I love being around the young guys in the locker room because I love their energy. But I do think it’s important for kids, younger guys, whether it’s the college level or juniors, to just be aware of the different things that are out there that you can get sucked into. I think it translates over into the game and you can be a little bit more of a free-thinker, but I think if you just start to build these bad habits, you’re cutting your career short and maybe getting yourself into some negative things. 

“I’m not one to say no to having fun, I still do. I love to be with my friends, love to go out, but there’s an area to sit back and reflect a bit and just be totally sure in the decisions you’re making.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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