LAS VEGAS – The two people most responsible for the New York Islanders’ on-ice turnaround this season shouldn’t even have been there. Barry Trotz had every intention of taking the year off after winning the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals and Robin Lehner was a just out of rehab and newly sober, recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post traumatic stress disorder, the kind of player NHL teams wouldn’t have even thought of going near a decade ago.
But here they both were at the NHL awards, Trotz accepting the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach and Lehner the Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication – which has essentially evolved into the NHL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award – and a share of the Jennings Trophy with Thomas Greiss. Both men delivered powerful messages this season. Trotz’s was to his players, that mediocrity would not be accepted and a culture must be established. Lehner’s was to the hockey world and beyond, that mental illness need not be stigmatized.
And he continued that message when he accepted the Masterton. “I’m not ashamed to say I’m mentally ill,” Lehner said in his acceptance speech, “but that doesn’t mean mentally weak.” It was one of the most powerful moments of the evening. And Lehner’s words rang so true. The fact that he was so upfront about his illness, both with the Islanders and the world, exhibited a special kind of fortitude. “The problem is the majority of people are not going to come out and be open about it to the team,” Lehner said. “Because as soon as that comes to light, it’s going to affect your financial future, it’s going to affect your contract negotiations…because it’s going to turn into a risk.”
And that’s where Lou Lamoriello comes in. Lamoriello will turn 77 shortly after the 2019-20 season begins, but continues to be one of the most progressive minds in the game. He was willing to give Lehner a chance, offering him a one-year deal worth $1.5 million that included a $200,000 signing bonus. Lehner was completely open about his issues with the Islanders and the fact that he shared them with the world allowed him to play without the burden of carrying his secrets around with him.
It’s one thing for it to be a great story and for Lehner to change so many lives, but none of this happens if he can’t stop the puck. Lehner has always been regarded as a talented goalie, but he never lived up to the promise until he disclosed his illness. That is no coincidence. “You didn’t know,” Trotz said. “You have to take a leap of faith and that was a leap of faith that Lou took because of the fact we needed goaltending and he was the most talented goaltender out there. We didn’t know how it was going to play out, but we did know that he was going to get all our support and all our ability to help him. You can’t be a good player and sustain any kind of success unless your personal life is in a good place. You might be able to do it for a short time, but you won’t be able to do it long-term.”
Of course, the irony in all of this is that the team that helped and supported Lehner so much might lose him this summer. Lehner becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1 and has stated that he wants to return to the team, but you never know where things will go once two sides start negotiating. The one thing we do know is that, regardless of where Lehner ends up, he is most certainly in a better place. And he knows that by disclosing his illness, he has helped other hockey players and people. “I had a dinner with all the doctors from the (Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health) Program the other day and they obviously don’t tell me names, but they said a lot of people have reached out to them and started getting help because of me being outspoken,” Lehner said.
Speaking of getting one’s priorities in order, that’s exactly what Trotz planned to do after winning the Cup with the Capitals last season. “I was going to step away from the game,” Trotz said. “I felt certain things needed to be a little different. I made my stand and I took my agent off-guard. I was going to take some time and I was betting on myself.” But Lamoriello managed to convince Trotz that going to the Islanders would be a good move and he convinced him that a goalie with a checkered past and a mental illness diagnosis could resurrect his career.
And because of that, a team that was supposed to be tanking for a chance to draft Jack Hughes became a contender, one that improved by 23 points over the previous season and swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs. Nobody knows what the future holds, either for the Islanders or Robin Lehner. Teams that improve the way the Islanders did sometimes regress and dealing with his mental illness will always be a challenge. He will have bad days and there will be downs, but the difference now is he’s more equipped to handle them. “Now I’m diagnosed and medicated and I’ve learned a tremendous amount,” Lehner said. “I still have a lot to learn, but it’s incredibly manageable.”
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