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Brady Leavold: The Road to Recovery

Brady Leavold was flying high as a hockey player in more ways than one. His on-ice success masked a drug problem that took over his life and resulted in a decade-long spiral of addiction, prison and homelessness. He’s still early in his recovery, but he’s hoping that the darkness of his past can provide a guiding light for others.

Over the summer and through the fall, every couple of days, Brady Leavold would venture to the back of the property owned by his girlfriend’s parents in southern Ontario’s cottage country where he had refurbished a 6-by-10-foot chicken coop and christened it the Matthew Leszczynski Studio. It was there that Leavold would prodigiously pump episodes of a podcast formerly called Hockey 2 Heroin – The Road 2 Recovery. Prior to that, he was recording his shows in the front seat of his girlfriend’s mother’s car because there was too much chaos in a house with two toddlers running around. A company called Bin There Dump That dropped off a huge garbage container to haul out the mounds of junk that had accumulated there over the years. Seriously. Even with new insulation and vapor barriers and all the garbage hauled out, it still smelled a little like chickens in there.

But Matthew Leszczynski, the young man for whom the studio is named, will never get to see what Brady Leavold has done with the place. And he’ll never see how Brady Leavold continues to try to clear the wreckage from his own life. That’s because Leszczynski, a promising right winger who was picked in the second round by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 2003 and played a handful of games in the OHL, died of a fentanyl overdose at the age of 30 in 2017, eight days before Christmas. One of his Leszczynski’s old hockey buddies, Matt Thompson, donated $150 to Leavold to build the studio, and Leszczynski’s sister, Amy, gave another $100. Leavold’s father, Brian, a retired firefighter in suburban Vancouver who had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars paying for his son’s many rehab stints and drug debts and gave up on Brady when he went to prison, helped out by buying him a studio microphone. And every time Brady Leavold speaks into that microphone, he’s not only telling his story, he’s recovering from a life of drug addiction that was once fuelled by chaos, violence and a self-sabotage collision course with an early death. “Oh my god, I hated it,” said Leavold of those times. “I was so depressed, there was no way out. Not going to see my kids again, my f---in’ parents hate me, I don’t talk to my friends. I have no future, I have no teeth, I have no job, a criminal record. I didn’t care, I just wanted to die. I was hoping to die from fentanyl. So many times.”

Brady Leavold, 33, has overdosed more times than he can count, including once when he was homeless in Vancouver’s drug-riddled east side and was attacked by another homeless man with a baseball bat and another time in May 2017 when he ODed in his mother’s front yard the day he got out of prison and had to be “Narcanned” back to life. He knows he should be dead. He realizes there must be a reason why he hasn’t ended up like so many others he has known who died, either deliberately or by accident. That’s why he named his studio after Matthew Leszczynski.

And it’s been awhile

Since I could say

That I wasn’t addicted

It’s been awhile

Since I could say

I loved myself as well

And it’s been awhile

Since I’ve gone and

F---ed things up

Just like I always do…

It was either his son’s first day of kindergarten or Grade 1, Brian Leavold can’t remember which, when Brady’s mother left the family and Brian had to raise Brady and his older sister, Brittany. That kind of trauma sticks with a person. But to trace all of Brady’s problems to abandonment issues doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. The truth is, there was so much chaos, so much trauma, so many strikes against him that it should be no surprise his brain was wired to become one of an addict.

Was it anxiety? Was it because of sexual abuse he suffered as a child? Was it undiagnosed attention-deficit disorder? Was it the team doctors and trainers who readily supplied him with opioids and conveniently believed him when he told them he left them behind on the road or lost them? It’s impossible to trace it back to any one thing. But from the first time he tried ecstasy at a music festival after he graduated from high school, Brady Leavold was set on a path of destruction.

In reality, he never really had a chance. The great fantasy of every addict is to control and enjoy his or her drug of choice. But the harsh
reality is that Leavold could do neither. There is pain to mask and medicate, lots of it. Perhaps it was one of those things, or it could have been
all of them.

But when you’re talking about hiding from shame, it doesn’t get much worse than when Leavold got a 17-year-old girl pregnant while playing for the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos. After denying the baby was his, he went home for the summer and got another girl pregnant. (On one podcast, Leavold acknowledged his favorite animal is the penguin because it has one mate for life. This coming from a man who in October became a father for the fourth time with a third different woman. “If he had just kept things in his pants,” Brian said, “he wouldn’t have half the trouble he’s had.”)

Because of the Swift Current pregnancy, Leavold was traded early in 2007-08 to the Kelowna Rockets, where he had enormous success playing on a line with future NHLer Jamie Benn. At the team Christmas party that year, Leavold received a Secret Santa gift from a teammate that consisted of a package of diapers and a razor blade. “The diapers are for your future kids and the razor blade is to help you with your lines off the ice,” the card read.

Leavold has recurring nightmares that his son, now 13, will someday come back and punch him in the face or shoot him. Leavold said he has seen one video of his son stickhandling with a cap on backward and when he turns to the camera, there is no disputing he is Leavold’s son. “I always knew it was my kid, and I was horrible to this girl,” he said. “Me getting that girl pregnant in Swift Current and not manning up, that really f---ed me up. I remember in school we did a project on the three things we wanted most in life and my three things were to be a dad, stay together as a family and be a hockey player. I just started drowning myself with drugs. In my last year of junior, I did a lot of coke. I regret it every single second of every single day.”

The brother of his girlfriend in B.C. was a drug dealer, and one night when Leavold couldn’t sleep because of all the cocaine in his system, he was offered a dose of oxycodone. “I did the oxy and I remember it taking away everything,” Leavold said. “All that emotional pain from childhood. All the guilt and shame for not being there for this kid, all the pressure from hockey.”

And so started a path that drove Leavold, a very good player in the WHL with a penchant for literally punching above his weight and scoring big goals, out of hockey for good by the time he was 25 and ultimately on the streets of Vancouver for eight months, hooked on heroin and fentanyl, then to jail twice. Leavold has spent three of the past five years incarcerated, the only times in the past 10 years when his family knew his whereabouts and that he was safe. “It’s kind of sad to say, but it was a relief for us when he was there,” said Leavold’s mother, Susan Stoutenburg. “It was like we were on holidays. We knew where he was, we knew he wasn’t going to overdose, we knew he wasn’t doing any crime. It was the biggest relief we had in eight years, for Brian and me both.”

He got into countless fights in jail, including one after which the other inmate asked Leavold to sign his address book so he could tell his son he fought a hockey player.

As a player, Leavold was the same as he was as a person: manic and highly combustible but very good when he focused on his game. “I’d skate by the other team’s bench, and I’d say, ‘If you guys touch ‘Bennie’ (Jamie Benn) or (center Colin Long) tonight, I’m going to step
right on your throat,’ ” Leavold said. “ ‘I don’t care if I go to jail. I don’t care if I ever play hockey again. I don’t even like playing hockey.’ And they’d be like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ ”

In his last stint in hockey, a half a season with the Rio Grande Killer Bees of the Central League, he did not do drugs or drink once and focused completely on hockey before returning home to his bad habits in the off-season. In Kelowna, he was a point-per-game player and a willing combatant against even the league’s most intimidating heavyweights. But there were just too many times that his drug problems derailed him.

Instead of working out, he constantly did cocaine in the summer of 2008, despite the fact he landed a tryout at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s rookie camp, where he spent some time on a line with Steven Stamkos. Playing on a line with Kyle Turris for the Jr. A Burnaby Express, there were times when Leavold would do lines of cocaine between periods. He never worked out, didn’t care about defense, rarely blocked a shot and was almost always the first guy off the ice after practice. But he had some real skill and an ability to carve out space for himself in front of the net.

Brian, who is also a scout for the Saskatoon Blades, believes his son could have been a good player in the AHL or Europe. “Nah, I think I could have been an NHL player,” Leavold said. “I really do. Look at a guy like Derek Dorsett. I fought him. I had more points than him, and if you watch our fight, he’s not any tougher than me. I look at guys like (former Broncos teammate) Dale Weise or Alexandre Burrows. I hate to say it, but I really didn’t try. I was always focused on other s---, always worried about where my girlfriend was sitting in the stands, where my dad was, if my mom was going to show up to the game, checking my phone between periods. F---, I was always somewhere else.”

The consequences that I’ve rendered

Have gone and f---ed things up again

Why must I feel this way?

Just make this go away…

I know it’s me

I cannot blame this on my father

He did the best he could for me

Nobody, least of all an elite athlete, sets out to be a homeless junkie with tracks of bruises up and down his arms. Nor does anyone intend on spending three years in jail, on welfare, relying on disability payments and in a string of rehabilitation centers. Nobody ever sets out to put his parents through what Brady Leavold has forced Brian Leavold and Susan Stoutenburg to endure. Brian estimates that even if his son had signed a lucrative NHL contract, it would not be enough to pay him back for all the scammed money, all the stints in rehab, all the debt payments to drug dealers. It has clearly taken its toll on Brian, who had hoped to work as a fireman until he was 60 but retired at 57 because he was afraid.

He was afraid because there was a time when Brady was homeless and spending his days and nights doing drugs, either on the notorious East Hastings Street in Vancouver or in the equally squalid Whalley area in nearby Surrey. One shift, Brian responded to three overdoses and all three died. By this time, Brian and Susan had cut Brady off financially, and he was getting desperate, telling his father that the next body his father flipped over might be his.

Asked what the lowest points for him were, Brian said: “When you’re in the emergency room, and he’s handcuffed to a bed, and he’s overdosed. Or they call you to the psych ward at a different hospital because he’s going to jump off an overpass. Yeah, those were pretty low times. I was going to go (to Ontario) for his birthday last summer and I get a call from the OPP and he’s in jail again.”

Mondays were Susan’s day off, so that’s the day she would make the 40-minute drive from Coquitlam to the prison in Maple Ridge to visit her son. She had an hour with her son but could barely make it beyond 20 minutes before breaking down. “And then I would cry all the way home.”

When he wasn’t in jail, he was using and supporting a habit that cost as much as $1,000 a day. That was when he was doing heroin, but he switched to the more lethal fentanyl because it was much cheaper. The first time he went to prison in B.C. was for robbery, then he spent a year in jail in Ontario for driving a stolen truck. When he was using, there were always wild stories about him having a gun to his head or being trapped in a drug lab or that criminals were going to show up at their homes demanding money. He often got the money he wanted, sometimes out of guilt, other times out of fear, still others when the thought of what he would do without drugs was even scarier than what he would do if he had them. “We were enabling him,” Stoutenburg said. “And he wasn’t getting any better. He was actually getting worse. And we had to make that decision not to give him another cent. And that’s when he went on the street and that’s when he started
doing (fentanyl).”

It’s been awhile

Since I couldn’t

Hold my head up high

And it’s been awhile

Since I said, “I’m sorry”

On this day, Brady Leavold is giving his “guest” a virtual tour of the podcast studio. As he walks to the back of the property, the sun is blazing behind him as he wears a cut-off Rolling Stones hoodie and tells his story. He’s letting the light in now, in more ways than one. For the first time in many years, Brady Leavold is being honest and vulnerable with people.

It was on a podcast with Sheldon Kennedy that he publicly disclosed for the first time that he had been sexually abused by a relative at a family reunion just after his parents split up. During another podcast with former Rockets teammate James McEwan, the face of the class-action concussion lawsuit against the CHL, Leavold decided to finally add his name to that lawsuit as well as the class-action lawsuit that is fighting for a retroactive minimum wage in major junior. He had ex-NHLer Brent Sopel on one podcast, and the Stanley Cup winner talked frankly and extensively about his struggles with dyslexia and addiction. Sopel has since become a mentor, or a sponsor of sorts, constantly challenging Leavold to continue to do things to enhance his sobriety. He has since changed the name of the podcast to Hockey 2 Hell And Back and has more than 75 episodes to his credit. His list of guests is actually pretty A-list when it comes to the hockey world, with the likes of Sheldon Kennedy, Theo Fleury, Doug Gilmour, P.J. Stock, Darren McCarty and Kyle Quincey making appearances.

When it comes to drug use, everything is relative. Is Brady Leavold 100 percent clean? No. But the difference now is that he’s using medication to help him overcome his problems rather than run away from them. He’s still on a dose of methodone, as is his girlfriend, which is why their baby girl Vada – named after the lead character in the movie My Girl – spent the first three weeks of her life in hospital. He regularly uses cannabis to help him cope from the physical pain from his hockey career. There were lots of concussions in hockey, but it’s hard to pin all your head injury problems on the game when part of your past includes getting attacked by a homeless man with a baseball bat. Leavold also takes regular micro doses of psilocybe, or magic mushrooms to help clear his head. “There are about 50 of us (former hockey players) who are doing it,” Leavold said. “This is what’s working for us, it’s the only thing working for us. It’s really good for head trauma because it re-sparks your neurogenic pathways. People say, ‘Wow’, but think about it, those pharmaceutical companies make antidepressants that everyone is taking and it’s no different, you’re still doing sh—to your brain. To stigmatize plants that grow in the ground is wrong.”

But he worries a lot about having chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and he still has no teeth in the front of his mouth. The way Leavold tells it, he lost his front teeth when he took a stick to the face in Medicine Hat and claims they were not surgically repaired because the Medicine Hat team dentist had left the game early that night. The partial dental plate that replaced his front teeth broke a couple of years ago, and he hasn’t had the money to buy another one.

But the podcast is in many ways his lifeline. He hasn’t been able to get to recovery meetings because of the pandemic and acknowledges that he has been “white knuckling” his way through recovery of late. And that’s a very dangerous place for an addict to be, particularly one who has been sober for as little time as Brady Leavold has. And the world is full of addicts with good intentions. He truly believes that if he goes back to using, he will die this time, because the law of averages tells him he can’t possibly go that many times and be lucky enough to live. When he went to jail in B.C., he said he came out to learn that most of the homeless people in his peer group were dead.

And after eight years off skates, Leavold has found some joy again in the game he loves. Through former OHLer Matt Thompson, he has been skating with the Maxville Mustangs senior team with an eye to returning to the game. He’s also on the move to Morrisburg, a small town near Cornwall where he and Thompson are opening up a hockey shop named the One Stop Skate Shop. Leavold has also started the Puck Support Network, which he hopes to use to raise funds to help former players with mental health and addiction problems. His girlfriend, whom he met when he was in jail, is also in recovery and has two children, as well as Vada, so Leavold has a young family to keep him occupied. The mother of two of his children in B.C. has cut him out of her life, but Leavold hopes for the day when he can be reunited with them. The boy plays hockey, and Leavold recently saw a Facebook post with a picture of his son’s team. He also longs for the day when he can be united with his child in Swift Current.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of amends to make and, understandably, people who are close to him are a little wary. Susan wants to see a full year of sobriety. For his part, Brady knows that his sobriety is fragile and a relapse is possible, but instead of hiding it if it happens, he wants to use his podcast to talk about it. He has finally come to grips with the fact he’s an addict and that will never change. Or as Kennedy, who has struggled with demons of his own, said on the podcast: “Once a cucumber becomes a pickle, there’s no going back to being a cucumber.”

Brady Leavold would like to get into coaching but knows he’s nowhere near ready to make that kind of commitment right now. He’d also like to talk to young hockey players about drugs and tell his story. He also hopes to write a book. Leavold is climbing the ranks among hockey podcasts, and he’s using social media to get the word out. Most of all, though, armed with experience, perspective and a new lease on life, Brady Leavold is trying to be the best version of himself. “I have stories that will blow people’s minds, but I’m not lying,” he said. “I really wouldn’t change it. I’m good. I’m good right now.”



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