When we hear “Scott Niedermayer,” what do we think of? The consummate winner? The man with four Stanley Cups, a Norris Trophy, a Conn Smythe Trophy and multiple Olympic gold medals?
He’s a Hall of Fame defenseman, known in his career as the picture of poise. Right now, though, he’s crying. He’s baring his soul to his old Kamloops Blazer teammate, former NHL goaltender Corey Hirsch, and renowned psychiatrist Dr. Diane McIntosh. Niedermayer is explaining how winning his fourth Cup was his greatest achievement because it meant he could pass the trophy to his brother Rob. Niedermayer breaks down, and Dr. McIntosh does, too. It’s a beautiful moment, raw for someone like Niedermayer, whose entire brand as a player was about being composed.
That’s just one snapshot of an extended interview in which Niedermayer delves into his mental health. He’s a guest on Blindsided, a brand-new podcast produced by The Players' Tribune, launching Dec. 15. Hirsch, an obsessive compulsive disorder sufferer and one of hockey’s leading mental-health advocates, hosts along with Dr. McIntosh. Their guests include an impressive list of pro athletes, from Niedermayer to NBA forward Kevin Love to Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Kurt Warner to golfer Bubba Watson to tennis player Taylor Townsend. Each episode will dive deep into the mental-health struggles that often accompany the pressures of being a pro athlete.
“For professional athletes, a career is condensed into 10 years, whereas most people could have up to 40 years of a career or more,” Hirsch said. “So I think that's where it's different. If you do end up with a mental illness, your career is only 10 years, and the pressure is that someone else is going to take your job quickly if you say anything.”
At the same time, pro athletes can experience all the same characteristics of mental illness as "regular" citizens do – despite the expectation that athletes are supposed to be more impervious.
“The mental illness is the same,” Dr. McIntosh said. “A panic attack is a panic attack is a panic attack. They can be slightly different for each individual, but it's still a panic attack. There’s this belief that, ‘I have so many gifts, how can I possibly have this problem? People don't want to hear about that because they see me as being up on a pedestal.’ This is some of what goes through the brains of people who are highly successful, usually at just about everything…when they're faced with mental illness, they feel like, 'I can't tell anyone, I'm going to be seen as weak. I'm going to be seen as less than. People think I have too much. People already think I'm a success. They'll view me differently.’ ”
What brought Hirsch and Dr. McIntosh together? A couple years back, she had taken a break from her practice to write a book, This is Depression, aiming to help people understand that particular mental illness. While launching the book in a cross-Canada tour, she held a mental-health speaking panel on which Hirsch was a guest. He was a star speaker, as she remembers it fondly, and the two struck up a friendship. Together, they provide a crucial contrast to Blindsided. Hirsch has been on the front lines as a former NHL goaltender who was constantly at war with his mental health and tried to conceal it during his playing days. He brings a relatability to the show with which guests identify. Dr. McIntosh, naturally, brings the formal mental-health expertise of her profession.
“We have both sides of the coin covered, and I think this is something no one's ever seen before,” Hirsch said. “This isn't Dr. Phil. Diane is so empathetic, compassionate, kind, and she doesn't need to do this right? She’s doing this out of the goodness of her heart to help people.”
So how will each episode play out? Because each athlete participating comes in as an open book with the intention of being forthcoming about their experiences, Blindsided will function like a therapy session, the curtain yanked way back. Whereas Hirsch often has an existing relationship with the subject, Dr. McIntosh approaches each guest as a blank slate, “like I’m talking to someone who I’ve seen for the first time as a patient.” The format, then, goes beyond an athlete just sharing a story. It’s an active, collaborative process, with a story followed by analysis from Dr. McIntosh, transitioning to a broader discussion about the topic tabled in that episode. For instance, in the Kevin Love episode, he discusses panic attacks, and Hirsch and Dr. McIntosh transition into a deeper discussion about panic attacks, including the ones Hirsch suffered as a player.
Hirsch and Dr. McIntosh believe that, by humanizing their podcast subjects, they can (a) debunk the stigma that pro athletes can’t suffer from mental-health problems and (b) put forth role models to help others with mental-health problems. As Dr. McIntosh sees it, people can see themselves in the athletes’ stories while also identifying that icons they look up to are being open about mental-health struggles.
Don’t be surprised if many more big-name athletes start appearing on Blindsided after the first wave of episodes, especially with two hosts who are so invested in the subject matter.
“Helping people has been a greater gift to me than any win I ever got in the National Hockey League,” Hirsch said. “My Olympic medal, I’d give it to somebody if it meant I got to help them. That’s how much it means to me.”