It was exactly one year ago today that the junior hockey world came to grips with the reality of mental health issues. It came in the form of a lifeless body in a GMC truck in the parking lot of a Saginaw Walmart. It came in the form of Terry Trafford, a 20-year-old winger for the Saginaw Spirit who, despondent about being sent home by the team for behavioral issues and marijuana use, took his own life eight days before anyone found him.
While the hockey world struggles with the effect of multiple concussions on mental health, this apparently was not the case with Terry Trafford. In fact, as far as anyone knows, Trafford was a happy-go-lucky kid who spiraled into a pit of despair as his hockey career unraveled. But there was obviously so much more to it than that, so much that so many people never knew.
One year later, Terry Trafford has left a legacy. And that legacy is that players who find themselves in the same situation he did a year ago now have somewhere to turn. Thanks to one of the most progressive sports leaders in North America and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), junior hockey players now have the tools to combat the feelings of depression that might come over them.
But it’s still up to them to use those tools. Under the guidance of commissioner David Branch and the CMHA, the Ontario League now has a program called Talk Today, which educates players and encourages them to come forward if they’re feeling they might be struggling. Each team also has a mental health coach and a mental health point person in the organization. The program has already had a couple of success stories, but hockey will always be challenged by the stigma around mental health, one that is exacerbated by a culture where one of the key attributes of a player is that he’s ‘mentally tough’.
“I think the problems (junior hockey players) face are not unlike the general population, which is the fact that stigma is still so pervasive in mental health issues,” said Camille Quenneville, the CEO of the Ontario branch of the CMHA. “I would say that what makes it even more complicated for these young players is that there is a culture of being very macho. When you add those two together, I think there would be a real reluctance for most kids to really want to admit that they’re struggling.”
That will always be an enormously difficult nut to crack in hockey. As far as hockey has come and as progressive as people such as Branch are, it’s difficult to envision a day when hockey players will ever be able to admit weakness. A recent essay by Pascal Dupuis of the Pittsburgh Penguins is a perfect example. In it, he talks about standing at center ice at practice and feeling a shot go through his body like a bolt of lightning. Months before, he had suffered a near-fatal a pulmonary embolism and knew that it was happening again. But instead of going for help, Dupuis told no one. “Not my teammates. Not my trainer. Not my wife,” Dupuis wrote. “The hockey player in me – he’s saying, ‘It’s nothing,’ ”
Dupuis went on to play five more games with one-third of his lung capacity before learning the blood clot had returned. “I was lying to myself,” Dupuis wrote. “It was easy to be in denial.”
What the hockey world needs to establish – whether it’s with concussions or blood clots or mental health issues – is that the player is the absolutely last person who should be believed. It’s up to the people around him to recognize the signs and do something about it. And that’s part of what the Talk Today program sets out to do.
One prong of the program is a three-hour seminar each of the more than 400 players in the OHL has received regarding suicide prevention. Quenneville said there have been results already. One player came forward and was treated while still being able to play with his team and another went home for treatment. That’s progress and that might not have happened had Terry Trafford not committed suicide.
But it’s another part of the program that might be even more important. It’s called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) and it’s available to all executives, coaches, parents and billet families. Available, but not mandatory. Part of the problem is the program was rolled out in October and the season was already fully underway. It is an intensive two-day program and not everyone has that kind of time once hockey season starts.
But that season will end soon and if the OHL is really serious about this issue, it will make ASIST mandatory for every parent, junior hockey executive and coach and billet family. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Trafford case was that, after the fact, nobody from Trafford’s teammates to his employer to his girlfriend saw one thing that would lead them to think he would do something as drastic as take his own life.
Perhaps they just couldn’t recognize the signs. Nothing is certain, but perhaps if someone in Terry Trafford’s life had that kind of training, things might have turned out differently.
But one year after the Terry Trafford saga, people are talking. That is most definitely a great thing. Quenneville believes the day will come when hockey players deal with mental health issues the same way they deal with groin pulls and separated shoulders. I’m not sure about that, but I admire her optimism. “I think we’re turned a corner, to be honest,” she said. “It will be this generation of players who will look at mental health differently.”