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Shattered Ice: Former NHLer Steve Seftel's memoir details battle with mental illness and journey back to the game

After injuries cut his career short, Steve Seftel thought his time in professional hockey was a failure and that the game wanted noting to do with him. But following a “complete mental breakdown," Seftel sought help, addressed his mental health and gained new perspective on his journey.
Steve Seftel featured

Steve Seftel’s professional hockey career came to an end at 24 to little fanfare. At the time, he viewed his career as a failure. Selected 40th overall by the Washington Capitals in 1986, Seftel played four games with the Capitals in addition to his four seasons with the AHL’s Baltimore Skipjacks before an ever-growing list of injuries ultimately resulted in his decision to call it a career. It wasn’t a superstar NHL career, but a failure? Not even close. That was mental illness lying to him. It wouldn’t be the last time it did so.

Shattered Ice, Seftel’s memoir, details every step of his journey from his minor hockey on through to the NHL, all the while giving insight into how his increasingly anxious thoughts resulted in panic-attacks and sleepless nights. As he details throughout the book, Seftel dealt with mental health issues that were bubbling just below the surface for the majority of his life. His frank and open discussion about his feelings during those difficult times are part of what makes Shattered Ice an important read for young people in sports. Seftel's hope is to normalize the discussion of mental health, especially within the sports sphere, and cites champions of mental health such as Michael Landsberg as a role model in that regard.

“I always dealt with [anxiety and mental health issues],” Seftel said. “Because it wasn't talked about, I just assumed 'This is who I am, this is what you've got to live with.' I didn't think that I needed help because I just thought that was a personality trait, that it was no different than other personality traits that people have whether it be confidence or whatever. I just thought that was me so I have to learn to live with it.”

And so he did until his issues finally came to a head. In January 2018, he had a “complete mental breakdown.” He could not and did not want to get out of bed. And as a result, Seftel had to take a leave of absence from his job at the Toyota assembly plant in Cambridge, Ont., where he has worked for 24 years. But Seftel refused to let his setback define him, nor would he let it derail him. He used his time away from work to begin the long process of healing himself – a process that included penning Shattered Ice.

“I went off work on disability, and I started the process of healing,” he said. “It's a long process but it started with some therapy, going to a social worker initially and then a psychotherapist. Being home alone, dealing with my feelings, I needed that opportunity to focus so I started writing the book and I dived right into it at that point and I just started going at it for hours on end and it became therapy.”

While he was in a difficult place when writing the book, Seftel wanted to make sure that Shattered Ice captured the brightness hockey brought into his life as well as his difficulties.

“Initially [the book] was dark and my editor asked me after several months if that was the book I wanted to write and I said, 'No, I want it to be more about the joy of the sport,' " he explained.

Seftel does capture that beautifully, and Shattered Ice’s honest discussion of Seftel’s mental health issues doesn’t prevent its pages from containing moments of levity, as well. One of the funniest comes when Seftel details his plan to give up dating for 12 months as a 16-year-old – part of a three-pronged approach to committing himself fully to being the best hockey player he could be – after a bout of mononucleosis cost him a portion of his 15-year-old season and kept him from being drafted into the OHL that season.

Seftel also does a wonderful job capturing the essence of growing up as a young hockey player and the culture that is brought along with it. Readers young and old will relate to the Seftel's anecdotes, be it imagining himself as his hockey heroes playing foot hockey during school recess or stories of horsing around with teammates pregame and then having to hide it from his coaches when the hijinks resulted in an injury.

For Seftel, putting his thoughts down into the pages of Shattered Ice was a vital part of the healing process. Another was getting back to the rink. It’s something that he says was easier said than done, initially, in large part because his brain was lying to him again.

“About two years ago my wife, Lisa, and my son, Nick, when I was going through some therapy and starting to get better, turning a corner said, 'You have to get back in the rink. You need to get back in that environment around those people, that hockey family,’ ” he said. “I had always thought, again, my illness was telling me the hockey family didn't want anything to do with me. That was what I told myself from the moment I left. It caused me to hide, to not want to talk to people.”

He eventually did get back to the rink and that hockey family by taking his sons to their own games and practices. And, in due time, he even made his way into coaching, stepping behind the bench with a minor atom team in Waterloo. It was in that role, and with the clarity that working on his mental health brought with it, that Seftel finally began to see his career differently.

“I realized that the hockey family never turned their back on me, it was my brain lying to me and it was a relief,” he explained. “It just felt so grounded that day and I just felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and it was another step in my healing process.”

Steve Seftel’s career didn’t end the way he envisioned when he was growing up in Kitchener, Ont., but his bravery in penning Shattered Ice puts into sharp contrast just how wrong he was to view himself and his career as a failure. His hockey journey was, and will always be, a resounding success.

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