It's been eight years since my last game as an amateur athlete. The day I had dreamed of had finally arrived, although it wasn't quite as imagined. I finished my OHL career on a warm spring day – I remember so vividly because it was the day that began my slide from my wonderful seat atop the world. After the playoffs ended, I was banged up. My shoulder was a mess, my legs were shot (not to mention how emotional of a time the past 12 months had been), but of course there was still work that needed to be done as the Columbus Blue Jackets weren't about to let me enjoy my summer just yet, and I was shipped off to AHL Syracuse to begin my quest to play in the NHL.
Very quickly into my professional career I realized that by signing my name to that contract I had also signed away my, for lack of a better word, freedom. It was a nice Winnipeg afternoon and I was walking around downtown when my agent at the time, Doug Woods, called me to tell me that Hockey Canada had extended an invitation for me to join Team Canada at the World Championship in Quebec City. I was over the moon, to think at 19 I was good enough to wear the same jersey (definitely just a practice jersey) with some of the greatest hockey players in the world. My agent told me he was going to confirm everything and call me back with the details. So I hung up the phone and rapidly started calling all my friends, because naturally what else would a kid do? One thing that also comes with being a kid is getting ahead of yourself, but why would I have to worry? It's the world championships, my future coach is coaching (Ken Hitchcock), why wouldn't it work out? A few hours later my phone rang and then my whole view on the NHL changed. I wasn't allowed to attend due to the fact I was to be a "crucial part" of the playoff run in the AHL. The extent of my crucial role saw me play a total of two shifts in two games. The most action I saw was when a drunk homeless guy tried to jump me in the underground tunnels leading to the hotel. I felt cheated, lied to -- I quickly learned that players are property, not people. The rest of my time spent in Syracuse was miserable. I hated the Blue Jackets: they had just cost me a major career moment. My mental state was deteriorating. After hurting my shoulder at the world juniors and not being able to play for a while I had, let's say, picked up a few dependencies that began playing a major role in my next few moves. I requested to be sent home from Syracuse to try and get my head back on straight and prepare for next season and my official pursuit of being a Hall of Famer. I was back home surrounded by family and friends, except two things had changed. I now had what back then seemed like endless money and it was my first summer being 19 (not that I wasn't going to bars before, it’s just now no one could stop me). Mid-way through the summer was development camp and I didn't exactly show up in peak physical condition. Combine that with my early exit from the playoffs and Columbus was not too happy with me. This was also the time I learned how shady and cut-throat players at this level were. I had been in an argument with my dad over the phone in the bathroom of my hotel room, about moving to Vancouver for the summer to get away from everything. Later on, the conversation was spoken back to me almost verbatim in my exit meeting with the brain trust of the Blue Jackets. After this meeting the sour taste in my mouth for the organization began to grow and fester, and with it grew my want to escape from the game. As September grew closer I found myself in a downward spiral, skipping workouts, partying excessively, basically doing everything someone getting ready to make the jump to the NHL shouldn't be doing. Then, as I realized what was happening I grew deathly afraid of failure. What if I never become anything? What if, what if, what if -- 19 years old with the whole world at my feet and I couldn't conquer what should have been the easiest obstacle: my mind. I had begun discussions with my parents and agent about what to do next; my body and mind were not in any state to move off on my own. I informed Columbus I would not be able to attend training camp due to my issues and that's when things really began to fall apart for me. To me I was just a kid who wasn't able to do his job, but to the sports world it was a big deal. After the story had broke my phone rang pretty much non-stop, to the point I would have to turn it off. Some people wanted the story, some wanted to persuade me back to the fabulous life of the NHL. Others wanted to insult me for how stupid I was, and thankfully for me, a small group of close friends and family wanted to offer their unconditional love and support – and it's to these people I am forever grateful. If you ever want to know who your friends are, "retire" at 19. I had left home to live with some friends in St. Catharines, Ont., during this period which, looking back was basically inviting the devil to my doorstep. While living there, rumors about myself had begun to surface. Everyone had opinions and I guess I have one of those faces people love to hate because I began to receive insults everywhere I went. At such a young age I wasn't able to deal with being attacked this way, so I latched on to the only things I knew would numb the pain and take away the hurt of it all.
I didn't know what to do next. I missed hockey, it was the only thing I had ever known; my first love. I was lucky to have the Jr. B team in St. Catharines in town and through a mutual friend I was set up with them. They were kind enough to allow me to skate with them to try and get back in shape. For a month or so I skated and worked out, trying to keep my bad habits in check. It was around the beginning of December and I was feeling good – legs were going, hands felt good. I began talks with Columbus about a return and we had decided on the New Year. I was ready to go. Upon returning I knew it wasn't going to be easy. I went to Columbus for a little bit to skate, then off to meet the team and get the AHL season underway. Quickly I knew I was the odd man out, feeling like I always had food on my face, and rightfully so: I had just given up on everyone in that room’s dream five months prior and now was back looking to steal someone's job. My second game with the team I ended up breaking my hand and missing six weeks due to surgery. This was when I got my first taste of prescription medication. After the season ended I returned home with a new take on life. The coaching staff in Syracuse definitely had me in shape and I was ready to start fresh. The next season went well. I was traded from Columbus early in the year. I should have known to trust more than their words. I was a Philadelphia Flyer now, playing for my old coach from junior, Greg Gilbert, in AHL Adirondack; things were good. It wasn't until the next season that things really fell apart for me. I had re-injured my shoulder and was back on the pain meds. Over the past year I had been using them off and on but never thought anything of if because things were going well. All that changed when our coach was fired and a new head coach came to our team. I could tell from Day 1 that he did not enjoy having me on his team. As I continued to sit out I could sense things shifting in my career back to where they were in Syracuse. I felt like an outcast, a misfit toy in a place that just didn't want me. I began to take pills to deal with my anxiety, which had become so bad I would shake when I wasn't on the pills. As things got worse and worse on the ice I began increasing my doses to combat the mounting anxiety and stress in my life. As I write this it makes me sick to my stomach thinking back to how that part of my life felt. It was only a matter of time until everything collided, but I didn't know that moment would be an actual collision. At this point the anxiety was so bad I couldn't control it. Get anxious, take two pills. Still anxious? Take two more. Some days I would go through 10-15 pills at a time just so I could function in my day-to-day operations. At this point everyone on my team knew something was up – taking that many pills it's hard for people not get the picture – but I was doing a good job hiding the true depths of my problems. That was all until one cold morning. I had one of my more severe attacks and had medicated heavily, at which point I had slipped into a serious trip and hopped in my truck. Thankfully for me, I didn't make it out of my apartment complex and managed to hurt no one but myself...
Stefan Legein was drafted in the second round, 37th overall by the Blue Jackets in 2007, and won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2008 world juniors. He has spent parts of the last eight seasons in the AHL and ECHL. He will be appearing occasionally on TheHockeyNews.com.