Robin Lehner is a great goaltender – talented enough to assure his employers in Las Vegas they could trade away Lehner’s goalie partner and 2021 Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury this past off-season.
But Lehner’s most important and lasting impact could turn out to be his willingness to be a whistleblower on certain elements of professional hockey culture, and the hockey industry in general.
Lehner made waves over the weekend when he used his Twitter account to accuse a number of NHL teams of giving its players the Ambien drug as well as benzodiazepines, a drug that is intended to treat insomnia and anxiety:
Lehner did not name specific teams who were acting illegally, but he did leapfrog from that accusation to make another one – and this accusation centered around Philadelphia Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault:
Predictably and understandably, Lehner’s comments resulted in an uproar from fans and media. At a time when the state of athletes’ mental health is a macro story that resonates across the sports world, having an active player step up publicly and demand change is a major development, especially in the authoritarian NHL. And if that’s what it takes to improve players’ well-being, we all should be thanking Lehner for not keeping his mouth shut.
The NHL has a history of whistleblowers, the most famous being former Maple Leafs defenseman Carl Brewer, who spoke out more than 30 years ago regarding the business practices of the league and the NHL Players’ Association under disgraced leader Alan Eagleson. Brewer’s dogged determination to deliver a far better pension plan than the one they’d first received resulted in a 1992 Canadian lawsuit, and that legal action ended with the NHL paying a $40 million settlement to players. All NHLers owe Brewer a gigantic “thank you”, despite the grand majority’s unwillingness to join Brewer in the initial lawsuit.
In addition, former NHL winger Daniel Carcillo has been a forceful advocate for culture change – in particular, as it pertains to player health. Carcillo hasn’t minced words in his criticisms of the way teams treat their on-ice employees, and he heartily endorsed Lehner’s recent outspokenness.
In 2019, the NHL announced it would build a platform that allowed players to report problems. And, while that is a welcome step forward, it doesn’t change the reality that the pro hockey community is a relatively closed environment that stresses conformity and the subjugation of the individual. For years, players have went along to get along, and their problems have persisted. There hasn’t been any follow-up news on the NHL’s platform proposal, leaving questions about its process unanswered.
But that shouldn’t scare away other NHLers from reporting any and all wrongdoings they see. As Lehner has demonstrated, players can use their power to break the cone of silence that often drops on contentious issues, and if they have truth on their side, they’ll be supported by the majority of the hockey world. Lehner’s accusations take nothing away from his value as a competitor. For myopic organizations, his leadership may be seen as a negative, but any NHL franchise that actively stamps out dissent and disagreement eventually is going to be revealed as a bad-faith actor, and a huge part of the overall problem.
From the moment we first see them, we want our star athletes to shine. They’ve been given a phenomenal physical gift, and watching them use that gift to bring joy to fans is a pleasure. But too often, we only see a two-dimensional being when we look at NHLers. We don’t know what physical or mental anguish they endure every day, just to be able to get on the ice. And we ought to listen to them when they go out of their way to inform us of what they see behind the scenes.
Lehner has earned his place as Vegas’ starting goalie this season, but he may end up being better-known as an advocate for a more humanistic sport. If you don’t believe his outcries, that’s on you. But don’t expect everyone to turn a blind eye to them. Some of us recognize the value of a whistleblower, and we commend Lehner for taking a big risk in becoming one.