NHLPA emphasizes mental health with class designed to teach basics

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Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Whenever Blake Wheeler endured mental health challenges in his hockey career, he felt better when he talked about them and sought help.

When the NHL Players' Association introduced a pilot program to teach players the basics of mental health, Wheeler was on board to give it a try. On Wednesday the union unveiled its First Line program, an initiative with Mental Health Commission of Canada that is now available to players who want to learn more about the topic.

"We're opening a door that hasn't been opened before and giving guys just a little bit of a feel that, if something pops up in your life, if you need a little bit of support, you have a few guys who have been trained a little bit," said Wheeler, who is in his 16th season and first with the New York Rangers. "Hopefully in the future this is just commonplace in our league."

A handful of players in recent months have opened up about mental health struggles, including Arizona's Connor Ingram, Florida's Spencer Knight and Colorado's Samuel Girard. They received care from the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program, a joint venture of the league and union.

First Line is separate from that and is designed to be a preventive measure, offering players the tools to understand mental health and recognize potential warning signs in themselves, teammates and family members.

"[It] is not therapy or counseling," NHLPA director of player health and safety Maria Dennis told The Associated Press. "It's a class. It's to educate players and arm them with the knowledge and skills so that they could take the first step."

Wheeler and Calgary captain Mikael Backlund were among the roughly 20 players who took the pilot class with Jay Harrison, a retired defenseman who's now the NHLPA's consulting psychologist. Harrison said the idea came from player feedback, especially from the pandemic when there was more focus put on mental health concerns.

Shane Silver, VP of the Mental Health Commission of Canada's Opening Minds division that focuses on mental health education, said there has been sharp growth in interest from organizations since the pandemic. Director Mike Pietrus said the programs can be adapted to specific needs -- in this case, that of NHL players, who play in a sport that prides itself on secrecy when it comes to injuries and other details.

"You're dealing with Type-A personalities who basically embody who they are and what they want to be and everything, their goal is set to becoming the best possible athlete," Pietrus said. "They become so obsessed with that that they forget about so many other things. And then later on in life when they, for example, get married and have kids, their perspective changes quite a bit."

Backlund took the course after getting the "C" as Flames captain, seeing it as a way to help him become a better leader.

"There were some simple little things that can help us big time," Backlund said. "I want to keep working on this and improve my skills as a leader on the team as the captain and learn how I can be mentally stronger and healthier and also how I can see signs of maybe my teammates are struggling or not feeling as well and how I can help them."

Calgary teammate Oliver Kylington missed all last season to focus on his mental health, a now-familiar step after other examples around sports, like NBA star Kevin Love, gymnast Simone Biles and former swimmer Michael Phelps acknowledging their own struggles.

"Everybody who comes out, it adds to just knocking down that barrier and the stigma," Dennis said. "The more athletes that come out and talk about their own experiences, the better it is."

Harrison, who played parts of nine NHL seasons from 2006-15, said he believes the culture is shifting in hockey, a sport where mental and physical toughness is stressed from a young age.

"This lies in a place of enhancing and supporting our players' ability to transform that culture from within," Harrison said. "Players are now demonstrating that they're willing to invest and learn. It's important to them."