The Malik Report
by George Malik on 09/18/11 at 10:47 PM ET
As things slowly work their way back towards “normal” here at TMR, I’ve promised myself to, if you’ll pardon the comparison, “Don’t be Ellen,” as in “don’t get preachy about mental health or anything else, just do your damn job” (her TV sitcom “jumped the Shark” when she came out because its focus became singular, I’m not going to turn into a chapter of NAMI here—this is just a hockey blog)...
But given all the talk we’ve already heard and will continue to hear about fighting and the role of enforcers as it pertains to the trio of passings this past summer, I’m lost as to why we can’t just state the obvious about the issues obviously facing the NHL, NHLPA and NHL Alumni in terms of investing as much in improving their behavioral health programs, mental health care programs and alumni support as they do keeping their athletes in tip-top physical shape.
To be brief (for once, and perhaps only once):
1. What’s the most common drug addiction in regular life? It’s not alcohol, it’s prescription drugs, and very specifically, painkillers, and hockey players are in a business where Percocet, Vicodin, Tylonol 3’s with Codeine and sometimes even Oxycontin are used pretty damn regularly, especially to deal with nagging injuries and to manage pain after surgery. The NHL can’t simply assume that it’s heavy drinking, “hard drugs” and promiscuous behavior (in terms of spending, carousing and, um, carousal) that have to be addressed by its substance abuse programs and behavioral health safeguards.
The players need to be educated about prescription drug/painkiller addiction, they need to be able to come to a trainer or coach or even fellow teammate if they’ve got a problem to get help and their trainers need to ask what’s in their medicine cabinets. The league’s policy remains, “We’ll put out fires if you’ve got serious addiction problems,” and it shouldn’t have to get to that point for the NHL and NHLPA to step in and help their players popping an extra pill, and this runs the gamut from issues with Class A drugs to drinking half a dozen Red Bulls to get up for a game.
Whatever substance has become “too much,” the players have to know that they can get help when it comes to any drug issues, from caffeine on up, and that they won’t be treated like they’ve done something terribly wrong or will be judged negatively if they’ve got a problem. Maybe every team could have a substance abuse rep to help the players deal with pain management issues and transitioning off painkillers, which ain’t easy for anybody who’s simply afraid of feeling debilitating pain once the pills stop.
2. Even if it means sitting through the same types of mandatory seminars that you might endure from your employer on a monthly or bi-monthly basis if you’re lucky enough to be paying through the nose for your health insurance, it’s pretty obvious that mental illnesses are just as prevalent in hockey as they are in real life, where 20% of the population deals with a serious mental illness in their lifetime. The NHL and PA must do a much better job of ensuring that players know they can approach their trainers, coaches, teammates, team, or the league, and perhaps even do so in a manner that keeps their participation in any said programs anonymous (if that’s what they need to get over the hump and seek help) to deal with any mental health concerns for both medical treatment, psychiatric help and plain old counseling, even if it’s just because they need someone to talk to about the wife or the kids or the coach or whatever else they need to talk out, and it has to be more than the team chaplain (that’s one thing the NHL does allow teams to have, but on-call counselors and psychiatrists should be part of the team’s medical staff, too).
These guys live tremendously regimented lives and while they’re paid gigantic wages, it’s a helluva grind for them, too, and they’re human beings. The NHL and NHLPA need to ensure that their players receive the same kind of mental health and behavioral care that any employee with health insurance can access, and the NHL and PA need to make sure that the players understand that this isn’t a, “Well, we’ll put the fire out if there’s a fire” situation.
The culture has to change here regarding everything from major psychiatric disorders (without starting another fire here, depression is one of the major side effects of post-concussion syndrome) to, “Dude, I need to speak to a counselor because I have to work some s*** out about issue X in my life,” and the players have to be informed—and informed regularly—that there is help available, and right now it doesn’t appear that the NHL or NHLPA have these safeguards in place to begin with.
3. Again, professional hockey players live incredibly regimented and structured lives and are surrounded by support galore in their teammates, coaches and management when they’re playing hockey, but as soon as their hockey career ends…They’re civilians, and all that structure and support goes away. This is clearly a huge concern, as many NHL alums have suggested, and I believe it does fall upon the NHL, PA and the NHL Alumni Association to make sure that there’s more than just an optional, “Life After Hockey” class that retiring players can take if they’re not one of the lucky ones who are either hired by one of their former employers or remain in the hockey industry. Not everyone’s going to become a coach, join the front office or work in TV or radio.
Are there vocational training programs, education packages, career counselors or job placement networks that could be made available to players? Could the NHLPA or alumni establish support groups or a transitional framework that involves more than joining a team’s Alumni Association to skate in charity hockey games from time to time? What can the NHL, PA and Alumni do to ensure that there is mandatory participation in some or all of these programs before the players retire, so that they can avail themselves of their options and plan ahead while they’re still playing, and how can the PHPA help if they’re in the AHL or ECHL, and can these programs be made available to all NHL alums, even if they finish their playing careers abroad?
Put simply, regardless of one’s stance on fighting, the roles of enforcers, “tough love” for people who violate off-ice protocols or whether you might suggest that retiring players simply have to deal with getting a job like the rest of us, I think the NHL, NHLPA and NHL Alumni can do quite a bit more to help their players in issues that don’t relate to their physical well-being, and I don’t understand why the conversation always has to be so damn politicized. The best hockey league in the world seems to do, at best, a marginal job of looking after their players’ mental health, pain management and doesn’t do enough to support their transition from professional athletic life to civilian life, and it can clearly do better by treating its players more like employees who are human beings instead of simply treating them like physical machines who are expected to perform regardless of the cost to their personal lives or futures as plain old people who are as normal, fallible and likely to deal with addiction, mental health issues and struggles with career transitions as you and me.
The NHL and NHLPA are reluctant partners in a business enterprise that generates over $3 billion in revenues, and it’s simply time for both parties to reinvest some of that money in taking better care of their money-making commodities.
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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.