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Sweet, savory Sabres and the war inside our heads
Some hockey, some confession and open discussion, and even more thanks
First off I want to thank all of you who signed up to read what I’m writing here. I said a lot in my introduction, but I wanted to say a little more.
I am always struck by how kind people are when it comes to what I write. That all of you who received this in your email want to have my words come to you directly is incredibly flattering. To those that bookmarked the page or keep it in your favorites to read when you want, I am touched. Growing up with a Catholic school education and all that that entails, the overwhelming sense of guilt and sheepishness I get when it comes to what I do still overrides me at times. After all I’m “just doing my job” and such and doing ones job means taking care of the tasks at hand, compliments be damned.
So I say this with the deepest sincerity: THANK YOU… And I hope I can make it worth all of your whiles to stick with me as I step out solo into this vast world online and try to make a go of it myself. Let’s just call this finely crafted artisanal word production and give it a rustic hue.
Down the road in a few weeks I will have a paid subscription level here and I’ll keep you all apprised and aware of when that’s happening. There will still be public posts, just most of the stuff I want to make worth spending bucks on will be for those who go for the paid level. I know that may stink for some of you but I hope everyone knows this is why it’s so scary to jump out and do this. For now, the word kitchen is open and please enjoy the cheese.
Right, hockey stuff
That Sabres outcome wasn’t expected at all, was it? A season opening 5-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens in which the Sabres power play popped three goals and the fans that were in attendance made it all the more acclimating for the home side. That’s some real feel-good stuff. It’s one out of 82 and the trudge of the regular season will bear everything out, but every game is its own story even if you don’t like to read a game story. In this case, it was like a cliché sports movie — the team no one gave a shot to win faced last season’s Stanley Cup finalist and beat them. You gotta love it… unless you’re a Canadiens fan and your team is 0-2-0 after losing to the Maple Leafs and Sabres then it’s really annoying and kind of sucks.
The new Sabres leadership, Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons, each scored and Okposo in particular looked rejuvenated. It’s genuinely nice to see that as both guys are super dudes off the ice and guys I’d be cool with providing an example to younger players. The fans gave the guys standing ovations, the counting chant returned, the players all have their own goal songs - the vibes were good and that’s all you can ask for right now. I am quite eager to see how the arena looks Saturday afternoon when the Sabres host the Arizona Coyotes in an early season Fight For Wright.
One good Sabres idea from Twitter
Hell damn yes, Kate. It would also fit the Pegulas profile (allegedly) of keeping costs down too. Win-win!
Some words on Jonathan Drouin and mental health
While I watched the Sabres handle the Canadiens, I spent a fair bit of time thinking about Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin. He missed most of last season with an ankle injury and then missed the end of the season due to what were unknown reasons at the time. Turns out he was dealing with anxiety that was so bad it was making him unhealthy.
A beautiful thing about NHL players finding their footing in the public eye and embracing their platform is that many of them have taken up the cause of mental health. Robin Lehner has been outspoken about the mental demons he’s dealt with from his time and Buffalo, how he has improved his life since then and has become a vocal advocate for it. Kyle Okposo has spoken about the effects on his mental health when it comes to concussions. Drouin speaking up about anxiety adds another focus to the discussion. Here’s a bit of what he said as shared on NHL.com via RDS:
"That week in Calgary where we played three games (April 23-24, 26), I missed all three of them and wasn't feeling good. It was where I hit a wall for me, and it was time to step away from the game and literally take a step back from everything and kind of enjoy life. I needed it. It was hard for me to do at that time. Obviously, playoffs were coming around, so it wasn't an easy thing to do. I'm proud of what I've done and I'm happy I did it. I'm 26 years old, so I wanted to do it at that point in my career and feel good for the next years.”
The wide umbrella of mental health has a lot of separate areas to be touched upon be it bi-polar disorder (as Lehner said he has), anxiety, depression, or even addiction. These aren’t issues for private citizens to deal with in secrecy and the stigmas surrounding mental health are prevalent still. But having professional athletes and other public figures speaking up openly and honestly about them are opening the door for everyone to do the same and remove the unnecessary shame that exists in dealing with it.
A big reason why my writing went quiet for so long following being laid off by The Athletic was due to mental health struggles. Through most of my life I’ve been the kind of person who self-analyzes and figures things out on my own. It’s also meant spending a lot of time keeping thoughts and feelings buried within and you can imagine how well that worked out the past year and a half (reader, it did not work out). Losing what was a dream job paired with family dealing with serious health issues and a global pandemic would make any stiff upper lip collapse.
There were countless days where the first thought waking up was, “Oh no, I’m awake - what am I going to do today?” and it was brought on by the kind of anxiety that made me freeze up, my muscles all stiff and tense and unable to move despite being very physically able to do so. I was just there stuck in time and just thinking — thoughts racing constantly and unable to be corralled. Couple that with serious depression that ebbed and flowed wantonly and it was an extremely difficult time.
I am fortunate because it never reached a level where self-harm was even a consideration. I’ve lost some very dear to me from suicide and the pain you feel when someone departs that way is indescribable and, being the guilty sort I am, the thought of putting others through that for even a second will make me live until the sun explodes.
But when I read about Drouin talking about how during a three-game road trip in which he missed all three games he was so burdened by anxiety it made him unable to do anything, much less play hockey… I get it completely. You have to be so focused to be a NHL player and any kind of distraction can put you off your game. But when your brain is revolting against you and your thoughts cripple you — it’s impossible. It should never take you three, four, or five hours to be able to get out of bed after waking up, but there were many days when it would be like that. There wasn’t much of a way to just slap yourself in the face and say, “snap out of it,” and carry on. At some point you just break down enough where it stops. Sometimes people break down more beyond that and I’m thankful I never got that far and I am so happy Jonathan Drouin didn’t reach that point either and he could step up and share his experience with all of us.
I interviewed Drouin for NHL.com back in 2016 not long after he demanded a trade from Tampa Bay and looking back on that and his recent anxiety confession I can only imagine how long he’s been wrestling with it. My hope is he’ll continue to be a mental health advocate through his career and beyond and be an influence for everyone to be aware of how well their brain is treating them and how it’s affecting them on a daily basis.
Part of what I’ve always wanted to do as a sports writer was to tell stories like these if the players were willing. It’s not something to be forced and it’s a difficult conversation to have in any circumstance. But telling stories that humanize larger than life figures is so necessary so we can all understand we’re all here just trying to figure shit out.