The Battle

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Rich Clune, Contributor - The Players' Tribune

The nurses at the clinic were laughing. That’s how bad it was. It was just a few weeks after I had played in my first NHL playoff series with the Los Angeles Kings. I was 23 years old, being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to live my dream, and I was such a mess that I was either going to wind up dead or kill somebody else.

I didn’t even call the intake center. I got on a flight from LA to Boston, where my brother was going to college. He picked me up at the airport. I just said, “Okay. I’m ready.” My brother drove me 10 hours to Toronto on the spot, right to the doorstep of the rehab clinic, the very same one that I had checked into two years prior. Back then, I had stayed for four days before saying, out loud, “This is insane, I’m out of here.” When I got to the reception desk, everyone remembered me. I had made quite an impression. They were actually laughing. I guess they thought I couldn’t be serious. And that’s when I broke down for the first time and said, “I am an alcoholic. I am a drug addict. For sure. Help me.”

Angels didn’t come flying down. They didn’t whisk me away into a white room with fluffy pillows and violin music. The receptionist just said, “Well, we’ll need a few days to process your paperwork.” But when I said those words, it was like the biggest weight was lifted off my shoulders. They sent me to the hospital to detox for three days, where I basically shook and cursed and threw up a lot.

You probably have a lot of assumptions in your head about me already. I have read the comments on Twitter and in the media about NHL players who have struggled with drugs and alcohol. I can’t tell you about their stories. But I can tell you about mine.

I used to get home from hockey practice and start drinking at lunch. From the time I was playing Junior hockey for the Sarnia Sting to my first year in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings, I would start drinking the second I woke up on my days off. I smoked marijuana every single day. By the time I was 19 years old, I was using cocaine weekly. If you saw me out at a bar in Ontario or New Hampshire or Los Angeles, laughing and cracking jokes, you probably would have thought, “Look at that kid. He’s living the dream.”

What you wouldn’t see is me waking up shaking in my bed at 5 a.m., my nose bleeding all over the pillow.

Then I would go to practice the next day with a smile on my face and compete at a high level. Why in the world would I do this? No, I am not your stereotypical neanderthal. I was the kid taking private art classes in high school and watching Tarantino movies. I was the kid who was supposed to play hockey at Harvard before begging his parents to let him play in the OHL instead. I was the kid who made a blood-pact promise to his mom that he would never fight in Juniors (which pissed off the coaches to no end). I won the Bobby Smith Award for the OHL’s scholastic player of the year, for Christ’s sake. And I did all of that while binge drinking every single day, often alone in my room.

I am certainly not unique. There are players in the NHL right now who are suffering and you would never know it from looking at their stat sheet or how hard they compete in practice. When I was 19 with the Barrie Colts, I had 30 goals and 80 points while being a complete wreck off the ice. Plenty of teammates and coaches had suspicions about me over the years, but nobody knew how bad it was. I was just the wild man. Every hockey team has one. Or 10. Then by my 2008 season in the AHL, after I had been drafted by the Dallas Stars, I started going on coke benders that would last for days. I lost 14 pounds over a summer, and the jig was up. My family sat me down for an intervention, and I couldn’t bullshit my way out of it anymore. I will never forget the look on the faces of my two younger brothers. I was like their hero growing up, their best friend, the leader. And I could see it in their eyes that they were legitimately afraid of me.

Clune Suffering Pull

I don’t care how many times you have messed up, or been arrested, or made your family cry. I don’t care how many times you told your teammates, “That’s it, man. I’m done.” Until you are really ready to get help, nobody can say anything to change it.

When I checked in to rehab for the first time that summer, I did not believe it was in the realm of possibility that I was an alcoholic. An alcoholic is a person passed out on a park bench, was my thinking. Every single meeting, the counselors would say, “Rich, tell us about your relationship with your father.” Or, “Rich, when was the last time you cried?” Holy shit. As a hockey player, that kind of stuff is so far outside of the realm of what you’re capable of talking about honestly. We are programmed to never, ever admit to pain. A guy’s leg could be hanging off on the bench and he’ll be yelling at the trainer like, “Get the fuck away from me, I’m going back out.”

So I fought with the counselors for four days until I left.

You’re probably sitting here on your phone or your laptop reading this thinking, Why? How? How can you be given the chance to do what you’ve dreamed about doing since you were a little kid playing street hockey, and decide to throw it all away?

Because I was terrified. Because I lived in a constant state of fear. It starts when you’re young and dumb. I left home when I was 16 years old to go play in the OHL. When I got there, I was on a team with guys who were two and three years older than me. They had beards. These guys were men. This was back in the days when physical hazing was pretty prominent, but luckily one of the older guys on the team, Daniel Carcillo, stuck up for me for some reason and made sure the older guys didn’t mess with me too bad. I’ll always love him for that. But right away, the culture of drinking and machismo in Junior hockey starts to weigh down on you. We were drinking in bars after Sunday night games at 16. I look at a 16 year old kid now and I’m like, Wow, that’s a very small human. What in the hell were we doing?

I put on a mask to deal with the fear.

But you know what the scary thing is? By the time I was 19 years old, I was the guy I hated. I was the problem. I was the old guy daring the new kid to go stir up some shit. Once you put on the mask, it never goes away. When you get drafted, you put on the mask to deal with the pressure of getting a contract. When you get your contract, you put on the mask to deal with the sleepless night before you know you have to go out and drop the gloves with the 6’5” monster on the other team. When you finally pull on that NHL sweater, you put on the mask to deal with that ever-present fear that it could all go away in an instant.

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Between the ages of 15-24, I was not here. I was checked out. I did not exist. Rich Clune the pro hockey player existed. He got in over 150 fights and drove drunk and chased women and laughed and cried and lived in oblivion. But Rich Clune, the kid who loved art and film and read books and thought deeply about life, that guy was just not around. He couldn’t cope with the pressure.

Then one day, he woke up. I wish I could tell you it was when L.A. Kings assistant GM Ron Hextall pulled me aside and said, point blank, “Rich, do you want me to get you some help?” I wish it was when my parents begged me for the millionth time. But it wasn’t like a movie. One day, I just woke up and had enough.

A lot of guys never got so lucky. We have lost too many of them over the years to the darkness of depression and drug abuse and alcoholism. Steve Montador. Rick Rypien. Derek Boogaard. Wade Belak. And on and on. I knew a lot of those guys. I fought a lot of those guys. A lot of them were the nicest guys you’d ever meet. I feel a kinship toward them, not just because I’m a guy who is known as a fighter. Hell, I wasn’t born a fighter. They weren’t. Nobody goes out to play street hockey and dreams about getting into a brawl in the Stanley Cup Finals. You dream about scoring the goal.

But then … life just gets in the way. You become a product of your environment. I learned to adapt from an early age. When I was 7 years old, I would play street hockey literally every single day after school. Our entire block would show up — kids from ages 7 to 13. In the winter, when the mounds of snow would pile up high on the curbside, we would play full body checking. If you were by the snowbank, you were going to get run over whether you had the ball or not. So as the 7-year-old, I would get smoked by the same 13-year-old every single day. And I would come home crying every day.

Then one afternoon, after getting rammed into the snowbank for the hundredth time, I just got sick of it. I got up, ran behind this big kid when his back was turned, and slashed him in the leg as hard as I possibly could. It was bad. A grown 13-year-old teenager went down bawling his eyes out. The whole game stopped. People were looking at me like I was a monster. I bolted home and ran to my room.

That night, my dad found out what had happened and he yelled at me and made me apologize to the kid in front of everyone. But I could see something on my dad’s face change, even as he was making me do it. He was proud that I stood up for myself. And I could see something change on the faces of all the older kids, too.

Nobody ever messed with me again. It was a precursor for the physical style of play I would adopt later in life. Nobody is born a goon, but we all adapt to our environment.

Clune Drinking Pull

I never wanted to be the fighter. I never wanted to be the wild man or the bully. I certainly never wanted to be an alcoholic. But we all put on masks to survive. There are probably hundreds of hockey players who will read this — in high school, Juniors, college, the minors, or the NHL — who are drinking every single day to suppress a certain kind of fear. If you are one of those people, nothing I say will convince you to seek help. But just know this, from someone who has been to hell and back: I have been sober now for five years. I can honestly say that there’s not a single player in an NHL locker room or anywhere else who has had a problem with me not drinking, or who has treated me any differently.

This is not B.S. Let me tell you a story.

My first year with the Nashville Predators, I was completely sober. A few games in, I took an elbow to the face that knocked out a whole row of teeth. The gash in my mouth needed 30 stitches to sew up. I was in so much pain that I wanted to cry every time I had to eat. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think. The Ibuprofen I was taking did nothing. Because of my sobriety, I refused pain killers. Even though opiates were never my thing, I didn’t want to set off any triggers. There were days that I felt like I was losing my mind.

I was also very afraid of losing my job. The doctors made me wear a protective jaw visor for a month. That meant I couldn’t fight, according to the unspoken rules of hockey. The Predators had brought me in to be a wild man. That was my role. Every single day, reporters would ask, “When’s the visor coming off?”

I had my dentist come to the rink and give me local anesthetic in my jaw. I told him, “I don’t care what it takes, just freeze my mouth shut.” Unfortunately, the cut kept opening and I was re-sewed up so many times that the doctors were worried I was running out of skin. I begged for the trainers to let me take the visor off every single day. I figured if I couldn’t fight, I was done. I got so paranoid that I took off the visor behind our trainer’s back so I could go out and fight Andrew Shaw.

Of course, the cut reopened. I thought about taking painkillers probably every single day. And that’s why I will always hold my coach Barry Trotz in the absolute highest regard. He came up to me one day and said, “Look, I don’t care if you fight. You’re a great player. Just heal up.”

Barry was so supportive of my sobriety. He put me on the third line and I hit and got points until my jaw healed. It hurt like hell, but I never took painkillers.

As a hockey player, you’re constantly worried about what the boys think. What coach thinks. We have been taught to view words like “disease” as a weakness. I am an alcoholic. I have a disease. But I am stronger than I have ever been. I blame nobody but myself for my past, and I realize that every day I wake up to a choice: How do I want to live? I still go out with my teammates. I go to weddings. I go to the beach. I dance and laugh and party my ass off. I just don’t drink anymore.

I also do all the things that I ignored for so long. I study cinema and art and am currently shooting a short film in Los Angeles. For the first time since I went away to play professional hockey, I feel alive and happy.

If you’re reading this and think you might have a problem, do not be ashamed. Reach out to a friend or a teammate, or find a professional who can help. If I can ask for help, so can you.

Gone (Video)

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