I’ve thought about death a lot over the past few years.
About dying. And what it might be like if I wasn’t around.
I’ve struggled a ton since I retired from hockey in 2011, and I’ve faced a bunch of different personal demons. But recently I’ve been unable to shake thoughts of….
I knew those guys. They were real people to me.
They played the same game I did, and when it was all said and done … they were really just suffering, man. They struggled with depression and anxiety and substance abuse and just … pain. All of the things I’ve been dealing with. They went through some of the exact same stuff.
And now … I talk about them in the past tense. How they were my friends. And how they used to be my brothers.
They’re just … gone.
And the more I think about them, and how their lives ended up, the more worried I get. Because I see a lot of myself in those guys. I really do. And I often wonder if I might be next.
Whenever things get really bad, and I find myself thinking about death, it’s always in the context of release. Escaping the pain. And no longer being around to make the lives of those I love miserable. The idea of dying as a way out. And even though I definitely wouldn’t say death has been something that I’ve wanted — that I actually wanted to die — at the same time, when I’d hit those low points, it was like … I didn’t exactly not want it, either. In a lot of ways, as things got worse for me, death started to seem not so bad.
But the whole time, as thoughts of dying have ricocheted around in my head, there has always been another thought that I just couldn’t seem to shake. I’m not sure where it came from, or why it became so prominent for me, but it would keep breaking into my mind and kind of overtake all the really dark stuff. It goes something like this:
If you die now, without speaking up or saying anything … what good will that do?
I couldn’t get that out of my head — the idea that dying in silence would just be … I don’t know … such a waste. And when I couldn’t get beyond thoughts about how sad it would be to die in silence, I started thinking about trying to write something — trying to tell my story … the full story, warts and all — in the hopes that maybe what I say will help someone down the line.
Up to this point, I’ve shied away from doing that. I’m not one who really likes to talk. And I’m a person who has always tried to kind of do things on his own. But I’ve actually come to realize that’s all sort of just … bullshit.
And I’ve gotten so tired of telling people that everything’s O.K.
I’ve lied for too long. I can’t lie anymore. Everything’s not O.K. Things have actually been pretty awful for me in a lot of ways. And I’m tired of the act.
So, you know … here we are.
That’s why I’ve finally decided to put pen to paper.
Like I said, I don’t want to die. But, you know, nothing is for certain. And I’m tired of keeping quiet. So for whatever it’s worth … here goes.
The story of my professional hockey career isn’t a pretty one. It’s not overflowing with highlight-reel goals or big-game hat tricks.
For the 11 years I played in the NHL, between 2000 and 2011, I was mainly known as a tough guy. I was a fighter, a thug — someone you wouldn’t want to mess with unless you were looking to get punched in the face.
But let me be more specific. You want to know how I played the game?
I tried to hurt people.
That’s what I was there for. A lot of people don’t want to hear that, but it’s the honest truth. So, yes, for instance, I would try to injure you if that was the difference between winning and losing a hockey game. I’d do whatever was asked of me. And I can tell you that, yes, coaches do actually sometimes tap you on the back and tell you to get out there on the ice and fight. Whether you want to believe it or not, it happens.
And I was always game — right there at a moment’s notice, ready to oblige.
I’d do it for my team, and, as weird as it sounds, for … the game. Because as best I could tell, being tough, and one guy knocking the snot out of another guy, and showing no mercy, well … those things had always been part of our sport.
I had it in my head that there was a specific way that hockey needed to be played. And there was a level honor to it, a certain pride that came along with kicking some ass.
I didn’t enjoy it, though. That’s for sure.
It’s what I did, and it paid the bills and allowed me to support my family. But I never loved it.
In truth, I absolutely hated to fight. I was scared to death of fighting. But what are you supposed to do when that’s your meal ticket, you know?
When you get paid to rough people up on the ice, and you’ve never really done anything for a living but play hockey … you don’t have all that much choice but to go out there and you do your job — no matter how afraid you are. But it definitely wasn’t easy for me.
On the nights before we played, I wouldn’t be able to get any rest. I’d be lying on a bed in a hotel room in Buffalo or Calgary or wherever, just kind of nervous and on edge … worried about what was going to happen to me out on the ice the next day.
Sleep? For me? That’s what sleeping pills were for.
And by the time the game rolled around, I’d usually be a total mess on the inside. My approach was always to pick fights with guys who were bigger than me, because I felt like in those cases I’d have nothing to lose. My thinking was, If I get lucky and win one … I look good. And if I get my ass kicked, I still look good because I’m the smaller guy — the underdog punching up.
Looking back on it now, that plan probably wasn’t the best approach because….
I got my ass kicked a lot. For years and years. I did some ass-kicking for sure, don’t get me wrong, but I also took my lumps. Sometimes it’s just not your night. Even the toughest guys in the league get pummeled on occasion. And I can tell you for a fact that all those punches definitely took their toll on me.
But there was so much more to it than that when it came to all the head trauma I experienced during my hockey career.
I can honestly say that it was the everyday hits during the course of the game — little blind-side shots and other things you wouldn’t even notice if you were watching on TV — that did the most damage over time.
The thing about hockey is that it’s a fast game. Things happen in the blink of an eye. People are flying around. And when you get your bell rung, it’s not like everything stops. You know what I mean? You just keep playing. That’s how it works.
And it wasn’t really my coaches who pushed me to be that way. I expected it from myself. It was the only way I knew — me basically doing what I thought I was supposed to do, and what I saw everyone else doing. Push through, ignore the pain, finish out the shift, all that shit. It was all second nature to me.
So I’m definitely not looking to blame my coaches or anyone else for all those head hits I took over the years and never really said anything about.
I did it to myself. No doubt.
But over time, all those hits to the head … they add up. And when you look back on it, honestly, it’s hard not to shake your head at how bad things actually were.
I mean, I had eight or 10 confirmed concussions when I played in the NHL, but who knows how many others I just simply played through? I’d bet I had actually more like 20 or 30 of them altogether, and even that might be a bit low.
But I just fucking toughed it out every time and kept things moving.
Later in my career, it got to a point where I started blacking out after I took a big hit to the head. I’d kind of just wake up in the trainer’s chair with no recollection of what had gone down in the game for the most part, or even things leading into the game. Then I’d go back and watch the tape and see myself doing all sorts of stuff out on the ice that wasn’t familiar. It was like watching someone else play in my body.
And it was scary.
But by that point, I honestly didn’t even care anymore. I was gone, man. Straight up. I didn’t feel anything. I was a dead man skating. My last few seasons, I was out there basically just flat-out killing myself for a paycheck.
During my final year in the league, I got hit three times, with three punches, and got knocked out all three times.
It was absolutely insane.
I was always hurting. And in order for me to carry on, I had to mask all that pain.
At one point during my career, I was taking so many painkillers and other drugs on a daily basis that I started to not even be able to recognize the person I had become.
Trainers always had painkillers. So I took them. Often. And it just escalated from there. Eventually I couldn’t get as many as I wanted, and so I started buying them from people on the street. Just more and more and more.
After a while, each day, and even entire chunks of the season, became almost like a daze. I was so medicated, and it began to get pretty frightening for me. So I decided that I needed to do something. I got my courage up, and got my shit together, and found a way to tell some people with the team I was playing for that I had a problem. It took everything I had in me to do that, but the response I received when I spoke to people was really uplifting. Everyone I talked to was so understanding. Every single person said they were there for me, and that they wanted to get me the help I needed.
A few weeks later, after the season had ended, I was back home in Nobleton, Ontario, at the old town hall, helping my folks set up for my sister’s buck and doe party before her wedding, when the phone rang.
One of my buddies had seen my name on the ESPN ticker.
“Nick, what the hell, man? I can’t believe it.”
I had no clue what he was talking about.
Turns out that less than a month after I’d gone to my team and asked for help, I got traded away to another city.
That was it for me.
Getting traded isn’t fun. Moving, upending your entire life, trying to figure out a new town … none of that shit is any fun.
So I took the hint, you know what I mean?
From that point on, no matter how bad it got, I kept my damn mouth shut about any problems I was having off the ice.
I asked for help, and I got shipped out. Lesson fucking learned.
I just clammed up after that and went back to getting punched in the face and smashed in the head and not saying anything about what it was like to deal with all the pain I was feeling.
I have a three-year-old son named Russell. And let me tell you … does that kid ever love hockey.
Loves watching it, loves talking about it, and loves taking the mini-stick out and whacking away at some pucks.
He wants to be like his dad, you know what I mean?
But I cannot, in good conscience, let him play the game of ice hockey until something changes and we start looking out for our players by taking the problems of head hits and concussions — and their potential impact on mental health — more seriously.
I’ve seen the damage that results from that stuff firsthand. I’ve lived it. And to say it’s been a struggle for me would be putting it way too lightly.
By the time I finally started getting help for everything I had been doing to try and ease the pain, I was already in my 30s. And at that point I was basically drinking and self-medicating and doing drugs nonstop. I stayed away from heroin, but other than that everything else was pretty much fair game.
I was a zombie, man. It’s not easy to admit that, but I really, really was.
And anytime I’d drink, I would almost always move on to drugs.
At the tail end of my career, I really, genuinely thought that I was going to die one night during the season. It’s hard to talk about, for sure, but … I had stayed up late doing an obscene amount of coke and things just got out of control. After a while my heart felt like it was going to burst out of my chest. I couldn’t get it to slow down. Nothing I did worked. It was probably the most scared I’ve ever been in my life.
I was playing for the Flyers at the time, and we had a morning skate I needed to be at in a few hours. So it was either go to the hospital and check in without anyone noticing or getting word about what had gone down, and then somehow get my ass to practice in the morning … or tell the trainer what had happened and try to make a change.
Basically, it was: Keep putting on an act, or come clean.
You’d maybe think it would have been an easy decision. Like, You were about to die. Get help. What the fuck? Stop living like this. Immediately. But I can tell you that, at the time, it was one of the hardest decisions I’d ever had to make. I agonized over it. Because I knew if I told the trainer, I was going to get in a ton of trouble.
But you know what, though? I fucking told the trainer.
Somehow I landed on the right call. And that was absolutely huge for me.
The Flyers and Paul Holmgren, who was the GM in Philly at the time, didn’t judge me or make me feel like an outcast when they found out. They sent me to rehab and pledged their support. They looked out for me. Even though I hadn’t been looking out for myself.
And to this day, I honestly believe Paul saved my life back then.
If I had been somewhere else, and they had just traded me away … I’d probably be dead.
Actually, there’s no doubt about it. I wouldn’t be sitting here today writing this thing if that had happened. That’s for sure.
I’d be six feet under.
The problem for me since then has been that rehab just hasn’t worked.
When the Flyers sent me, just a few months before I retired, I got off the painkillers and stopped using drugs. And eventually I even stopped drinking, too. But things just kept getting worse and worse for me mentally. A year and a half after I got sober, I was experiencing depression and anxiety worse than anything I’d ever felt before. I was sad all the time, and I’d constantly be on edge — sweating, shaking, nervous, having panic attacks. I’d call family members or friends and just be sobbing for no reason, and making no sense because I was in full-on panic mode. Then, on the day to day, it was almost like a constant state of having the wind knocked out of you. Like walking around your whole life unable to breathe.
I was completely clean, and looking healthy again, and at the same time … I was such a mess on the inside that I couldn’t even leave the house.
Since then, I’ve been to two more drug-and-alcohol rehab places. The NHL paid for me do that, and I commend the league for it. But … I just never got any relief. Those places work for lots of people, and I think that’s great. But with me, I could only get so far with them because they just never really addressed the root problems. They just dealt with what was apparent on the surface.
In some ways, I guess that’s not too surprising, because the types of issues I’ve been dealing with … I don’t know, they’re just not as obvious as some other medical problems. My ankle isn’t broken, you know? There’s no cast to sign. I can’t show my injury to you. And lots of times it’s hard to even describe it. So I can’t really even prove it to you, either.
Depression, anxiety, mental-health issues … that sort of stuff can seem invisible sometimes to those on the outside, but it’s worse than anything else I’ve ever dealt with. It can make you unbelievably sad to the point where you’re crying your eyes out. And then, the next day, you’ll just be so angry that you’re almost out of control. With me, there have been times when the anger has been so bad that I legitimately worried that I might hurt someone, or that I’d injure myself. But when family members, people I truly love and care about, would ask me what was going on, or why I was so mad … I wouldn’t really be able to tell them. I honestly wasn’t even sure.
And, like, AA meetings are supposed to somehow fix something so deep-seated?
That’s fantasyland stuff, right there.
But any time I reached out to the league, or to the players’ union doctors about mental-health issues, that’s all I’d hear. They basically just told me that I was an addict, and that I should sign up for some self-help groups — and that what I actually, really needed was to go do 90 meetings in 90 days.
Over time it became increasingly frustrating, because I tried everything they told me to do … and the depression and anxiety hadn’t gone away.
It’s just not as simple as going to some meetings. You know what I mean?
The kind of stuff I’m talking about here — the things that eventually became too much for those guys I played with who are no longer with us today — just runs so much deeper than some fucking self-help meetings at the neighborhood YMCA.
In so many ways, my life after hockey has been a living hell.
And I can’t help but wonder how much the game — the sport itself … and all the collisions and head hits — had to do with that. I’m not a doctor, I haven’t gone to medical school and studied exactly how the brain is affected by repetitive forceful trauma. But I can’t help but wonder about the damage I did to myself by playing this sport.
It’s tough to think about sometimes, to be honest, because I love the game of hockey. Literally all I wanted to do in life — from the time I was super little and just trying to keep my balance out on the frozen pond in the backyard — was play in the NHL.
But now, sitting here today, and living with all this shit … all I can think about is whether it was worth it.
When I sit back and really think about it honestly, I usually come to the conclusion that hockey hasn’t been a good thing for me overall. And the money? Well, that can only get you so far, you know what I mean? And it certainly can’t fix your brain.
It can’t bring back time lost with your children or make you stop yelling at people you love or … stop you from feeling like you want to cry all the time.
It just can’t do those things. So you end up totally stuck.
I mean, life at this point for me … it’s a constant struggle. This past winter, for instance, I was depressed for two months straight. It just got worse and worse, to the point where I couldn’t deal with it anymore. I just woke up one morning and felt like I couldn’t even get out of bed.
And it’s times like that when those thoughts of death creep in.
It just got really dark for me. And it was just nonstop. All day. All night.
Everything was dark.
At one point, I was supposed to make a trip to visit my two older daughters in California for the holidays, but I couldn’t even leave the house. I didn’t get there. I missed out on seeing them.
Then I’m home with my two little ones — my son, and my five-year-old daughter — and it was just impossible to shield them from the pain I was feeling. They’d see me break down and cry on a daily basis. And at times I began to feel like me being around wasn’t good for them, or that I wasn’t improving their lives in any way. And that story just played out in my head to the point where it really become kind of dangerous and scary.
Like: Would those kids be better off without me around?
It was awful, and that’s the type of stuff that I’ve been going through. That’s my reality. And no sport, no matter how wonderful, is worth having to struggle in that way.
I definitely wouldn’t have played for as long as I did had I known that this was how things were going to turn out for me. At the time, I didn’t think too far down the line. But I can say this much for the record right here and now….
I honestly wish I would’ve retired when I was 26 or 27, even before I won a Stanley Cup. And I wish I could go back to that time and have a redo.
They can scratch my name off that cup, and I’d hand my ring back in right now if I could go back and make it so that I wouldn’t have had to experience all this pain and sorrow and anger and sadness.
I’d make that tradeoff in a heartbeat.
Unfortunately, I don’t own a time machine, you know?
So I can only plow ahead. And my story actually isn’t all bad. I’m happy to say that I’m actually more hopeful and optimistic right now, at this very moment, than I’ve been in years.
Part of that has to do with being able to get my story out there like this. But there are also other reasons. After that really rough patch over the holidays, I finally said enough is enough and went to see a psychologist.
I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, but it turned out to be really wonderful. He was the first doctor who I genuinely felt had ever listened to me. And he seemed like a true partner for me in my efforts to get better — in trying to really solve the root problems, rather than just offer up the same old treatments.
He didn’t prescribe any drugs or tell me to enter a 12-step program. He just wanted to talk and listen and help.
Imagine that, right?
The other thing that has me hopeful these days is that I linked up with my good friend Daniel Carcillo, and he got me enrolled in a program at the Plasticity Brain Center down in Orlando.
They focus on pinpointing the areas of the brain and body that may be causing problems and then creating a focused, individualized plan to address whatever it is that appears to be going on. It’s just a whole different way of looking at mental health issues, and it was the most straightforward and easiest and least-invasive treatment I’ve ever tried.
The more traditional approaches just weren’t helping. So I’m open to new and innovative treatments, and I truly believe this new way is working for me.
When I got there, I told the doctors that I’ve felt like I had this weight on the right side of my head for a while now, and that it just seems to get heavier and heavier. So they ran a bunch of tests and found that my right eye was not focusing properly. It was working three times slower than my left. That was resulting in headaches and definitely contributed to me feeling tired all the time.
They also told me that my inner ear was causing some of my problems, and gave me a bunch of exercises to help address that issue.
Being able to just talk to someone with an open mind, and then finding some treatment options that were better suited to what’s going on with me, have allowed me to finally see some light at the end of the tunnel.
Who knows what’s in the cards for me going forward, but I really do feel like I might be on the right path.
I feel like I can get better now.
At the end of the day, I really just want to get fully healthy and make my family proud of me and do all I can to help things get better when it comes to the mental-health side of hockey.
That would be more than enough for me.
Look, I’m no angel. I’ve done some monumentally stupid things in my life, and I’ve not been the best person in the world on many occasions. But that doesn’t mean that my story should just be swept aside, or that how the NHL is handling head hits and concussions and mental-health issues is appropriate.
At this point in my life, I believe that there are other alternatives out there, in terms of diagnosis and treatment, that the league is avoiding for the simple reason that they think it’s going to hurt the game if we find out the truth about the damage being done to players’ brains from head hits.
Well, I have no patience for that shit anymore. I’m so beyond that. This isn’t some movie where bad stuff keeps happening to fictional characters and then eventually everything turns out O.K. in the end.
This is real life. As real as it gets. Guys are suffering. In some cases, people are dying.
And it simply doesn’t have to be like that.
I mean, it already shouldn’t be like that, but it for sure doesn’t need to be like that going forward. You know what I mean?
Yes, ours is a physical, violent sport. And it may be the case that we cannot rid hockey of that violence and danger altogether. But at the very least let’s deal with the issues that arise as a result of that. Deal with the head trauma. Deal with the concussions. And deal with all of the ramifications that those things bring about.
Stop telling people the world is flat and just do the right thing. Instead of ignoring the damage that occurs to the brain when you get your bell rung out on the ice, let’s own up to it and get guys the help they need. Not just after they retire, but while they’re playing the game.
Let’s start addressing the problem. Let’s look closely at the brain — and how our sport as we currently play it might be harmful to the brain — and begin making things right.
Enough is fucking enough already.
I’ve been a company man for too long at this point. I’ve sat back and deteriorated, day after day, month after month, year after year … and I’ve never said a word. Never badmouthed the league. Even on my darkest days, when things were as bleak as they could get.
But I realize now that I can’t go on that way anymore. I need to speak up about what’s been happening to me and lend support to others who are struggling.
Simply put: Something has to change sooner rather than later.
And I truly believe it’s going to need to be the superstars of the game driving things. As much as I’d like to believe I have the power to change the world, the reality is that no one in power cares about my complaints. No one’s gonna change league policy because me and Carcillo are pissed.
But the guys who make big bucks for the teams … when they’re not happy and speak out, that’s when maybe something will change. If things could bubble up in that way, with leadership from our game’s most talented players, that would really have the potential to move the needle.
And look, I get it. Believe me. I know that’s asking a lot, and that it’s not easy to speak out on a controversial topic when you’re at the pinnacle of the sport. Hell, I’ve seen the way trolls online — and even some former NHL players — go at Daniel at Twitter because he’s trying to bring change to the game. That’s no fun.
But at the same time, the potential to make a difference right now is just so great. It’s sitting out there for guys, just waiting for someone to grab hold of and initiate some conversations that will end up saving people’s lives. And at the end of the day, that, more than anything, will be the best thing for this sport. Because this stuff isn’t going away anytime soon, and hockey can either be on the right side of this, or on the wrong side.
With each day that goes by without any real, decisive action, this league’s legacy gets worse and worse.
For me individually, nothing is guaranteed at this point. I’ve still got lots of issues to try and fight through, and every day presents new challenges. But one thing I know for certain is that I’m done lying and pretending that everything’s O.K., because bottling things up like I had been for all those years … that’s like walking around as a ticking time bomb.
And it’s no way to live.
Those days are over for me now. And I feel good knowing that I have spoken out and that I’m on the right side of this issue. I’m fully ready to do all I can to help find a way to fix things when it comes to how hockey treats head trauma and mental-health issues.
I have a mission now. A purpose.
And that feels really good.
Sharing my story with the world is just the beginning.
My life, I’m telling you right now, will not end up being a waste.