Lifeline extended to at-risk junior players

By on February 7, 2018
Former WHL player Nathan MacMaster spoke to the Merritt Centennials at Mandolin’s Bagel and Coffeehouse, on behalf of the Together We Can addiction recovery and education society. MacMaster dealt with his own substance abuse issues while playing major junior hockey for a number of teams in the WHL. (Cole Wagner/Herald).


As part of a wider effort to recognize the ongoing struggles with mental health, the BCHL arranged for two former players who battled addictions to visit teams in the league.

At the end of their season, some members of the Merritt Centennials will move on to play college hockey; their skills on the ice carving a path to higher education and better prospects in their future.

Others might find themselves playing professionally — overseas or in development leagues in North America — earning the right to count themselves among the lucky few who are paid to play the sport they love.

Some will continue on playing junior hockey, with this franchise or another, chasing their dreams in places miles away from their hometowns. And as Steve Bull and Nathan MacMaster know firsthand, some of these players — regardless of their path forward — will struggle with addiction.

In recent years, the deaths of NHL enforcers like Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien have placed a renewed focus on the plight of hockey players battling substance abuse and dealing with mental health issues — often in silence. But what is often lost in that discussion is the reality that many of these problems start to manifest during a players’ formative years playing junior hockey — just as they did for Bull and MacMaster.

Now sober, the pair of former high level hockey players work with Together We Can, an addiction recovery and education society aimed at helping men get back on their feet. As part of a partnership with the BCHL, Bull and MacMaster spent three days touring the Interior, sharing their story with BCHL teams in Chilliwack, Merritt, West Kelowna, Salmon Arm and Penticton.

Their message to the players has been consistent: if you’re struggling, ask for help.

“If there was any hope, it would be that we planted a seed today. When that time comes, when they are playing beer league — because that is the reality, most of them aren’t going anywhere, that’s not in a mean way, just that opportunities dry up — they’ll end up playing recreational hockey or as its affectionately called, beer league, some of them will be fine,” said Bull. “Some of them may struggle, we don’t know. But if they struggle, maybe we planted a seed that they could think back and say ‘I don’t want to end up like that guy.’”

Both Bull and MacMaster played their junior hockey in the WHL — though in different eras. A Richmond product, Bull played for Lethbridge, Billings, Spokane and Kamloops in the 1980s, while MacMaster, 25, was in the major junior league as recently as 2012, with the Tri-City Americans.

They share another thing in common — both of their athletic careers were marred with substance abuse.

“I had a resentment against junior hockey, I really did,” said Bull.

Even the most ardent supporters of junior hockey acknowledge that there are risks associated with sending young men away from their hometown, during some of their most formative years, to compete day-in and day-out in their chosen sport.

“We’ve recognized here in the league, you’ve got young men who are in different situations, all sorts of pressures, who are living — in many cases — away from home, and obviously not all of our teams and their staff are trained to recognize or acknowledge the mental health issues or addictions,” said BCHL commissioner John Grisdale.

Having representatives from the Together We Can society travel around the league to let players know about their services is one aspect of a wider effort on the part of the league to recognize those problems before they spiral out of control, he explained.

“Together We Can is a unique place,” said Bull, who added that the non-profit provides services to men from all walks of life — from athletes, to working class people. “If there is somebody out in the community who is suffering, give us a call, we’ll try to help.”

“This is something we need to hopefully grow,” said Grisdale. “The players who may not be able to go to a coach or assistant coach can call Together We Can and say ‘Hey, I need to talk.’”

It is a big change in culture for a sport that traditionally praised the stoicism of its athletes. Part of the mythos of hockey players in Canada has been their ability to play through pain— whether physical or mental.

“We’re trying to encourage them, don’t sit there — reach out,” said Grisdale.

Competitive athletes susceptible to addiction

Without blaming junior hockey for their problems, Bull and MacMaster both acknowledge that their involvement in the sport’s culture played a role in the development of their substance abuse, and research from Laurie de Grace at the University of Alberta suggests they might not be alone.

A master’s graduate of the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, de Grace’s research examined the role of sport in the development of substance abuse or addiction among athletes.

Competing in sport is often touted as a method of coping with addiction and mental health issues. But de Grace’s research suggests that among those who are already predisposed to addiction, sport — and competitive team sports in particular — can actually increase a person’s risk of developing a problem.

“They call these the ‘gladiator’ sports — when guys are suffering, there is no way they are going to admit they are having difficulties,” said de Grace “For the competitive athletes, a big difference for them is that they become very committed to the sport and that culture, and then it’s very important for them to fit in.”

The fear of admitting there is a problem is a real obstacle for players in the BCHL, concurred Grisdale.

“You become further and further entrenched into mental health issues potentially, or drug and alcohol issues, you’re not going to reach out to your coach or your assistant coach, cause you maybe offside with them — your ice time might be affected,” he explained.

Coupled with the reality that most of the players in the BCHL are still in their mid-to-late teens, these athletes might be exposed to triggers for addictions which could affect them throughout their lives.

“The younger they use, the more likely it is that they will develop an addiction,” said de Grace.

Another risk factor for elite athletes was the potential gap left in their lives should their involvement with sport end abruptly, due to injury or other circumstances.

“They have that void to fill. So if even if they haven’t been using substances before, they look for something that’s going to provide that same rush and the same level of satisfaction that sport did,” explained de Grace.

And while some hockey players will move on to bigger and better things after their time in the BCHL, just as many — if not more — won’t, said Bull.

“At every level, you have a lack of programs available for athletes that move on,” said MacMaster. “It is a bottleneck affect — only so many kids make it to the BCHL, out of all the kids playing minor hockey. We all end up stopping or retiring at some point, so overall there is a lack of programs available to aid people in their life after sport. “

Which emphasizes exactly why Bull and MacMaster braved a snowy drive on the Coquihalla Highway in late January to meet with the Centennials on a Tuesday evening. It explains why shortly after their pitch to the junior team, the pair was back on the road to Kelowna.

It was about planting the seed, and letting the young gladiators know they don’t have to go it alone.

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