WARNING: This article contains details of suicide
A new study from a group of University of British Columbia researchers takes a deep dive into the pressures professional men’s hockey players feel to stay silent despite serious personal problems.
The study, published last month in the journal Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, involved in-depth interviews with 19 men who are current or former pro hockey players. All but one had played in the National Hockey League.
Through those interviews, lead author Katie Crawford and her team discovered despite facing issues like physical pain, mental unwellness, concussions, addictions, relationship difficulties and more, many players felt pressured to keep things to themselves and deal with problems on their own.
“What I saw was a lot of different barriers, things like fear of job security, fear of losing your position on a team … judgment from teammates, judgment from coaches, judges from the general public, from fans,” said Crawford.
While there has been work in recent years to break down these barriers in the NHL, she said, more needs to be done.
Crawford said some players knew there are resources available to them provided by the team, like counsellors, but many are distrustful.
Since those resources are provided by their team — their employer — there are concerns about the confidentiality and independence of those resources.
Some players worry reaching out for help in confidence could be used against them if management finds out.
“The assurance to them around the confidentiality isn’t concrete,” Crawford said.
“All of a sudden, great, we have the resource, but no one is willing to use it out of fear.”
She said her findings show a need for the NHL to establish a baseline of resources all teams must provide to their players when it comes to off-ice supports and enshrine the independence of those supports.
CBC asked the NHL and the players’ union, the NHLPA, for comment for this story but did not immediately hear back.
Crawford wrote the study as part of her master’s program in kinesiology, but is now a PhD candidate in health at the University of Bath in the U.K.
She’s an athlete herself, having played volleyball at UBC, and comes from a hockey family, which helped drive her interest in the topic.
Her uncles are hockey scouts, her brother is an NHL video coach and her father is former Canucks coach Marc Crawford.
Marc Crawford once coached Rick Rypien, who died by suicide in 2011. She said Rypien’s death had a big impact on her family.
“I remember my dad being really kind of shaken by it,” she said, adding that she remembers “feeling like these guys were a little bit kind of closed off and hardened and just really wondering what was it that was making it so difficult for them to be more open and more expressive?”
Crawford said for ethical reasons, none of the players interviewed for the study were coached by her father.
She said while men who play pro hockey are a very specialized population, mental health in the workplace is a bigger issue, and employers’ approach matters for employees’ performance and well-being.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, here’s where to get help:
This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you’re worried about.