LOS ANGELES – Before the start of the NHL season Chris Herren looked at a room full of hockey playing millionaires and champions and asked them a deep-thinking question.
“If you were a kid, would you look up to yourself?” he said.
This gripped the attention of members of the Los Angeles Kings and Ontario Reign sitting in a ball room at the Hilton Garden Inn next to the team’s practice facility in El Segundo.
They had heard speakers talk to them in the past about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, but never with the depth and detail of Herren, a recovering addict and former NBA player.
“It’s a true story, it’s from the heart. It’s sad. At the end it’s happy, it has emotion and feeling in it,” Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin told Puck Daddy. “You watch videos and you do stuff like that and they just tell you not to do it, but when you actually hear someone talking that has done it, been through it, been in our position and you feel a lot more ... it hits you a little bit harder.”
The NHL has reached a crossroads with drugs and alcohol. Those issues have often been present in the game, but the publicity has worsened.
During the offseason, former Kings forward Jarret Stoll was arrested and charged for cocaine possession while at a Las Vegas pool. Former Kings forward Mike Richards was charged with drug possession while crossing the U.S./Canada border.
Buffalo Sabres forward Ryan O’Reilly drove his truck into the side of a Tim Hortons and was charged with impaired driving.
A recent report by TSN said cocaine use in the NHL is up.
Before the season the Kings took the extra step of bringing in Herren to talk to the group to try to give them more insight into why a professional athlete shouldn’t wreck their bodies through substance abuse. They gave Herren background on their players so he could personally connect with them. Herren said he sensed this was important to the Kings. It wasn’t just a publicity stunt.
“A lot of professional teams just want to check the box, ‘We’ve had our speaker, OK, let’s get back on the ice, the field or the court.’ I truly believe it was bigger than that to the Kings,” Herren said in a phone interview with Puck Daddy. “They wanted to make a difference in these kids’ lives. They care about them personally. They wouldn’t have given me their backgrounds and how these kids grow up and the communities they were living in in Canada and so on and so forth. There was a lot of legwork that was put into me going there.”
Herren, who has been sober since 2008, had seven felonies on his record. At one point he was so high while driving he crashed into a pole and was dead for 30 seconds.
A highly talented basketball player, Herren was a second-round draft pick of the Denver Nuggets in 1999, but only played 70 NBA games. He was ravaged by addiction and saw his talent go to waste due to his disease.
He’s now a motivational speaker and the subject of an ESPN "30 for 30" documentary.
His Massachusetts accent adds forcefulness to his words and his ability to connect with an athlete audience has made him a solid choice for a lot of pro sports teams.
Herren has spoken with the New England Patriots, University of Alabama football team and the Green Bay Packers, amongst others. Herren said this was the first time he had spoken with hockey players.
“I think a lot of these guys come from hardworking towns whether it be Canada, or towns similar to mine like a blue collar, mill town and with a lot of pressure and a whole community on their back watching them,” Herren said. “That’s hard to deal with in life.”
Herren also understood that just because professional athletes get paid in millions, they’re still prone to the same problems as everyday people.
“If you’re willing to risk a professional contract and millions of dollars, imagine what you’ll risk when you have nothing,” Herren said. “Anybody in recovery understands it has nothing to do with finances and it has a lot to do with the soul, your self-esteem and your self worth and I try to touch on that with them.”
According to Kings players, when Herren spoke to them, they all listened closely. At that time of year before the NHL season, it’s easy to for a player to just tune out. This didn’t happen on that day.
“Just looking around me. You didn’t see anyone on their phone or not paying attention so, it ‘s a pretty powerful message and a powerful story,” Kings forward Milan Lucic said.
Said Herren, “I would say they were very engaged. I know what it’s like to be in training camp. I know what it’s like getting ready for a season and your coach or GM comes in and says, ‘You have to stay another hour and a half because we have a speaker.’ As the speaker you’re looking uphill. You’re looking uphill because you know their frame of mind. They’re tired, they’re anxious, they want to go home. In my opinion they were amazing considering the circumstances.”
So did it resonate? We may not know the answer to this for a while. The players questioned said yes. But not all players deal with the same struggles every day.
“I know what my limits are and I know not to do certain stuff. It makes you think about it but if you’re out to dinner and want to have a beer or something like that or if you’re out with the guys or something like that you have to be safe about it,” Muzzin said. “Maybe with some guys it would (resonate). For me it was a little bit of an eye opener but it doesn’t change my decision making.”
Would the NHL look to explore using someone like Herren for their teams in the future – or push to have a more rigorous speaker program to go over the dangers of drugs and alcohol?
"Many of our Clubs are active in this area and we certainly don't discourage that,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Puck Daddy via email. “Having said that, we want to make sure the messaging and education given to Players is in alignment so there is no confusion or mixed messages being given."
Kings general manager Dean Lombardi has taken an awful lot of flak for how he’s handled his players' off-ice issues. He kept suspended Slava Voynov as long as possible in spite of a domestic violence charges and an eventual no-contest plea. But he terminated the contract of the declining Richards.
The Stoll situation struck a nerve with Lombardi – enough to bring in Herren to talk to the team. Herren was impressed with Lombardi and his efforts to right some of the wrongs with the Kings.
“I felt right at home with the LA Kings and I don’t say that … if you knew me you would know that when I say that I really mean it,” Herren said. “They were a special group of guys, a special group of coaches and a really special front office who I believe he cares about those kids’ lives like they’re his own. If I felt that wasn’t the case I’d tell you the opposite.”
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