EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – When Ontario Reign forward Paul Bissonnette hears about past NHL enforcers dealing with depression and anxiety after they retire he reflects on his own future.
“Does it scare me long term? Yeah, it does,” he said.
Not long after it was reported the death of former long-time NHL enforcer Todd Ewen was treated as a suicide, Bissonnette discussed what he termed a “touchy subject” – meaning the mental health of former NHL fighters.
And while he was somewhat scared for his own future, he believes several other influences beyond head injuries from fighting could create problems for players.
According to hockeyfights.com, Bissonnette has fought 52 times in his NHL career.
“You have to wonder how many times alcohol and drugs is affecting what’s going on and how much it’s snowballing onto depression,” he said. “How clean of a lifestyle are you living? And other factors. Is your family life good? Do you have a good support system? Some of these guys might not and it's unfortunate.”
Bissonnette said he was depressed the prior year, and his depression stemmed from his inability to land a hockey-playing job early in the 2014-15 season.
He was coming off a contract with the Arizona Coyotes and was an unrestricted free agent and no NHL team wanted him. He almost went to Cardiff to play in the EIHL.
“When I didn’t have a job, it was like, ‘Man I played in the NHL last year and I couldn’t get in the American Hockey League’ and I went into full-on depression mode,” Bissonnette said. “I was working out and skating and doing exactly what I did before, but my body was achy and my brain was affecting my body and that wasn’t because of concussions. That’s because I was in a bad place mentally and I was depressed from something other than concussions.”
He eventually latched on with the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League in October, but was released in December. Only after he became acclimated to the Kings' AHL affiliate in Manchester, did Bissonnette break out of his funk.
“My parents didn’t know who I was,” Bissonnette said.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative disease linked to head trauma for which there is no known cure and has been found in the brains of deceased former NHL players Derek Boogaard and Steve Montador.
Boogaard, an enforcer, died of a drug overdose. Montador’s cause of death has not been made public.
Enforcer Rick Rypien and fellow tough guy Wade Belak also died suddenly and unexpectedly.
But head injuries are present in more than just enforcers. There is currently a lawsuit by former players against the NHL saying the league did not do enough to inform them about the dangers of head injuries.
“I think you can categorize guys retiring and not knowing what to do with their lives, and getting out of that lifestyle and that depression side of it along with just the fighters. I think you can categorize that in the same group,” Bissonnette said.
“It’s easy to say ‘he’s a fighter, and he committed suicide and it’s because he fought and he suffered concussions.' There’s people who commit suicide who never did that. You have to be in a really, really bad place to commit suicide.”
Ewen’s death has created a different sort of wrinkle into the enforcer, head injury, mental health issue.
Though his family reportedly said he battled depression for years, he also illustrated and wrote children’s books. He lived an active hockey life around the St. Louis area according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
After returning to St. Louis he coached hockey, produced instructional videos and sold real estate. He appeared regularly on sports talk radio shows and he recently participated in the team's fantasy camp with other Blues alumni.
He would become animated while discussing the most recent Blues team, a highly skilled bunch seemed to go soft from time to time. He preached the basics of commitment, effort and intensity -- traits that helped him accomplish far more than most eighth-round NHL draft picks ever do.
Bissonnette points to enforcers who have publicly made a solid transition to life after hockey such as Columbus broadcaster Jody Shelley. He also mentioned former Anaheim enforcer George Parros, who is involved in many different ventures.
“I find a lot of the fighters have the most personality in the game and fans just attach to that whole persona,” Bissonnette said.
“I think if anything we may have a better transition into that post-career stuff than other people. I haven’t really talked to many guys about it, who don’t have jobs and are suffering and depressed. “
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