Junior hockey needs overhaul when 'it's not easy to ask for help'

The memory Connor Brown keeps closest to his heart these days is the one involving his friend Terry Trafford. The pair first met when they were minor hockey teammates and spent four years playing together as kids.

“One time I went over to his house and hung out with him all day,” said the Erie Otters captain, now 20. “We were young, so I think we were playing with his slot cars. It’s just a little memory, but it’s something that sticks out in my mind about him.”

Terry Trafford was laid to rest on Tuesday at a service in his hometown of Toronto.

Trafford’s body was found on March 11 in his truck. Police determined the Saginaw Spirit forward died of self-inflicted asphyxiation. The 20-year-old had reportedly suffered from depression and had been distraught over being cut by the Spirit after four years of Ontario Hockey League service.

Brown, like so many others, is wondering how this could have happened to a guy known for his big smile and happy demeanor.

“It becomes an all-or-nothing feeling because of the status that hockey has and how obsessed young people get with thinking this is their destiny and the only thing that’s worthwhile,” said noted sports psychologist, Dr. Cal Botterill. “I think when we think that way it’s dangerous.”

Botterill understands the demands and culture of hockey better than most. In addition to working with teams in the National Hockey League for more than a decade, he’s a former national team player himself. His daughter, Jennifer, is a three-time Olympic gold medallist with the women’s national team and his son, Jason, is a former NHLer who currently serves as the assistant general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

He believes hockey needs a culture change in order to start better serving the needs of players.

“I think it’s going to take a while because the whole macho attitude is still there so prominently,” said Botterill. “If it ever slips, Don Cherry reminds us, so it’s constantly there that it’s a macho sport.

“The most important things are probably long-term things starting with kids.”

The perception of the macho, tough hockey player is sometimes so prevalent that players are afraid to ask for help, even if they know they need it, out of fear they’ll be seen as weak.

“You’re on a team of alpha males so to speak,” said Brown, a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect. “It’s not easy to ask for help when you need it, but there have been a lot of cases – and in this case recently — where we definitely need something to show for it. It’s really important.”

OHL commissioner David Branch told Yahoo’s Neate Sager each of the league’s 20 teams is required to have a player liaison program. The liaison is a person in the community that a player can speak to confidentially. The liaison, however, is not required to have any kind of mental health training.

But any kind of program is only good when people know it’s available.

Yahoo Sports contacted 15 players from both OHL conferences to ask if they knew about the player liaison program prior to Trafford’s death. Of those 15 players – across more than half the league – not a single one said they knew about the program. All of them, however, said they would consider using such a program if they ever felt they needed it. Brown was not asked to participate as he was quoted for this story.

Currently only the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has a dedicated toll-free hotline available to players. The phone line is run by Natacha Llorens, the director of the QMJHL’s player support program. The hotline is staffed 24-hours a day, strictly confidential and has health care professionals – including those trained in mental health issues – readily available.

“When you get to the elite leagues like junior, we should be doing a little better job of detection,” said Botterill. “A better job of making sure people know there’s always someone you can talk to, because some illnesses need medication, but some illnesses just need a good friend.

“As soon as you have a friend that you can trust and you share something and the person says, ‘I think I can understand how you feel,’ there’s a huge relief right away, because someone has acknowledged that you feel that way.”

The key, however, is for a person to first realize there is a problem in order to address many mental health issues. The difficulty in acknowledging depression before even asking for help is far more complicated than most people understand.

“The problem with anything is if you’re feeling a certain way – and it isn’t great – maybe you’ve never felt anything better,” said the professor at the University of Winnipeg. “So you don’t go and look for help and it might be quite serious. You might be more depressed than most people, but if you don’t know what feeling good feels like, then it’s hard to know to reach out.”

When Botterill worked with NHL teams they would often hold sessions for player's wives and girlfriends because people are more likely to confide in a partner. In Trafford’s case, it was his girlfriend, Skye Cieszlak, who he entrusted with the knowledge of his depression.

Botterill believes junior teams need to do more to better protect and prepare players for life after hockey considering so few will ever make it to the NHL. There needs to be more done to make sure players are better rounded – particularly through teams working with schools – to ensure hockey doesn’t feel like everything in life.

“Some of those people who were successful early on have even bigger trouble because when it starts to disappear on them they get desperate,” Botterill explained. “They know no other life and no other identity. It’s a scary business. I think it’s happened a lot more than we think until we start adding it up how many people has this kind of thing happened to, and it’s been a lot.”

The teenage years, even without the added pressures of hockey, are already a volatile period of most young people.

“Self-image becomes so important and a lot of time there isn’t a lot of basis for self-acceptance which is probably more important,” said Botterill.

“They’re running around so hard in the teenage years to be liked and to be successful and so on – sometimes those obsessions take them down paths that are not very healthy and can sometimes lead to this kind of self-destruction.”

Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports.
Email: sunaya@yahoo-inc.com | Twitter @Sunayas

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