Last season’s game between the Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings on March 29 seemed be as normal as any. If anything, it was irrelevant.
Both sides couldn’t even sniff the playoffs and were just riding out the tail end of disappointing NHL campaigns.
Sabres’ goaltender Robin Lehner got the start between the pipes for his squad and looked decent through forty minutes of action. Buffalo found themselves down 3-2, but when they came out for the third, Lehner was nowhere to be seen. Instead, backup netminder Chad Johnson finished the game, an eventual 6-3 loss.
In the recap of the contest by Joe Yerdon of NHL.com, all that was mentioned was that Lehner had left because of an undisclosed injury and there was “no update” on his status after the game.
From the outside, it looked like just another game and just another minor injury to a goaltender. Those involved know it wasn’t.
“March 29, 2018 was the day my life would change forever,” wrote Lehner in a first-person special for The Athletic recently.
Despite being in “a bad place” the night before, he started the game and battled through what was going on in his head. As the second period came to an end, he unravelled.
“The scoreboard clock was ticking down so slowly. I just wanted to get back to the locker room. When zero finally hit, I walked back and sat in the trainer’s room. I could barely get my gear off. I broke down. I was having a major, full-blown panic attack. I thought I was suffering a heart attack. I had no idea what was happening.”
The 27-year-old had finally reached his breaking point. His years of addiction to alcohol and sleeping pills had caught up to him. His negative, suicidal thoughts had become too much. He needed help.
The night before, he called Buffalo’s goalie coach Andrew Allen and told him that he didn’t think he could start against the Red Wings. In the end they agreed to talk about it in person at the rink and when he arrived, Lehner said he was good to go.
That couldn’t have been further from the truth.
“The phone call I made to Andrew the night before?” he wrote. “I was drunk. I wanted to kill myself. I was extremely close multiple times. The battle playing hockey was nothing compared to the battle inside my brain. It was at its worst.”
The hockey community didn’t see the former second rounder for the rest of the season. It was during that time that he attended the NHL/NHLPA’s rehab program in Arizona and he went through a three-week detox. He was one of the worst cases they’d ever seen.
“I had been taking sleeping pills to sleep almost every night for seven years,” the Swede wrote. “I had not had an honest sleep in so long, my mind was in shock. I was hallucinating, fighting demons in my mind and having extreme and vivid dreams.”
He was diagnosed with bipolar 1 with manic phases five weeks into the treatment.
The Sabres were supportive throughout his healing process, especially general manager Jason Botterill. However, with Lehrer’s contract up at the conclusion of last season, Buffalo decided to go in a different direction.
After meeting with many teams about his future without receiving any offers, he got in contact with the New York Islanders president of hockey operations, Lou Lamoriello.
He signed a one-year deal with the team on July 3, just over three months after hitting rock bottom. Now sober and on Long Island, he’ll have the opportunity to help settle the Islanders’ goaltending situation. More importantly though, he’ll be able to continue to heal with his loved ones.
“I never want to make my family go through anything like that again,” wrote Lehner. “They deserve a dad and my wife, a real husband.”
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