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Former Kamloops Blazer coach Dave Hunchak at Riverside Park in Kamloops, BC on February 10, 2015. (Jeff Bassett/The Globe and Mail)
Former Kamloops Blazer coach Dave Hunchak at Riverside Park in Kamloops, BC on February 10, 2015. (Jeff Bassett/The Globe and Mail)

Hockey world steps up mental health support. But is it enough? Add to ...

For three months it was all Dave Hunchak could do just to get out of bed. Physically, he was fine; mentally, he was being dragged under by doubt and despair. Better to stay home, he reasoned, than to show his face in public and feel ashamed.

So Hunchak, the suddenly former head coach of the Kamloops Blazers, stayed indoors.

Hockey legend Stephane Richer talks about battle with depression (CTVNews Video)

“I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to be with my friends,” he says. “I was in a dark place, a scary place.”

When Hunchak left the Western Hockey League Blazers in early January, 2014, team officials announced a leave of absence. It ended up being a parting of the ways. Thirteen months later, Hunchak is willing to talk about what happened, where he is now and what he wants most – a return to coaching and a program that provides a better understanding of mental-health issues in hockey. As more players open up about their struggles with mental illness and brain injury, and as some take their own lives, a patchwork of initiatives is emerging, the most significant being a suicide prevention plan in Ontario and the NHL and NHLPA’s substance abuse and behavioural issues program. But anyone touched by the issue says that’s not enough.

On Sunday, the NHL was rocked by news of the sudden death of former defenceman Steve Montador at 35 – friends have spoken openly about Montador’s struggles with depression, and how it may have been related to the concussions he suffered. (At press time, no cause of death had been released.)

Depression had a significant role in the 2011 death of Rick Rypien. His suicide prompted the NHL and NHL Players’ Association to promote mental-health awareness.

Major junior hockey hasn’t been spared, either.

Ethan Williams was 16 and had been drafted by the Moose Jaw Warriors. It seemed everything was going his way. But last summer, he was found dead in the garage of his family’s Winnipeg home. His parents are convinced their son’s eight diagnosed concussions, combined with his father being diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer, fed Ethan’s depression. Then there was the death of 20-year-old Terry Trafford, who was released by the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit last March only to go missing for nine days. He was eventually found in his truck, a victim of self-inflicted asphyxiation.

Trafford’s death caught the attention of the Canadian Mental Health Association which, within six months, had partnered with the OHL and produced a new program called Talk Today. OHL players were schooled on suicide prevention. There was training for the coaches, assistant coaches, parents and billet parents. Team contacts were established, publicity plans were discussed to raise public awareness. It is a well-crafted initiative.

“It’s our intention to bring this to a national level,” said CMHA’s chief executive officer Camille Quenneville. “We just got out of the starting gate. This season was an opportunity to get things going in the OHL and get it right. We’ll look at the successes and how we can build on that. There’s no reason that players in other sports couldn’t gain from this.”

For Hunchak, it started with an anxiety attack, a new experience. He went to the Kamloops team trainer who sent him to a doctor. Medication was prescribed, the dosage increased. The attacks got worse.

Depression took hold and Hunchak showed signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He’d come home after a day at the rink and open his laptop so he could watch videos of the Blazers in action, over and over again. He was into analytics but his version included keeping track of the way the players skated, the angle of their shots, hockey minutiae all written up in his many notebooks.

There were other issues, too: The medication he was prescribed made it next to impossible for him to sleep through the night. His mother and father had both died of cancer and Hunchak realized he hadn’t grieved: He had coached the day his mom died and the day his dad was laid to rest. Everything, every emotion, was suppressed until Jan. 8, 2014, when Hunchak “finally cracked.”

“The best way I can describe it is: I was in the darkest place I’d ever been in,” he says. “I was thinking it was possible I could do something I would regret.”

Mark Holick, head coach of the WHL’s Prince George Cougars, has been vigilant about studying his players for anything out of the norm – a change in habits, an onset of lethargy, a player always looking down to avoid eye contact. Holick is aware of those signs because his son exhibited many of them.

“My son has a mental illness and he’s suffered through it,” Holick says. “He’s doing better now.”

Holick’s son was on a junior B team with his best friend, Ryan Donaldson, who spent time in the Holick household. Donaldson took his own life on Feb. 15, 2014. Kirsten Donaldson is organizing a memorial hockey tournament in her brother’s memory to put a spotlight on brain injuries and how they can lead to depression and suicide.

In a pro-active move, the Prince George organization hired psychologist Saul Miller to meet with the players either individually or as a team. The players communicate with Miller on Skype. They’ve even begun to spout Miller’s positive teachings while on the bench during games.

“In hockey, we talk about how players have to be tough, but some of them have problems and they don’t want to come into the coach’s office and talk about it,” says Holick. “It’s like going to the principal’s office.”

That rings true for Paul Henry, a former NHL scout who is also a sports psychologist. He knows that “90 per cent of the people I deal with, they never look at how they feel. I tell kids, ‘You don’t feel right; you don’t play right.’

“When brought to their attention, [teams] want to help,” Henry adds. “But these kids have an ability to mask their feelings.… It is still, ‘Go out and play.’”

At the junior level, young players are asked to succeed under more pressure than they have ever experienced and do so without the proper tools or knowledge. Hockey is unique in that regard, according to Dr. Peter Jaffe, director of Western University’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children.

“For lots of sports there is pressure at an early age to succeed,” Jaffe points out. “But junior hockey players have to leave home at 15, 16, 17 and live in a different city far from their usual support system. They’re also raised to be tough and strong and therefore they’re less inclined to talk about their feelings and reach out.”

Together, the NHL and NHLPA offer their players a fully confidential Substance Abuse and Behavioural Health Program. Every February, Canada’s seven NHL teams play a game for Hockey Talks, a program that deals with recognizing and discussing mental illness.

Having received counselling, Hunchak is feeling good enough to let people know he wants to return to hockey. In the meantime, he is working as an electrician in Kamloops. The plan, he says, is to show he can be counted on.

“You can call me crazy,” Hunchak says. “I’m not.”

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