If you're a hockey player, you're supposed to play through it. Even when the pain is very real, caused by physical impairment resulting from 200-pound bodies hurling themselves at each other at high speeds, you're supposed to draw the line between "hurt" and "injured." When it comes to talking about what's ailing you, hockey has always been in a weird place.
That's why an extended interview by former Blackhawks forward Daniel Carcillo, posted in two pieces by The Athletic's Scott Powers, brought me to tears. You should really just read the whole thing: Part 1 and Part 2.
As a player, Carcillo was never anything exceptional, and hearing him talk, it seems like he knew it. A journeyman who bounced around the league, he was always the kind of player at risk of becoming another example of how the league struggles to provide players with proper post-hockey support.
But there's indeed something very exceptional about Carcillo, and it has nothing to do with his ability to deke defenders or fire a tight wrister. The candidness Carcillo showed in talking with Powers about his struggles with depression revealed not only the insightful, intelligent man we had seen glimpses of in the past, but did something bigger: show athletes there's an alternative to bottling it up.
When you consider how hockey players are expected to play through actual physical ailments during this careers, it's unsurprising that the discourse around mental health doesn't exactly embrace openness. This is a league where "upper-body injury" is an acceptable fill-in for like 200 different injuries, and at the end of each postseason, we hear about all the players who played through injuries that would've put normal people in the hospital. Hockey players, in case you haven't heard, are some tough dudes.
But what Carcillo is showing is how you divide the line between toughness and understanding the importance of your personal health. Once a player is done on the ice, that transition to the real world can be jarring, and when you toss in the uncertainty created by our evolving knowledge on concussions, CTE and brain injuries in general, retired players are put into a challenging position. Most of them aren't accustomed to seeking out help for mental health, even if they feel they need it. Carcillo thought he was ready to transition to being away from the game and working on his foundation, but he discovered it's not that simple.
"I thought I was just prepared by just thinking about transition, but that’s not enough at all," Carcillo said. "It wasn’t even close to being enough. The nine months of depression, stress, anxiety, fear and really not having the help that I think guys deserve for the amount of sacrifice that we put in, it was difficult."
This isn't the first time we've heard about how athletes, especially non-elite ones who don't get to retire with millions upon millions in the bank, face challenges after hanging it up. But too often, these stories become tragic ones, like Steve Montador's, which clearly shook Carcillo to his core. Montador, another NHL journeyman and one of Carcillo's close friends, battled addiction and mental health issues following his playing career before dying at age 35. Montador's family has sued the league for how it handles head injuries. Carcillo released a video on The Players' Tribune last year talking about Steve's fight and the importance of awareness.
At the time, Carcillo decided to retire because of what he saw happen to Montador. He didn't want to follow the same dark path.
"How many guys can say they walked away under their own recognizance, made that decision?" he said. "There aren’t many guys who can say that. The reason I made that decision was because what I saw happen to my friend Steve (Montador), I was spiritually, mentally just beat down and done. I was just tired. I just knew I didn’t have another year in me. I just didn’t."
Except for a while there, Carcillo did stare down at the abyss. His post-concussion problems were significant, leading to treatment at a special clinic in Wood Dale, Ill., something Montador also did. But unlike Steve, whose battles came largely in private, Carcillo seems determined to make sure his problems play out publicly in a way that inspires others. When you hear what we has to say, it's the kind of thing the NHL should put on a soap box.
"At some point, you stop numbing out the fear and you walk towards it and then you come to life," Carcillo said. "You start feeling everything and it’s okay because you’re going to be okay. There’s treatment for this stuff, and it’s not a drug. It’s getting into the GyroStim. It’s doing the stuff you may not understand. I’m telling you from experience it works."
As Carcillo says, effective treatment is different for anyone, but it's that embrace of struggle and openness about getting better that can be the first step toward finding what's right for you. He wants the NHL to be more frank about the connections between playing hockey and mental health issues. He wants the community to be more forthright in admitting that, hey, we're all people, too, and sometimes that means we have problems. He wants guys like Keith Jones and Mike Milbury to stop calling for head shots. He wants the rest of us to take this as seriously as it needs to be taken.
And seeing Carcillo speak, reading his words, I am rooting for him. Talking about these things can be incredibly difficult, yet we still need to do it. There's nothing to be ashamed of if you're depressed. And for hockey, there are these unique opportunities because of the community. There are possibilities for a real infrastructure that brings players like Carcillo the help they need so they don't have to go find it on their own. Carcillo shouldn't need to tell other players that, man, it's okay to admit you're not alright.
So I just wanted to say thank you to Daniel Carcillo, and hope that he knows how many fans, journalists and others are supporting his cause. We all know hockey players are tough, but it's important that remember they're just people, too. Just because someone can play through getting their teeth knocked out of their face doesn't mean, once they're done playing, they should live through hell when so many of us want to listen and want to talk. If you want to talk about toughness, Carcillo embodied that in opening up.
You can support The Chapter 5 Foundation, which Carcillo started last year in Montador's honor, here. Keeping fighting the good fight, Daniel. Let's keep talking.