Mental Health

Mental Health: On and Off the Ice

Every player has a learning curve when they climb to the next step on the hockey ladder, regardless of how talented or highly touted they were at their prior level.

It doesn’t matter if that player is a second round draft pick (of the Capitals in 1986) like Steve Seftel, or an undrafted one, like Liam O’Brien.

Often, the term, “it’s like men against boys,” is bandied about in hockey when talking about how a battle-tested player, usually one who is bigger, stronger, and faster than their young, upstart opponents, dominates them in battles on the ice.

Overlooked in that dominance is the mental hurdle that the youngsters facenot only on the ice where their experienced rivals have an edge on them due to already knowing the intricacies of the league in addition to the nuances of the rinksbut also off the ice, having already settled into their day-to-day life at that level, giving them another distinct advantage.

With the combination of all of the uphill battles that the youngsters face, it's a safe bet to assume that many prospects over the years have either never made it to the pro ranks, or had their careers fall way short of expectations if they did. Some of these situations are caused by mental health challenges that they struggled with, and Seftel, 51, and long-retired after playing only four games in the NHL with the Caps, could be considered Exhibit A. He has literally made his career and struggles an open book with the release of his recent book, Shattered Ice, which he describes as "my hockey odyssey while suffering silently from health issues I didn't understand.”

Seftel's first panic attack happened when he was only 16 years of age; it occurred when he was stuck on an elevator in Czechoslovakia while participating in a hockey tournament. He shrugged it off, thinking, "it's just who I am, and this is how it's going to be." He never imagined that what he experienced had been caused by an illness.

A few years later, after leaving his home to play junior, Seftel's symptoms kicked into high gear.

"Going to Juniors at 17, you’re really just a young guy going into grade 12. Then, turning pro at 20 is a big challenge for guys that age: being on your own, doing your own cooking, getting your own place to live. You’re literally forced to be a man, and you are also now playing against men, but you have to battle through it and do the best you can."

Seftel continued, pointing to a popular comparison with his personal experiences as proof of his cases. "I often compare myself to Keith Jones (a former player who currently works on NHL broadcasts for various networks). We are the same age and I played against Keith as a kid in minor hockey. He wasn’t drafted [right out of high school], so he took the longer route playing college hockey. I was drafted to the Ontario Hockey League, played three years junior and turned pro at 20. I remember when he came to the Caps at 24, he was a rookie and I had already been there for four years. I felt like old news, and here he is, this fresh face who is the same age, but he had four years to develop in college."

In Seftel's time, the only type of team testing was of the physical nature. At best, you may have periodically had a visit or received a phone call. Communication happened at training camp, with the player otherwise left to wallow in his own thoughts; what was being thought of or said of you?

Today, players go through extensive testing both prior to and after being drafted. And, organizations make a pronounced effort to keep in touch with their prospects, offering developmental coaches and a vast array of resources to help them be the best they can be: not only as a player, but also as a person. 

Yet, when asked if he would have come out to discuss his struggles with a developmental coach or some other authority during his playing days, after a long pause to ponder the question, Seftel said that he would not have come forth. "Only because in that timeframe, mental health wasn’t discussed. I never heard anyone talk about anything mental health related until two years ago, prior to my diagnosis… it was never discussed in the locker room, and if it was, it was discussed in a negative fashion. It wasn’t seen as something that you would want to share."

Seftel, continued, delving deeper into his rationale. "I didn’t fear that I would be exposed; what I feared was showing weakness, and there is a difference there. Mental illness wasn’t even part of the language back then; the fear was being labeled as weak. When you play a contact sport like hockey, weakness isn’t part of that makeup. Starting from a young age, you’re groomed as being anything but weak. So, that was my bigger fear: to be labeled as someone who didn’t have the strength to move on to the next level, mentally or physically."

Some will remember Seftel from the four seasons he spent with former Bears archrivals, the Baltimore Skipjacks, a team that the Bears faced frequently. There were many spirited battles at the Bears' den at the time, the fabled HERSHEYPARK Arena, a building Seftel calls his favorite in the AHL. HPA has distinctive, steep seating that went straight up. Not a single seat had an obstructed view, and gave opposition players the feeling that fans were right on top of them. That architectural achievement, amazing for 1930's construction, seemingly would fluster a player dealing with the inner turmoil that Seftel did, but that wasn't the case, and he had some of his better games as a Skipjack on HERSHEYPARK Drive, including an overtime winner.

"One thing hockey players are very good at is compartmentalizing. When you got into game mode and put your game face on, you left the other stuff behind you, and things didn’t really come back to you until the game ended… You’d have the butterflies and anxiousness, but you always had to focus on the game. That’s part of your job as a professional. You had to put the other stuff in your back pocket."

Liam O'Brien's odyssey to the pros is remarkably similar to Seftel's; but, unlike Seftel who suffered in relative silence for many years, he reached out and deep within, getting to know his inner self better by educating himself on his own brain.

"It's not an easy job being a professional athlete; there’s a lot of pressure on you. I had the hardest time with it as a kid. I was a 16 year old going into junior, and I was up against a lot of men who were 20 years old. That’s when I had my struggles. It was more of a day-to-day thing where I got into a negative, low groove, and I guess you could say it almost felt like the world was out to get me. I think that was a mindset thing for me though. The biggest thing that I did was I started to read about it, and opened my mind up to new ways of thinking. I think that’s what transformed me to the way I am today.

"You’re going to have good days and bad days, and you just want to make sure you have more good than bad. That’s how I try to live my life. I try to get into a routine that I have on a day-to-day basis where I try to be the best person I can be. I think that’s where it starts: when you feel good about who you are, put yourself in a positive environment, and lead yourself in the right direction. It helps in the (mental) area a lot. That’s something I really had to focus on, and I had to do that as a teenager to get myself out of that funk."

O'Brien confesses that there have still been tough times during seasons where he's had to face adversity, but says we all do, and he believes that continuously facing it down and not ignoring it grows you by making your stronger, and subsequently healthier.

"I’ve helped a lot of guys. I just try to get them to stay as positive as they can. I think especially when you’re in the minors, it’s tougher to stay positive. It’s a different kind of lifestyle: you’re always trying to get to the next level and sometimes things aren’t going your way,” said O’Brien.

"I won’t say I’m an older guy, but I’m a vet now. So that means I’ve had my years, and I’ve been able to see guys get into funks like that… I think you need to understand that, especially in hockey where everybody is coming from different parts of the world, and everybody is in a different situation. You really need to understand and respect that... I’ve been there, and I can help guys out because I’ve been there.”

There are a multitude of reasons that we do not seek help when we know we have a mental illness. It may be fear of losing a job or not getting a promotion, or being perceived as weak for admitting you are not perfect. If you've ever had a mental illness, or are currently dealing with one, you are well aware that you learn to become very adept in the art of keeping your symptoms and your struggles within, or hiding them from others. But the truth is, letting go of the false facade, as both Seftel and O'Brien did, won't necessarily cure you, but it certainly will lighten the load of the burden that you are carrying within.

"I always had OCD; I wasn’t diagnosed, but I definitely knew it, and friends and family certainly observed it. But again, we didn’t talk about mental illness, and OCD was something that I could live with and deal with day to day, and it wasn’t really bothering anybody, so that’s probably another reason that I didn’t seek treatment sooner,” said Seftel, who was only recently officially diagnosed with OCD, anxiety, and panic attacks.

Seftel continued, his story serving as a caution to what can happen when you keep your symptoms contained. "The anxiety started to turn to panic, and panic is the most terrorizing form of anxiety. That’s what became debilitating for me. The OCD led to anxiety, and the anxiety compounded the panic attacks, and that’s what forced me to seek medical intervention. When you have a panic attack, you think you are going to die, and you feel you are in imminent danger, but it’s really your brain lying to you. When those started to happen I didn’t want to leave the house, and I also started to have physical symptoms at that point where my joints, my knees and shoulders started swelling, and I actually couldn’t even get out of bed. So not only was I mentally ill, but I was also becoming physically ill. When I talked to my doctor, he said it was all related and triggered by the mental illness."

John Sparenberg is a member of the Information Technology (IT) team at Sheppard Pratt Health System, where he has worked for six years. A lifelong hockey fan, he writes program articles for the Hershey Bears.