There is, perhaps, no other sport that values toughness in quite the same way as hockey does. Legendary stories from the game’s past glorify those who have returned quickly from breaks, sprains, bruising and lost teeth – sometimes even within the same game. It is seemingly an annual tradition to have a cringe-inducing injury reports on playoff participants shared in the aftermath of the postseason, reflecting not the injuries that kept players out of games but the ones that they actually continued to play with. But another part of this toughness credo hinges on secrecy. A refusal to show weakness has grown so systematic that official NHL injury reports identify only upper and lower body injuries, mostly to prevent opponents from zeroing in on a weakened body part but also to keep injury info as tight-lipped as possible.
This veiled secrecy that exists within the unspoken NHL code carries over beyond injuries as well. As with most sports, there is an expectation that the locker room can be something of a safe space for privacy among teammates, leaving them free to express their thoughts and concerns about matters both on the ice and off. It represents the rare place that remains free from the intense spotlight of fans and media. The public persona of players can operate at odds with the one exhibited in a locker room – that is, if they even choose to express their innermost thoughts with their own teammates. But whether entirely isolated or kept within a small, confined group, many players carry private secrets – even dark ones – during their playing days that they work hard to ensure doesn’t escape the tight walls of their own safe haven.
And who can blame them, really? As an NHL player, you spend 60 minutes operating at high speeds on ice while both dishing out and taking immense levels of physical violence before having microphones and TV cameras jammed in your face shortly thereafter. There will clearly be a distinct line – as you bear in mind your public persona – between what you can say openly and what is really going on in your mind. And when you are also dealing with real-life problems, struggles or illicit temptations, it only becomes harder to speak out and easier to fall back on your walled off secrecy. These 15 players eventually came forward and spoke out on the dark secrets that quietly plagued them during their playing days. It really makes you wonder on what today’s current players are going through behind closed doors.
15. Nick Boynton
As an 11-year NHL veteran with a Stanley Cup ring and an All-Star appearance to his credit, it is safe to say that Nick Boynton knew what he was doing on the ice. The tough-nosed blue liner knew the role being asked of him and was comfortable in providing the sand paper while his more skilled teammates served up the scoring. In retirement, Boynton’s role hasn’t been quite so clearly defined. As a matter of fact, it’s an unknown that the former Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks has struggled with since hanging up his skates in 2011.
Those struggles reached a fever pitch in March of 2015, when Boynton was arrested and charged with assault and resisting arrest for an incident at a Buffalo casino in which he allegedly became belligerent and bit the hand of a police officer attempting to subdue him. Quick to own up to the incident, the Arizona Coyotes broadcaster pleaded guilty to some charges laid and issued an immediate public statement, apologizing for his behaviour and entering himself into alcohol counselling. Three years later, Boynton has resumed his on-air duties while remaining incident-free.
14. Tom Reid
Expressions of sympathy were compounded with confusion and disappointment for Chicago Blackhawks fans earlier this summer when veteran forward Marian Hossa announced that he would miss the 2017-18 season due to complications from medication taken to treat a skin condition. ‘Can’t you play with some itchy skin?’ ‘How do you know it won’t get better on its own?’ For hockey fans accustomed to injury reports that speak of breaks, fractures and head trauma, Hossa’s injury explanation was a head scratcher.
One person who understood all too well of the Slovakian sniper’s pain was Tom Reid. A 1970s era NHL vet, Reid’s 11-year career spent with the Blackhawks and Minnesota North Stars ended when a doctor told him that any further treatments on a nagging skin condition of his own would carry a life-shortening risk. To hear the former blue liner tell it, the condition left his skin charred from waist to chest and necessitated frequent in-season trips to the hospital.
13. Philippe Hudon
As anyone who has walked into a post game locker room will tell you, hockey is messy and rather smelly sport. A toll is taken on hockey bags, whose foul stench is borne out of housing sweaty, well-worn equipment off the backs of players drenched in perspiration. For some, this is simply part of the game they love, perhaps even growing into an aroma that is appealing by association. For Philippe Hudon, it probably represents something of a challenge to overcome.
To call Hudon, who never played in the NHL but was a fifth round draft choice of the Detroit Red Wings, a neat freak would be an over-simplification. The former Victoriaville Tigres star has been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), being held prisoner by his own need for cleanliness, order and symmetry. These compulsions would range from the precise way in which he taped his stick to, at his worst, spending six hours a day cleaning his dorm room. Where teammates would once mess with his stuff as a prank, they came to better understand and support his condition as he spoke out about it.
12. Brenden Morrow
Some dark secrets are darker than others. When Brenden Morrow used The Player’s Tribune to announce his retirement from the NHL back in March of 2016, it served as an opportunity to get some hidden truths from his playing career off of his chest. But for those looking for lurid tales of debauchery and famous NHL stars doing naughty things, prepare to get some pretty tame stories instead. Now, that’s not to say the former Dallas Stars captain was a choir boy over his 15 seasons in the league. A story of missing curfew may not stack up next to these admissions of anxiety and substance abuse problems, but the wrong move can still come back to burn you, especially if you are caught in the act.
During a late, past curfew return to the team hotel on one particular road trip, Morrow and teammate Marty Turco were in high, ahem, “spirits” and the skilled left winger wasn’t quite ready for the night to end. He took to two pillars located in the hotel lobby and used the opportunity to try out a full-on Spider-Man routine. As he climbed up and then slid down the pillars into a Spidey stance, he was unaware that the team’s coach and GM were standing by, watching every move. Morrow chalks that up as one of his many mistakes along the way, but with 575 points and over 1,000 career games in the bank, clearly he got a few things right as well.
11. Bobby Ryan
Still an active NHLer with the Ottawa Senators, Bobby Ryan chose not to wait until beyond his playing days to open up about a dark secret and long-held family shame. Ryan was actually born Bobby Stevenson, but required a new alias as his parents took him on the lam to evade attempted murder charges laid against his father, Robert. When Bobby was just 10, his dad arrived home in a drunken rage and proceeded to violently assault the boy’s mother, whom the dad believed had been using drugs.
Despite suffering a fractured skull, punctured lung and four broken ribs, Bobby’s mother would soon forgive her husband, joining him and her son as the family fled law enforcement by venturing north to Canada to skip bail. It wasn’t long, however, before authorities caught up, raiding their hideout home with Bobby sleeping upstairs soon after Robert had accidentally used a credit card with his real name at a Blockbuster video in 2000. While the raid, and his father’s corresponding five-year jail sentence, clearly affected Bobby, he maintained his new name and found some degree of normalcy with the Owen Sound Attack, gaining friends he built trust in and moving on from his past life without leaving his family behind.
10. Dan Carcillo
In hockey, perhaps more than in any other sport, toughness is a badge of honor upon which most players are measured. NHL lore is filled with stories of players sustaining serious injuries, only to get stitched up and hop back on the ice. It seems that each postseason wraps up with a litany of reports over the breaks, sprains and fractures that players continued to play with. Unfortunately, that hide-the-pain ideology can tend to carry over and even apply to incidents of head trauma. Dan Carcillo exemplified that mindset, for better or worse.
A two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks, Carcillo’s rugged reputation was so deeply entrenched that his teammates called him “Car Bomb.”. But an admirable and valuable trait during his playing career has come to be a concerning liability in retirement for Carcillo as concussions and CTE loom as real threats. In an extended interview with The Athletic last summer, Carcillo spoke in great detail about a fight he has been waging with depression and complications associated with post-concussion syndrome. After being shaken up by the death of fellow recently retired NHL veteran Steve Montador, he sought clinical treatment for his own issues and even started up the Chapter 5 Foundation, a non-profit organization to assist former players with post-concussion and mental health issues, in honor of Montador.
9. Rick Tocchet
The old adage of “time heals all wounds” has never proven more true than in the case of Rick Tocchet and the Arizona Coyotes. Almost exactly 10 years after Tocchet left the Coyotes amidst an NHL investigation into his involvement in an illegal gambling ring, the former winger returned to the club as its head coach. As expected, Tocchet, who served as both a player and assistant coach in the desert in tenures prior to assuming the role as bench boss, has been greeted by questions about the gambling problems that expedited his previous exit.
To his credit, the recent Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach (and reported Phil Kessel whisperer) hasn’t hid from his past. Though expressing irritation at the amount of questions on the subject, the three-time Stanley Cup champion nonetheless accepted his guilt – he actually plead guilty to charges of conspiracy and promoting gambling – and has acknowledged his regretful involvement. His willingness to speak out on the subject has helped him control the narrative, ensuring that the reporting of exactly what he did and didn’t do is fair and accurate. Furthermore, it probably helped amend his relationship with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the league offices, thereby letting him resume a coaching career in the league.
8. Corey Hirsch
Few have ever had the privilege of experiencing the lofty standing that goaltender Corey Hirsch found himself in during the Spring of 1994. At just 21 years of age, he was fresh off backstopping Team Canada to a silver medal at the Lillehammer Olympics and earned a call up to join the New York Rangers for a playoff run that would ultimately result in a Stanley Cup. The only problem: Hirsch was completely miserable.
So much so, in fact, that Hirsch now recalls smashing the blade of a hockey stick over his wrist in an effort to get injured and be sent home with a broken wrist. This was how dark it got for the young netminder as he battled severe anxiety, consumed by both the isolation of being far from home and the pressure and expectations being heaped upon him. Even with the opportunity to celebrate his team’s success in the aftermath of their Cup win, he chose instead to hop on the first flight home to Calgary. Knowing all too well the feeling of being on the brink mentally, Hirsch now shares his story so that others don’t feel the need to suffer in silence as he did.
7. Chris Nilan
Chris Nilan hasn’t suited up for an NHL game in a quarter century. Even still, as the one-time enforcer known as ‘Knuckles’ nears his 60th birthday, the scars from his playing days remain, both figuratively and literally. A survey of Nilan’s battered body reveals some nasty arthritic pain, a right knee requiring replacement and a left ankle that isn’t much better. Sadly, given the legacy of hurt that Nilan was left with after 12 seasons and more than 3,000 penalty minutes, abusing pain meds became a logical coping mechanism. Though still nostalgic about his days of wailing on the poor opponents stupid enough to challenge him, he refuses to shy away from the addictions that have plagued him during his post-playing days.
In fact, Nilan’s struggles have even been brought to the silver screen. He is the central figure featured in Alex Gibney’s award-winning 2011 documentary “The Last Gladiators,” which chronicles the often-not-so-glamorous post-hockey life of NHL enforcers. It is through this candor and honesty that Nilan has found something of a second career as an outspoken public figure. Still living in Montreal, where he reigned as the fearsome enforcer for the Habs for 10 seasons, Nilan is now a radio host and has focused his energy towards numerous charitable and social causes.
6. Devin Setoguchi
The modern NHL player is particular to a fault over what they put into their bodies. Strict diets will be balanced with a very specific and well-researched selection of supplements. Then again, there are exceptions to every rule. The off-season is often littered with ‘cheat days’ – with some players enjoying their time away from the game more than others, especially when it comes to adult beverages. For Devin Setoguchi, a few drinks in the summer was very quickly a slippery slope to a full blown alcohol problem.
At Setoguchi’s lowest point, the one-time 30-goal scorer was downing two 26-ounce bottles of Jameson’s whiskey every day. This came during a short tenure with the Winnipeg Jets, around the same time he began regularly using Ambien and cocaine. After originally hiding from his addictions and denying he had a problem, Setoguchi has come around to acknowledging the dark hole he had delved into. Two failed NHL comeback attempts since his most recent game, Setoguchi still struggles with temptation but has matured significantly and is focused on staying clean.
5. Shayne Corson
Shayne Corson knows all too well of the demands and expectations associated with playing in the pressure cooker of red hot hockey markets like Toronto and Montreal. In fact, the gritty forward laced up his skates as a member of both the Maple Leafs and Canadiens at various points of his 19-year career. To the average fan, the tough-nosed enforcer seemed to revel in the spotlight afforded by two of Canada’s biggest markets. But only those closest to him knew of a far greater battle he was waging off the ice.
Even as he presented himself as a menacing, imposing s.o.b. on the ice, Corson was grappling with anxiety off of it. While many sufferers typically identify anxiety as a gradual condition that sneaks its way in, Corson describes his first encounter as a sudden on-rush that he initially believed to be a heart attack. Interestingly enough, that first attack came during the summer of 2000 at a time when he was deciding on his future employment as a free agent. He recently reached out publicly to Toronto Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna, who recently came forward with his own struggles with anxiety.
4. Jeremy Roenick
The most surprising thing about some of the candid revelations shared in Jeremy Roenick’s second autobiography, “Shoot First, Pass Later: My Life, No Filter,” is that they weren’t made public sooner. After all, the former NHL star-turned-NBC-broadcaster is widely known for his outspoken, brash nature and doesn’t exactly carry the reputation of someone who keeps their thoughts to themselves. But over 20 career seasons that were full of gaudy scoring numbers and memorable on- and off-ice antics, Roenick’s candor never extended to the rampant gambling problems he faced as a player.
Roenick was a long-time client of a gambling tipsters group known as National Sports Consultants and had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on sports bets. Though he was twice probed during his playing career for his ties to gambling organizations, he was never charged or disciplined by the NHL, nor did he speak openly about it. While not admitting to anything entirely illegal, he has now opened up a little more about a gambling addiction that proved costly, even to a guy who made over $50 million in his career. The admission doesn’t rank high on the surprise scale, but it does bring to light a facet of Roenick’s otherwise open career that was at least somewhat mired in darkness.
3. Mike Peluso
While not boasting the talent level of some of his more skilled colleagues, Mike Peluso managed to carve out a 458-game career in the NHL as an enforcer and general tough guy. That lengthy tenure in the world’s top hockey league didn’t come cheap for Peluso, though. By the former pugilist’s own account, he has suffered eight grand mal seizures and bears permanent brain damage from a career spent enduring violent and continuous physical trauma. Peluso’s current reality paints a sobering picture of the fundamental truths that are overlooked in a sport that celebrates and glamorizes fights and big hits.
Nowadays, Peluso feels broken. He constantly forgets appointments and names and finds himself uncharacteristically quick to anger. At his lowest point, he sat in his basement in front of a popcorn bowl filled with prescription pills and contemplated ending his life before his dog Coors came by, prompting him to recognize that no one would take care of the pup with him gone. Now, Coors isn’t Peluso’s only motivation for soldiering on. He has joined a class action lawsuit of more than 100 NHL alumni against the league, alleging that they’ve spent decades putting profits ahead of player safety.
2. Sheldon Kennedy
Few career 49-goal scorers have made as significant an impact on the NHL as has former Detroit Red Wings winger Sheldon Kennedy. The one-time Swift Current Bronco stunned the hockey world when he came forward to Calgary police in 1996 with allegations of sexual abuse by his former Broncos coach Graham James. Kennedy recounts the abuse taking place twice a week from 1984 all the way to 1990. As a young teen facing an adult abuser who also happened to be a highly-regarded coach that controlled his hockey career, he felt he had little choice but to remain silent as the abuse continued.
James effectively stole Kennedy’s childhood. Kennedy has acknowledged his struggles with making friends owing to a deeply entrenched distrust and inability to bring anyone close. Feeling so psychologically trapped – and being brainwashed by a ‘coach is always right’ hockey culture – made coming forward a challenge. But by opening up to his wife and, later, to police, he played an integral role in getting James imprisoned and giving other young hockey players the courage to come forward with similar stories about the sexual predator. His story has since been chronicled in a TV movie about his life and his autobiography, “Why I Didn’t Say Anything – The Sheldon Kennedy Story.”
1. Theo Fleury
Few NHL players have ever personified underdog status quite like Theoren Fleury. The feisty Saskatchewan-born winger overcame his diminutive stature and eighth round draft selection to put forth a Hall of Fame-caliber resume that includes a Stanley Cup ring, an All-Star selection and 455 career goals in over 1,000 games, most of which came as a member of the Calgary Flames. But Fleury might be even more notable for what he’s done in retirement, showing remarkable courage by coming forward about a dark past that included sexual abuse.
Fleury had been abused by Graham James, the same WHL coach that victimized Sheldon Kennedy. Though Kennedy was the trail blazer who first came forward, the popular former Flame brought the issue even further to the forefront as a widely recognized NHL star who faced the same abuses. In fact, Fleury’s admission came in stunning detail through his autobiography, “Playing with Fire.” The impact on Fleury was clear – he has also been frank and honest about past substance abuse problems and mental health issues. Now an advocate for sexual abuse victims and well-traveled public speaker, he has been recognized for his contributions with the Canadian Humanitarian Award and the Queen’s Jubilee Medallion.
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