First Line: Players looking out for each other off the ice

A first of its kind in professional sports, First Line has been well-received by NHL players among the first 20 to complete the program’s training.

There were times earlier in his long and noteworthy career that Blake Wheeler wondered if he was the only one who felt the way he did.

He wondered if the anxiety, the stress and other uncomfortable feelings and thoughts that resided at times in his head were unique to him.

He wondered if, perhaps, such uncomfortable moments were simply part of the job.

“It can be really isolating,” Wheeler said. “You wonder, am I the only one?”

It was not until recently that the veteran forward for the New York Rangers began to grasp and understand some of the issues that had been challenging his mental well-being over the years.

Coming to grips with this also meant realizing that Wheeler was not alone. Far from it, in fact.

“The minute you share those experiences, the minute you are open to getting help if you need it, is the minute you understand it is a shared experience,” Wheeler said.

All of this helps explain why Wheeler was naturally included to take part in the National Hockey League Players’ Association’s new, groundbreaking First Line program. A first of its kind in professional sports, the program offers training for players to not only help identify signs of mental health issues in themselves, their teammates and those close to them,  but to also engage in discussion about those issues.

Wheeler is one of close to two dozen current players who have voluntarily taken the course, tailored by the NHLPA’s Health and Wellness team, using a framework designed almost a decade ago by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

“First Line is incredibly important not just in our sport but society as a whole,” offered Chris Kreider.

“I think awareness around mental health has improved substantially but we still have a long way to go. I believe giving players the tools, resources and education to help their teammates and loved ones navigate their own experience is an invaluable skill set.”

At its nexus, the First Line program is about peers talking to peers. Players talking to players is that critical first step is in identifying mental health issues and potential problems. The same dynamics exist in police departments and fire stations, on construction sites, in law offices or, frankly, in most any other workplace.

Although, it is particularly true in hockey dressing rooms and especially NHL dressing rooms.

Players want to help each other. They want to be leaders. It may sound trite, but it is in many ways part of a hockey player’s DNA to have each other’s backs.

In fact, that was one of the overriding messages received from an NHLPA survey of its membership during the pandemic, aimed at determining what players needed concerning a variety of off-ice issues and how they could meet those needs. Players indicated they wanted to be more involved in important issues like mental health.

The responses prompted the NHLPA Health and Wellness Team to reach out to the MHCC for assistance in designing First Line. The goal is to have at least one player from each of the 32 teams complete the training course, and that those players can act as a first point of contact for players and/or their families who feel they may need help with their mental health or who exhibit signs or behaviour that suggest a potential issue.

The course helps identify warning signals for things like depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. The players who complete the course will be trained in how to discuss these issues and to provide information about next steps in receiving professional help.

Maria Dennis, NHLPA Senior Director of Player Health and Safety and Senior Counsel, serves on a series of joint committees with the National Hockey League to protect and safeguard the health and safety of the players. 

She has helped take the First Line program from abstract to reality and has even taken the course herself.

“I love this initiative because I feel it is much needed in all aspects of life, not just for our members, but everyone should take a course like this,” Dennis said. “I think it’s very important to become familiar with mental health.”

Not only will those who take the course be in a position to identify potential issues, “but it also gives you the tools and the skills to know what to say,” Dennis said.

The reality is that a groundbreaking course like this is only as good as the people who present it.

If the presentation of First Line does not resonate, well, the chances of success go down dramatically.

The early results are that there could not have been a better choice in doing the training than Dr. Jay Harrison, former NHL defenceman and current NHLPA Wellness, Transition, and Performance Specialist.

The player feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Dennis said. “Better than expected.”

“He knows what it’s like to be an NHL player,” Dennis said of Harrison. “I think it’s easier for players to open up to somebody that they know has gone through similar experiences in the NHL. They know the pressures and the stressors that exist in the league.”

Not only does Harrison know the sometimes uneven landscape that comes with being a professional hockey player, but he comes from a background of clinical counselling and psychology.

In short, he is a 200-foot player when it comes to understanding players’ mental health issues and how best to help address them.

“He is a passionate individual, he’s sincere and extremely caring of others and he wants to do good in the world and help people,” Dennis said.

“It’s integral to what we do,” she added. “His job is to encourage our members to be healthy not only in their body but in their spirit and mind so they can maximize their potential in all areas of their life and really enjoy their NHL journey.”

Harrison, 41, was a third-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2001.

He played 372 NHL regular season games with Toronto, the Carolina Hurricanes and Winnipeg Jets. He and his family make their home in the Raleigh area where he has a counselling practice. He was not unlike many players in that he was willing to accept a certain amount of mental distress as part of the price to be paid for being a professional hockey player.

But after he began studying and working on academic interests outside of hockey while he was still playing, Harrison found that his on-ice play began to improve and his mental well-being took a turn for the better.

It sparked a kind of mantra that has been applied to much of his work with the NHLPA, both with NHLPA UNLMT (which marries current players with interests and passions beyond hockey) and the new First Line program.

Invest in your future, get paid now.

“As I began to explore and expand this identity outside of the game, my game started to take off,” Harrison explained during a recent conversation as he was waiting for his next First Line training session with a group of players.

“It had this really funny impact on my ability to manage myself, to manage the highs and lows of the game, to find strength, confidence that I ultimately value in myself despite the levels of performance that I was going through and the natural ups and downs of a professional hockey season,” Harrison said.

The knowledge Harrison was gaining, knowledge that would put him in a unique position to help his peers once his playing career was over, gave him a sense of “self-efficacy not related to being a hockey player and somewhat I would say, free from the impacts of the natural ups and downs,” of being a pro athlete.

Harrison would complete a BA in psychology and follow that up with a master’s degree in clinical psychology before retiring from the game. In his transition to full-time mental health work, Harrison completed his residency in clinical counselling with a specialization in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a doctorate in performance psychology.

NHLPA UNLMT provides a pathway for players to take advantage of their status as pro hockey players to develop interests away from the game that may serve them both during their career and after, while the First Line program is also designed to help players address issues in their lives that will allow them to enhance not only their playing careers but their quality of life.

Harrison believes a line can be drawn connecting the two important NHLPA initiatives.

“It’s a mental health leadership opportunity,” Harrison said of the course that is certified by the MHCC. “It demonstrates an investment by the union in professional education and skills development for its members.”

The applications are far-reaching, Harrison added, given that one in five people will experience a mental health situation either involving themselves or someone close to them.

In tweaking the original Opening Minds model created by the MHCC, Harrison and the health and wellness team at the NHLPA look to address areas that hockey players could relate to while helping to destroy the stigmas that surround mental health and well-being.

Many players, for instance, are familiar with the debilitating cycle of ‘I play bad, I feel bad, I am bad.'

“It can be a lonely place because you have to play the role of the athlete everywhere you go,” Harrison said. “You don’t go out for breakfast without being the hockey player. It forces a lot of players to suffer in silence.”

First Line helps break down that isolation by creating a safe environment for peer-to-peer dialogue.

With each candid conversation, whether it is in a dressing room, workout room, on the team bus or at a dinner while on the road, more and more of the stigmas surrounding mental health issues will, at least in theory, dissipate.

“Sometimes your only connection is with your teammates,” Harrison said.

As Wheeler pointed out, he spends more time with his teammates than his own family.

“The challenge is how do we connect players to those resources quickly when they need them,” Harrison said.

Again, a knowledgeable teammate may be the best answer to that challenge.

“The goal of First Line is no player feels intimidated or self-stigmatized, afraid to talk to another player about what they might be going through because of the fear of how they’ll be judged by a teammate,” Harrison said.

“Everyone is dealing with their own unique challenges. Knowing how to present yourself as approachable and supportive, and capable of directing people towards the proper resources, can truly make a difference in our relationships, on our teams and in our society,” added Kreider.

Similarly, Harrison added, the goal is that “no player feels intimidated when another player comes up and speaks to them about what they might be going through. We are hoping to engage in a shared conversational moment of support that ultimately ends with both a proactive and responsive use of the resources we have available to us.”

Wheeler and Harrison played together for one season in Winnipeg. The two have remained in contact, especially in recent years given Harrison’s strong connection to the NHLPA.

Wheeler believes the First Line program “is just scratching the surface.”

Every player, from the highest paid star to the borderline roster guy, will struggle with issues of confidence and doubt at some point, Wheeler said.

“The more you try to tough your way through it, put on a front that everything’s okay and ‘I just have to deal with it and act okay in front my teammates,’ just kind of grit your way through it, kind of makes things worse,” Wheeler said.

This program creates an awareness that players are not alone.

“Guys know that we have each other’s backs. We’re looking out for each other,” Wheeler said. “I just think there’s real power in that community aspect of it.”

Micheal Pietrus is the Director of Opening Minds, the original course from which First Line was drawn and one that has been used in dozens of settings with a wide range of occupations.

He said their non-profit organization is “over the moon” at the work the NHLPA is planning with First Line.

“We’ve been waiting for this breakthrough for a long time,” Pietrus said.

His colleague, Shane Silver, Vice-President of the MHCC and Opening Minds, said the potential ripple effect of the First Line program is exciting.

If fans, ordinary people for want of a better term, realize the players they see on television or read about or watch in NHL rinks are talking about mental health and working to cope with these issues collaboratively, well, that is a powerful message.

“You can’t think of a better way to break down stigma,” Silver said. “If they can talk about it, I can talk about it. That’s the power.”

Pietrus shared an anecdote from the Calgary police force.

A young constable took the Opening Minds course and later stopped a superior officer in Calgary’s police headquarters. Standing on a stairway in the busy workplace, the young officer thanked his superior for recommending the training. The course had, the younger constable said, saved his career, his marriage and his life.

He explained that he had been having suicidal thoughts and that when he talked to his wife about the course she helped him realize he needed to get mental health treatment. Now his career is on track as is his marriage.

Could a similarly inspiring story be replicated in an NHL locker room in the coming months or years?

Pietrus has no doubt.

“You’re going to see this,” he said. “We see this time and time again.”