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Drugs, Alcohol and Depression in the NHL

Richard Clune opens up about his inebriated past

On July 1, The Players’ Tribune released an article written by Nashville Predators left winger Richard Clune, titled The Battle. In the article, Clune opens up about his past experiences as an alcoholic and as a drug addict, something he claims does not set him apart from other professional hockey players. “I am certainly not unique. There are players in the NHL right now who are suffering and you would never know it from looking at their stat sheet or how hard they compete in practice,” Clune writes.

Clune was pressured by his parents to play hockey at Harvard University when he was younger, but he begged them to let him play in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) instead, where he would be drafted to the Sarnia Sting in 2003. The following year, the OHL gave him the Bobby Smith Trophy, which is awarded to the player who “best combines high standards of play and academic excellence.” In his article, Clune writes that he accomplished these feats “while binge drinking every single day, often alone in [his] room.”

“Plenty of teammates and coaches had suspicions about me over the years, but nobody knew how bad it was” Clune said. In 2008, after he was drafted by the Dallas Stars of the National Hockey League (NHL), he began going on spurts where he would abuse cocaine for several consecutive days at a time. Soon after, his family sat him down for an intervention, and this is when Clune first realized there was no way he could “bullshit [his] way out of it anymore.”

He checked in to rehab that summer, but still didn’t believe in the least that he was an alcoholic. “An alcoholic is a person passed out on a park bench,” he thought. After four days of repetitive questions such as “Rich, when was the last time you cried?” he decided to leave rehab, saying, “This is insane, I’m out of here.”

Clune explains that his problems with drugs and alcohol stemmed from existing in a constant state of fear. “I put on a mask to deal with the fear,” he states, explaining that once you get drafted to the OHL as a sixteen year old, you forced to be part of a culture which involves heavy drinking and constantly being surrounded by men. Clune talks about putting on a mask to deal with the state of fear. “You put on the mask, and it never goes away. When you get drafted, you put on the mask to deal with the pressure of getting a contract. When you get your contract, you put on the mask to deal with the sleepless night before you know you have to go out and drop the gloves with the 6’5” monster on the other team. When you finally pull on that NHL sweater, you put on the mask to deal with that ever-present fear that it could all go away in an instant.” Clune says.

One day, he woke up and realized he had had enough. He writes that he wished he had arrived at the realization earlier, when his parents and the assistant General Manager of the Los Angeles Kings Ron Hextall asked him to get help. “A lot of guys never got so lucky. We have lost too many of them over the years to the darkness of depression and drug abuse and alcoholism,” he says.

Several other players in the NHL (both past and present) have suffered from problems involving alcohol and drug abuse, but most have not and will never open up about it. Luckily, Clune is one of the few athletes who have been able to come forward with his story, and hopefully will now be able to serve as an outlet for other players who do suffer from the same problems he once suffered from, and help them on the path to recovery.

Derek Boogaard, a notable 6’7”, 265lb left-winger who played for the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers, was considered to be one of the most intimidating players in the NHL. Boogaard was found dead in his bed after overdosing on a mixture of alcohol and prescription Percocet. While his death may have been accidental, other issues were raised on how the situation may have been prevented. Boogaard’s father expressed concerns to the NHL about the way Derek’s drug abuse had been handled, and maybe even enabled, by the two teams he played for.

Two other players, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, were also both found dead within a four-month span following the death of Boogaard. Rypien was playing for the Vancouver Canucks but was then assigned to their minor team, the Manitoba Moose. A few months later, he signed to the Winnipeg Jets, and had another shot to play in the NHL, but soon after was found dead in his home in August 2011.

The deaths forced past enforcers of the NHL and sportswriters to question the role of ‘the enforcer’ and how the league was dealing with the stress of the position. An enforcer generally plays the role of the intimidator for their respective team, and is known to be the fighter and instigator. Another well known enforcer of the NHL, Georges Laraque stated that he never liked being in the position he was in, something that Clune also agreed with, but they both made careers serving the same role.

Following the deaths of Rypien and Boogaard, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told the media that the League would begin looking into reinforcing the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Programs. This requires players to be provided with educational programs on substance abuse, counseling programs, and other forms of treatment, administered by doctors once every year, all of which is to be paid for by the NHL or by the players’ respective teams.

Although the NHL’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program is available to all players, it has not seemed to function to the best of its ability, as there are players still struggling with substance abuse and alcoholism. Most hockey players have the mindset that they need to be another level of ‘tough’ and feel as if they could fend for themselves in situations like these, but as Clune wrote in his article, he is definitely not the only NHL player who suffers from alcoholism and substance abuse.

The NHL needs to find another way to deal with this issue across the entire league, because money isn’t the only thing players and their families care about when they are suffering from mental illnesses. The league needs to take preventative measures for situations like these, and also make several changes to its Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Programs, to stop these issues from occurring, rather than attempting to deal with them after it is far too late.