For Rob De Clark and his players, mid-season is one of the most challenging times—both on and off the ice.
“January, February, the dog days. That’s when they’re in my office. They miss home, it’s winter, we’re on the road again and their bodies are worn down. That’s when people really start coming in.”
De Clark is the assistant coach of the BCHL’s Cowichan Valley Capitals. While his knowledge of the game is undeniably solid, his professional training outside of the game allows him to offer a unique skill set to his players. De Clark has completed his Master’s degree from Carleton University in Ottawa and is a registered certified mental performance coach. He also the Director of Inpatient Treatment for Cedars at Cobble Hill, specializing in addiction and outreach work. This means when one of his players is fighting the puck, he’s got a keen eye to see whether it’s related to something more than just bad luck on the ice.
“In every season I’ve been doing this, and this is my fifth season where I’ve been a mental performance coach, 85 to 90 per cent of the guys have come into my office to talk at some point in the year.”
A few seasons back Bob Nicholson’s son Grant played with the Capitals. Nicholson noticed De Clark’s desire to delve deeper into what makes his players tick, and invited him out to Calgary while the current Edmonton Oilers executive was still with Hockey Canada. De Clark met with Nicholson and Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHL’er who has become an advocate for mental health issues after a former junior coach abused him, and the three started a brainstorming session. The end result was a program now set to launch across the BCHL this season, which looks to get out in front of the issue of mental health in sport.
The program provides each team with a mental health professional, meaning players have access to professional counselling services at their disposal for any reason they see fit. De Clark said the idea is to equip the future stars of the game with life skills that they can take outside of the rink as well.
“Hockey is reactive historically, meaning we wait to do things. We’re reactive with concussions, we’re reactive with drug and alcohol and mental health issues. We rarely get into a proactive position and what I’m trying to advocate for, at the junior hockey league level, is this is when you need to put this type of a program together for anyone playing. Because it’s the age where they’re old enough to understand this stuff. They start to feel the pressure, their stress goes up and this is where we need to be proactive in getting people’s support.”
De Clark said the program isn’t geared to bombard the players with questions about their well-being, or force them to open up. It’s simply a means to give them someone to talk to outside of their normal circles. While coaches might be able to help with their game on the ice, and friends are great for downtime and allowing a break from the game, many are living away from home and without serious emotional support for the first time in their lives.
“You’re planting seeds,” added De Clark. “You’re giving them that option so maybe a year or two down the road when they might really need it, they know it’s there and how to reach out for it. They can start talking and at least they know there’s a place to go.”
The high performance lifestyle of athletes is heavily demanding. Every game is a battle, buckets of adrenaline, high intensity, and then all of a sudden it’s over and the excitement quickly wears off. This often means that drugs and alcohol can be quick fix remedies to medicate what is sometimes a chaotic existence.
“They can use drugs to come down off the adrenaline. Hockey players sometimes use Ambien to go to sleep because you’ve got sixteen hours between games and you’re on an airplane for seven of those. And you need to go to sleep and you’re wired from the game from the adrenaline, then you might even need an Amphetamine to get up.”
Recently, some high profile suicides and overdoses of NHL players, such as Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Steve Montador, have pushed the issue of mental health and addictions in hockey out from hiding. De Clark said their tragic passing has not been for nothing, as it’s helped create a culture of openness, where tough guy athletes who get paid to hit and fight for a paycheque can also feel safe to express their feelings.
“I think there has been a watershed moment. I think there’s an appetite there right now that hasn’t been there before. Unfortunately it’s been reactive and we need to get a bit more pro-active by focusing the aim at younger athletes.”