Former hockey players speak on struggles with mental health, addiction

  • Community   Wednesday, November 30, 2022   Spencer Seymour

By Spencer Seymour
It's okay to not be okay.
That was the message that former hockey players Brady Leavold and D. Jay McGrath were sharing earlier this month in a seminar held at River Valley Golf & Country Club.
McGrath and Leavold both shared their stories of falling into addiction and the mental health struggles they've battled in their lives. Although they don't share the exact same experiences, there were parallels between both McGrath's and Leavold's journeys.
"I had a whole bunch of people telling me all the time 'D. Jay, you're going places', and the pressure started coming to me," McGrath said, who said he started drinking when he got to the Midget level as he felt more and more weight of expectations on his shoulders. "I was still a top scorer on my team but I started getting drunk in my car at night. I hid absolutely everything and that's when I started to know I had a problem but I didn't know how to tell anyone."
McGrath was drafted in the third round of the 2007 Western Hockey League (WHL) Bantam Draft by the Everett Silvertips. When McGrath went to Everett, his anxiety only got worse and his drinking increased. McGrath eventually suffered a torn ACL, MCL, and meniscus, which was initially misdiagnosed as a deep bruise. This led to McGrath entering a deep depression in addition to severe anxiety and from here, an addiction to pain medication was born. The addiction grew to include cocaine when McGrath went to college in Red Deer.
Thankfully, McGrath is just over five months sober now and is hoping to travel around Western Canada and help younger hockey players today avoid falling down a similar path.
After McGrath told his story, Leavold then had the opportunity to share his story. At a young age, Leavold was sexually assaulted which obviously played a big factor in Leavold experiencing issues with mental illness. As he said, he threw himself into hockey as the sport made him feel good and helped mask the pain of his trauma. As Leavold got older, both in the dressing rooms and on the schoolyard, he started hearing homophobic language which made him even less comfortable sharing the assault he suffered.
He went on to play in the WHL for the Swift Current Broncos and recalled seeing a photo on the wall of former Head Coach Graham James sitting next to Sheldon Kennedy, one of the multiple players James sexually assaulted while coaching the Broncos. The photo put Leavold in a bad headspace and said that team's on-ice leaders weren't making him feel comfortable. After one game, he decided he didn't want to play for Swift Current anymore and spent the year playing Junior 'B' instead. He returned to Swift Current the following year but didn't know how to tell anyone that he didn't want to go. The struggles led to excessive drinking and, eventually, something that Leavold never thought he would ever fall victim to – drug abuse.
"If you asked anyone from my high school, I was the last person they would say would end up addicted to drugs," Leavold said when talking about using drugs for the first time at the fourth day of a music festival. That was the beginning of years of substance abuse that caused Leavold two stints in jail and a full year of being homeless.
It was almost exactly three years since Leavold walked out of jail for the last time and since then, has begun to try to work through the trauma he's experienced and is slowly starting to address the mental health challenges he's faced. Leavold also started Puck Support, a charity to help hockey players struggling with mental illness and addiction.
"I don't lead the perfect recovery," Leavold said. "I still live with immense pain but there are better ways to deal with it."
McGrath and Leavold both talked to the Independent about what they hope the Lincolns' players in attendance and the rest of the attendees took away from the seminar and both hoped it made the players feel more comfortable about talking if they're struggling.
"I want the Lincolns' players to have an understanding that this can happen to anybody, whether that's themselves or someone they care about," Leavold said. "Dealing with mental health or substance abuse is part of life. I have yet to meet anyone who can honestly say they have never met anyone with either mental health or addiction, if not both. I hope they also feel encouraged to ask for help if they need it and know that they're not alone."
"I felt really alone. I felt like I was the only hockey player going through this. But that is not the case whatsoever. I hope that by sharing my experiences, they might avoid making those same choices."
"There's players, coaches, and billets out there going through the same thing," added McGrath. "That's why I want to share my story. When I kept everything inside for the past 10 years, that's the worst thing I could have done."
Among the attendees were many players from the St. Marys Lincolns, including forward Eric Smith, who spoke alongside his father about the memory of Eric's brother Nicholas Smith, who tragically took his own life in 2019. Following Nicholas' passing, the Smith family created the Nicholas Smith Memorial Foundation which aims to help break the stigma surrounding mental illness and encourage people to speak out when they're struggling with their mental health.
"I hope this seminar helped guys remember to be aware of what's going on around them and always be looking out for the people around them," said Smith.
Elaine Stirk, a mental health professional who helped organize the seminar, said that the stigma is starting to break down but events like this are necessary to continue making hockey players comfortable with talking when they're struggling.
"People are more willing to talk than they were even a few years ago because we're trying to eliminate the stigma and we're getting rid of the old mindset of 'you hold on to it'. There are too many guys drinking and overdosing and they're the ones that are strong and taking it all in."
"I hope the players here realized that they're not alone. That they can ask for help. That they can speak and know they won't be judged. I don't want any more deaths or overdoses. If we can save one life, we're happy."