Robin Lehner wasn’t just onstage at Wednesday’s NHL Awards to accept a trophy. He was there to speak out on mental illness, and the New York Islanders goalie sent a powerful message.
“I’m not ashamed to say I’m mentally ill, but that doesn’t mean mentally weak,” Lehner said.
The 27-year-old Swede offered brief but moving remarks while accepting the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for the NHL player who best exemplified qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. Other players nominated for the award at the league’s end-of-season celebration included Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks and Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Lehner revealed his battle with bipolar disorder, addiction and thoughts of suicide in a lengthy, first-person essay published by The Athletic in September. He wrote that after feeling “severely depressed” since the start of 2018 and self-medicating by “drinking a case of beer” and taking pills, he reached a turning point with a panic attack he suffered during a game in March of that year.
Lehner, then with the Buffalo Sabres, decided, “I have to go away.” He then entered an NHL-supported program at The Meadows, a trauma and addiction treatment center in Wickenburg, Ariz.
“The battle playing hockey was nothing compared to the battle inside my brain. It was at its worst,” he wrote, adding, “The thoughts of ending it all … it was real and close.”
With the help of specialists at the treatment center, who saw him though three weeks of detoxification — “I was told my detox was one of the worst that they had seen,” he wrote — and several more weeks of counseling and psychological examinations, Lehner returned to hockey, but only after he was “100 percent certain that I was going to make it.”
“I am an addict that was diagnosed as bipolar and ADHD with PTSD and trauma. I had never had a sober season of hockey my entire career. With those manic swings, I could see the pattern. When I was hypomanic and in a good mood, I was a solid goalie. The depressive state, not so much.
“But now there is a new reality. I can focus on my career.”
Having parted ways with the Sabres after the 2018-19 season, Lehner said he found it hard to latch on with a new team, having developed a troubling reputation and not yet ready to divulge his diagnoses. He eventually landed with the Islanders and rewarded them with a campaign in which he went 25-13-5 with a 2.13 goals against average and a .930 save percentage before helping the team to a first-round playoff sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Of being nominated for the Masterton trophy, Lehner said recently, “It’s a huge honor obviously, but it wouldn’t be possible without all the pieces around me, starting from my family and friends. But throughout this whole team, the relationship me and [goalie Thomas Greiss] has had all year, pushing each other, supporting each other, everyone from [General Manager] Lou [Lamoriello], down on up, the whole organization has been great.”
On Wednesday, he saluted his “fantastic wife,” Donya Lehner, who “got to stick this out with me.” He added, “You’re amazing,” as she wiped away tears.
Lehner also thanked Islanders Coach Barry Trotz, who the Jack Adams Award for best coach, and was hailed by the goalie “for thinking about the human first.”
“You know, I took that first step, got help and that was life-changing for me,” Lehner told the cheering audience at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. “That’s something we gotta keep pushing for, we gotta end the stigma.”
Those words echoed some he wrote for The Athletic. “My journey is still new. Every day is a battle and each day a new chance to grow as a man. It is time to take the ‘crazy person’ stamp from bipolar disorder.
“I am working hard to become the latest to battle this unfair stigma. Our battle together is just beginning.”
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