Robin Lehner believed he deserved a long-term deal -- but the Islanders thought otherwise. Now, their loss is the Blackhawks' gain.
Chicago Tribune - 7/26/2019
Jul. 26--Robin Lehner began writing and talking about his mental health and addiction issues last September.
He hasn't stopped since.
It's a brave choice the new Blackhawks goaltender made with eyes open wide. There remains a social stigma attached to mental illness, and NHL teams aren't rushing to hand out long-term contracts to drug addicts when they have other options. The risk to Lehner's future, he knew, was vast.
But the choice to continue talking about the issues affecting him is not entirely his own. Even after being one of the NHL's top goalies with the Islanders last season, when he was named a Vezina Trophy finalist, Lehner's struggles and why he went public with them is often the first thing he's asked about.
That strikes him as contradictory because of this uncomfortable truth: His voice is only as powerful as his statistics.
"We wouldn't be having this conversation if I was godawful last year," Lehner said.
If you follow hockey, chances are you have heard about Lehner's journey from being on the verge of suicide to becoming a leading advocate for transparency about mental health and addiction issues.
You know this because Lehner, who signed with the Hawks earlier this month as a free agent, decided to use the loudspeaker he's afforded as a top athlete to help those suffering in silence.
Lehner isn't silent anymore, and he's no longer suffering as he was in March 2018, when after years of drinking, drug abuse and battling demons, he finally sought and received help.
The last year has been transformative for him. Lehner entered the NHL's treatment program, spending nearly two months in rehab and coming to terms with a new reality about who he is. As Lehner wrote in a piece for The Athletic last September, a few months after leaving rehab: "I am an addict that was diagnosed as bipolar and ADHD with PTSD and trauma."
That powerful article was just one part of Lehner's openness, which has led to widespread acclaim and resulted in a remarkable moment at last month's NHL awards ceremony in Las Vegas. His acceptance speech for the Masterton Trophy -- given to the player who best exemplifies "the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey" -- sought to remove the stigma about mental health issues.
"I'm not ashamed to say I'm mentally ill," Lehner told a national TV audience. "But that doesn't mean mentally weak."
Less than two weeks later, the Islanders gave Semyon Varlamov, an older goalie coming off a less successful season, a four-year contract. They would be moving on without Lehner.
When Lehner signed with the Islanders as a free agent last July, he had not yet gone public with his issues and not yet proved he could still be an effective goaltender. After his article was published, the Islanders supported him completely and without hesitation.
It's extremely important to Lehner that there isn't confusion about his appreciation for people within the Islanders organization over the past year.
"They were just good human beings," Lehner said. "That's what I described them as. They didn't do anything special except be good human beings. They are quality people and they care. They care about the person, not only the player, which I commend them for tremendously."
Nevertheless, the Islanders decided not to offer Lehner, who turned 28 on July 24, more than a two-year deal. Instead, they gave free agent Varlamov, 31, a four-year, $20 million contract.
Varlamov hasn't been a Vezina finalist since 2013-14. His save percentage last season with the Avalanche was .909, well below Lehner's .930 mark.
"I would lie if I said I wanted to go somewhere (else rather than) stay in Long Island on a long-term deal," Lehner said. "The season ended, I felt like I was going to be prioritized. I saw two of my teammates sign long-term contracts within the next couple of weeks. I knew a long-term contract was negotiated for our captain (Anders Lee), and obviously it was disappointing. But it's also a reality of we're not there yet, and I have nothing against them. It just is how it is. There's no hard feelings.
"But when (Hawks general manager Stan Bowman) called, it instantly turned, like it was a flip of a switch to me, where it was like, 'OK, this is going to be a nice place to just go and have a good year.' Just focus on this year. I know there's an opportunity if I perform that I probably can stay, but that's not my mindset this year. My mindset is to come in and play as good hockey as I can and contribute to this team for this year and see what happens."
When Lehner first began talking to the Hawks, Bowman barely mentioned the addiction and mental health issues. He talked hockey and what he felt Lehner could bring to the team by creating a powerful 1-2 tandem in goal with Corey Crawford.
Other teams offered similar deals to the one the Hawks offered, Lehner said, but this was an easy choice for him. On the first day of free agency, hours after the Islanders announced Varlamov as their new goalie, the Hawks announced they had signed Lehner to a one-year deal worth $5 million.
Lehner's support system is firmly in place, but it's comforting to him to know the Hawks have long been proactive in providing support for their players.
"They have a bunch of mental coaches," Lehner said. "They have a therapist who works for the team. That's the first team I came to that has that. Whether I'm going to use it or not, I don't know, but they seem to emphasize the mental health and mental skills aspect more here than a lot of other teams that I've been on. That's a positive, but that's more after the fact. I just like what Stan told me and I really like this city."
When Lehner first needed help, he entered a program supported by the NHL and NHL Players' Association that's available to every player. The Hawks have their own resources available, including two mental skills coaches -- who are also therapists -- who always travel with the team, according to team physician Dr. Michael Terry.
"We have access to and have had an addiction specialist speak to the team in the past," Terry said. "That's been a great resource for some of the guys. Then from a medical standpoint, our primary internal medicine docs are excellent at kind of low-level things from a mental health standpoint, the less complicated things. But they also are good at referring people for more in-depth therapy through some of the positions that we have at Northwestern (Memorial Hospital)
"From a league standpoint, most of those efforts are duplicated. They have a program set up which is very comprehensive for the athletes with mental health or addiction needs. That allows (them) to see somebody outside of the organization. I think sometimes players may feel like they've got a stigma if they go through the team, and of course that's not the case. But they may be more comfortable going through the league, where all of that information is kept very private to protect the player's confidentiality."
To understand the kind of player the Hawks signed, it's important to look back before Lehner's life changed with the decision to go public. He let people close to him know he was planning to publish an article about his issues. Every one told him not to do it.
"The (NHL) program, agents, my lawyer, close friends ... everyone didn't want me to publish it," he said. "The NHL didn't even want to put it on their website. I had to go through The Athletic. I was pretty much the driving force of it. Everyone who said no was being cautious and was just trying to be nice to me because they knew how big of an effect it can have.
"It's a big risk. I had just come out of rehab ... and I knew it was going to have people looking at me differently. I know business-wise it's going to affect me, and I said this from day one, it's going to play a role in my (contract) negotiations going forward. Obviously, less and less as the years go by of me being in a good place."
Lehner deeply appreciates all the people who have reached out to him via email or social media. The number is so vast, he can't reply to everyone wishing him well or telling him of their own issues. But he reads everything he can.
"Helping others helps myself because me talking about the right things and trying to show a path also helps me stay on that path," he said. "It's a little bit about hypocrisy too. I can speak about this as much as I want, but if I don't do it, it will make me feel pretty bad about myself too. It helps me stay in a true lane.
"Service is a big part of my rehabilitation. It makes me feel good and helps with a lot of the things that I'm dealing with. ... I don't try to do too much, too little. I do what I can."
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