Can Hockey Culture Ever Accept Mental Health Injuries?

If pain tolerance is such an integral part of hockey culture, how will fans respond when an invisible injury forces a player to miss time?

Blood drizzled out of the side of Joe Pavelski’s head like a leaky faucet. The San Jose Sharks captain had been hit by an unfortunate combination of poorly placed force and an inopportune reaction to gravity. As he crashed to the ice and lay motionless, a newly iconic hockey injury photo was born. Pavelski suffered a concussion, required eight staples to the head, and missed only six games before returning to help push the Sharks past the Colorado Avalanche.

A few short weeks later, Boston Bruins mainstay Zdeno Chara had his jaw pureed by an errant Brayden Schenn shot. USA Today headlines celebrated his heroics, boasting that Chara was playing with new installed plates, wires and screws, and was outfitted in headgear that made him look like a mix of Bane and Lisa Simpson in braces. The Bruins captain would return without missing a single game. After all, this was for the Cup.

Meanwhile, Kevin Durant, the internet’s favourite punching bag, was getting lambasted by the media and within hockey circles for not playing through the pain after suffering a calf injury. The Chara comparisons were fast and unrelenting, and the implication was clear. Chara was tough, a gladiator, conceived and birthed in fire. He reminded fans of the days when men were men, trench warfare was a quaint right-of-passage, and we didn’t complain about what ailed us. Durant was not. He was the result of a coddling, entitled Millennial culture, at first refusing to play through the pain. This is the trump card hockey fans will seemingly play into perpetuity: the NHL is better than the NBA because only hockey players are resilient enough to play through punctured lungs, a rack of cracked ribs, and broken extremities.

Durant would eventually return, tear his ACL, throw his future and that of the league into doubt, and open up conversations about how medical staff interacts with teams and players. But that’s not important to the toughness narrative.

- Advertisement - 

Teeth being pulled on benches. Two-minute viral clips of finishing shifts with broken legs. Guys returning to the bench with stitched-up gashes. Pain tolerance and visible displays of toughness are inextricable parts of hockey culture. Memes resurface daily of players in hockey, and only hockey, surviving through injuries that would fell a mortal athlete. Which brings us to the point of all of this.

If pain tolerance is such a celebrated and integral part of hockey’s identity (at the very least, for a vocal minority), and visible injuries are the mecca of that, how can the sport’s culture address a mostly invisible injury like depression and other mental health maladies?

The answer is, it won’t be easy.

Even as the NHL has made baby steps with programs like Hockey Is For Everyone, the culture around the game is still more than a few strides behind more progressive leagues like the NBA. Speaking openly about personal mental health is usually reserved for players who are well out of the league, like Dan Carcillo, Corey Hirsh, Brent Sopel, and Clint Malarchuk.

Current players speak about the importance of mental health, but they do so at arm’s length and usually preface it with mentions of personal stability. The very rare exception is recently-minted Masterton Trophy Winner Robin Lehner, who detailed his battle with bipolar disorder and substance abuse in a moving piece in The Athletic. But even in Lehner’s case, it came well after he had played his last game with Buffalo and was on the road to recovery. Games weren’t necessarily on the line.

At some point, that’ll be different.

In the heat of a Cup run, or the final stretch of a playoff push, a visible and integral player will be suffering from an invisible ailment. Maybe they’ll make it public, maybe they won’t. But it will cause them to miss time, to step away and recover. It’s happened in the NFL already, with Vikings All-Pro linebacker Everson Griffen taking time off to deal with his mental health. It happened when Kevin Love was hit with a panic attack midgame during an especially tumultuous time for the Cavs. It’ll happen in hockey, too.

When it does, it’ll be up to the fans, the NHL, and the players around the game to reverse what’s become a key part of hockey internet culture: injury glorification. For the player to recover, to feel safe taking the time they need, they’ll need to truly believe that being a hockey player isn’t about suffering in silence and sucking it up. They’ll need to believe that toughness is the recognition of pain and the declaration that they’re unable to play, and that doing so isn’t letting the team and the fans down.

Toughness of that kind might not get its own meme, but it’ll certainly deserve one.

Dan Szczepanek
Dan Szczepanek
Dan Szczepanek is the founder and Editor in Chief of Grandstand Central, an outlet he helped launch in 2017 to look at the intersectionality of sports and world around it. He's a recovering ad-man, and former politics wonk.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


The Latest

NFL Vernon Davis acting career after football.

Vernon Davis on Football, Acting, and Life Beyond the Gridiron

Vernon Davis is no longer just a retired NFL tight end. Now he’s an actor, a producer, an entrepreneur, and more. Davis tells all in a sprawling interview.
cupping therapy

What is “cupping therapy” and does it actually work?

Cupping therapy came into the public eye when Olympian Michael Phelps was seen with circular bruise-type marks on his scapula (shoulder blade), neck, and shoulder. 

U.S. Women’s Soccer Wouldn’t Be Where it is Today without Jill Ellis

Jill Ellis has the most successful coaching career in all soccer history and after two consecutive World Cups, she's saying goodbye.
wendy hilliard gymnastics

Wendy Hilliard On Making Gymnastics Accessible

Plus, the meaning of life after sports.

The Rise of Major League Eating, America’s New Favorite Pastime

Major League Eating made competitive eating a successful, nation-wide sport and it all trails back to a hot dog eating contest from way back when.
Art Shamsky Amazin' Mets

Art Shamsky on Aging and the Amazin’ Mets

Plus, his thoughts on the Hall and missing out on the Big Red Machine.

get the latest stories about the intersection of sports with the mind and mental health.