A Pretty Funny Interview: Clint Malarchuk

Talking to the former NHLer & current mental health advocate about sports, stigma, and his own personal Stanley Cup.

Toronto Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna made the news recently for missing games. His reason wasn’t a physical injury, but instead taking care of his mental health after struggling with anxiety. When CBC reported on Osuna’s missing games, they reached out to former NHLer Clint Malarchuk.

Malarchuk was a pro goaltender for 11 years, and was part of one of the worst on-ice injuries in history. In 1989, Steve Tuttle’s skate blade hit Clint’s throat, severing his carotid artery and causing massive blood loss. Clint believed he might die on the ice, yet he was back on the ice 12 days later for the Buffalo Sabres.

After that incident, Clint began experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This, mounting on top of other untreated mental health issues lead him further and further down. In 2008, he attempted to take his own life and survived the attempt.

Following this, Clint began to understand that he “was sick, not crazy.” Rehabilitation and the support of his wife Joanie helped Clint through this difficult time. He has since become a mental health advocate after writing his book The Crazy Game, detailing his struggles with mental health as an athlete and the story of his life.

Early in June, Clint was awarded an honorary doctorate by Nipissing University, my alma matter. Watching him speak that day about mental health, support, and stigma made for a very powerful message for those graduates. I decided to reach out to the new Dr. Malarchuk by phone while he was in Lake Tahoe, Nevada to discuss his new degree, the “tough guy” mentality in sports, and advice for parents of young athletes.

Evan: I went to Nipissing and was watching the graduation when I saw you receive the honorary doctorate, which is wonderful. How was that whole experience for you?

Clint: That was the… that was probably the Stanley Cup of my life. I was talking to a former goalie, NHL goalie Corey Hirsch, who has also struggled with some issues similar to mine. Obviously when you’re in the NHL playing, you want to win the Stanley Cup. You know that would be the greatest day of your life. I think everything that myself and Corey have probably gone through, to get an honorary doctorate like that would be the Stanley Cup. It was for me for sure.

E: That is fantastic. So, Dr. Malarchuk, I’ve seen in other interviews you’ve said you grew up with OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). How did that affect you growing up and in hockey?

C: Well, I would say it got me to the NHL, with the work ethic. Thankfully I funnelled that OCD into something kind of good, which was the work ethic to be the best hockey player that I could be. Being not the most skilled guy, I think I was able to make it on just hard work, getting in great shape, overcoming obstacles, just push, push, push.

It was later on in my life that the OCD kind of took a negative affect on me.

E: And that would have been after March 22nd, 1989 (the date of the on-ice injury).

C: Absolutely. Yep, absolutely.

E: How did your everyday life change after that?

C: After that I went into panic attacks, deep depression, and the OCD became almost unbearable where it was hard for me to leave the house. I tried to go to an NHL hockey practice, and it was hard for me to get out of the house. I’d have to set my alarm three hours earlier than what I would normally set it. It just disrupted my life in a big way.

E: Which then led to the eventual suicide attempt later on in life, right?

C: Well, yep because I was undiagnosed with anything. I shouldn’t say that, they diagnosed me with depression and OCD and that, but they didn’t diagnose me with PTSD. That’s what led to the suicide attempt 20 years later.

E: Would you say that some of the reasons that you went undiagnosed for so long is the culture of “the tough guy” in hockey and athletes being the alpha males?

C: I don’t know if it would be, because I just think we’ve come a long way medically and clinically. I was so open to being diagnosed, but not the PTSD because I was a tough guy. So yes and no to what your question was.

E: And now, you work as a mental health advocate and a speaker. Was that ever a topic that was brought up while you were a player?

C: Oh God no. *laughs* Not a chance. It was all hush hush. That’s why it’s important for people like me, former players that have struggled. And after I wrote my book I received many emails from current players, which was really kind of cool for me because they don’t suffer to my degree but they do suffer and relate to a lot of things I said in my book. It’s kind of cool because they say “hey thank you, I thought I was the only one.” It’s not necessarily that they’re mentally ill, but do struggle emotionally. Emotional sickness is part of our society too.

E: That’s true. That was actually one of the questions I had: what was the reaction to your book from other athletes, whether they were current athletes or ones you played with?

IMG_0016C: I have not had anything but “thank you” and “I thought I was alone” and thank you and thank you and thank you. It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, writing that book. When you get that kind of feedback, you’re very, very grateful. Which I am

E: How would you say your life has changed now, working as a mental health advocate?

C: Oh man, you know being a former player and then NHL coach, you think leaving that big arena, that big stage, that anything else is going to be less than. It has been more than. It has been the most gratifying journey that I’ve ever experienced in my life. Meeting people, helping people and sharing with people, it’s been unbelievable.

E: You’re proof that there’s life after hockey.

C: Well a lot of players have proven that in a lot of arenas or areas. Some become lawyers or whatever, but for me and my journey, absolutely. I’m not the most skilled guy in any other area, although I’m a doctor now *laughs* There is definitely life after hockey.

E: Do you have any advice to hockey parents about what their athletes might be experiencing?

C: A lot of pressure, for sure. If you’re a parent, you know what, back off the kids. Let them have fun because they know the pressure. If they’ve got the talent and skill, they will be seen by a scout or somebody. So you don’t have to push them that hard, they know it. The kids already know if they have it inside. We need as parents, I think, to just kind of back off. Let the coaches coach, let the kids work and work hard. Mentor them with good experience, and saying good things like “work hard” and “outwork the other guy.” You don’t have to be pressure, pressure, pressure.

E: What are the next projects for the “Cowboy Goalie?”

C: I’ve got a few irons in the fire. Trying to do more with the PTSD side of first responders and military. Trying to put together some things there and the other stuff is just in the deep underbrush right now. I’m just trying to get a few contacts, I want to do some stuff with people with addiction and stuff like that. I’ve got a guy who is going to come spend a couple days with me, and he runs actual facilities. We’ll see what happens.

Afterwards, Dr. Malarchuk was more than happy to talk to me about the Stanley Cup finals that had just wrapped up. He still keeps up with the game he grew up loving and playing.

Dr. Malarchuk continues spreading important messages about mental health and stigma through speaking engagements. You can follow along with all of his work at Malarchuk.com, or on Twitter at @CMalarchuk. Though he may need to change it soon to say doctor as well.

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