Hayley Wickenheiser says NHL needs new approach to mental health

Saskatchewan athlete Hayley Wickenheiser has written an opinion piece online about her friend, NHL player Steve Montador, who died at 35 years old. Wickenheiser wants more mental health supports in the league to prevent more deaths like Steve's.

Hockey icon fears more athletes like Steve Montador will die too soon unless changes are made

Canada's flagbearer Hayley Wickenheiser following the medals cermony at the Sochi Winter Olympics. (The Canadian Press)

Hayley Wickenheiser has done it all in hockey.

But when it comes to her friend Steve Montador, she wishes she could have done more.

Montador spent 12 seasons as a defenceman in the NHL. He died at the age of 35.

Wickenheiser believes its too simplistic to blame Montador's death on 12 documented concussions that damaged his mental and physical health.

There's not a lot of sympathy for guys in the NHL making millions of dollars.- Hayley Wickenheiser

Rather, she's convinced a much wider spectrum of factors eroded Montador's mental well-being. And similar pressures, according to Wickenheiser, are putting many other current and former NHL athletes at risk.

"There's not a lot of sympathy for guys in the NHL making millions of dollars. But what happened to Steve is a lot more common than people know," Wickenheiser told Stefani Langenegger, on CBC Radio's The Morning Edition.

"What's lacking is a place for elite athletes to speak, in confidence, about finances, relationships, the pressure to perform," Wickenheiser said.

The Olympic gold medalist said her experience on Canada's national hockey team, where close bonds are formed between athletes who play together for years, offered her insight into what the NHL and its players could be doing differently.

"A combination of formal and informal programs is required. Informally, it can be a team captain opening up dialogue, finding ways to get a teammate help," Wickenheiser said.

"Formally, programs like the Canadian Olympic Committee's Game Plan offers athletes an umbrella of services, to help them transition out of sport. They are matched with a mentor who customizes the services an athlete might require. It's something the NHL and other leagues could have a look at."

Game Plan is a national program delivered by the Canadian Sport Institute Network and supported financially by the Canadian Olympic Committee, Canadian Paralympic Committee, and Sport Canada.

Wickenheiser said she'll always wonder what more she could have done to help her friend. But, "by telling his story I can try to make sure his death was not in vain, and leave a legacy for others so that they might be able to get help." 

More of Wickenheiser's perspective on the root causes of Montador's death appears in an article she wrote for the website The Players' Tribune.


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