Two-time Stanley Cup champion Stephane Richer emphasized, on a couple of occasions, he’s not really a public speaker for large audiences, as he took to the podium as the keynote speaker for the Business Ability Banquet, Nov. 9, at St. F.X.’s MacKay Room.
His admission aside, Richer grabbed the packed room with his honest and frank talk about his mental health issues, which manifested themselves, most prominently, at a time the public envisioned him on top of the world, as a star forward with his home-province’s Montreal Canadiens.
“But I was thinking about killing myself,” he said, while gazing out to his listeners.
Richer talked about being picked on as a youngster, feeling sadness during those times and that, while sports helped him find his place in the world, depression tugged at him frequently and with a vice like grip.
He noted trying to relay that to Canadiens’ management at one point only to be told to, essentially, get a little more rest and tough it out.
Richer played with Montreal from 1984-91 and then returned to the organization from 1996-98. He also played with New Jersey, Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. He won Cups with the Canadiens in 1986 and the Devils in 1995, playing a prominent role in both playoff runs.
“When I went to see the management, they looked at me and said, ‘C’mon, what’s wrong? Get some rest, maybe you’re just tired. If you score a couple of goals tonight [you would feel better] … so get some rest and just be ready for the playoffs.’
“I said, ‘I really think it’s something else,’” Richer said, when asked by reporters about that part of his speech, following the event.
He said things have improved as far as awareness and support, but added it took the deaths of some well-known players, such as Bob Probert and Wade Belak, for the NHL to really start concerning themselves with its players’ mental health issues.
“I think, after that, the NHL realized some of the guys are really in trouble,” he said.
“And then you look at the Chris Nilan story, the Theo Fleury story, you can find a lot of blame for why they’re struggling but it’s really sad because, as I was saying tonight, in order to play at the top in our sport, you’re supposed to be a tough guy, be cool, and not complain … not really have any problems.
“But that’s not the case, there are a lot of guys struggling off-ice.”
Richer said he can, kind of, sense it when he sees a player, he believes should be enjoying a solid NHL career, either out of hockey after three or four years or bouncing up and down from the minors.
“It’s not because they’re a bad person, they have some issue,” he said. “They’re sick and don’t want to tell anybody. Also, if they have young kids, they don’t want to tell their kids and that’s why you see guys not play any more than five or six years in the NHL.”
Richer added the opportunity to earn a lucrative salary also contributes to players suffering in silence.
“The sad part is now we’re always talking about money, all of the time; it’s money, money, money,” he said.
He was asked about reactions from former teammates now that he regularly talks about his own mental health struggles for the benefit of others.
“I think most of the guys appreciate what I did, [are] happy for me with what I did,” he said.
“They knew, at the time, I was struggling; you can’t hide that. Some nights I was, probably, one of the best players on the ice and then the next day, I was struggling. It wasn’t because I was a party-guy; I’ve never been that guy. I played more than 1,000 games, that’s not bad for a guy who was struggling mentally, right?
“I wish I could have scored more goals to be [considered] for the Hall of Fame but I can’t go back … if I knew what I know now.”
And what he knows now he shares as often as he can.
“Now I travel and do [talks at] schools; one-class at a time,” he said. “I just try and teach them – if you don’t feel comfortable, don’t take care of yourself, whatever it is, you’re going to be in trouble.
“That’s my job and I hope, I wish, some of the guys [other NHLers who have dealt with mental health issues] would get more involved.”
This was the fourth Business Ability Banquet staged by the Antigonish Canadian Association for Community Living (CACL) and director Jeff Teasdale took the opportunity to thank all those who contributed to the banquet and CACL on a regular basis.
He talked about Richer spending the day at the CACL prior to the banquet.
“He has the gift,” he said of Richer’s ability to connect with the CACL’s workers.
“He can chat with anybody. You don’t see some of our folks who have a real barrier to community, as much, and I saw Stephane Richer light up a gal’s day … if we could teach that, there would be courses at this university. It takes a special person and that’s Stephane.”
The event also included a performance by the Park Bench Players and an update from Teasdale and Kuli Mulholtra on the CACL’s move to the former philatelic centre where they will be joined by Royal Canadian Legion Arras Branch 59.