Mental health equally important: Raiders

Raiders captain Curtis Miske (18) says talking about depression and mental health concerns is important for players in the WHL. -- Daily Herald File Photo

P.A. hockey club to host mental health awareness events at Friday night WHL game

As the Prince Albert Raiders continue their 2017-18 Western Hockey League season with a push for the playoffs, the team also wants to emphasize the importance of mental health, whether that’s for players or spectators.

On Friday night when the hockey club takes on the visiting Brandon Wheat Kings, the Raiders organization will host events during the game to create more knowledge about taking care of one’s mental health.

Earlier in the week, Raiders captain Curtis Miske and alternate captain Parker Kelly spoke with the Daily Herald about their experiences of how the league works with players to teach them about taking care of their mental health.

“I think there are a lot of really good resources. Our chaplains are always there; they’re important people to talk to. Our security liaisons are guys we can come to with all at that kind of stuff,” Miske said.

“It’s a tough league. There are all types of ups and downs and highs and valleys. So it’s important to have those resources.”

The 21-year-old is from Beaumont, Alta., just south of Edmonton. He played his first two and a half WHL seasons in Spokane, Wash., about 960 kilometres away from his hometown. He first started playing for the American-based team when he was 17 years old.

Moving away from home, or to a new team and city when one is cut or traded, can add new stresses for a player, he said.

“Moving away at 16 or 17 years old that’s pretty tough. You don’t know much, but that’s what those resources are there for.

“It’s a pretty cool experience (to play for a WHL team), but it’s definitely a bit of a shock. You’re in a whole new world … obviously you’re in a family, but you know it can be scary at times for sure. Definitely it’s important to always talk it out.”

Getting cut from a team is always hard, too, especially for the first time.

“I got cut form this league at 16, too. And it’s kind of heart-breaking to go to a lower level where you think you could be, but it’s a mental thing you’ve got to get over and come back stronger the next year.”

Kelly spoke highly of the supportive environment that the Raiders players have developed together.

“I think our leadership group does a pretty good job of that. I mean we’re kind of the grandfathers of the team, you could say. (Players) can come to us for anything, and that’s how we try to make it feel around the room … we’re not gonna judge or anything like that. We just try to pride ourselves on being a good resource for our teammates.”

Kelly was part of a group of Raiders players early in the season last year that participated in a suicide prevention training program hosted by the team. The team also hosts a yearly training session with Red Cross that covers depression and mental health topics, which he and Miske both were a part of.

“There’s quite a bit of depression that can go along with playing hockey; there are a lot of ups and downs,” Kelly said. “I think knowing that you’re allowed to talk about it is getting more and more common with people.”

Raiders alternate captain Parker Kelly (27) says that support and learning is a two-way process of respect and communication between older and younger players. — Daily Herald File Photo

He pointed to players’ billets and the team’s support resources as possible avenues to seek out support.

“There’s no shortage of doors you can open to go look for help, and I really encourage more people to do it.”

Kelly also acknowledged the recent history of former NHL hockey players who have died after their struggles with mental health. He did not name any hockey players who have struggled with mental health issues, but the subject has hit close to home in the WHL’s East Division, where the Raiders play.

Former Regina Pats captain Rick Rypien died in August 2011, reportedly by suicide, at just 27 years old. After his death, news reports began detailing Rypien’s struggles with depression and mental health. The Alberta native spent the duration of his three-year WHL career with the Pats. He eventually made his way to the NHL, where he played for the Vancouver Canucks.

“I think hockey players definitely carry a stereotype of big tough guys that don’t have much feeling,” Kelly said. “But you look at some of the NHLers who have died from mental health, and (now) they’re trying to prevent that as much as possible.”

He also described the culture of hockey now as very different when compared to the culture of the sport during the 1980s and 90s, when hazing and verbal abuse were much more prevalent.

“There’s not much hazing going on in the room. It’s kind of just encouraging now, and then there’s not much verbal abuse as well … times have changed and it’s for the better.

“And us being hockey players, we’re definitely a bit softer than what we look like,” he said.

Kelly is in his third season with the Raiders and third in the league.

He said he hopes that prospects and draftees who enter the league in the coming years feel they’re entering a supportive environment.

“Coming (to the WHL) in my 16-year-old year, it was tough. You’re intimidated. But I mean we’re gonna do our best we can to get those new guys feeling comfortable and part of the team.

“And I think it’s just kind of a respect factor too: If you treat people right, then it should go both ways and that’s what we really pride ourselves on here … there’s no hazing or anything. We try to keep it away from rookies and veterans.

“It’s old guys, young guys. So younger guys follow the older guys’ lead, and it’s a good two-way street,” he said.

Part of the Raiders’ plan at the game is a partnership between the team and the P.A. branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Together, the two organizations are implementing the Talk Today Program.

The goal of the program is to provide mental health support to players and raise awareness about mental health and suicide prevention throughout communities across the WHL and the rest of the Canadian Hockey League.

Each WHL team is also linked to a CMHA mental health coach, who provides support and mental health resources to those in need.

At Friday’s game at the Art Hauser Centre, spectators and fans will find: A CMHA-run kiosk so people can learn more about mental health, videos featuring Raiders players talking about the importance of mental health, public address announcements about mental health and a raffle for a team autographed quilt with the proceeds being donated to the CMHA Prince Albert branch.

Game time is 7 p.m.