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New NHL Alumni Association social worker focused on helping players’ wives, Healy says

Glenn Healy Glenn Healy - The Canadian Press

A licensed clinical social worker hired five months ago by the NHL Alumni Association to specifically help the spouses of former NHL players struggling with their mental and physical health is already working with more than two dozen clients, association president Glenn Healy told TSN in an interview.

The alumni association, which advocates on behalf of roughly 2,900 former NHL players, hired Shannon Paskaris in November, making her the third social worker on staff.  In 2019, the association announced it was starting a “resource team” and that retired players would be directed to Jerry Jormakka, a licensed social worker from the Hamilton Health Sciences hospital network.  Former NHL player Ben Scrivens is also working with the alumni association as a licensed social worker.

“At the [Hockey] Hall of Fame induction ceremony, three [hockey wives] came up to me and said they heard we had hired a social worker to work with wives specifically,” Healy said. “At that point, Shannon had been with us for hours, not days. The word has spread pretty quickly that help is available.”

Paskaris declined an interview request.

Healy said that Paskaris has already offered assistance to more than 25 hockey wives.

"When you have a player with dementia or Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, the full-time caregiver is most often the wife," Healy said. "Jerry can get things done and Ben can build up trust with a struggling player quickly because he's played. But that job that a wife accepts, caring for a sick husband, is a tough one and can be so stressful. Often, it's so bad that the wife can get sick. Shannon helps them manage and maybe she can offer a different, sympathetic ear for a hockey wife than Ben or Jerry can. Dealing with these women, I think it's a better fit.

“I know the value to a player and his family that the wife brings. She’s the CEO of the family. A player gets traded, she’s figuring out new schools in a new city. She’s the glue. And then after a player’s retirement, there are challenges with transition. There can be incredible stress. You go from being an NHL player, a Stanley Cup champion, signing autographs and in the limelight to just another guy at home. Players can feel a lack of purpose and fulfillment. A spouse can see their husband’s mental health issues long before he does.”

Healy said players’ spouses are typically the ones who first reach out to ask the NHL Alumni Association for help.

"At the same time as they are trying to get their husbands’ help, the burden on the wives and the mental stress can be enormous," he said.

The alumni association hired Paskaris after the wives of several former NHL players said they wished there was more help available for both active and retired players and their families. In November, a week before the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Diana Svatos spoke with TSN about her relationship with her late husband, Marek, and his posthumous diagnosis of CTE.

Marek Svatos, who played parts of eight NHL seasons and skated for Slovakia in the 2006 Olympics in Torino, had the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the time of his death in 2016. Diana said that posthumous diagnosis has helped her to understand why her husband would become easily agitated and forgetful.

“I’m saying this from a place of love, but the league can do more for players during and after their careers,” Svatos said. “When guys go to rehab, the league can follow up with them and with their wives to see how things are going. And they can still try to do a better job helping players be prepared for what happens after their hockey careers. These guys train their whole life to be a pro hockey player, then it’s over, and then they and their families start to have problems. Being honest about how big a problem this is would be a good first step by the NHL.”

Healy also said that a clinical trial to study the mental and physical health of 126 former NHL players is progressing and may be completed within the next year.

The association initially signed an agreement in 2019 with Canopy Growth Corp. in which the cannabis company agreed to cover the costs of a study to explore whether cannabinoids might help to wean former players off of addictive opioids. After that deal collapsed, the alumni association moved forward on a study with Neeka Health, a digital health technology company in Charlottetown.

Study subjects have filled out questionnaires about their physical and mental health, including whether they use opioids or other drugs and whether they self-medicate.

Player responses have already led to multiple interventions in which the alumni association has sought help for some players, Healy said, adding that the results of the study would likely be published in a medical journal when it is complete.