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NHLPA announces First Line program to support players' mental health

Marty Walsh Marty Walsh - The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Former NHL defenceman Jay Harrison sees an advantage in using his experiences to help current players lower their guard about mental health.

The National Hockey League Players' Association announced a new program, First Line, meant to support the mental health of NHL players. The announcement was made at the Hockey Hall of Fame Wednesday in partnership with Opening Minds, a division of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

"One of the greatest tools that I have is that I'm a former player and can share lived experiences," said Harrison, who serves as the NHLPA's wellness, transition and performance specialist. "Often times, maybe players don't live with mental illness but certainly there are many players out there who are functioning at a very high level professionally, who aren't necessarily living well or thriving."

Harrison said the first step is talking and sharing that vulnerability.

"Often throughout my career, I didn't live my best life through the game," he said.

"There were many mental health challenges and struggles that, having resources, being more open and perhaps creating a greater perspective around my experience may have enhanced my quality of life in that time."

The improvement of player wellness was the goal for NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh.

"This program is another way for the NHLPA to continue to focus on our efforts on enhancing the overall wellness of our players on and off the ice," he said. "As a recovering alcoholic, I certainly know first hand of having tools and resources available that can be used are really important for us.

"The way you live your life and understanding that you might have a challenge, … but when you get the help that you need, it changes your dynamic, it changes your family dynamic, it changes the trajectory around you. And that's exactly what we're doing here for our NHL players."

The Mental Health Commission of Canada's vice president of social enterprise Shane Silver, Ontario Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport Neil Lumsden, and Milton MP Adam van Koeverden were also on the panel with Harrison and Walsh.

Part of the announcement included a video of Calgary Flames captain Mikael Backlund and New York Rangers forward Blake Wheeler touching on the importance of the program.

Silver said First Line is based on "The Working Mind" evidence-based learning program with the aim of increasing resiliency skills, mental well-being and decreasing stigma around mental health.

The move comes after the NHLPA created UNLMT, a support program put in place to help NHL players adapt to life after their playing careers, back in June 2023.

Harrison and Walsh both said the uptake to the program has been good, with Harrison adding that 20 players across five teams are currently in the program, including Wheeler and Backlund.

And while the NHLPA works toward seeing if more players will join, with Harrison mentioning the association being in touch with players' agents, there is no goal for number of participating players.

But another topic was the potential impact First Line could have on junior levels in hockey across Canada and the hockey community as a whole.

"Certainly we see this as a catalyst moment and focusing on getting it right for our membership," Harrison said. "But one of our missions as well, … is to give our players an opportunity to use their platform.

"This is a very important topic to a lot of our players, this may enhance their ability to contribute to their communities, their skillset and make an impact."

Harrison also pointed to the sharing of "best practices," with Walsh adding that Professional Women's Hockey League Players' Association executive director Brian Burke, who was at the press conference, had expressed interest in implementing a similar program in the PWHL.

Van Koeverden used former Olympic speedskater and cyclist Clara Hughes as an example and how her vulnerability relating to mental health impacted many in and out of sports.

"Athletes of every denomination now consider themselves a Clara Hughes fan because she was so open and vulnerable and took a stand and said, 'you know what, your mental health is a priority,'" said van Koeverden, who was a four-time Olympic medallist in kayaking.

Lumsden referred to the program as a starting point, saying "we have to start somewhere."

"I compare it a little bit to what we've done on the concussion safety side with Rowan's law," he said. "I think that people, like myself, who've coached a bunch, … have to be aware.

"Coaching is more than just, in hockey, throwing young guys or young girls out on the line or line changes, or 'here we go' in practices. … It's what you're noticing with the people that you're coaching so you can be more aware of the environment and their environment and start to see things and then when that happens, then it can be identified."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2024.