Calgary Flames winger Zac Rinaldo isn’t a big fan of the term issues when it comes to mental health.

Rinaldo has experienced what he prefers to call mental health “challenges,” as have members of his family. He feels that using words such as issues or sickness may reinforce negative attitudes, perspectives and stereotypes about what people are experiencing.

“I just think there needs to be a new way to word what you have,” he said in a recent interview with TSN.

“I’ve been in professional hockey for 10 years, and every single year I go through mental challenges that I have to overcome. But if I say it’s something worse than a challenge, then mentally, you’re already a step behind. So if you have a positive mindset about something that’s negative, you’re beating it already.”

At 30 years old, Rinaldo is in his second year with the Flames organization. Last season the Mississauga, Ont., native tallied five points and 34 penalty minutes in 19 games for Calgary, while also spending time in the American Hockey League.

Away from the rink, he’s passionate about mental health and reducing stigmas.

Rinaldo is a spokesperson for the Hockey Talks campaign, which promotes more awareness of mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety. Hockey Talks was started in 2013 by the Vancouver Canucks, following the death of Rick Rypien. As part of the campaign, each Canadian NHL team hosts a game that encourages discussion on mental health through public service announcements and signage around the arenas. 

In the coming months, Rinaldo will speak remotely with youth in Alberta about the importance of mental health at every stage of life.

“I live with mental health challenges, I’ve dealt with them firsthand,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve conquered my mental health challenges, but I’ve learned how to deal with them in different ways.”

The veteran of 370 NHL games has also tried to become a sounding board for teammates, offering them encouragement and positivity when they reach out. Sometimes, players will confide in him their anxieties about playing or contract situations. Rinaldo will listen and give feedback.

“I pump them with positivity,” he said. “I think if you shed positive light on every single scenario, then there will be brighter days.”

Those open conversations about fears and challenges are what former Flame Brian McGrattan, who now works in player assistance with the organization, wants to hear more of.

“My role is to be an outlet to our players,” McGrattan said. “I’ve lived my career on both sides of the fence. I’ve struggled with mental health and addiction for a fair bit of my career, and drugs and alcohol took me down a dark path.”

When he was 27 years old and with the then-Phoenix Coyotes, McGrattan entered treatment.

“When I first got sober, I didn’t play with anyone that was,” he said. “I didn’t know anyone that was clean and sober in all of hockey.”

McGrattan was open about his challenges and sobriety, which led to other players reaching out and asking for his advice about their own situations.

“I was basically doing my current role as I was playing,” he said.

Since McGrattan went public about his experiences with addiction and sobriety, other NHLers such as Jordin Tootoo and Nate Thompson have also shared their stories. Having the courage to go public can have an enormous impact, not just for NHLers who are struggling, but fans as well.

“It’s not only helping players, it’s also helping fans of the game realize that ‘Hey, if these guys can do it, then maybe I can do it too,’” McGrattan said.

Beyond Rinaldo and McGrattan, the Calgary Flames Foundation is also working to improve communication on mental health challenges and support those experiencing them.

Every year, the team hosts a Hockey Talks game where funds are raised, and the team uses players to promote messaging about mental health challenges and resources available to those in need. Among their other initiatives, the foundation has helped raise more than  $200,000 for organizations such as the Canadian Mental Health Association, Calgary Counselling Centre, and Kids Help Phone.

“It’s become an important part of our well-being and that’s something we want to support, especially as a pro sports team,” said Candice Goudie, the foundation’s director.

“I think it’s important for us to say that it’s okay to talk about this and it’s okay not to be okay.”

Goudie’s hope is that fans see their heroes opening up and being vulnerable, and that empowers them to do the same.

“We want people to see individuals that they know and look up to and they might be feeling the same or similar to them,” she said. “They might have similar experiences…that it’s okay to feel down or to struggle with mental health.”

Both Rinaldo and McGrattan would also like to see more teams invest in player development and helping their players transition from teenage prospects to rookies to veterans to alumni members. Rinaldo said that having a mentor like McGrattan travel with the team and have dinner on the road with players would go a long way.

“There’s so many avenues and roads that that player development side of things can open up,” Rinaldo said. “When you go on the road, I’ve seen it firsthand, you have no family and sometimes guys drift off and get lost on the road. If that player development side travelled with the team and organized dinners or events to take players’ minds off the game and to talk together.”

All in an effort to support one another when experiencing mental health challenges.

“The more we can open up about talking about what you’re feeling or how you’re feeling, the emotions you’re dealing with, the better you’ll be,” Rinaldo said.​

January 28 is Bell Let’s Talk Day 2021, where everyone is invited to join the Canadian conversation that’s leading the world in confronting the stigma around mental illness and sharing ideas to move mental health forward.