Recently I had the privilege of interviewing former NHL player Steve Seftel regarding his new book, Shattered Ice. Steve was generous with his time, candid about his career and mental health battles, and is, I believe, one of the nicest guys you can talk to. I hope you enjoy reading our conversation as much as I enjoyed being a part of it.
What brought you into hockey?
Both my father and uncle played as kids. I was talking to my uncle recently and he had a great story. He had a tryout with the Guelph junior team, went to tryouts and went to the first day of camp. Emil Francis was the manager of the team at the time. He said to all the young guys with long hair that if they wanted to make the team they needed to get haircuts. My uncle didn’t cut his hair, hung around for a week and left. My family was involved in the sport ever since I can remember. People love the sport here and can’t wait to put kids on skates and stick in their hands, I honestly can’t remember a time without it.
In your book you mention some coaches who had an impact on you, specifically Coach Lyman. Can you tell us about how he influenced you?
It’s remarkable the imprint a coach can have on a player. I coach minor hockey now; teachers, coaches, the amount of influence you have on young people is incredible. I was 9 years old and I remembered Larry Lyman’s 4D’s my entire life, and wrote them down. I use them now as a coach myself. There isn’t a better way that I know of to honour him than to use his message. His four D’s were desire, discipline, dedication, determination. I use it with my own boys as a parent.
So would you say the advice transcends the sport it affects other facets of life as well?
Absolutely, you can apply it to your life outside the sport. Maybe that’s his theory, that the sporting life isn’t going to last forever for everybody, so they are good words to live by or to carry through to whatever you do after you’re done playing.
Any other coaches you want to mention that influenced you?
The coach of the Kitchener Bauer Krauts was Murray Fried. Along with Pat Dougherty, he’s in the showcase in the city of Kitchener for their minor hockey organisation, both are lifelong volunteers. His teams were known for being respectful and playing with sportsmanship. Mr. Fried really promoted that. As a ten-year-old that made an impact. He was a real ‘old school’ hockey coach who was in it to help the kids, a true volunteer who loved the sport and wanted to share his knowledge with the players.
As a professional player you played the Left Wing position, had you always played that position?
I flip flopped, played defence at nine, then the next year moved to left wing, then back to defence again. It’s normal at that age level to change positions, and definitely beneficial, you learn all aspects of the game and you develop better. What I find today is people have grown up following Crosby; in my day it was Gretzky and Lemieux; and everybody wants to be a centreman. All these kids come up, at five, six, seven-years-old, everybody wants to be a centre, and then you get to a nine-year-old rep team and now you’ve got fifteen players, and ten or eleven of them play centre or forward, and you don’t have enough defencemen, so you have to convert somebody, and most times the parents aren’t onboard. But, I had no problem with it, at least I don’t remember ever questioning it.
There was a point in the book where you went through the list of injuries that you sustained. I’ve played sport, not at a professional level mind you, and been relatively lucky with injuries. It seemed the timing was bad for some of your injuries, is that fair to say? And can you remember at what age you sustained your first hockey related injury?
Yeah, really bad, I’d call it bad luck, bad timing. It’s incredible how that can really impact your whole career those things. If you can get through unscathed, or with maybe not as serious an injury, you’re doing well. But you have to fight through those things, because they are part of the game and if you get the bad luck of getting one, or sustaining something, you’ve got to just work your way through it. But it is bad luck.
The funny story I tell in the book is my first broken bone was goofing around before a game. We were playing foot hockey, which we weren’t supposed to do, in a corner of the rink and I was playing goal. And there was a loose ball, a rebound, and I went out to grab it, and the other player’s boot hit my hand at the same moment I grabbed the ball, and he broke my hand.
But the first injury in a game was when I was thirteen, playing minor bantam in Hamilton, I leaned out to poke a puck, and the player hit me and I broke my wrist. That was kind of significant because we were talking about positions earlier, at that point I was playing defence that year. When I came back from injury the coaches put me at left wing. I don’t really know why, I don’t have that memory, and then I never played defence again. So going forward, that was kind of a pivotal moment in my career because I played left wing from that point forward. Had I not broke my wrist, I might have been a defenceman.
In describing making that change in the book you write “I’ve played both defence and forward up until now, so I’m fine with their decision. Whatever I have to do for my pack, my hockey dream and my journey.” Is that something that was clear to you, even at that young age of thirteen, of being part of a pack?
Yeah, for me it was. I was always a leader, I played a lot of lacrosse, I was always a leader in lacrosse and hockey, and I would say I was one of those players who would do whatever the coach asked. I was a rule follower, I think that was part of my mental makeup, that kind of led to where I ended up down the road. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I was a Type-A rule follower. So, if the coach said “do this” or “be here at this time”, I had to do that. And if I didn’t do that, I would be really anxious and agitated. So it was never a question to me to follow or to do what I was instructed to do. And I always felt that everybody on the team should also do that, and it really bothered me when other people didn’t. On every team there’s different personalities, and not everybody is going to follow the rules, but that would agitate me when people didn’t.
You seem to be quite driven as a person, is that a fair statement?
Yeah, I was definitely self-motivated, very competitive, hated to lose which is not unlike a lot of players in any sport who make the highest level. You’ll often hear them say they hate to lose. Losing makes you angry and almost determined to go out and do better. I definitely had that quality, which I think you need to get to the highest levels of any sport, including hockey. That’s part of that determination, going back to the four D’s, then desire, you got to want it more than the next guy, which, when you start going through the ranks you have to have that quality to beat out your opponent if you’re trying to earn a position.
In your book you were quite young when you made significant sacrifices to pursue your dream, can you tell us about them?
Yeah, I was eligible for the OHL (Ontario Hockey League) draft my first year of midget. And I didn’t get picked. But, I was determined that next year was going to be my year, and there wasn’t going to be anything that was going to stop me, and it wasn’t going to be not being strong enough, and it wasn’t going to be having a girlfriend that was going to disrupt my season, and it was a tough call, but I gave up lacrosse. It broke my heart to quit because I loved that game, but I was making the sacrifice for hockey, which is not uncommon in Canada. For me it was making that commitment, that hockey was the dream, and I’m going to do what I have to do.
It obviously paid off because you were drafted into the OHL the following year
Yes, it was the first pick of the third round, 31st overall. I was rated 16th, and I remember my heart was starting to beat a little faster. At the time the OHL was a 15 team league, so being rated 16th I thought there was a chance I could go in the first round. And a teammate of mine, also named Steve, went in the first-round, and I was certain that was my name being called. At the end of round two when my name hadn’t been called, my heart was beating a little faster, the neckties getting a little tighter, and then my name was the next one called, so I wasn’t uptight for too long.
How did you feel after you were drafted into the OHL?
It was a big relief, I was very proud, that’s one of the biggest steps at that point. Up until then you’ve just been in the minor hockey circuit, making your way through and trying out for a team. Growing up in Kitchener we had the Rangers. I followed the Rangers, I watched them win the Memorial Cup in 1982 with Brian Bellows, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis. I had been going to Rangers games since I was seven years old. I say in the book how I got Gretzky’s autograph when he played for the Sault Greyhounds. To be picked to the same league that I was watching these other guys play in for the last ten or so years made me very proud. In Canada, the OHL is treated like little NHL in a lot of ways. Because in a lot of cities, that’s the biggest game in town, so to those young kids in those cities that can’t see the Leafs, the next best thing is your local OHL team.
Was it a year later that you were eligible for the NHL draft?
Yes, I tell this story because it blew my mind at the time. May of ’85 I was drafted by the Kingston Canadians, played a season of junior hockey, and June of ’86, just 13 months later, I’m at the NHL Draft being selected by the Capitals. How quickly that all happened was a whirlwind, it felt like it happened overnight. And three months later I signed an NHL contract. So I went from playing midget hockey, and two years later I was signed with the Washington Capitals at 18.
Take us through the NHL draft day, what happens, etcetera.
My agent’s name was Rick Curran, he was with Grenada Sports back in those days with Bill Watters, we all assembled in Toronto and just like old time Habs-Leafs games we took the train to Montreal. So that was a great experience. Rick and all his clients, the Southern Ontario boys, we took the train to Montreal, arrived at the station, then he put us up in the Sheridan Hotel. I was actually fortunate to room with my teammate Marc LaForge, who is spoken about in the book as well. He was one of Rick’s clients, he was actually drafted just before me, number 32 overall to Hartford. It’s a very hustling and bustling time. Montreal’s a great city, you’ve got GMs, scouts, all kind of milling around the Hotel, doing interviews. We were up very early on draft day, and then we walked down to the Forum with my parents. It was my first trip to the Montreal Forum, an incredibly historic building, there’s so many incredible games that have been played there, and there’s a mystique about that arena. They have the Bell Centre now, so they’ve moved on. But the Forum had character and charm like a lot of the old buildings do. There’s always talk about the ghosts of the forum, just the historic team. The Canadiens do such a great job of promoting their history, and their franchise. So walking in there was overwhelming. It’s like the OHL draft on steroids. The OHL draft was inside an arena, and it was smallish, but the NHL draft was just everything times ten. The amount of people, the size of the stage, the size of the podiums, everything was just bigger and busier.
It was very nerve-wracking, it’s quiet, everybody sits there, hands folded. The first round takes a long time as it does in many drafts, there seems to be extra photographs, interviews, media coverage and such. Back then they did the entire draft in one day, whereas now they do the first round on the Friday night, and the rest on Saturday. I was fortunate that I got picked in the second round, fortieth overall. Very proud moment again. Funny story, the Capitals had called timeout before they drafted me, and teams were allowed to do that. My mom went to the concessions stand because she was getting warm, to buy a drink, and she heard my name called over the PA system, so she ran back and luckily she met me just as I was going on to the arena floor and up to the podium and was able to give me a hug before I got out there.
They took two timeouts before you were selected. Did the team ever tell you why they took the timeouts?
They didn’t say, the only hint of information I got on the timeouts was the former GM of the Kingston Canadians, his name was Ken Slater, he had left the Canadians and taken a position as a scout of the Vancouver Canucks the year prior. So, the only titbit I got was that Mr. Slater might have been also thinking of selecting me to the Canucks sooner rather than later, and that perhaps next time Washington’s pick came in the third round, Vancouver would have been picking before them and I may not have been available. So, they had to decide do we pick him now, or take the chance that he’s not there in the third.
In the book you mention that you went back to the Kingston Canadians and experienced a 28-game losing streak with the team, which I believe is still an OHL record. Would you prefer not to talk about that?
I don’t mind talking about it. It’s certainly not a proud moment, if I can put it that way. It’s an infamous season. It was a struggle. That team was better than we played. As I outline in the book, I called that chapter ‘What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.’ It was one of those seasons where you learn from your defeats, struggles and adversity that you have to deal with. That group of teenage boys endured that season, losing streak aside, the coach resigning, the trainer resigning, we changed ownership in the middle of the season. There were just so many strange things that went on that some players might not experience in a career, and we had them all happen in one small window of about eight months. The streak started shortly after Christmas and it was just a sinking ship. The reason that streak ended is because the season ended, who knows how long it would have went.
You mentioned there was a moment where the owner stood behind the bench, which must have been humiliating to the coach, Jacques Tremblay.
Yes, Coach Tremblay had a pretty good track record, he coached in Europe, and again, I’ve never seen anything like that. It was bizarre. One period your coach is behind the bench, the next period he’s standing at the end of the bench with the owner behind the bench calling all the changes. And then to have Lou (the owner) go back into the crowd for the third period and hear the crowd chanting his name was something I’ll never forget. Jacques Tremblay resigned as soon as that game finished, and so did our trainer, Peter Campbell. It was just a jaw-dropping moment to see that play out.
I must say, not being in Canada, I was unaware of the losing streak until reading it in your book. So, I went online to see if it was still a record, which it is. Even as a Leafs fan, used to seeing my team fall off a cliff, I can’t comprehend a 28-game losing streak. 28 games in a row, that’s … I don’t want to say impressive, but that’s an event.
(Laughs) It certainly is, the team had 14 wins before the streak started. Our record was 14-24 I think, so 10 games under .500, which wasn’t great, but we were competitive I would say. And then it all just went right in the tank. It’s definitely an OHL record, I’m not sure if it’s still a CHL record, I feel like someone snapped it there, but it’s definitely an OHL record.
Well I hope someone takes over that record in the OHL soon.
So do I. The poor Canadians. Lou had threatened to move the team, that was something else going on behind the scenes. He was trying to move the team out of the city (Kingston), and he scrapped the uniform, wanted to be big and mean like the Raiders Football team, changed the colours to Silver and Black and called the team the Raiders the following season. That last game of the 28-game streak, the last game of the season, was the last game for the Kingston Canadians uniform. My billets wanted a picture of me, but I threw up before the game and didn’t really feel up to it, but I went out there, and the picture is in the book. So, it’s kind of neat to have that picture from that game. It’s not a fond memory, but like you said it’s definitely an event.
Just another funny story, just off to the side, on the 20th anniversary of that, which I think was 2009, someone from the Kingston Whig-Standard Newspaper called me. I’m thinking, they want to talk to me about my hockey career, I get my chest all puffed out, and then he says “yeah, we’re doing a story on the 20th anniversary of the 28-game losing streak and we’d like to talk to you about it.” Immediately my chest went back down, and my shoulders slumped, and I went “okay”. They did a full two-page story in the newspaper on the anniversary of that, not that you wanted to remember it. A lot of the players were still bitter. The guys who were younger, who hadn’t been drafted, they felt that that year sabotaged their careers. It was a disaster.
On a positive note, I think you managed to play the entire year relatively injury-free?
I did. We were talking earlier about determination. First year I broke my ankle, second year I tore my ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament), that third year I was really determined to play the whole season, I wanted to play all 66 games. Obviously, I didn’t have total control over that, if you get hurt you get hurt. But I could have easily mailed it in on that last game when I was throwing up beforehand. It would have been easy to pull the chute in that 66th game, but I wanted to play the full season.
The next year you’re playing in the AHL for Washington’s AHL affiliate, the Baltimore Skipjacks. You mention some struggles that you were going through on the ice, and the mental preparation coach that the Washington Capitals hired. Would you like to describe his unique methods?
I can’t remember the exact language that was being exchanged, but I do remember vividly sitting in the dressing room with him right in front of me, kind of leaning over me and I’m sitting on the bench. He’s giving me a pep talk and kind of swipes at my face a couple of times, not a slap, but a smack. I remember thinking “what the hell was that?! What are you doing?”. And I didn’t really know how to respond, and he did it again. And then I was really confused. The message was, I think, ‘you’ve got to get angry, get aggressive, play mean, get fired up. It’s time to get jacked up and get out there and kick some ass’. I played aggressive and physical in general, but I considered myself a cerebral player. I was never an out-of-control player, and what that did is it made me play out-of-control and I was out of my element. It took me out of my comfort zone, because that wasn’t me. I tried it for a game, and I felt lousy. I remember feeling even more frustrated thinking ‘okay, I’ve asked for help, I got the help and that isn’t doing anything for me. So now what? Now what do I do?’. I was at a loss after that, and I wasn’t going back for another session.
I don’t blame you. Moving forward to being called up and told you will be playing in your first NHL game, describe the circumstances around that.
A little background on that, I have a chapter in the book called Musical Coaches. Bryan Murray was the coach of Washington; he was fired by GM David Poile. Terry Murray was the coach of Baltimore (Washington’s AHL affiliate); he was elevated to coach the Capitals. Doug MacLean was Bryan’s right-hand man; he comes down to Baltimore because we needed a coach. We had Doug for the rest of the year, I always tell people he was my favourite coach. Every coach I played for I took something from and was able to use something that they gave me, but Doug was my favourite and motivated me more than anyone else, I just hit it off with him.
The following season Doug and Bryan Murray end up in Detroit, that’s where they land after they exit the Capitals organisation, and Terry is still in Washington as Head Coach. So, January of ’91 I get the call that I’m going up to Washington for my first NHL game, it’s in Detroit at the Joe Louis Arena, so we’re on the road. It was very exciting and what are the odds, my first NHL game is against my old coaches, Bryan Murray and Doug MacLean. I’m nervous, as you can expect. I mention in the book that when I went out for warmups, I thought I was skating on ski moguls, it felt like I was going over little bumps on the ice. I remember trying to gather my thoughts, saying ‘come on, this is a regular sheet of ice, no different than any one you’ve been on before’.
So, I’m doing laps, I’ve got that figured out now, got my feet under me, and I see Doug MacLean watching warmups pretty intently from the Detroit bench. So, I think ‘I’m going to get myself calmed down here, I’m going to go talk to Doug. I’ll say hi, he’s going to be happy to see me for my first NHL game, my favourite coach from last year, he helped develop me and get me to this point. He had a big part in that last year, so I do a lap, I go across the centre red-line and I’m heading right for him on the Detroit bench, and as I get a few feet away we make eye contact and I get ready to say something, but I realise he’s going to say something first. I think he’s going to say something like “good for you Sef, have a great game tonight kid”. No, he says:
“Hey Sef, I told [Bob] Probert you’re the goon called up from Baltimore.”
I kept skating, I did a double take as I’m skating and just couldn’t believe it. My mind was scrambling, I’m thinking ‘okay, he’s playing head games, it’s not true.’ But then I wasn’t sure, so I finish warmup, I stayed away from their bench after that. It gets better, we get back in the room after warmups over. Terry Murray comes in, he’s going to announce the starting line-up, he says “Seftel, Hunter, Druce”. I wasn’t really anticipating starting, even though a lot of guys do start their first game. So that’s exciting, but now I’m getting even more nervous, tighter, starting my first NHL game. We’re on the blue line, they play the national anthem and I’m lined up with my guys. I look across because I want to know who I’m up against, and I see 24 in white. And I know that’s Bob Probert. I know he’s a right winger, and I know I’m a left winger and we will be standing beside each other in a matter of seconds. And I’m thinking maybe Doug did tell him that I’m the goon from Baltimore. Well, this is it, this is going to happen. So I don’t know where it’s going to go, sure enough we’re lined up shoulder to shoulder, the puck gets dropped, it gets fired into our zone, and it comes ripping around my boards. I look up ice and see he’s coming in, and I’m thinking this is it, I’m going to find out right here, he’s either going to drill me into the boards or put a glove through my nose or something like that. But actually there’s nothing, we just end up glancing shoulder to shoulder.
I found out later, reading Bob Probert’s book, is that unless you were a legitimate tough guy, if you were just called up, you weren’t getting the time of day from him. He wasn’t going to fight you unless you were worthy. And that made sense to me when I read it. You’ve got to earn the right to fight him, is what he’s basically saying in the book. So I had nothing to worry about, but I only found out about that years later when I read his book. That brought it around full-circle and I laughed out loud when I read about how he assesses who he’s going to fight or not fight.
Would Doug MacLean have had anything to do with the starting line-up for Detroit, putting Probert opposite you just to mess with you?
That’s a great question, Bryan Murray would have had the final say in the line-up. Could they have gotten together? Yeah, it’s possible, that would be a great question for me to ask Doug next time I talk to him.
Fast-forwarding a little bit to your fourth and final game, against the New York Islanders. I’ve seen highlights of two of your hits in this game. Were they both in the same shift?
Yeah, they were in the same shift. The first hits on ex-Leaf Derek King, and the second one is the defenceman Wayne McDeen in the corner.
That’s a pretty good highlight package generated in one shift.
That was the day of the Desert Storm rally in the arena. They played the song I’m Proud to be an American. The Gulf War had just started, and they did a tribute in the arena to support the branches of the military. That might have been the most motivating moment of my career. I was emotionally at the highest point I’d ever been to start a match. I think that might have been right up there with playing in the Stanley Cup, or playing your first playoff game. The arena was electric, I felt some of that when I was delivering those body checks. It was a physical, hard-fought game which we won in overtime. The city was on edge. The country was on edge. I think as a player we all felt it, but you’ve still got to go out and do your business.
After that you went back down to the Skipjacks to keep on honing your craft at that point.
Yeah, at that point I felt like I was really close. I had played an exhibition game in early January against a touring Russian team for the Capitals, then I got called up right after that for those four NHL games. I knew I was close; I could taste it. I was playing well in the minors, got some ice time with the Caps, and I knew I was on the cusp. I went down and continued to play well when I went down.
I had a little incident in the playoffs with Baltimore where my knee popped. It was a twinge I didn’t like, so I had it looked at. The doctor did the regular tests and said that I might have to get it looked at in the post season. But I had been playing on it for five years, I hurt it when I was 18, and I wore a brace for five years. Looking back, in hindsight, that was a mistake. Today, they would have fixed that injury when it happened at 18. That was a huge mistake. You talked about some bad luck for me, the right decision in hindsight would have been to fix that knee at 18. So, I have this little incident, this tweak, and the doctor says I might need to have it fixed in the offseason. That news travels back to Assistant GM Jack Button, and Mister Poile, and that’s when Jack has the meeting with me. I wanted that to be a moving point in the book, that’s why I recount the entire conversation. I was so crushed and disappointed that I had to have surgery, knowing how close I was to make the team. It was a tough blow. I tried to prevent it, tried to convince Jack that I didn’t need it, but it was the right thing to do even though I was reluctant to get it done.
How many months were you rehabilitating?
Nine. I had the surgery in May, and I didn’t play until February. That was a tough year, just sitting out watching. That’s a long rehab. It’s a long, gruelling rehab, you’re by yourself a lot. So I was going downtown DC on the subway just by myself. Initially I saw the therapist, but once I got going it was just me pushing myself. I worked really hard at it and got back. I was in good shape when I got back, too. I played pretty well out of the gate considering that I was in rehab for nine months. Then 18 games in was, well I don’t want to call it the death blow but it seemed like it to me at the time, when I tore my other ACL up at Cape Breton. That was really devastating. That’s when my mental spiral started. That’s when I really noticed that I was mentally not right.
What did you do about that at the time? Did you address that, did you confide with someone, for example your wife Lisa about that?
I internalised everything. I was a hockey player, so you display bravado, you do not show weakness. You do not show to anyone that you are vulnerable, you show strength and power. It goes back to that stigma that they talk about with mental health, that it’s weakness. We’re trying to get rid of that, it’s sickness, not weakness. Until recently that’s not the way we looked at it, and especially in the sporting world. The avenues weren’t there, no one was encouraging you to talk about how you felt mentally.
There’s an expression that you use in the book ‘eat the pain’. What did that mean to you and when did you start having that kind of mindset?
That’s interesting, there’s a story behind that. And you’re the first person that’s brought that up to me. I put that in there intentionally, hoping that people would grasp onto it, and you’re the first person that’s asked me about it, so I appreciate that you grabbed that. There is a story behind it. The first time that I started to feel a bit off mentally was in Kingston when I was 17. I went to the doctor and he said, ‘I can’t find anything wrong with you’, so I thought it was just me and this is who I am, and I’m just going to have to live with it.
Around that time the movie Platoon came out, and there’s a scene early in the movie where they’re on their first patrol, and they get ambushed. One of the soldiers gets severely injured and he’s screaming in pain, and they don’t want to give up their position. Tom Berenger jumps on the guy and puts his hand over his mouth, and he screams at him, ‘Eat the pain!’. He says it over and over to him until the guy, you see his eyes roll back into his head and he listens. He goes from a screaming, injured soldier, to just being silent. You can see him swallowing the pain, eating it. That’s where I got that from.
I started to use that for myself whenever I got hurt or I felt funny, mentally, I would tell myself ‘Eat the pain!’, and that was my suppression of those feelings. In the end, when I turned 50, that was part of my implosion or getting sick. Eating the pain is not the right thing to do with mental health. That’s where I got that from. You picked up on it, well done. I do mention it a few times. It became my personal mantra through the years. It wasn’t anything I shared with anybody.
Going back to your career, you found yourself with a new coach in Baltimore, Barry Trotz. You’re coming back from injury and find yourself struggling to get playing time.
I had torn my ACL, but didn’t fix it through surgery, so I ended up making the same mistake. I tried rehab, had torn it in March and tried to rehab it in camp in September. Got sent down to Baltimore and found myself as a healthy scratch.
You were getting increasingly frustrated with your lack of opportunity, which led to a, I don’t want to say heated discussion, but a plain discussion with Barry Trotz. Take us through that situation, what led up to it.
I was spiralling out of control at this point too. Mentally I was not doing well. I was internalising everything and was progressively sinking. I don’t think I suffered from depression, but you have those depressive thoughts. For me it was more anxiety and panic. I was spiralling, not handling it very well. And then very much out of character with myself, one day we had a return from a road trip, I hadn’t played for six games, and we had a golf tournament. I decided to miss it, of all the things to not go to, a golf event. But I was frustrated and panicking. I woke up early in the morning and just thought, ‘to hell with it, I’m not going to this golf event,’ I might have used the F bomb. I didn’t go, some of the guys came back and said that it took a while, but eventually Trotsy realised that I wasn’t there. I thought ‘good, I’m glad. Maybe now he’ll talk to me.’ Up until that point there was very little communication. He wasn’t telling me why I wasn’t playing, which isn’t necessarily uncommon in hockey, but at that particular time it wasn’t working for me in the mental state I was in.
I remember marching into the dressing room, he gave me the index finger, come with me. I followed him out into his office to answer as to why I wasn’t at the golf event, which was set up for sponsors of the team. He was angry, clearly he didn’t know what I was going through mentally because I didn’t share it with him. He was just looking at it as ‘this guy screwed me over by not going to our team function because I’m not playing him, so I’m going to give him what for’. So, he unloaded on me like a coach might do when he’s angry at you. And then I had written some notes before I went to practice that day, because I couldn’t sleep, about what made me a good hockey player. I started reading some of the stuff to him, and mentally broke down at that point. Tears started to flow, I just kind of slumped into my chair and at that point I was just beaten. Some of the fight was gone at that moment. Then Barry took his coaching hat off at that point and things were much more relaxed.
You paid the $25 fine and then left the office. There’s a paragraph where you describe your battle as an internal tug of war or an internal tiger chasing you. You refer to it a few times as either a tiger or a beast. It’s quite an emotive part of the book.
Yeah, that’s panic. Panic is the most frightening form of anxiety. When you have panic disorder you live in fear of your next panic attack. That’s what I’m trying to convey there. I’m no longer just anxious, I’m in full on panic mode. I’m no longer thinking about my knee or hockey. I’m just trying to run away. I just have got to get out of here. I don’t know who to turn to, who to ask for help. I’ve never been taught how to ask for help, or who to turn to. I guess I could have gone to my wife. But even that… we were newly married, that wasn’t part of my makeup, my hockey player makeup. You watch the Stanley Cup every year, it’s one of the greatest trophies in sports, but you watch and it’s a ‘do whatever you have to do’ mentality. Whether you have to block a shot with your face, or haul somebody down, those games are played with all that grit and sandpaper. I’m just making the point that when you’re a hockey player, that’s the way we’re groomed from a young age. That’s also why I mention the injuries early in the book, and I mentioned about Bobby Clarke’s toothless smile, Bobby Baun scoring on a broken leg, Rocket Richard’s black eyes. That’s what we grew up with, idolising. So, to tell someone there’s something funny going on with your head, that was not part of the game plan.
Being immersed in this life of hockey from a young age, did that make it more difficult to speak during your career and say, ‘I need help’?
Absolutely, I would never dare ask for help, and it made me sicker. I would have physical symptoms arise because you’re keeping it all inside. I went to a psychotherapist, and they said ‘everybody has shelves inside your body, and you have so many glass jars to put on these shelves. If you fill up all the shelves, eventually your jars just start crashing to the floor. And eventually you either implode, through self-harm; you explode, so you hurt others; or you get sick. In my case I got sick at different times in my life by keeping this internal pressure and anxiety inside and not dealing with it. Not dealing with trauma, even the trauma of injuries. I never dealt with it, I should have, but I didn’t know how to or where to go. That’s the one encouraging thing about today, we’re giving players choices, or at least we’re making them aware that you’ve got to ask about it or talk to people.
Yes, it was nice at the NHL awards ceremony to see Robin Lehner talk about some of his struggles, and the support that that garnered, well his head coach, and your former head coach, Barry Trotz, was one of the people applauding in support of his comments. That was a good thing to see.
Yeah, and it makes you wonder what we were doing for all the years before. Even with concussions. I think this is no coincidence that this is following concussions. We’re finally focussing on the head. We’ve always focussed on the rest of the body, through nutrition and training and skill development. They’ve only lightly focussed on mental training, maybe, through visualisation and mental preparation, but no-one’s looked at it the way they are now. It started with concussions and look at the changes they brought in as a result. When I played you barely missed a shift if you had your bell room. Now they have a quiet room, and you need to go through protocol to play. So I think mental health is just coming behind this because it’s the next thing. What are we going to do for players so mentally they’ve got choices, they’ve got treatment, they’ve got options when they’re not feeling good.
Yes, Daniel Carcillo has been a prominent advocate for some of these issues, so it will be interesting to see how it develops in the next few years.
I listened to Dan Carcillo on one of the sports radio stations over here the other day, and I was very impressed with his knowledge and passion for what he’s doing. Very inspiring.
Later on this is the time that you decide you will retire from hockey, is that correct?
Yeah, it was part of the spiral. When I look back on it, it doesn’t make any sense. I was under contract with the Capitals. I went home in the middle of the season while being paid. It didn’t make any sense. Again, that’s hindsight, I wish I had some avenues to discuss my mental health. If I did, I probably wouldn’t have gone home, because I was under contract. It’s all hindsight, but I did retire under duress, and with very little discussion. I didn’t really tell my parents what I was dealing with, again part of that suppression of emotions. I had some bad luck again; I had switched agents. The agent who had mentored me from when I was 16 was not with me, at my choosing, which in hindsight wasn’t a smart move. He may have been able to coach me through that decision, it’s hard to say, but I would have had a better chance with him. But I’d just switched agents and I didn’t have a good rapport with my new agent.
You bring up again this concept of the wolf pack, and the feelings that came up after retiring, losing that sense of belonging to a group.
I think that’s one of the big things that hockey players feel, and maybe all athletes, but I’ll just talk about hockey because that’s my game. That’s your identity from a young age. Particularly as you get on the train to the professional ranks, that really becomes your identity. It’s a year-round proposition, that’s what you do, that’s how other people see you. For some guys, that’s all you know, and many are fearful of what happens when it’s done. What will I do? What will I become? I wasn’t prepared for it. I was just spinning my wheels, sinking into a depressive state. Not sure who I was, what I wanted to be. With the anxiety building it just put me into a deeper hole. Then my knee did go on me anyway which required surgery. This caused more trauma, more anxiety, more depression, intrusive thoughts that spiralled and induced the panic, running from the tiger.
When did you start sharing with your family what you were going through with mental health?
I had always struggled with it. With my wife at different times during the 20 years that we were here in Kitchener-Waterloo, raising our children, she suggested I go for treatment. With the hockey player bravado I said ‘no, I don’t need it, I can deal with it myself’, I was not willing to accept that kind of help. I did see my doctor on a couple of occasions, but quickly exited the office after a short deliberation with him.
It came to a head just before I turned 50. I had a breakdown at work. It had been building for about five years, where I was having points where I was getting very emotional and it was getting debilitating. In February 2018 I had, I call it a mental breakdown. I became completely debilitated where I couldn’t get out of bed, didn’t want to get out of bed. I was sent to see a medical professional for some psychiatric help to talk to someone and get help with what I was dealing with.
That wasn’t the lowest point, I hit rock-bottom about six-months later. My body started to swell, and talking to my therapist and my naturopath, it all goes back to those jars. You either implode, explode, or you get sick. Your body attacks the weakest joints, or the most damaged joints. In my case it went for my knees, shoulders and groin. Those joints just started to swell. I was on crutches, I could hardly even walk last summer. It’s remarkable to think that was just over 12 months ago. That was last July. I promised my wife that I would get help to get better for her, for the kids, and for me. She basically said to me one day ‘you’ve lived this way for your first 50 years of life, do you want the next 50 to be better, or do you want to stay sick?’ That made sense to me, so I promised her that I would try and do my best to get better.
Is this book part of that process in getting better, was it cathartic?
It was all meant to be. I had talked about it for a number of years, it’s just one of those things you throw out there at Christmas time when you’re with friends and family, ‘oh, I might write a book’. The way it worked out I did start writing a few things down at the start of 2018. Then, February 1st of 2018 is when I had the breakdown. Over the next couple of months, I was home alone and still not feeling well, and I just got going. It was therapy for me, quite cathartic journey. Initially it was very black. I had an editor who was willing to help me through it. She knew I was home, and she knew what I was going through mentally, and she said she would be willing to help me if I wanted to put my thoughts down. So I started to plough through it, and it was very dark. After the first go-around she said ‘is this the story you want to tell?’ She’d read it and compared it to Mark Twain, who I didn’t know a lot about, so I went and researched him a little bit. What I gathered is he wrote a little bit manic, and with intensity.
Basically after looking that up I said no, I don’t want it to be a dark book, I want it to be a book about the joy of the sport’. So I changed the tune of the sport to be the little boy shooting a puck at the kitchen stove at seven. That’s one of my first recollections of hockey. I wanted that to be part of the story. I didn’t know anything about mental health at age seven. Mental health is part of the story, but it’s not THE story. I wanted the real story to be about the joy, the people, the places, the trips, the pack, the teammates, but mental health is definitely woven into the fabric of the story.
It is an epic story. I don’t know what it was before, but personally I highly enjoyed reading it. Would it be fair to say that you’ve since come to terms with viewing your career as a successful career?
I have, yes.
I think to reach the highest level in any activity, professional sports or otherwise, for however long or short a period of time, that’s got to be viewed as successful. Some of the lessons that you took away, like the four Ds, the people that you met along the way, it’s an incredible story. Meeting Darryl Sittler, Lanny MacDonald, Don Cherry, Wayne Gretzky etcetera.
You’re right. That was partly my mental illness was my brain lying to me for a lot of years. Setting a bar that I didn’t achieve or maybe couldn’t achieve. There was a lot of self-loathing, especially after I stopped playing. I definitely have come to terms with it now, and see it as a positive. It took me a long time to get there.
Who would you say is your target audience for your book? Obviously hockey fans, do you think it’s wider than that?
I do think it’s wider than that. Initially I think hockey fans are definitely a no-brainer. I do think it’s wider than that, for anyone who’s been on a journey in any sport, or a professional journey, but definitely in a sporting sense. I definitely think they will take something from the struggles. Going back to me at seven years of age, playing hockey in the kitchen, we all start off with a dream. But to get to your dream is not a straight line. It’s full of bumps, and roadblocks, and obstacles. Sometimes you get there, and sometimes you don’t. And it is a journey. Going back to the last sentence in chapter one, where it says ‘come on, we’re going on a journey, a hockey journey, my hockey journey. That line was there from the get-go. I loved that line. It was a journey. It was much more than just having an eight-year career which included time in the NHL. It was all the gifts I got from the game along the way. Your NHL career is short, but your life is long. You can take those gifts with you forever.
That’s it, thanks for reading everyone. Steve Seftel’s book is well worth the read. I personally read it in one sitting and was moved to reach out to Steve for an interview which he graciously accepted. The book is available on Amazon, an audio copy is available on Audible, and an increasing number of bookstores are stocking it as well. For the latest information, follow Steve on Twitter, and let him know what you thought of his book.