Hockey—the natural way to relieve stress
By Andrew Bensch
They say that laughter is the best medicine. For many of us hockey players, though, the game we love is the ticket. Whether it’s the endorphins, adrenaline, pure love of the game or all of the above, the sport of hockey gives us an uncanny ability to block out everything else going on in our lives. The quickness of the game doesn’t provide for random unrelated thoughts. Unlike baseball and other sports, hockey’s intensity and speed—even at a casual pick-up game level—allows its players to fully immerse themselves or get “lost” in the game. That temporary release from everyday stress and emotions is a big part of my attraction to what I consider the greatest game on the planet.
All About the Release
Despite growing up in the warm (by hockey standards) climate of the San Francisco Bay Area, hockey was my preferred sport of choice. While I didn’t actually learn to skate until my teenage years, I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t play hockey. Along with my older brothers and friends in the neighborhood, I would play street hockey all year round.
After failing to make the football, baseball and soccer teams my freshman year of high school, I figured why not try club hockey? Unlike the other big-time sports, there was a beginner level for high school hockey. And even though I didn’t know how to skate, I figured why not give real hockey a chance? A large number of the other kids in the division were also just learning how to push off, stop, and do crossovers.
How did we get so into hockey growing up in California? Perhaps it was the Sharks being an expansion franchise the same year I was born (1991), or maybe it was those Mighty Ducks movies that came out in the 1990s (probably a combination of both). Either way, I’m sure glad I fell in love with the sport.
As I grew up, playing hockey became my number-one stress release. The stress of everyday life—whether from work, love-life, social, or family—all cease to exist when you’re focused on lighting the lamp or making that perfect tape-to-tape saucer pass.
I ended up playing three years of high school roller hockey and one year of ice hockey. Practices and games were my escape from the tough teachers and a disappointing social life. Only it wasn’t until college when I realized how much playing hockey on a regular basis affected my overall happiness. It wasn’t hard to tell that there was something missing during my freshman year at San Francisco State University. SFSU did not have any type of hockey program, but after bumping into a fellow roller hockey player on campus, he and I decided to form a club team from scratch.
While starting a grass-roots sports club at a major university wasn’t without its struggles and drama, eventually the roller team we formed grew into a full-fledged ice hockey program. We still didn’t have a full-time coach or anywhere close to adequate funding, but by my final semester we were able to compete in the Pacific Collegiate Hockey Association. We were a brand-new hockey program but we were able to play full-contact college hockey against schools like Stanford, UC Davis, Sacramento State, San Jose State, and Santa Clara University.
Our team struggled as a brand-new program, but it was incredibly rewarding on a personal level. Even though I knew I wasn’t ever going to make it to the NHL like I had dreamed about as a kid, scoring a goal in a college hockey game felt absolutely amazing. There is nothing more awesome than feeling accomplished in the sport you love the most.
Playing competitive games again after going an extended period of my freshman year without any competitive outlet was tremendously uplifting. Mental health is something I have long been aware of, and playing hockey again helped boost my overall mood.
One of the reasons I have long been aware of mental health is because my mother suffers from bipolar disorder. At one point during my final semester of college, her elevated manic state had her unaccounted for and it made me extremely worried. In her condition, she probably shouldn’t have been driving. What if she got in an accident? Would I ever see her again?
Fortunately my mother was fine; she came home that day. Now it may sound selfish, but thankfully for me I had a game to play later that afternoon against Sacramento. We were crushed like 9-3, but at least it was a temporary distraction from worrying about my mom’s state of health. Without having games to play that bring brief mental breaks from life, certain stresses can be overwhelming.
Never Forget: Boogaard, Belak, and Rypien
This idea of needing a temporary distraction reminds me of a series of NHL deaths that should never be forgotten. Not that long ago, during the 2011 off-season the hockey world lost three players in Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, and Rick Rypien. While only one of the three deaths was a confirmed suicide, all three of these hockey players had at some point battled depression; they all died in a four-month span during the hockey off-season. We know correlation doesn’t always mean causation, but all of these deaths happening away from the competitive hockey season should not be something to ignore. (While I haven’t personally suffered from depression, my gut feeling is that these deaths could have partially been due to the players not having that normal distraction of the NHL schedule.)
For me, I know that playing hockey is my best medicine and perhaps it was also the best medicine for Boogaard, Belak and Rypien. It is entirely possible that during the summer months, hockey players don’t have the same structured support system. Without the usual game-day routine, players also don’t have the same stress release that they get eight to nine months of the year.
While more time away from the rink can be good for the body after a grueling season, the time away can also be a negative thing when it comes to mental health. Unfortunately, mental hurting is often far less obvious than the physical pain of a knee or shoulder injury. Recognizing various mental health symptoms is extremely difficult.
Therefore, the main goal of this article is to get you to think about yourself as well as the hockey players in your life, and to reach out to them. How are you all doing this summer? Are you getting enough exercise? Staying in shape? Feeling well? Maybe think about doing something special for yourself or the hockey players in your life during this time of year.
Small gestures help. Just talking and being there helps, too.
Published with permission of The Hockey Writers.