The Battle

rich-cluneThe nurses at the clinic were laughing. That’s how bad it was. It was just a few weeks after I had played in my first NHL playoff series with the Los Angeles Kings. I was 23 years old, being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to live my dream, and I was such a mess that I was either going to wind up dead or kill somebody else.

I didn’t even call the intake center. I got on a flight from LA to Boston, where my brother was going to college. He picked me up at the airport. I just said, “Okay. I’m ready.” My brother drove me 10 hours to Toronto on the spot, right to the doorstep of the rehab clinic, the very same one that I had checked into two years prior. Back then, I had stayed for four days before saying, out loud, “This is insane, I’m out of here.” When I got to the reception desk, everyone remembered me. I had made quite an impression. They were actually laughing. I guess they thought I couldn’t be serious. And that’s when I broke down for the first time and said, “I am an alcoholic. I am a drug addict. For sure. Help me.”

Angels didn’t come flying down. They didn’t whisk me away into a white room with fluffy pillows and violin music. The receptionist just said, “Well, we’ll need a few days to process your paperwork.” But when I said those words, it was like the biggest weight was lifted off my shoulders. They sent me to the hospital to detox for three days, where I basically shook and cursed and threw up a lot.

You probably have a lot of assumptions in your head about me already. I have read the comments on Twitter and in the media about NHL players who have struggled with drugs and alcohol. I can’t tell you about their stories. But I can tell you about mine.

I used to get home from hockey practice and start drinking at lunch. From the time I was playing Junior hockey for the Sarnia Sting to my first year in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings, I would start drinking the second I woke up on my days off. I smoked marijuana every single day. By the time I was 19 years old, I was using cocaine weekly. If you saw me out at a bar in Ontario or New Hampshire or Los Angeles, laughing and cracking jokes, you probably would have thought, “Look at that kid. He’s living the dream.”

What you wouldn’t see is me waking up shaking in my bed at 5 a.m., my nose bleeding all over the pillow.

Then I would go to practice the next day with a smile on my face and compete at a high level. Why in the world would I do this? No, I am not your stereotypical neanderthal. I was the kid taking private art classes in high school and watching Tarantino movies. I was the kid who was supposed to play hockey at Harvard before begging his parents to let him play in the OHL instead. I was the kid who made a blood-pact promise to his mom that he would never fight in Juniors (which pissed off the coaches to no end). I won the Bobby Smith Award for the OHL’s scholastic player of the year, for Christ’s sake. And I did all of that while binge drinking every single day, often alone in my room.

I am certainly not unique. There are players in the NHL right now who are suffering and you would never know it from looking at their stat sheet or how hard they compete in practice. When I was 19 with the Barrie Colts, I had 30 goals and 80 points while being a complete wreck off the ice. Plenty of teammates and coaches had suspicions about me over the years, but nobody knew how bad it was. I was just the wild man. Every hockey team has one. Or 10. Then by my 2008 season in the AHL, after I had been drafted by the Dallas Stars, I started going on coke benders that would last for days. I lost 14 pounds over a summer, and the jig was up. My family sat me down for an intervention, and I couldn’t bullshit my way out of it anymore. I will never forget the look on the faces of my two younger brothers. I was like their hero growing up, their best friend, the leader. And I could see it in their eyes that they were legitimately afraid of me.

I don’t care how many times you have messed up, or been arrested, or made your family cry. I don’t care how many times you told your teammates, “That’s it, man. I’m done.” Until you are really ready to get help, nobody can say anything to change it.

When I checked in to rehab for the first time that summer, I did not believe it was in the realm of possibility that I was an alcoholic. An alcoholic is a person passed out on a park bench, was my thinking. Every single meeting, the counselors would say, “Rich, tell us about your relationship with your father.” Or, “Rich, when was the last time you cried?” Holy shit. As a hockey player, that kind of stuff is so far outside of the realm of what you’re capable of talking about honestly. We are programmed to never, ever admit to pain. A guy’s leg could be hanging off on the bench and he’ll be yelling at the trainer like, “Get the fuck away from me, I’m going back out.”

So I fought with the counselors for four days until I left.

You’re probably sitting here on your phone or your laptop reading this thinking, Why? How? How can you be given the chance to do what you’ve dreamed about doing since you were a little kid playing street hockey, and decide to throw it all away?

Because I was terrified. Because I lived in a constant state of fear. It starts when you’re young and dumb. I left home when I was 16 years old to go play in the OHL. When I got there, I was on a team with guys who were two and three years older than me. They had beards. These guys were men. This was back in the days when physical hazing was pretty prominent, but luckily one of the older guys on the team, Daniel Carcillo, stuck up for me for some reason and made sure the older guys didn’t mess with me too bad. I’ll always love him for that. But right away, the culture of drinking and machismo in Junior hockey starts to weigh down on you. We were drinking in bars after Sunday night games at 16. I look at a 16 year old kid now and I’m like, Wow, that’s a very small human. What in the hell were we doing?

I put on a mask to deal with the fear.

But you know what the scary thing is? By the time I was 19 years old, I was the guy I hated. I was the problem. I was the old guy daring the new kid to go stir up some shit. Once you put on the mask, it never goes away. When you get drafted, you put on the mask to deal with the pressure of getting a contract. When you get your contract, you put on the mask to deal with the sleepless night before you know you have to go out and drop the gloves with the 6’5” monster on the other team. When you finally pull on that NHL sweater, you put on the mask to deal with that ever-present fear that it could all go away in an instant. Read more…

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