Professional level teams use their games to raise awareness for plenty of causes all the time. In fact, some NFL players have been fined for things as simple as wearing purple cleats for domestic violence awareness. However, one professional league has taken on the task of mental health awareness.
Since 2013, the seven Canadian NHL teams have participated in Hockey Talks — a month-long campaign wherein teams dedicate games in February to raising awareness for mental health.
Each Canadian team dedicates one home game to wear Hockey Talks decals on their helmets and have in-game videos stressing the importance of mental health. The Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks are partnering with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
The program was started by former Vancouver Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa in remembrance of his teammate Rick Rypien who committed suicide in 2011.
Another former NHL forward, Dan Carcillo, spoke in a chilling video for The Players’ Tribune in 2015, encouraging the league to create an exit program for their athletes. Carcillo and longtime friend Steve Montador were both affected by the jump from a professional sport to the real world.
Montador died in 2015, four days before his girlfriend gave birth to their son. The cause of his death is unknown, but his brain was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The NHL has been much more open about discussing CTE when compared to the NFL. But then again, when you don’t do anything about it, it’s pretty easy for other leagues to do more than you.
On Monday, the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted their sixth annual Mental Health Awareness Night.
Forward Connor Brown was especially dedicated to the cause.
“I know some people who have been affected by mental health struggles and it really is a big issue in society today that needs to be addressed,” Brown said to NHL.com.
The first advocacy was at the beginning of the month where the New York Islanders joined as the only American-based team.
Islanders assistant coach Luke Richardson and his wife Stephanie founded Do It For Daron, a “call to action” after their daughter Daron committed suicide at the age of 14.
Every dollar raised during any awareness month is valuable, but the support that has been created from the Hockey Talks movement is unprecedented.
Sports fans are not used to seeing this kind of mental health exposure. These Canadian NHL teams have been participating in the Hockey Talks program for a few years now, but each year it gets bigger.
Each year there is a visible impact. More and more people are using #BellLetsTalk and #HockeyTalk. More survivors of mental health problems share their stories.
These Canadian teams are doing more than any U.S. teams have ever done when it comes to mental health outreach. It’s unprecedented, even in its sixth year.
It’s hard to even grasp how easy it is to have events like this. Every sports team from the high school level to professional is capable of dedicating a night of play to a cause. And when you’re a professional team, the cause will get even more attention when it’s broadcast on TV.
The goal is for mental health to be a comfortable conversation topic. It’s not comfortable to struggle with mental health, but it needs to be more of a conversation.