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Perhaps it’s time for NHL teams to take mental health seriously with young players

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NHL: Minnesota Wild at St. Louis Blues Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

As many of you know, I am very passionate advocate for mental health awareness. As a person who has battled depression and anxiety for the better half of my life, I know first-hand the severity of these conditions. I’m sure many of you do, but don’t say anything. That’s okay. Whenever you’re ready to talk about it, there will be someone there to listen. Hell, I’ll be one of them. Anyways, the reason for this column isn’t to talk about that. I am here to raise a concern about something in the NHL, something that poses to be a “silent killer,” if you will. Nail Yakupov, the former first-overall pick of the Edmonton Oilers, and now member of the St Louis Blues came out after his first appearance with his new team and shed some insight that, to me, was disturbing. Lou Korac, a Blues writer for NHL.com, transcribed a quote from Yakupov after his first game as a member of his new team. Here’s what Yakupov had to say:

“I tried. Honestly, it was really tough this week because it’s not that easy. Doesn’t matter what team you’re on. I know Blues are a really good team, really good guys that are really friendly. It’s a really good family here. When you’ve been away for a long time, live in different country, different city and different friends, you pretty much have nothing outside. It’s really good here, but as soon as you go outside after practice, you’re just alone. You’re lonely and those kind of things get into your brain and in your mind and you have to fight that. I’m fighting, and now it’s going to be much easier. I’m happy to get two points tonight and it’s going to be much easier for me to sleep tonight.”
Read more from Lou Korac

Read that a couple of times, and let it sink in. Take away the money, take away the fact that he’s a professional athlete. Everything. Strip it down to bare bones — A kid from Russia saying that he’s lonely, and that he’s fighting what is going on in his mind. Now, let’s add on some other stuff..

Yakupov was a first-overall pick. Right off the bat, the expectations are high. You’re expected to come to your team, put in work, and make an immediate impact as a possible franchise pillar. If you know how things panned out in Edmonton, you know that Yakupov was a victim of a complete xenophobic environment where he was deemed a “lazy Russian player” with “attitude problems.” Whether or not this was entirely true, that’s ignoring serious issue — He’s a kid, from a different country. Instead of alienating him, and making things worse, what are we doing to help him?

Imagine what could have happened with Pavel Datsyuk coming to Detroit in September of 2001 had the Red Wings not had a support system to help.

Yakupov’s quotes show a pretty clear sign of depression and anxiety. I have to ask the question, and I think we all should — What are NHL teams doing to support these young prospects on a mental level? I’m sure there are teams who do take this seriously, but from what I see in Yakupov’s words, his organization ignored it. Instead, he was left there, alone, and “fighting.”

If you’ve battled depression before, you know exactly what this kid is/was feeling. The uneasiness, and loneliness. The feeling of being homesick, but sitting in your own living room. Darkness, in complete daylight.

I’m writing this because what Yakupov said made me incredibly emotional as a sports fan, and a human being. I know what he’s going through, but I can’t imagine going through it with the expectations that were put on him in Edmonton, and the overall dismissal he received on a humanitarian level. I’m not going out and bashing the Oilers with this. Though I think it is highly concerning, and very disappointing that it went down like this, I just can’t do that. Why? Because I know for a fact this has happened before with other organizations.

Another example I’d like to bring into this is Red Wings prospect Anthony Mantha. After being drafted in the first round, and going on a tear scoring 81 goals in 81 games, Mantha went down with an injury in the offseason that sidelined him for a chunk of his first year pro. After recovering from his injury, Mantha had difficulty finding a similar scoring pace in the AHL. Again, lofty expectations for a prospect coming out of juniors, let alone off of a leg injury. In response to Mantha’s struggles, Red Wings Senior Vice President Jim Devellano told Keith Gave that Mantha’s production was “very, very, very disappointing.” Mantha spent the following summer seeing multiple sports psychologists, in search of a fresh start. Thankfully for him, he found that fresh start and has re-emerged as one of the organization’s most-promising prospects.

Again, this isn’t meant to put the Oilers on blast. All I wanted to do was raise awareness here. These young, millionaire athletes are people, too. People thousands of miles away from their families, friends, and complete familiarity with their surroundings. They are quite literally alone on many levels. The question needs to be asked — What can we do to support these kids? What can we change so that this doesn’t happen again?

Thankfully, Yakupov seems to be in a better place with the St Louis Blues. He’s surrounded by a good team, with a fellow countryman in Vladimir Tarasenko. I’ll be rooting for him, and hoping like hell this doesn’t happen again.