Robin Lehner: Fighting Demons


Keep it away from him he does. Voráček into the Buffalo zone. Voráček the pass to Simmonds… oh what a save by Lehner! Most goalies will admit you not only have to be mentally tough… How did Lehner prevent that goal from going in? …but fearless to put your body in front of a frozen rubber puck fired at speeds approaching 100 mph. And saved by Lehner! But for Robin Lehner, the danger on the ice was nothing compared to the demons he was fighting in his head. I had to hit rock-bottom, where I just didn’t care about how my career was going to go. In September 2018, Lehner, then with the New York Islanders, wrote an article for The Athletic, publicly disclosing for the first time his alcohol and drug addiction and trip to rehab where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD and post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, more than a year later, Lehner allowed us to sit down with him and his family to detail his experience going public. Knowing the risk, do you regret coming forward and being as open as you’ve been? No. I knew it when I did it. I knew it because my agent said no. My lawyer said no. My family said no. And everyone said the same thing. It’s about contracts in the future. But I balanced my life first. I knew this is what I needed to do because if I didn’t do it, I would have drank on the first road trip. Six months earlier, with the Buffalo Sabres, Lehner had experienced a moment of crisis while on the ice. March 29, 2018, will you take me through that game? I wish I could. I don’t even remember much from it. I don’t even remember what team uh we were playing. I had a panic attack for the first time, which was weird. And Chad Johnson now in goal for Buffalo as the Sabres have changed netminders. I could not finish the game. So I went home and kept drinking. After that panic attack, that was the first time it really affected my job. I wanted to get help for my whole career but, you’re scared, you’re scared. What would happen if I ask for help is my career done? I would try to tell him, like, you’re drinking a little too much this week you know. Maybe slow it down a little bit and he would just kind of brush it off. Lehner’s wife Donya kept her husband’s struggles a secret. They’ve been married for five years. When he was heavily drinking and um doing all that stuff, I spent a lot of time just crying in the bathroom, go to bed by myself. Every time he was on a road trip, I mean, I didn’t know if he was going to make it back home or what he was doing, who he was with. So it was – it was terrifying. When he came to you and said, “I need to go away.” Yeah. How did you feel? The first night in like four or five years that I actually slept through the night was when he left for rehab. Lehner admits his alcohol and drug abuse began almost from the moment he broke into the NHL in 2010. Well you’re out partying with the guys one day, when you just come into the league or whatever, or when you start drinking for the first time, oh, I feel pretty good. I don’t feel like, I feel good right now. And what happens? Then you keep doing that. I had problems after surgeries, with opioids that I got heavily addicted to. When I had my concussion in Ottawa the only time I didn’t have a migraine was when I picked up my first beer. I was drinking a case a day, at least. And I got traded and my problems had gone from being problems to being major problems. In his first-person account for The Athletic, the native of Sweden wrote that there were, quote ‘demons in my mind’, and ‘My personal battle was now complicated by my own childhood experiences of abuse, addiction and mental illness.’ Where would you be if you had not taken that step to get help? I’d be dead. One hundred percent. What makes you say that? Because I contemplated suicide for a long time, and uh I was getting closer and closer. People don’t understand when you are in deep depression you don’t care. I didn’t care about my kids and that’s incredibly hard to say. I only cared about one thing it was how bad I was – all the bad stuff that was in my head. In rehab in Arizona, Lehner was diagnosed as bipolar, a mental disorder that causes extreme mood swings from a manic high to the depths of depression. When I’m manic, I’m great at hockey It’s not like people can see it. But, bipolar, heavily drinking, some drugs involved and being impulsive with a gun around you, it’s not a good combination. When he came out of rehab in 2018, Buffalo decided not to re-sign the netminder in the midst of his recovery, leaving Lehner in a vulnerable place both personally and professionally. One team I went to treated me like trash. Almost got me to relapse. I was really unstable coming out of rehab. Not many people know that. Getting free back door Lehner makes two saves! In the summer of 2018, Lehner signed a one-year contract with the Islanders. Last season he won a career high 25 games, with 6 shutouts, and a 2.13 goals against average — third best in the NHL. Robin Lehner! In June 2019, nine months after his dramatic revelations in The Athletic, he was awarded the NHL’s Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game. You know, I’m not ashamed to say I’m mentally ill, but that doesn’t mean I’m mentally weak. I meant what I said, because mentally weak is un a category where you’re not tough enough, you’re not strong enough. I can tell you, any of these people that thinks they don’t have a mental issue, that think they’re strong people, have nothing on me. After Lehner went public with his story, his wife Donya says she saw a changed man, a more caring man off the ice. He would be like trying to put the kids to bed, do bath time. He was just more present because he was always there physically but not mentally. Lehner’s decision to speak out about his struggle has helped remove the stigma surrounding mental health in sports. But it has come with a price. If you had to talk to a player that was in the same place that you were in, that was thinking about getting help what would you tell them? I’ve been in that position a few times already. And uh I tell them not to be transparent. And that’s incredibly tough for me to say. Just telling them the truth, you will get punished. You’ll get punished one hundred percent. Do you feel like you’ve been punished? Of course I have. In any sport, if you make a mistake, do you have something on you? You’re going to get affected in negotiations. That’s why people don’t come forward, that’s why people don’t get help, that’s why people eventually drink, take drugs, become addicted, don’t deal with their mental health issue, and it spirals away. So far this season, Lehner’s save percentage with his new team, the Blackhawks, ranks in the top ten. But he’s still a journeyman. Chicago is the fourth franchise he’s played for in the last 10 years – another one year deal. The only constant in his life remains his wife. It is Donya, he says, who in the end, might have made the biggest save. She’s been more than amazing I’m very lucky to have her and she’s one of the best mom’s I’ve ever seen, two great kids. I get an opportunity to be a dad now. I had my addictions, everything kind of spiraled, you know, I wasn’t a good dad. It’s hard for me to say, but, I wasn’t. Now I get to be in their lives, see them grow up and, I have her to thank for that. I love him more than anything or I wouldn’t still be here. I have bad days still, where I still go into depression not as long anymore. I don’t look down on being bipolar as a negative, not anymore. I think it’s a big key to who I am. When you retire what do you want people to say about you as a player, as a person? I want to win a Stanley Cup, like everyone else in this league, but I just want to be remembered for not being afraid to show who I am. It’s scary, it is scary, but it’s worth it. It is worth it.

3 thoughts on “Robin Lehner: Fighting Demons

  • December 17, 2019 at 10:56 pm
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    Love this guy hawks need to keep him on more than a year!

    Reply
  • December 18, 2019 at 3:00 pm
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    8:58 is when i cracked up a little, even the reporter could not hold it. Strong interview. Lets hope for better transperancy… That is something the NHL has to work on for sure. Go Robin.

    Reply
  • December 18, 2019 at 11:51 pm
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    #samehere

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