Robin Lehner is hoping for a fresh start in Long Island, both from a hockey perspective and on a personal level. Expected to battle for the Islanders’ starting job in net, Lehner inked a one-year deal with the club three days into NHL free agency back in July.
One of the more fiery and quote-worthy goaltenders in the NHL, Lehner sat down with The Athletic about an even bigger and more serious battle he encountered last spring.
Speaking in a first-person, the 27-year-old Swede detailed about fighting depression and his recently-diagnosed bi-polar disorder with alcohol and other substances that eventually lead to a state of suicidal thoughts.
Lehner reached his tipping point before and during a game against the Red Wings on March 29th when his emotions became unravelled at the second intermission in the form of a panic attack, which happened to be the final time he wore a Sabres uniform. Initially, Lehner notified Buffalo’s goalie coach Andre Allen that he couldn’t start the game, but the two talked it out with Lehner concluding he could, in fact, make the start.
“The phone call I made to Andrew the night before? I was drunk. I wanted to kill myself. I was extremely close multiple times. The battle playing hockey was nothing compared to the battle inside my brain. It was at its worst.”
“The scoreboard clock was ticking down so slowly. I just wanted to get back to the locker room. When zero finally hit, I walked back and sat in the trainer’s room. I could barely get my gear off. I broke down. I was having a major, full-blown panic attack. I thought I was suffering a heart attack. I had no idea what was happening.”
Since coming into the league in 2010-11, Lehner elaborated on how he's battled addiction through his entire NHL tenure but started to really struggle when the calendar flipped in January.
"Since the new year began I had been feeling severely depressed and my drinking increased," he wrote. "I was heavily drinking a case of beer a day just to settle the demons in my mind and then took pills to sleep. I was self-treating myself because I could not be inside my own head by myself. The thoughts of ending it all … it was real and close."
"I had never had a sober season of hockey my entire career," he said. "With those manic swings, I could see the pattern. When I was hypomanic and in a good mood, I was a solid goalie. The depressive state, not so much."
“I had been taking sleeping pills to sleep almost every night for seven years,” the Swede wrote. “I had not had an honest sleep in so long, my mind was in shock. I was hallucinating, fighting demons in my mind and having extreme and vivid dreams.”
Eventually, Lehner reached out to the NHL and NHLPA’s substance abuse program about getting help with his issues, where he then checked into a three-week detox program in Arizona after leaving the Sabres at the end March. It was there where he was diagnosed as bipolar 1 with manic phases five weeks in.
"I cannot say enough about the NHLPA/NHL substance abuse program. I don’t think I would be alive without them."
After the Sabres decided to not re-sign Lehner and pursue other options in net, the Islanders signed the free agent when he thought nobody would reach out because of a perceived reputation that he was a bad teammate and person.
"My agent received a few calls, which was encouraging, but most teams were hesitant because I had a reputation. Those meetings with teams were some of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life, now sober. I couldn’t tell them I was bipolar. I couldn’t tell them anything."
"My faith that I didn’t have before rehab was now being tested. It all changed when I got a call from Lou Lamoriello and the Islanders. I had two great meetings with him and, looking back now, those meetings became some of the of the best moments in my life. We talked about family and life."
"The Islanders were ready to take a chance with me. I was relieved that I could start a new chapter. When I was finally offered the deal, I was so happy. I finally had someone who believed in me, now sober."
With a clear and sober mind, Lehner is looking forward to starting a new chapter on his life and wants people to know that there is help for those struggling with their own demons.
"I am not sharing this story to make people think differently of Robin Lehner as a professional goalie," he wrote. "I want to help make a difference and help others the way I have been helped. I want people to know that there is hope in desperation, there is healing in facing an ugly past and there is no shame in involving others in your battle."
"My journey is still new. Every day is a battle and each day a new chance to grow as a man. It is time to take the “crazy person” stamp from bipolar disorder. I am working hard to become the latest to battle this unfair stigma. Our battle together is just beginning."
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