The 2020-21 season has most certainly been a grind. Save for the Nikolaj Ehlers potential COVID-19 positive scare from back on opening night and the two weeks missed by defenceman Tucker Poolman, who actually contracted the deadly virus, the Winnipeg Jets have been rather fortunate in terms of COVID diagnoses.
Also fortunate is the team’s standing in terms of mental health and the resources made available by the Winnipeg Jets and True North Sports + Entertainment.
On Thursday, prior to the first of two-straight matchups with the North Division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs, both players and coaches alike were asked questions surrounding not only their respective physical state (as is the typical fashion) but also their mental states through 45 games of a hectic, yet rather isolated 56-game schedule.
On Wednesday, Vegas Golden Knights netminder Robin Lehner – who has publicly spoken on his battles with depression and mental illness – took to the media on ways he felt the NHL has failed its players in terms of mental health resources and broken promises on the easing of restrictions following vaccine rollout.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice spoke on the subject Thursday morning.
“I think we’re all members of a community where we all live and the rules from the get-go have been different in each community,” he said. “I know in the NHL, prior to vaccination we’re all under a certain safety net. I think that you should be respectful of the community that you’re in and stay within those rules… it’s not been easy but we’re all in it, so just follow along with what everybody else around you is doing. And I’m not looking to go golfing.”
All kidding aside, Maurice did touch on what the general public may not know goes on behind the scenes of an NHL club, despite not asking for any sympathy from fans in the process.
“What’s truly different for us, it’s the same thing that’s different for everybody else,” Maurice said. “We all go through it like you do. The hotels we stay in are brilliant, the food is fantastic, the travel is easy – there is no complaining about that. But there are no fans in our building. That’s what makes the game fun. That’s gone. There is no easy connection with family and friends. The same thing that all of you are going through, just because they’re high paid players, we’re all going through that isolation together. I wouldn’t say ‘you guys don’t understand,’ I would say ‘you understand completely what we’re going through.’ Maybe the statement it’s not that we’re not going through that because we work in the NHL, we’re going through exactly – in that isolation idea – the same as everybody else is, so that’s difficult.”
Yes, the wages between NHL players/coaches are definitely in a different tax bracket than the majority of NHL fans, but according to Maurice, mental health remains impacted by the pandemic at all levels of the pay spectrum.
“I find we check in on each other more. It’s true of the coaches, the players,” Maurice added. “There is more time for one-on-one, appropriately distanced, one-on-one conversations about how you’re doing. About that idea, how are you doing with this? And it’s not even almost checking, it’s more sharing, you know. How are you eating dinner, how is this going? What did you do yesterday afternoon? We’ve spent some time and we’ve spent time in the room talking about that on off days… So there would be an awareness of each other more, because it seems like that’s all that we have left right now, is just each other.”
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Forward Andrew Copp also chimed in on the effect that mental health has played in professional athletes through 2020 and 2021.
“Obviously, the mental health thing has impacted a lot of people, pretty much everyone, I would say, in some shape or form,” Copp said. “The isolation’s probably been brutal for pretty much everyone so I think mental health’s probably the biggest thing right now. You do what you can for yourself and your close friends and whatnot and try to be there for them.”
Despite admitting that the team isn’t preaching ‘take care of your mental health’ every day, Copp knows that there is a full welcoming body of teammates, coaches, training staff and friends who do provide support on the daily.
“It’s well-known that if anyone’s ever struggling or going through something, he’s got five, 10, 15 guys that he can rely on in the room to talk through something,” he added. “Or the staff, whether it’s the trainers, the equipment staff or the coaching staff, they’re always all ears. So I don’t necessarily think it’s something that is preached on a daily basis: take care of your mental health, take care of your mental health. I think that’s kind of a given for everyone at this point. I do think that the environment and the culture we’ve created in the locker-room has allowed guys that if they are struggling to come to their closest friend on the team or a group of guys and talk about situations outside the room, inside the room, on the ice, off the ice, what’s going on at home, what’s going on with their families.”
Defenceman Josh Morrissey agreed with both Maurice and Copp that nearly everyone has had some sort of mental health challenges over the past year, but does see some light at the end of the tunnel.
“I do think the mental health toll that everyone’s gone through, no matter who you are, over the last year and a bit, has been tough,” Morrissey said. “So, I think we’re all hoping and wanting to get back to a lifestyle that resembles what it was prior the pandemic and wanting to get back there as soon as possible. Certainly, once you get the vaccine I think that’s sort of been the marker for us all of if we can get the vaccine, get it rolled out and then we can go back to normal.”
Lucking out with a four-day break between games, the Jets have had some time to relax and refocus on the stretch run of the season. And according to Morrissey, it was just what the doctor ordered.
“Prior to the schedule changes, we all had that three-day break originally circled on the calendar,” he said. “With the schedule changes, it turned to four, but when you’re playing every other night, the days in between seem to move by pretty fast and you don’t have a lot of time to decompress, which actually can be a good thing, too. You get into a groove, you play a lot of games and you can get on a roll as a team and as a player, individually. But certainly, having a chance to decompress, spend some time at home with family or whoever you’re with at home and relax a little bit, just be out of that mental grind you have going into a season. Not necessarily a grind, but just that focus level when you’re playing every other night.”