Pittsburgh Hockey Digest

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RMU’s Cavanagh brings Mental Health Awareness to the forefront

— Brian Mitchell

MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — For Liam Cavanagh, Director of Hockey Operations for the Robert Morris University women’s hockey team, building bridges with his student-athletes has always been part of his job.

Cavanagh, already a public mental health advocate and champion of his own struggles, never imagined the job would one day drive him to the very bridge he crossed on a regular basis.

The former amateur goaltender and Acadia University graduate, who studied abroad at UMass-Boston, was fitting in splendidly with the well-peopled women’s program at Robert Morris. It captured its second of three consecutive College Hockey America regular-season titles upon his arrival in the fall of 2017.

Unfortunately, the Colonials bowed to arch-rival Mercyhurst in the conference playoff final, failing to duplicate their maiden NCAA Tournament voyage from the previous winter.

Suddenly, the season was over. One day, standing on the Sewickley Bridge–ironically, after being invited to participate in a mental health roundtable elsewhere–he wondered if his life was as well.

“I was not ready for it after that season. It hit me that I don’t have players around me anymore. During the season, you grind, you go 90 hours a week, you’re with your athletes all the time, and I stopped taking care of myself,” Cavanagh admitted Jan. 16, to a ballroom full of his own hockey-playing pupils inside RMU’s Yorktown Hall.

“I knew everything I had to do. But I couldn’t do it, because now I’m the face of mental health, so I can’t ask for help anymore. I was just so invested in sharing my story of beating depression and anxiety. But being diagnosed with severe depression, severe OCD, severe anxiety…there’s no ‘beating’ that.

“I walked across the bridge, and I looked 200 feet down. I figured, I can’t do it anymore. I can’t lead this fake life where I tell people, ‘It’s OK to not be OK,’ when I’m struggling the most and not saying anything.

“I was very, very, very fortunate to be surrounded by people that were around me and noticed the signs.”

After working back into better habits and returning to the rink in a better place, Cavanagh decided to stage the Never Give Up Radio Mental Health Awareness Panel Discussion, featuring his own friends from the hockey and mental health communities, to continue his conversation with student-athletes representing several of Robert Morris’ Division I athletic programs.

The guest appearances were made possible by the sponsorship of “NGU,” a non-profit company and eponymous mental health awareness podcast Cavanagh started while at RMU, with help from fellow UMass-Boston alumnus Albee Daley. Through this year’s event, Never Give Up Radio, to date, has raised almost $1,500 to promote various mental health initiatives.

Leading up to the panel discussion, the women’s hockey team, while gearing up for an important home series against CHA foe Syracuse, partnered with local businesses Primanti Bros. and Tropical Smoothie to raise money for Never Give Up Radio. Then, on a stage adorned by goalie masks covered in messages of affirmation and giant posters bearing the company logo and Cavanagh’s social media battle cry, #EndTheStigma, his new tradition continued.

For the second time in as many years, Cavanagh was joined by former Pittsburgh Penguins forward and 2009 Stanley Cup champion Tyler Kennedy. Flanking the NHL retiree on this particular Thursday evening were Dr. Aimee Kimball, who worked with Kennedy in the Penguins organization before being named Director of Player Development for the New Jersey Devils, and Eric Kussin, a longtime executive for multiple NHL and NBA teams who has since gone on to found the mental health organization We’re All A Little “Crazy.”

Kennedy, who played juniors for his hometown Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League after the Penguins drafted him in 2004, opened up about the external pressure he felt to make a name for himself in the pros, and the damage it could have done.

His fear of insomnia, and that his game would be impacted, was an inner demon that followed him all the way to the NHL and led to his introduction to the popular sleeping drug Ambien. Fortunately, before Kennedy got “the call” from the Pens in October of 2007, a life-altering introduction to Dr. Kimball, for whom he credits the longevity of a career that spanned nine years and four different organizations, took place in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Ultimately, Kimball became his regular pre-game confidant, and not just when it came to allaying that fear.

“Aimee helped me out a ton. For me, it was just talking to someone who wasn’t my parents, or my girlfriend [at the time], or my family, or the coaches that was a neutral person who had an honest opinion that I knew would stay between me and her,” Kennedy said, recalling his days in the minors, and later on the road with fellow NHL newcomer and roommate Jordan Staal.

“The biggest thing she ever taught me was to write stuff down. When I was in my room, I had a million thoughts ripping through my mind, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ But Aimee would say, ‘Why don’t you get them on paper?’ Then, once I got them on paper, I’d say, ‘Oh, this isn’t that bad.'”

Today, after a tour of duty with the Penguins’ youth programs, Kennedy is an independent skill development instructor in the Pittsburgh area and, effectively, passes on her wisdom, along with his own, through camps for youth hockey players from coast to coast.

“I just try to give them a neutral voice, and that’s my biggest thing–letting them know, if they do need to get help, or to lean on someone, I’m always there,” he said. “I think it’s important just to talk. Find anyone you’re willing to open up to, and tell them what’s going on. Once you open that door, everything gets a lot easier. That first conversation is the hardest, but after that, everything will roll.”

The stigma against discussing mental health issues is something Kimball has seen not necessarily end, but certainly subside, in her time as a confidant for professional athletes. She got her first NHL job at a time when masking these issues was more widely accepted, but she has also seen the hockey community, in recent years, lift that proverbial mask.

“It’s part of the game now. It’s not a thing where, if you have an issue, it’s a fix. Now it’s just another part of how you train, and more normalized and accepted by everybody,” said Kimball, a three-sport star in high school whose budding interest in psychology guided her down that professional path.

“Mental health is on a continuum. There doesn’t have to be something glaringly wrong for you to get better.”

Kussin, who spoke about the importance of being proactive, would concur.

In 2015, while serving the Florida Panthers as the franchise’s chief revenue officer, he noticed a confounding loss of interest in life outside the office that preceded suicidal thoughts and what he described as corresponding “last resort” shock therapy in a psychiatric hospital. Integrative psychiatry, which gave Kussin the opportunity to open up about formative life experiences, as opposed to specific symptoms, stabilized him and led him to start We’re All A Little “Crazy” and its own official hashtag of solidarity, #SameHere.

According to Never Give Up, one out of every five youths and young adults live with a mental health condition. He takes umbrage to that statistic, however, because it’s all too easy to assume four in five are living carefree.

“Why are we waiting for the one in five to happen? I think that’s the biggest thing I want to get across to the people I talk to,” said Kussin. “Why are we waiting for the symptoms to show up? That would be like me eating my cheeseburger, waiting for my shirt not to fit and then going to the gym.

“We have it backwards in society, where we wait for the bad [stuff] to happen, then we do something about it. It’s no wonder we have such a high suicide rate.”

Never Give Up estimates that 90 percent of those who die in that manner have an underlying mental illness.

Emily Curlett, a junior defender on the Robert Morris women’s hockey team, is not only a courier of such information, but she also uses her platform as an NGU brand ambassador and treasurer for the RMU chapter of Hope Happens Here to disseminate just that: hope.

The Lapeer, Michigan native, Little Caesars U19 alumna and erstwhile NCAA shot-blocking leader made an immediate splash with the Colonials. Even while earning All-CHA Rookie Team honors, however, she struggled with the mental aspect of hockey at the intercollegiate level. Now, as a two-time all-conference selection and an officer for a student organization that continues the mental health conversation, the physically indomitable Curlett has found her voice, while acquiring a different kind of toughness.

“It’s something that I’ve dealt with, even after I became the face of mental health awareness for our team. Like Liam said, I was this face of mental health, yet I couldn’t face my own problems,” she said. “I didn’t want anyone else’s problems to go under the radar, like I hid mine. I started learning new techniques, and new ways to deal with things, and if one didn’t work, I tried another. Part of it is just being patient, and knowing you’re a human being and need to grow.”

Like Kennedy in his heyday, she has gotten into the habit of writing things down–three things every day, in fact, that she believes she has done well.

“I think I’ve grown a lot since freshman year. I’ve learned a lot from my teammates, especially the older girls on the team.”

Her fellow blue-liners over the years, such as Kirsten Welsh, now trying her hand at NHL officiating, and Maggie LaGue, who was drafted by the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale, certainly raised the bar for the versatile Curlett. As she counts donations via the basket raffle she staged for her team’s annual Mental Health Awareness Game, she is on pace to surpass them all as the highest-scoring defenseman in RMU history.

Being in the same room as the Syracuse squad that denied her a ring in last year’s College Hockey America playoffs put something of a twist on the evening for her and the Colonials, who did get a measure of revenge with a 5-1 flattening of the Orange at the RMU Island Sports Center in Greater Pittsburgh Jan. 17. Still, as they battle for another CHA crown and that elusive return trip to the NCAA Tournament, at the top of their minds is the other battle, the one they want none of their peers to fight alone.

“We’re all hockey players. We all feel the same things,” Curlett said. “You can always learn from everybody, and I guarantee you, a year from now, I’ll still be a lot different than I am right now.”

“It’s always been a little therapeutic for me to be able to speak to people. Kudos to our women’s team, who has really taken a stand. They’ve truly jumped on board with this and truly care about it,” said Cavanagh. “To bring Eric, Tyler and Aimee in, it just goes to show how far the conversation has grown. And this is not a conversation to put in the background.

“It’s a conversation that has to happen right now.”

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