MONTREAL - Nick Suzuki and Garrett McFadden were opponents in junior hockey, but they're very much on the same team now.
Earlier this month, Suzuki officially became an ambassador for a mental health initiative championed by McFadden called "McFadden's Movement."
It's a non-profit organization that strives to develop mental health among athletes starting at the grassroots level.
A fellow Guelph Storm alum, McFadden created the movement in September 2016 in response to experiencing a tragic loss of his own.
"It kind of started when we lost a family friend, Wes Cameron, to suicide when I was in Grade 9. After dealing with that and learning from that, mental health became important to me," said McFadden, 22, who is currently attending Acadia University and playing for the Axemen. "Through my time in Guelph and just being involved in the community, I wanted to figure out a way to give back. I wanted a way to promote mental wellness and create awareness."
McFadden believed the best way to accomplish that goal was through open dialogue and honest conversation.
He shared some of his trying experiences with youngsters across the Royal City in hopes of connecting with them and encouraging them to never hesitate to ask for assistance.
"It was an opportunity to get in touch with kids in the community and teach them about some of the hardships I experienced growing up, whether in sports or school. Even talking about my time in Guelph and some struggles there, it created a little bit of an eye-opening moment for kids to show them that even guys that may see to have it all figured out have tough times and tough days," explained McFadden. "It's kind of educating them from a young age about how to handle things in terms of their mental health, where to go, and who to talk to."
That's where Suzuki and the rest of the McFadden's Movement ambassadors - including Canadiens prospect, Cam Hills - can make a difference going forward.
"It's all about them telling their stories. Everybody has dealt with adversity and challenges. If you can see these polished athletes that are competing at high levels talking about the different things they've gone through, it can definitely help young kids realize that what they're experiencing is entirely normal," added McFadden. "It helps to speak about it and seek help when you need it."
Suzuki quickly became a supporter of McFadden's Movement when he was traded to the Storm from the Owen Sound Attack last January.
He was presented with a black wristband bearing the name of the cause, and he hasn't taken it off since.
"There's a ton of guys going through mental health struggles, both guys and girls playing hockey. That's the focal point of it. It's a great movement encouraging people to speak out and get help," said Suzuki. "I'm not afraid to go and talk to someone who I see needs help. You always want to be open for other people. Everybody needs to talk. Teammates are such an easy resource. You can talk to them about anything. Parents and siblings are huge, too. Garrett's message is - 'If you hold it in, it'll just eat you up alive inside.' It's important to help people and show them a path to go on."
Speaking from personal experience, Suzuki's parents, Rob and Amanda, have always been an integral part of his support system.
He recalls them springing into action when his services were acquired by the Canadiens from the Vegas Golden Knights in September 2018.
"When I was traded, I was in Vegas and they were there. I didn't really know what to think of the whole thing. They were watching my rookie camp. They actually found out on Twitter before I was even able to tell them. They kind of calmed me down a bit. It was hard. I was pretty nervous about coming over here. I hadn't even played in an NHL game and I was going into Montreal getting traded for Max Pacioretty, who was a big player for this organization," remembered Suzuki. "I had to be in Vegas for the next couple of days, so I was kind of struggling mentally just overthinking a lot of stuff. They were there and we went to the Grand Canyon. It was good to get away from hockey and process everything."
Everything worked out for the best in Suzuki's case, and he's thriving in his new hockey home.
It always helps to have good teammates when you're learning the ropes in the NHL ranks, of course.
"Every single guy is available. I always end up talking to some older guys, even just one-on-one about stuff they've done in my shoes as a younger guy and what they've struggled with. They're all helping me out so I can learn from them," said Suzuki. "And all the young guys are always around each other and just talking about games, practices, and stuff that goes on away from the rink, too."
To date, McFadden's Movement has raised over $46,000 for mental health resources, including WES for Youth Online, a free online counselling service created in memory of Wes, and the Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo-Wellington branch.
To learn more about McFadden's Movement, click here.