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FLAMES EXTRA - BEYOND THE CRAZY GAME

Clint Malarchuk's odyssey from PTSD, anxiety, depression and alcoholism to sobriety and a new lease of life

by AARON VICKERS @aavickers / calgaryflames.com

Very rare, it was, for him not to be the first through the doors.

First to tug on the tracksuit and lace up the skates.

First to hit the ice.

But not that morning. 

I was a little later than usual getting to the rink," starts Clint Malarchuk.

"Usually I would always be the first guy in because I lived by myself. I came in and there was quite a bit of traffic going on in there. I just pulled on my tracksuit."

He didn't get further.

Didn't make it to his blades.

Didn't touch the sheet. 

"I was pulled in by Burkie," Malarchuk recounts. "Bob (Hartley) was in there and Dan Cronin…he works for the NHL, NHLPA. He's a guy that gets people into rehab. Let's say a player, or…"

Or, on March 26, 2014, Malarchuk.

"I knew Dan from before when I went to rehab," says Malarchuk, who joined the Calgary Flames as a goaltending coach in 2011.

"It was odd. They told me to sit down.

"They told me I'd been drinking and that they were going to help me.

"I was like, 'no, I haven't.' Of course.

"They go, 'no, we know you have. We've seen it. You're not the same at all and we really believe you've been drinking.'

"I started to cry.

"I remember the look on Bob's face because I think it caught him, too.

"They said they were going to send me to rehab.

"It wasn't that quick, but I very quickly went, 'you know what? Good, because I don't want to go down that road again and I don't want to get worse…I want to get my feet under me.'

Joanie, Malarchuk's wife, was visiting from their ranch in Nevada at the time.

She dropped him off at the Saddledome that morning.

She was almost immediately summoned back.

 "As I was walking into the apartment  … my phone was ringing asking me to come back to the rink," Joanie said. "I didn't know anything."

Peter Hanlon, vice-president of communications with the Flames, was on the other end.

"Hi, this is Peter," Joanie remembers.

"I think something's up."

So did she.  

"I hadn't seen him drinking but I knew he wasn't doing well," Joanie says. "I thought something was up. When I was asked to come back to the rink it was weird.

"I thought, 'thank God somebody else caught it.'"

They had.

"Peter met me at the door," explains Joanie. "He brought me to another room and said, 'what's going on right now is…' and he mentioned everyone. 'They're talking to Clint and Dan will take Clint right to rehab. He seems pretty willing.'

"When Peter said that I thought, 'then he is.'

"You're either willing, or completely running away.

Malarchuk didn't run.

Not this time.

Not like he had before.

"The last time, even though I had a bullet in my head, I fought rehab," he says.

"I fought it.

 "This time…."

This time there was no fight.

No denial.

No excuses.

"I wanted to get my feet back under me. I really did," Malarchuk says.

"My drinking then…could I have quit on my own?

"Yeah, I think I could've because I hadn't been doing it for years and years now. But I knew from my experience before that it was only going to get worse. I wasn't drinking so much…I remember when I went to rehab you usually have to detox and you go through withdrawals and I didn't have any of that.

"I wasn't like before the first time where I was drinking 30 beers a day.

"But I didn't like where it was taking me.

"I was totally embarrassed.

"It was hard, but it was good."

Malarchuk was near the completion of A Crazy Game with author Dan Robson when he began struggling again. The process of recounting some of the stories for the autobiography, now a national bestseller, returned him to a lot of dark places.

A lot of places, he thought, that were well behind him.

"A lot of people asked me if writing the book was therapeutic," Malarchuk reminisces.

"No.

"It was the opposite. I was opening up old wounds and I'd done a lot of my therapy…put these things behind me and healed. That's where I started to struggle with sleeplessness because I opened up a story I had put behind me.

"Not sleeping at night.

"Waking up anxious in the middle of the night ... not being able to go back to sleep because of anxiety."

Those memories took Malarchuk back to March 22, 1989.

It's the night he lost nearly one third of his blood, which painted the ice at Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo when a skate blade of St. Louis Blues forward Steve Tuttle sliced open his jugular vein and damaged his carotid artery.

Three-hundred stitches from doctors, and the work of Sabres athletic trainer Jim Pizzutelli, saved Malarchuk from certain death.

The book re-opened that six-inch wound, and the fight with post-traumatic stress that followed.

"There were a lot of tears," Malarchuk says.

"A lot of tears.

"Talking to Dan, sitting here like this … I would just start feeling all that and a lot of it…you forget because you've put it behind you through therapy. Now I'm going back there and actually feeling the same anxiety and depression and sadness of those stories that we were talking about."

Stories that took Malarchuk back to Jan. 26, 1992 - Super Bowl XXVI.

He had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), undiagnosed, that wreaked havoc on his mental state and brought on bouts of insomnia, tremors and ulcers.

Anxious, exhausted and angry, Malarchuk drank a bottle of whiskey and swallowed a handful painkillers.

His heart stopped beating.

He was resuscitated.

So, too, was the experience, in piecing together the book.

"I'm the type of guy to keep going and keep going and keep crying," Malarchuk says.

"It's my makeup.

"Push. Push."

Malarchuk pushed through the memories.

Including Oct. 7, 2008.

Panthers forward Richard Zednik had his carotid artery sliced open by the skate of teammate Olli Jokinen eight months prior and the nightmares of his own accident flooded back to Malarchuk, sending him into a tailspin.

The anxiety returned.  

Alcoholism eclipsed his OCD.  

He pulled a rifle to his chin, and with Joanie watching, pulled the trigger.

Malarchuk survived, and the bullet shattered his chin, teeth, cheekbone and one of his eye sockets.

"That's where Dan started saying questions like, 'What were you thinking?' when I'm telling a tragic story or getting into my obsessing or depressing or anxiety," Malarchuk said.

"That's where he would say, 'What were you feeling?'

"That's where I went…Jesus Christ."

Malarchuk relapsed somewhere along the process.

Once buried, the memories of the rifle, pills and skate blade were inescapable.

The bullet, a short .22, still lodged in his skull.

A scar on his neck a daily reminder.

And the experiences soon to be on the page in the form of his autobiography.

"I can't remember exactly when I started to drink," Malarchuk answers.

"It was a gradual thing where I just needed to sleep. You have a couple shots. I was so anxious from talking, and as a recovering alcoholic you start drinking again and it just gets worse and worse and worse.

"It was…sometime in that last season with Calgary.

"But it wasn't right away. It was near the halfway point of the book where it was getting to be real heavy…where it was affecting my sleep and my anxiety and depression was all coming back. Nights were really hard.

"Of course Joanie was living at the ranch in Nevada and commuting. I had this little apartment here and I was alone a lot." 

Alone.

Without Joanie.

"You could tell," she admits. "You know. You get to know someone enough. You can tell when it's happening again."

Joanie could tell.

He couldn't tell her, though.

"I think she was asking if I was drinking, and I would say no, because …" Malarchuk trails.

"And you know he is. And you know he's not going to admit it …" Joanie trails.

Plenty weighed on Malarchuk.

The memories, long and buried, weighed on him.

The stories, so personal, were soon to be out there.

Uncensored.

"That's why the book kind of made me go through another dark period," Malarchuk admits. "But I'm glad I went to those dark, dark and went to the deep, deep places Dan took me to. I don't think it would've been as helpful to people had I not gone there."

Those deep places also took him to rehab again.

He hasn't stumbled since.

Malarchuk is a battler, after all.

The Cowboy goalie back in the saddle.

"I didn't tell anyone, but I was thinking 'what if I want to drink on the plane home?'" says Malarchuk, remembering his first day out of rehab.

"I was flying alone. No one would know. I was afraid to get on the plane because I would be anxious getting home.

"I might drink."

He didn't.

He passed his first test.

The second one?

Nailed it, too.

"I flew back, took a cab to Bridgeland … my apartment," Malarchuk starts. "My truck had been acting up all year and it was in a parkade. It was sitting there 30 days. First thing I do when I land in Calgary and it's three o'clock, I'm going to an (alcoholics anonymous) meeting.

"My truck won't start. I'm in a parkade and I'm waiting for a car to go by so I can get a boost.

"I go through my toolbox. My old truck…that beast flatbed with the toolboxes on the back…it used to be parked with all the Mercedes' and BMW's and all that…you would've thought it was a worker's at the Saddledome. Said 'Canuck Ranch' on it.

"What do I find in the toolbox?

"A bottle of vodka.

"I want to go to a frickin' meeting, man. Don't do this.

"I'm just out of rehab and as an alcoholic…no one will know. No one will know.

"I threw that one out.

"I thought, 'I ain't getting to a meeting.' I'm tired. I'm going to bed. First thing in the morning I'll get a boost and go to a meeting.

"I go down there and looking around my toolbox again I find another frickin' bottle. They're just little ones, y'know. A mickey.

"This time I went upstairs with it. I had tomato juice. Poured it all in there and I'm thinking, 'no one's going to know.'

"I didn't drink it. But I was that close.

"Alcohol, man…

It'll be three years next month that Malarchuk poured it down that sink.

Three years sober.

But one day at a time.

"It's the higher power thing that you learn, and you pray," he said. "I might've said that, too. I don't know.

"You know what? I'm not going to do it. I'll do it tonight.

"Then I poured it out."

The Crazy Game was released six months later.

A bestseller.

A raw tale of memories that used to haunt him, but haunt him no more.

A raw tale of memories that have come to fuel him, and help him fuel understanding of OCD, PTSD, mental health and alcoholism.

From those struggling, and loved ones trying to help ease the struggle.

A new purpose, tells Malarchuk.

"We were on the book tour," he says. "The book had just come out. We were in Edmonton.

"This kid, he was going to NAIT up there, and he wanted to do an interview. He had a TV camera. He was a student. He was a really nice kid. He kind of dressed like me…had a little belt buckle."

The kid was more than just media.

"He was there very early, really early," Joanie remembers. "And he waited until the very end before he came up and talked."

Malarchuk figured the kid, polite as he was, was simply outwaiting a long line to get a signature etched in his book.

Not exactly.

"He interviewed me at the beginning, then he waited around," Malarchuk says. "He kind of hung out behind the table. I told him I'd sign his book.

"He said, 'No, no. I'll wait," and he waited until every person had gone through the lineup.

"He was a nice kid.

"He said, 'I just want you to know you've saved my life.'

"I laughed like, 'what do you mean?' The book had just come out. I didn't think he had even read it.

"He goes, 'no…you did.'

 "'How do you mean?'"

"Turns out he had written a suicide note and his dad and found it. His dad said he had to research Clint Malarchuk. 'What you're telling me in your note sounds like a lot of what he's talked about publically.'

"I guess that's what he did.

"To actually have someone say, 'hey, you saved my life'…that's pretty frickin' intense, heavy, special.

"I don't know if he dressed like me because that had anything to do with it, but…'"

But, the message goes, if Malarchuk could get through it then why not him.

"I remember him saying, 'if you can get through it I can too,'" Joanie says.

That message has become his purpose.

"I talk in my speech a lot about my purpose," says Malarchuk, who does a number of speaking engagements each month across Canada and the United States.

"What is your purpose?

"I always thought my purpose was to be an NHL hockey player. I had OCD as a kid and my big brother was a goalie, my dad was a goalie. Hockey, hockey, hockey. I did that. Then what? Then I coached in the NHL. Okay. I thought that was my purpose. Hockey.

"But I always had this line of parallel. Demons. Even when I was playing in the NHL. Why am I not happy? Why am I depressed? Then there's guilt. You have the world by the tail. I had these two lines.

"That's why I say the book is my greatest achievement, because that was my purpose.

"Yes the NHL has given me a platform to speak, because I've done something special. But the demons and everything…now I get it. I get why had this and had that: to be here today to help people and speak about it.

"The book was the whole beginning of it.

"It really has.

"This is so gratifying to have people hug you and teary-eyed because they relate and you've helped them or the book has…getting emails every day…I answer every damn email.

"I've had hockey players in the NHL saying 'thank you.'

"The book has changed my life, for sure. 

It's changed the lives of others, too.

"Mark Twain wrote, 'The two most important days in your life is the day you're born and the day you figure out why you were born,'" Malarchuk quotes.

He's figured out why.

 

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