With the Bill Masterton Trophy in his hand, Robin Lehner stood triumphantly on stage at the NHL Awards on Wednesday night.
Inside, he was nervous and later said he was holding back tears as he delivered an emotional speech, thanking everyone from his wife and close friends to his coaches, teammates, and doctors.
In that moment, the Islanders goalie had command of the Mandalay Bay Events Center, with everyone applauding his recovery. It was a far cry from what he'd expected back on September 13, when he publicly disclosed his struggles with addiction and mental health in The Athletic. Back then, he was fearful that his honesty about his situation would be met with resistance or hostility.
Fast forward nine months and Lehner had the 10,000 people at the NHL Awards - and millions around the world - hanging on his every word. Lehner capped his speech with a powerful message:
"I'm not ashamed to say that I'm mentally ill, but that doesn't mean mentally weak."
That's a message Lehner would have benefitted from hearing years ago, as he suffered in silence. He wants to help end the stigma around mental health and show that people can be successful even as they cope with mental illness.
"It's how I feel now," Lehner said. "The message there is that a majority of people are ashamed of their flaws, if you want to say it that way. At the end of the day, everyone deals with something, different issues get put into different pockets and sections. There are a lot of people that have some type of mental issues that have a lot of success that are not out front and open about it and that are extremely successful. There's a lot of change that needs to be made."
Video: Robin Lehner awarded the Masterton Trophy
For Lehner, there was a lot of significance attached to the Masterton, even moreso than potentially winning the Vezina as the league's best goalie, which he was also nominated for.
"The Masterton is the most important one to me because it resembles a lot of things and overcoming a bunch of things for me and my family," Lehner said on Tuesday.
The Masterton is given to the player who best exhibits perseverance and dedication to hockey, so in a way it's a trophy associated with hardship. Something had to go wrong before it could be righted.
For Lehner, that process began over a year ago, when he made the decision to check himself into rehab after struggles with addiction and mental health. In rehab he was diagnosed as Bipolar I with manic phases and has spent the last year sober. He's also now taking medication for his previously undiagnosed condition.
He deserves a lot of credit for taking the first step, getting sober, sharing his story and helping bring more attention to mental health issues. On top of all that, he delivered a career-year on the ice, winning a Jennings Trophy with Thomas Greiss and earning a Vezina nomination.
"I'm more proud of what he's done off the ice that is what really matters," Head Coach Barry Trotz said. "The other stuff is entertainment. The real life stuff is what he has to deal with on a day to day basis and the strides he's made… Riding over here, just to see the growth and confidence in Robin and his maturity and his focus on battling what he's had to battle. He knows he's not done. He has a life-long battle, but one that I'm pretty sure he feels he's going to complete that task and go all the way."
The Masterton wasn't in Lehner's mind as he worked through his personal issues, but it's a token for how far he's come in that time. This is his new normal and all the recognition for his season is a checkpoint, not the finish line. His happiness is the real prize. That and his family are his safeguard against relapsing.
"What inspires me is just to have a good life. To be happy. To keep being happy," Lehner said on Tuesday. "I felt happiness this year for the first time in a long time. I don't want to lose it. That's why I'm very confident about my sobriety going forward. I don't want to lose this. I have tough days, but what keeps me from going in the wrong direction is that I don't want to lose what I have."
That's what inspires Lehner. In turn, he's inspired many more people, who've reached out to the goalie with letters, tweets and the most personal of stories. He thinks that sharing his story shows that there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Trotz, who's dealt with these issues in his family, has been supportive of Lehner's openness since day one.
"I think it's a sign of strength," Trotz said. "We talked about that before he came to the Islanders, that he can change people's lives. There's other players in the league and other people in society who know who he is. He can give a little bit of normalcy to their lives where they can say, 'You know what? I'm no different than Robin Lehner. Maybe I should look at this a little differently and get the help that I need and be OK. We talk about inclusion, we need inclusion in understanding mental health."
What Lehner really wants to end the stigma around mental health, something he said keeps people from seeking the help they need. Despite worthy initiatives like #BellLetsTalk, there's still a lack of openness and acceptance that still exists. If that's in doubt, consider that Lehner said the number of teams interested in his services over the summer dwindled after he told them about his rehab stint. And when he first decided to publish his story, more people advised against it, but he felt it was the right thing to do.
"When I came out with my article, it was a huge risk, a huge risk to my career. It still is," Lehner said. "I knew this is going to have a lot of consequences for me going forward in my professional life and I knew that. If I had to do it all over again, I'd do it again."
Video: NHL Awards: Robin Lehner Wins Masterton Trophy
Lehner thanked the Islanders for their understanding and support throughout the season and did so again on stage. After hugging his wife Donya, he embraced General Manager Lou Lamoriello, who signed the goalie to a one-year deal last summer. It was clear that the Isles contingent were all behind the goalie.
"It's a tremendous tribute to him and his family to what he's accomplished, especially doing it the way he did it," Lamoriello told reporters after the Board of Governor's Meetings. "I mean, he came forward. No one had to force him to do it when it transpired. It's fantastic."
Lehner wants to write the next chapter of his story this season. He figures some charitable work is in order with the goal to further bring mental health issues - especially in sports - just as much of a priority as physical health
He certainly did that at the NHL Awards on Wednesday night.