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Maple Leafs are making mental health a priority

by Michelle da Silva MapleLeafs /

"Spread that love and you'll get it back."

When Kasperi Kapanen spoke about the annual #HockeyTalks initiative, this was his message. The 23-year-old knows the pressures of competition and standing out in the NHL, and he's become an advocate for the importance of speaking up. 

"I like to hold stuff in a lot, and I'm not the best person to open up about stuff. As of late, past couple of years I've been trying to do that and I feel a lot better," Kapanen said. "If you feel like you know somebody's going through a tough time, it's always good to ask and be there for someone."

Since signing to the Maple Leafs in 2015, Kapanen has been outspoken about the importance of initiatives like Bell Let's Talk Day and, more recently, Hockey Talks, both of which aim to raise awareness and end the stigma around mental health. 

Video: Hockey Talks

"I think it's important for athletes to tell our stories, or to just remind people that it's ok to feel down or upset," Kapanen says. "I'm happy that the Maple Leafs are part of that. Personally, I'll do whatever I can to help."

This openness to talking about mental health wasn't always the status quo in hockey. Zach Hyman credits an increase in available resources not only within the NHL, but also in society, to helping shift attitudes and conversations around seeking help. 

"I think that now, everybody realizes that people - no matter who you are - go through adversity," says Hyman. "To have the ability to reach out and lean on your support system is really important."

For Hyman, he relies on his family and friends to help him during tough times. Earlier in the season, his teammates were also integral to helping him stay positive after he sustained an injury that kept him off the ice.

The published children's author finds that taking the time to write helps him clear his mind and return to the rink feeling refreshed and refocused.

"It's important to have other passions and interests away from what you do for a career because you don't want that to consume you," he says. "I'm not just a hockey player, and having other interests to explore actually helps me play better."

Similarly, Frédérik Gauthier unwinds from the mental pressures of the game by spending time with his dog, Stella, and working on jigsaw puzzles. 

"I just try to do things that are completely different from hockey to disconnect as much as I can," he says.

Sometimes, a hobby is not enough to escape the rigours of playing professional hockey. When Alexander Kerfoot attended Harvard University to study economics and play NCAA hockey, he found comfort in knowing that he and his teammates were all facing hardships in balancing academics and sports together. 

"I was dealing with the same stuff as a bunch of my friends and teammates, and we were able to bounce ideas off one another and share in the experience," he recalls. "That made it a lot easier - to know I wasn't going through it by myself."

Now, in his first season with the Maple Leafs, Kerfoot wants to make sure none of his teammates ever feel like they're struggling alone. Moreover, his advice to young athletes feeling the pressures of performance is to open up and talk to someone you trust.

"Whatever you're going through, someone has gone through it before and someone will go through it in the future," Kerfoot says. "So however hard things may seem, realize that if you're able to let people know what you're going through, it's always going to help."

Video: Hockey Talks Night Recap

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