When former NHL goaltender Clint Malarchuk woke up from a coma in 2008, in the intensive care unit, he felt he had been spared. And he felt there was a reason. It was his third brush with death, the second suicide attempt.
"That bullet should have actually killed me," Malarchuk said. "Now I realize why I went through all this. I realize why I played in the NHL. It's just a platform. The NHL gives me a platform to speak, to talk, where people will listen."
Malarchuk and Hockey Hall of Fame member Pat LaFontaine will be appearing at the Colorado Avalanche's game against the Los Angeles Kings at Pepsi Center on Thursday (9 p.m. ET; ALT, FS-W, NHL.TV) to support Mental Health Awareness Night. The event is being put on in collaboration with the Marcus Institute for Brain Health, the Cohen Veterans Networks and the Avalanche.
Why is this important to him? It's simple.
"I'm a suicide survivor," said Malarchuk, 56, a teammate of LaFontaine with the Buffalo Sabres.
He knows that the time he spent in the NHL, the success he had, gives him a way to reach people. It enables people to see his struggles and perhaps identify with them. Malarchuk played 10 NHL seasons for the Quebec Nordiques, Washington Capitals and Sabres.
It was with the Sabres that Malarchuk had his first near-death experience, on March 22, 1989, exactly 29 years ago. A skate blade sliced his jugular vein during a game against the St. Louis Blues, nearly causing him to bleed to death, but he was saved by doctors.
The injury, though, left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Now, having been treated, Malarchuk has a message of hope.
There is a way out, and it's not through suicide.
"They see a guy that actually struggled with mental illness from a young age, had a decent career, not a Hall of Fame career, by any means, but somebody that actually wore it through life and in the NHL and he lived -- and this is very important -- lived in silence through all this," Malarchuk said.
"Once I got healthy, now I'm trying to promote: Do not do what I did. Don't live in silence. Please don't."
Malarchuk is not alone. Other athletes have recently spoken out about mental illness, including NBA player Kevin Love, who wrote an article for The Players' Tribune on March 6 about mental health and a panic attack he had in November.
It's something that Malarchuk said he sees as encouraging, helping to erase the stigma of mental illness that has kept so many from seeking needed help, especially among military families and first responders.
"I suffered in silence most of my life and it's all because of the stigma, and that is what we're trying to do now with what we're doing," Malarchuk said. "I've met and talked to many suicide survivors and we're all grateful that we didn't succeed. This whole deal is about trying to get these people to get help -- like, you're not the only one. Please."
Malarchuk has been completely open about his experiences, about the three times he nearly died, including the one in 2008, and another suicide attempt just after the Super Bowl in 1990, when he took too many pills and chased them with a bottle of Scotch after not having slept for 10 days, a function of PTSD after the accident with the skate blade. It was when he first got diagnosed.
He survived, and survived again. Now, he said, he just wants to help people.
"We can save lives. We just have to save lives," he said. "I'm the guy that put the gun to [my head]. I shot myself. I've got a bullet in my head. How grateful am I? I feel I've been spared for those who are still suffering.
"We think we're the only ones, or that we're going to be perceived as crazy. And that's not right. A diabetic has a chemical imbalance. I have a chemical imbalance. Mine is with the brain."