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Editor’s Note: The King Clancy Memorial Trophy is presented annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community. Each NHL Club nominates a player to be considered for this recognition, and each nominee has a unique and powerful connection to his community efforts. Today, the Pittsburgh Penguins nominee for the 2023-24 season -- Bryan Rust -- shares his story.

Media scrums are part of life in the NHL. We talk about our play, our teammates, and our expectations as a group. Often, we can guess which questions are coming. Sometimes we’re surprised by a few topics.

But after every interview, when the microphones and cameras go away, I exhale a bit. And there’s a quick thought in my head: You did well.

It’s not about how I responded to the questions. It’s about the fact that I was able to respond and speak fluently -- because I remember the days when that wasn’t always true, based on my experience with stuttering.

Growing up, I put a lot of time and energy into improving my speech. I’d go to speech therapy with my older brother, Matt, who also stuttered. In the beginning, there were sessions where I’d talk perfectly, and the speech therapist would tell my parents that I might not need help after all. But then there were days where I really struggled, and my language would be all over the place.

Stuttering can vary like that -- because different circumstances can affect your ability to focus on speaking fluently. Over time, you learn what works for you and how you can concentrate on getting your words out. But you also learn that it’s never going to be perfect. You are going to make mistakes. And it can be challenging to navigate that reality without feeling some anxiety.

During my college hockey career, I can vividly remember the feeling of my heart racing when I stood in front of cameras. I’d get really nervous and then speak too quickly, trying to rush through it … which only made my speech worse. There are clips from some of my Notre Dame interviews that I won't go back and watch because I can tell how uncomfortable I was.

I was putting too much pressure on myself, when the best thing for me would’ve been dealing with the situation head-on. Acknowledging my stuttering and working on it has helped me learn to relax and find my voice, whether I’m in group settings or having one-on-one conversations.

Some of my favorite conversations these days are with kids from the National Association of Young People who Stutter, commonly known as Friends Who Stutter. Through my “Seats for Strength” initiative, I invite children with speech impediments and their families to be my guests at Penguins home games. I really look forward to spending time with them after each game and hopefully giving them a little motivation to keep going.

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When the kids ask how I dealt with my own stuttering, my advice is always the same: Don’t shy away from speaking just because your experience is different. Always try to talk in class, read out loud in school, and speak in groups as much as you can -- because the more you do it, the more confident you’ll get. You’ll figure out combinations of words that make it easier to express your thoughts. You’ll still have stumbles; it is what it is. But those stumbles are not going to hold you back.

I had so many supportive people in my life who gave me the same message. But as a kid who loved hockey, if I’d heard an NHL player say that? It would’ve been huge. They would’ve instantly become my favorite player. For a condition like stuttering, which isn’t always highlighted in the public eye, it can be so reassuring for kids to see a role model who is living out their dream. I’m very proud to have a platform that allows me to connect with everyone in this community.

Stuttering will always be part of my story, no matter how much I’ve improved my speech over time. It’s shaped me in both the way I communicate and in the mentality that comes from overcoming any type of adversity. And when I think about how my experiences have contributed to my individuality, it reminds me that there are many other NHL players with their own unique experiences, all of which contribute to the individuality they bring to the game.

In the past, it might’ve been customary to minimize those individual stories -- to blend in as much as possible. But there seems to be more room than ever for guys around the League to embrace their differences. I hope that’s something we can build on, and maybe represent for the kids who are coming up now.

It’s OK to be different. It’s OK to not be perfect. It’s OK to struggle. There are people who have gone through similar experiences who want to help. And there are people who will respect and support you because they see the courage it takes to be open about things and keep going.

You really can make a positive impact by sharing your story, and that’s why I’ve chosen to be open about finding – and using – my voice.

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