LAS VEGAS -- Robin Lehner stood on stage at the 2019 NHL Awards presented by Bridgestone on Wednesday and said something he wasn't able to admit publicly or privately a year ago.
"I'm not ashamed to say I'm mentally ill, but that doesn't mean mentally weak," the New York Islanders goalie said at the end of his speech accepting the Masterton Trophy, given to the player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey.
Lehner went public with his battle against alcoholism, drug abuse and depression that led to suicidal thoughts in an article he wrote for The Athletic that was published on the first day of training camp. He revealed his medical diagnosis of bipolar 1 with manic phases and poured himself into the story, pulling back the curtain on his life to reveal a troubled man with addiction and mental health issues who was finally willing to admit his problems and seek help.
[RELATED: Lehner wins Masterton Trophy | NHL Awards coverage]
It shocked the hockey world, including his former teammates with the Buffalo Sabres, many of whom knew there were struggles but had no clue how deep they ran.
"I'm really proud of Robin," said Islanders coach Barry Trotz, who won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. "The real-life stuff is what he has to deal with on a day-to-day basis and the strides he's made. … You just see the growth and confidence in Robin and his maturity and I'll say his focus on battling on what he's had to battle. He knows he's not done. He's got a lifelong battle, but one that I'm pretty sure he feels he's going to complete that task and go all the way."
Lehner said he always felt revealing so much about his personal struggles was a risk because he wasn't sure how it would impact his career and future contract negotiations. He wondered about the support he would get.
"The reality of the matter is people do think of you differently if you have different issues," said Lehner, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1 but has said he wants to re-sign with the Islanders.
Video: Robin Lehner awarded the Masterton Trophy
Lehner said he still worries about that risk hurting his future even after this season, when the support he received throughout the hockey world, especially from the Islanders and their fans, was overwhelming. He went 25-13-3 with a 2.13 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and six shutouts, and finished third in the voting for the Vezina Trophy behind winner Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning and runner-up Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars. Lehner and Thomas Greiss won the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals (196) in the NHL during the regular season.
"To see him come forward with it, see the work that he did and the struggles and to share it with people, I couldn't be more proud of him," said St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, who played with Lehner for Buffalo from 2015-18. "That is not an easy thing. For everyone to know that, for a team to give him a chance, and then to see what he did, it's so impressive."
Lehner said he viewed telling his story as a way to help others who battle similar demons and are afraid to let anyone know about them. That part is working.
"I've had such an incredible outpour of support and so many people that have contacted me or tried to contact me that I still haven't been able to get to yet that are just scared to take that first step, scared of doing the things necessary to turn their lives around," Lehner said. "That's incredibly rewarding."
The 27-year-old said he recently found out about people who are helping themselves because of his public admission during a dinner he had with the doctors from the NHL-NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program who initially treated him.
"They obviously don't tell me names or anything, but they said a lot of people have reached out to them and started getting help because of me being outspoken," Lehner said. "If that was just one person, it would be worth it."
Lehner said the process of ending the stigma associated with addiction and mental illness in the NHL is in the early stages.
"We as players in this league, GMs, whoever it might be, there needs to be some change to open it up," Lehner said. "Why it's been so successful for me this year is because I was open with it, I think the program for the first time was able to work together with the team. The program and the team together have been able to be on the same page and do the right things. It's been a good collaboration. The problem is, the majority of people are not going to come out and be open about it to the team, so the team part is going to be not involved."
Video: SAP Stats looks at Lehner's and Greiss' season
Lehner began trying to change that in September, when he went public. On Wednesday, he was rewarded for his bravery, and he used the platform at Mandalay Bay Events Center sports and entertainment complex to continue his message.
"It's been a long journey since I left Buffalo and went to rehab and started taking steps to change my life," he said. "It's not been easy, so I guess the perseverance is not giving up, just trust the process, trust all the things that I know I need to do with the support system that I have from my wife to everyone else around me. There are still going to be ups and downs. I think everyone has ups and downs. The problem before with me with my issues was my downs were very low and pretty long, and the same with my ups. But now I'm diagnosed and medicated and I've learned a tremendous amount on how to deal with my issues. I still have a lot to learn, but it's incredibly manageable and that's why a lot of people need to take that first step."