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Unmasked: Oilers' Scrivens has mask with a message

by Kevin Woodley

Simply stopping pucks isn't enough for Ben Scrivens.

Scrivens sees his position as a goaltender for the Edmonton Oilers as an opportunity and an obligation to do more. So he is lending his name and his mask to raise awareness and funds for mental health in general, and the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta in particular.

Scrivens has started Ben's Netminders, a program that will turn his mask into a canvas for four Edmonton-area artists diagnosed with schizophrenia. Scrivens is raising awareness by wearing the first mask, based on a painting by Richard Boulet. The fundraising will come when the game-worn masks are put up for auction, but more important is giving a voice to those who often are marginalized.

Scrivens wants more people to understand schizophrenia beyond the pop culture stereotypes. He wants people to know it is a brain disease that can be treated and people with it can recover. He wants those struggling with any mental illness to feel like it's OK to ask for help, and he wants more attention directed toward research and understanding.

"You go to the doctor and take an X-ray of your arm and they can see your arm is broken and have a remedy to fix it," Scrivens said. "But with mental illness it is not as cut and dry as that. Two people can have the same diagnosis but it's in a completely different system and treatment might not work in the same way. It's a field that needs more discovery, more work and a lot more awareness around it."

Scrivens, who said he is "quite interested in psychology," was first exposed to artists living with schizophrenia during his time at Cornell University.

"The characteristics they run with are quite compartmentalized and detail driven and I thought it was something that could transition really well to a goalie mask," he said. "It was only later I thought it would be a good idea to use my mask to accentuate how talented these artists are and use it for a good cause at the same time. It was a no-brainer to pair up and create a mental health awareness campaign."

Some of the messages Scrivens hopes to convey with the campaign can be found in the words used in the first mask painting by Boulet, who has a master's degree in fine arts. They include the phrase, "I'll walk a mile in your shoes if you show me how," and the words "Hope" and "Empathy," which Scrivens' long-time personal painter, Steve Nash of EyeCandyAir, displayed prominently along the edge of the mask.

Those same words could be applied to being a goalie, especially under the spotlight that comes with playing the position in a Canadian market. But as much as Scrivens works on his own mental game between the pipes, he is careful to separate that process from this project, not wanting to lessen the impact of Boulet's experiences and art.

"The messages Richard was trying to convey are specific to how he viewed his recovery," Scrivens said. "But that said, empathy goes a long way in all walks of life, whether it's family or friends, on Twitter or dealing with people who are sick, people who are old, people who are young. Empathy is what sets us apart from other animals."

Just as being seen as a stereotype can set professional athletes and those dealing with mental illness apart from others. So when an athlete shares their experiences with mental health issues, or gives a voice to the experiences of others, it strikes a bigger chord.

"Pro sports can be a good barometer for society as a whole to see how we deal with and accept and treat people in different situations than what we are going through," Scrivens said. "People tend to view athletes as not being real people. They are dehumanized in some senses. They are impervious to pain and they don't have the same problems that 'normal' people do. But when something hits home and you see someone you watch on TV going through something that's troubling and you as a person can resonate with that, it kind of puts it into perspective that these problems don't look at race and they don't look at gender and they don't look at all these other discrepancies. They affect everybody equally. Whether you are hockey player or a fan, mental illness will affect you or someone you know."

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