I had originally set out to make a part 2 of my article “The Dark Side of Hockey: What people never think of” and delve into the sections with a little more detail. However yesterday, I got a message to my facebook page that immediately required action and have it brought to the forefront of my attention.
When I originally wrote that article I was fed up with hearing how my friends in different teams throughout the world were being treated and how rampant mental illness is in sports with nobody doing a damn thing. I figured at the very least I could write about it and try to bring some awareness to society. I remember thinking that if I could help just one person it would all be worth it.
It was worth it.
Todd McIIrath reached out to me on the afternoon of September 24, 2014 with a lengthy message. Here’s a brief excerpt:
“I stumbled upon your original article about a week after I had been planning to take my own life. I felt as if I was battling something so unique to MY situation until I read the first half of your article. Your article saved my life. I am literally driving from Wisconsin to my hometown in Michigan to admit myself into a facility in an attempt to rebuild. Thank you.”
I could not just leave that message sit and not respond. I responded right away and found out that Todd was in the passenger seat of a car at that very moment with another 5 hours to go before he was admitting himself into a facility in Eastern Michigan. I’m a fairly easy person to get along with so we naturally started a conversation on the topic that fate joined us together with. I then asked the burning question if he’d want to tell his story. With actual enthusiasm he obliged and had the same mentality I did: “If it helps just one person Ash, then it was worth it.” Hey, I had all night. I was all ears.
By the time McIlrath had hit bantam, he knew he was something special in the hockey world. Having played with names such as Erik Condra and Matt Taromina, McIIrath was drafted to the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League in the second round. Weighing his options, he decided to sign an offer with the United States National Team Development Program and stay a bit closer to home.
He was off to a heck of a start for his junior career. As with all athletes however, he was faced with adversity and well, it wasn’t really his strong suit. Tacking onto his drinking and smoking marijuana that started in Grade 8, McIlrath had started using almost every day. Getting caught cheating on an exam saw him lose his scholarship with the USNTDP as the coaching staff no longer had confidence in him to crack the lineup. However, he could return to the team the next season but had to go to high school in his home town and commute to the practices and games. To cope with not only the loss of time but to gain an edge, he turned to the drugs of Ritalin and Ephedrine. “This was during the height of ephedrine awareness. Athletes were dying, and I was buying yellow jackets by the bottle on a weekly basis.” In the midst of
this he had managed to commit himself to Notre Dame University and the Fighting Irish hockey team. Towards the end of the school year, a plagiarism incident put the stop to that entirely. He lost the confidence of not only his coaches but his teammates and most importantly, himself. “At this point I was the problem child. I began to alienate myself from my teammates.”
The following summer was a blur built around girls, booze and drugs. When he arrived at camp that very fall, the team had brought in two new forwards. They clearly had no use for him. “The writing was on the wall. After getting healty’d (scratched) the first six games of the year,” McIlrath recalls. “I packed my car and went home.”
By now his agent was already in the middle of a three way deal that was trying to send him back to the OHL albeit with the Sarnia Sting. His parents turned him off of that idea as they wanted him to play NCAA so he managed to land himself in the USHL with the Indiana Ice. The season started off great and seemed like all of McIlrath’s problems were behind him until he popped his shoulder out in the middle of November. McIlrath moved home to have surgery and was sent off with a bucket full of pills and self-described “post-rookie season swagger”. For the first time in his life he was a normal kid, at home, with no responsibilities. Naturally, the partying became out of control. “I can remember playing drinking games with the option to take a shot, or take a pill; on a school night.” Vicodin and booze saw his new found confidence sky rocket. It also gave him an addiction to prescription medication.
The following season he was billeted with a family that was fairly well off and had a full bar set up in their basement. He was still addicted to pain meds but had upgraded to oxy-contin from having built up a tolerance to Vicodin. “‘Vicodin isn’t cutting it anymore’ was enough of an explanation for my doctor.” By Christmas he was leading the league in points but to his discredit (or credit depending on how you look at it), he only iced a handful of games sober. “My game day routine involved popping an 80mg tab of oxy before my pregame nap, and snorting half of one before I left for the rink.”
Of course his luck got even worse. His first game back from Christmas break saw him tear his ACL. “To this day, I swear it happened because of what I put my body through on a nightly basis.” It was at this point where he began to struggle with how people saw him.
He donned a narcissistic attitude that would make him lash out at people if they didn’t treat him like a God. He’d avoid people that would try to keep him humble and fed off of the rest that told him how great he was. That summer he committed to Bowling Green State University but instead of going, he decided to stay back one more year in junior to be a big fish in a small pond.
“When I think about BGSU (Bowling Green State University) my brain immediately associates it with coke, girls, alcohol and hockey. In that order.” McIlrath had enjoyed a very positive and acceptable first year at Bowling State. By the end of it, he took a job bouncing at a local bar and that’s when things inevitably turned sour once again. “I was always a yes man, so when someone asked me if I wanted a line (of cocaine), I was in deep.” In fact, he played his entire sophomore year on cocaine and you wouldn’t know it from looking at his numbers. Fate came twisting again when his coach’s friend ran into him at the bar while McIlrath was drunk. The coach brought it up at a pre-season meeting and once again he was back in the dog house. He was jerked around every which way; in and out of the line-up, demoted to defence, encouraged to give up for good among other things. By December of his junior year he didn’t care and just focused on playing for fun. After more partying behaviour, the coached took the matter into his hands and gassed him. It was over. He played his final year and graduated with a major in Psychology. “Yes, the irony isn’t lost on me.”
That was it. Hockey was over.
He spent the next three months in an alcoholic haze and the next two years depressed without a hope in life. A friend however told him about the AAHL; the All-American Hockey League. “This league was absolute hell, but I was playing again. This was verbatim the league you spoke of in your article. Five fights a game, not sure if we were getting paid, three guys in a one bedroom apartment; gong show.” The use of his hockey talent gave him a bit of hope. He managed to catch the eye of an organization in the East Coast Hockey League. Through all of the booze, drugs, highs and lows, McIlrath felt like he was being given a second chance. Determined to not blow it, he obliged when the team offered to fly him out on game day.
“And I kid you not, I tore my ACL again in my third shift!”
A constant string of bad decisions combined with even worse luck started to eat at him. As his depression worsened, it’s here where McIlrath first entertained the idea of taking his life. He managed to get a coaching gig with an independent team but was fired when the owner found out he was a coke head. Defeated he turned back to the AAHL and won a championship with the Battle Creek Revolution and signed on for next year
with the Fort Wayne Komets. The bad luck didn’t stop as a drama with his twitter account made the team let him go and that was the end of that.
Depression came back in full force and after a month of feeling sorry for himself, he managed to call up a friend who got him a coaching gig with a junior B team. Things started to seem normal at a steady pace again. The team placed third in nationals and by the end of the year, he had found himself quite the lady that was smitten with him. He turned her into his wife.
However after a few problems in the relationship arose, McIlrath reached his all-time low. He quit coaching and succumbed to the blackness of his depression. He managed to stay alcohol and drug free for an entire year before these problems existed. Determined to save his marriage, he invested and opened up a hockey school. In its second year of existence, it was all too much. “Everything on the surface was silky smooth, but as cliché as it sounds, I was just another duck on the pond.” McIlrath knew that his sober living was limited. “The money started pouring in, and it was flying up my nose faster than I could pay the bills.” He managed to save enough money to pay his employees and the bills on time when they arrive but that was it. “Every spare penny went toward living a rock stars lifestyle when I was barely getting by.”
Things continued to be rocky. On Fourth of July weekend of this year, McIlrath blacked out a party and hit rock bottom in his depression. “My plan at this point was to get through the summer, finish my hockey school, have a night out with the boys and take my own life.”
“So I decide to take a victory lap. I visit my family, and closest friends over the past few weeks and prepare my exit. I had my spot picked out, and even now I have a rope hidden under a pile of clothes in my car. I decided a jump from 80′ might not kill me so I decided to hang myself from the same height.”
“I woke up this past Monday dripping in sweat. This was going to be the day. But after reading your article for the 50th time it is my goal to be an example of strength rather than becoming a statistic. Especially since I’m going to be a father.”
I immediately got McIlrath in touch with Corey Bricknell, a former hockey player who started an organization with other former players called “Fighting the Truth”. FTT is an organization built to help players, whether former or still playing, deal with mental illness and the trials and tribulations of professional hockey. They had reached out to me after reading my article as well and I’m proud to say that I’ve joined their organization in helping create awareness.
Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed about. I applaud Todd McIlrath and think so highly of him for his decision to get help. As I’m writing this, he is in a treatment center in Michigan surrounded by his no doubt loving family and there is not one damn thing he should be ashamed of either. I hope you’re doing well right now Todd, I’m thinking about you tonight. Thank you for telling your story. I know you’ve helped someone.
Depression isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of being strong for too long. It’s time to end the stigma.
Feel free to follow me on twitter: @MarchHockey or like the facebook page: www.facebook.com/marchhockey as I continue to add stories to this growing series dedicated to creating awareness of mental illness in the hockey community.
Read about Carson Shields and his Dark Side here: The Beauty, Carson Shields and the Dark Side of JUNIOR Hockey