Islanders’ goalie shows courage in action

By Glen Argan

(First published in The Catholic Register)

For fans of the Edmonton Oilers, like myself, the Stanley Cup playoffs are a time of mourning. Our team has only made it to the playoffs once in the last 13 years. Well, we can cheer for another Canadian team, but this season all three which made the playoffs – Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs – lost their first-round series.

However, I’m now pulling for the New York Islanders and their goalie Robin Lehner. I only recently came upon the story of how Lehner, a mere year ago, had a major panic attack during a regular season game while playing with the Buffalo Sabres. That event was a catalyst for Lehner to face the demons of alcohol and drug addiction, bipolar disease, trauma and attention deficit disorder which made his life nearly unlivable. He spent last summer at a leading treatment centre in Arizona and started his new life this season with the Islanders.

I use the word “new” advisedly because one doesn’t ever totally overcome the trials wrought by addiction, trauma and being bipolar. These conditions don’t vanish with time, bedrest and lots of warm fluids. What did change for Lehner was that he confronted the reality that his life was a mess and put himself in the hands of skilled therapists who opened his eyes to the full truth of his condition.

Lehner’s seeking help was an act of courage, taken only when he realized that the alternative to getting help was death. He chose life and started coming to grips with his condition. During his healing, he allowed Christ into his life and was baptized.

The Sabres didn’t re-sign Lehner after last season. But rather than toss him out with the garbage, the club’s general manager remained in touch and provided support even after he signed with the Islanders.

In September, Lehner wrote a lengthy article for TheAthletic.com in which he spoke of his trials. During treatment he experienced feelings of grief, anger, sadness and hopelessness. “I wanted to die. I could not handle it.”

When his wife Donya and their two children visited him in Arizona at the conclusion of his treatment, Lehner broke down in tears. “I was ready to really be a husband and dad for the first time. I was finally ready to love and feel love.”

Alongside that transformation, his hockey successes diminish in importance. Even so, Lehner had a career year, running up a meteoric .930 save percentage in the regular season. He’s been nominated for both the Vezina Trophy awarded to the league’s top goaltender and the Masterton Award, which is given to the NHL player “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey.”

In the first round of the playoffs, he led all goalies with a .956 save percentage as the Islanders defeated the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins in four straight games. While the Islanders lost the first two games of the second round to the Carolina Hurricanes, Lehner’s save percentage was still an excellent .940.

In an April 22 interview with TheAthletic.com, Lehner said he is not motivated to show up the NHL teams which did not offer him a contract last summer: “It wasn’t about proving anybody wrong; it’s about proving to myself every day that I can do what I need to do.”

Lehner understands that many people who experience trauma go through life with no major improvements in their condition. They don’t, for example, have access to elite treatment programs funded by the NHL and the league’s players’ association. Many find themselves on the street with no one to offer support.

In Lehner’s transformation, the paschal mystery is evident. A man who was trapped in a losing battle with his own demons discovered the power of love, the necessity of love. He realized self-giving love is only possible if we allow ourselves to be caught up in the Spirit of the Word Made Flesh who lowered himself so that we might be lifted up.

What is true for Lehner is true for all. Each person has their own demons, demons we typically fail to recognize. We each need to be detoxified so we do not succumb to the power of death. We need to be detoxified so we can rejoice in the fullness of life. That fullness comes from forgetting ourselves so we can give ourselves freely to God and others. Robin Lehner has started on that path. So might we all.

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