Art by Efraim Larsson. Photos courtesy of Tölzer Löwen.
You might think the life of a pro hockey player (any pro athlete for that matter) is awesome and all glamour. The reality can be quite different.
Ben says he’s just a regular guy who happens to have some talent in hockey. It hasn’t always been that way though. There’s been a massive change in mentality and thought process to get to the point he is at today.
Most of you have probably never heard of Ben Meisner and frankly it’s no surprise. The now 28-year old German-Canadian goaltender spent most of his junior career in smaller minor teams in his home province of Nova Scotia before moving away from home as a teenager to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a professional hockey player. The first years of his professional career was spent around the ECHL after which he headed over to Europe for a change of scenery.
Name: Ben Meisner
Date of birth: June 20th, 1990
Place of birth: Halifax, NS, CAN
When talking to Ben he seems like a really down-to-earth guy who is really outspoken and passionate about what he has to say. A first impression wouldn’t give away his troubled past and deep scars. In an article Ben wrote for The Players Tribune, he states that his story is “about a kid who loved hockey so much that he forgot to love himself”. Those might be some confusing words to hear for an average Joe, but it was a gruesome reality for Ben and what ultimately almost led to the end of his life.
Let us backtrack a little bit to get you guys up to speed. To kick off the interview with Ben, the very first question I asked was about his gaming habits and to my surprise I learned that he had never even touched a video game. That’s refreshing, right? Ben grew up on a farm in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada spending most if not all of his free time as a kid shooting pucks alone in their driveway or out fishing. His main aspiration in life was to be a pro hockey player. Quite early on, Ben was signed up for a local hockey team and he progressed rather quickly - he was obsessed with becoming the best player he could possibly be. Ben’s words really paint the picture of a generic happy Canadian upbringing:
“Growing up, I had both my parents at all my games pretty much always so that was awesome.”
It isn’t all that unusual for young players in Canada and the US to move around looking for development opportunities in their junior careers, and Ben was no different. Before kicking off his college career he played at two different boarding schools in Ontario, Canada and just outside of Boston, Massachusetts in the US. It’s a competitive environment where thousands of kids chase the best opportunities and try to make their dreams come true.
“It’s definitely a tough choice to make and you’ve got to be ready for it and go into it with your eyes open.”- Ben about moving away from home to pursue a hockey career at a young age.
Playing team sports in a competitive environment is tough as it is, but being a teenager trying to figure yourself out far away from home surely adds its own spice to the mix. While the experience can be a valuable life lesson, it is also extremely scary and a difficult situation to be in as the youngins are pretty much left to their own devices. It was at a rather young age that Ben realised he might have some issues. He struggled fitting in with the team, having a hard time communicating and finding friends in a new environment. At first, the issues were chalked up to “goalie weirdness”, but as years went by and Ben moved around to different teams, the severity of the problem started coming to light. Social awkwardness led to bullying, which in turn led to anxiety, depression and OCD, the effects were many. Being anxious, tired, depressed and scared all at the same time while being a pro hockey goaltender in a league like the ECHL, in which teams can pretty much release a player at a moments notice is certainly leading down a destructive path. Especially when all you’ve done for your whole life was play hockey and nothing else.
“I grew up playing hockey outside. Every day I was out shooting pucks, I was skating…I lived and breathed hockey. It’s all I ever knew and all I ever wanted to do. There was a fear of losing that. If one day hockey wasn’t there, I wouldn’t know who I was. I didn’t think I had any other skills and I didn’t think I brought anything to the table as a person.”
The OCD kicked in and the anxiety levels skyrocketed, Ben as quoted from The Players Tribune:
“I knew that there were 98 professional teams in North America … so there were exactly 196 jobs for goalies. I’d always come back to the fact that in North America alone there are usually around 320 free agent goalies from D-I, D-III, Canadian colleges, SPHL, AHL, ECHL and the NHL, fighting for what amounts to only a few open spots at any one time. I had nothing against any of those guys, but in my mind they became my enemies. And lots of times it seemed like I could actually feel them breathing down my neck. All 320 of them.”
Ultimately, things got very bad. Ben was stuck in a vicious cycle where he couldn’t speak up of the fear of being released from his contract and not receiving proper help due to constantly relocating and being occupied by doing the thing that he loved - playing hockey. Doing so in a severely compromised mental state made his numbers drop, while also inflicting even more damage on his already bad psyche. All of this culminated in Ben almost taking his own life. (For this story, please ready Bens article at The Players Tribune.)
Step by step, things got better. Ben reached out for help and found out it wasn’t the end of his career, but in fact the start of something new and better - a healthier life and a new found passion for helping others. The extremely important factor with mental issues is time. These issues have to be handled with urgency and professional sports organisations are now also starting to realise that. For example, several NHL teams have hired personnel to help their players deal with potential issues. With the stigma around mental health in sports slowly being lifted, more athletes have also come forth about some issues they have had or are still having, among some of those former NHL players Daniel Carcillo and Nick Boynton. Taking off with the release of his Players Tribune article, Ben has also started advocating for mental health awareness and is actively pursuing that opportunity to give back and get the word out there. Now Ben is working together with a whole bunch of different people (for example the aforementioned Carcillo) and organisations in order to further mental health awareness. Mental health issues are a widespread, although a not widely talked about problem worldwide. Just about anyone can find themselves in a tough situation where they will have to handle some type of mental problems, it could be just one traumatic life event or concussion away. Preemptive care is one of the best tools to tackle mental issues and Ben together with a whole company of other people strongly advocate for it. For young athletes out there that feel something might be wrong, Ben has an important pointer that cannot be stressed enough:
“The number one thing is don’t wait. If you’re having an issue at a young age and parents or you yourself recognise it, please reach out. I knew I had these issues early on and I let it go until I was in my twenties so we’re talking over a decade. That really put me in a big hole and made my issues harder to handle and harder to hide - when you dig yourself a hole that deep, it takes a long time to fill back in.”
Esports are no different from traditional sports in the sense that the environment is high-pressure. The straight-up physical requirements of the athletes might not meet the traditional standards but what is often talked about is the mental aspects of players. Quite often a player or a team is analysed based on their mental strength - "they don't have the winning mentality" is a cliché we're all familiar with. De-stressing activities or taking time off are often overlooked in pro sports, perhaps even more so in esports. The pace and player turnover is at such a high level that even a short vacation could set a top player back, and believe me - there are kids out there trying to take that spot! The result of this equation is players spending very close to all of their waking time at their screens - the very same screens that are the portal to Reddit and various other forums where their every single move, play and game is being scrutinised. Having an outlet and de-stressing is tremendously important, the physical capabilities of an athlete are also tremendously important in esports. Healthy bodies often promote healthy minds and the other way around, so remember to take care of yourselves out there!
If you happen to find yourself out and about, here are some events that Ben will be attending as a speaker:
The Global Goaltending Retreat - May 27th - 31st, Breckenridge, Colorado, US
The Worth Living Conference - May 31st, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Make sure to follow Ben on Twitter for more info about upcoming events he will be attending.
“My legacy may not be left hanging in the rafters or written on trophies, but I want to people to recognize me as a guy who tried to make the game we all love more enjoyable for the people playing it.”
If you or someone you know are going through a tough time, please don't hesitate to reach out for help.
Here's some contact info to get you started:
Finland: Suomen Mielenterveysseura - Kriisipuhelin 010 195 202
Sweden: 1177 Vårdguiden - Hjälplinjen 0771-22 00 60
Germany: Telefonseelsorge 0800 111 0 111
UK: Samaritans 116 123
France: Suicide Écoute 01 45 39 40 00
Russia: sravni.ru 8 (800) 333-44-34
Take care and keep on playing!
Your NHLGamer Editor,
Janne @jahajaha93 Tarvonen