I am currently a professional hockey player, but my story playing the game is about much more than sports. Like any other hockey player, I grew up wanting to play in the NHL—and like the majority of us, I realized pretty quickly how difficult that would be. Don’t get me wrong, I still somewhat believed it was possible in the back of my head like any good dreamer, but it really wasn’t a reality at a certain point, and I was okay with that.
Nevertheless, I somehow ended up playing in the top league in France, living off of the game I love, and being the Co-CEO of a non-profit organization that supports student-athletes nationwide. The non-profit organization and how I ended up in this position, however, is where my story in the athletic community really takes off.
During the college recruitment process, I was always a fringe Division 1/Division 3 recruit. As a small defenseman, this made sense, but in the end I somehow ended up at a small Division 2 school in Vermont, Saint Michael’s College. Most people don’t even know that Division 2 hockey exists. To be fair, when I ended up on campus I had no idea it did either, and I assumed we were in Division 3. Believe me, this was quite the shock, realizing I couldn’t really compete for a national championship and that the majority of our schedule in a Division 3 conference didn’t mean as much for us. How I ended up at Saint Mike’s is a different story—but choosing to go there was the best decision I’ve made in my life, and that’s where the best part of my story in sport and beyond really begins.
Like most college athletes, I lived with kids on my team my first year. Four of us ended up in a quad, and naturally we all became pretty close. One of my roommates, Justin McKenzie, and I, got really close, and eventually, I guess during one of those stressful weeks college students go through, I confided in him with how sometimes I had anxiety. Now this wasn’t anything major, it was more one of those “dude I am so anxious right now I hate this feeling” type thing, and I guess it evolved into me telling him I battled depression a bit in high school. I legitimately have no idea how this conversation came about, but it did, and I’m thankful it happened. I don’t want it to seem like I’ve battled anything major—I haven’t—I was mostly just an angst-ridden, sometimes insecure teenager and I had some difficulty dealing with that. But the conversation proved to be one of the most important conversations (I think I can speak for both of us in some regard) either of us have ever had.
A year or two later during the summer, we were heading into our junior year, and Justin learned about the passing of a high school friend who had died by suicide; he was a student athlete at the University of Pennsylvania. Justin knew my story, and as we were driving together back from Boston, he mentioned having a game in his friend’s honor. His goal was to try and find ways to spread awareness for mental health, specifically among student athletes, and I was immediately on board. We sort of started talking about different ways to spread awareness with ideas such as making t-shirts and donating the profits and holding games for teams in other sports etc. This was an just an idea, which we presented to our coach, Damian DiGuilian, our athletic director Chris Kenny, and a professor, our FAR (Faculty Athletic Representative) Dave Landers, and they all supported us, basically giving us free reign to make something happen. I want to make this clear—we would have had little to no success without the support of these people and countless others at Saint Michael’s. I could absolutely write an entire piece simply thanking those people. Nevertheless, we had an idea and we had support to create an organization, we just needed to go from there. We settled on a name, Hope Happens Here, and just kind of rolled with it, creating the organization through our Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC). From awareness games holding a poster we used sharpies to write on, to eventually presenting to an entire local high school, Hope Happens Here had legs, and it was something we became really passionate about.
Mental health among student athletes is something that is finally getting is due, but for a long time, it wasn’t. Justin and I use the term “jock culture” a lot when we talk about mental health awareness, and I think the idea of that rings true: the portrayal of jocks for many people, from movies to main stream media and beyond, for a long time, meant jocks had to be cool and tough, and they definitely didn’t speak about their problems. Our goal was to break down that jock culture barrier and start a conversation about it. Opening up in a locker room environment to teammates and friends can be incredibly difficult—nobody wants to seem “weak” by having mental health difficulties. But I’ve come to realize that those who choose to speak about their problems are in fact the strongest individuals and are far from weak. Everyone has baggage and stress and problems in their lives, whether major or minor. The combination of the stress of competing at a very high level athletically while simultaneously competing in the classroom can take anyone down a difficult path—talking about it with someone is always okay. Of course, this conversation carries further into any aspect of life, no matter where you end up in life—college campuses just happen to be where we’ve found our niche. No matter who you are or what walk of life you come from, it’s okay to not be okay and we continue to preach that today. So, Hope Happens Here’s mission, at its core, is to start the conversation on these issues and to create positive change.
While Hope Happens Here has evolved, and we’ve moved on from poster boards at games to a legitimate banner (it’s pretty snazzy), our core ideals and mission have remained intact since that conversation Justin and I had in my car the summer of 2015. While we still work with SAAC, we also try and extend our awareness to all students as well, trying to change the culture on college campuses across the country. Justin and I were also fortunate enough to be recognized with the Hockey Humanitarian Award, which we both have concluded is definitely the pinnacle of our college careers. As I mentioned, Hope Happens Here is now a non-profit organization of which Justin and I are the Co-CEOs. We have no idea what we’re doing in terms of business to be completely honest, but there are now three more schools that have some sort of Hope Happens Here chapter: Dartmouth College, Saint Anselm’s College, and the University of New Haven. We hope this list grows more and more every year, and maybe eventually we can pursue this passion of ours full time.
Hockey is still one of my great passions in life. I am really, truly grateful to be playing it for my profession and for the hundreds of amazing people I’ve met through hockey. And I have hockey to thank for me ending up at a small liberal arts school in Vermont, where I would go on to find what turned out another of my great passions: trying to make a difference with Hope Happens Here.
Please check out our website hopehappenshere.co any social media outlet, or contact us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org