Hope Is Real: A Conversation with Ben Meisner

At 29 years old, Ben Meisner has an impressive history playing professional hockey as a goalie. From his record-breaking stint in the NCAA Division 1 League to the NHL farm system (which led to signing with the San Jose Sharks) and now to Germany where he plays in the DEL2, Ben has dedicated his career to the game he fell in love with as a boy. More recently, Ben has also become a mental health advocate for high level athletes as a result of an article he wrote for The Player’s Tribune in 2018. “I’m Not Connor McDavid” hits hard: it’s a deeply personal glimpse into a time when Ben was trying to balance his career while his mental health was spinning out of control, and it’s also an indictment of how hockey culture stigmatizes mental health.

Ben was in IKEA (which we both agreed was a challenge to most people’s mental health in and of itself) when we spoke.

Tell me a bit about yourself.

I’m a hockey player – it’s my livelihood. I grew up in New Germany, Nova Scotia. I played 2 years in Halifax before moving to Ontario at age 16. I played 2 years there and then I went out West. I hated it. I came back to Halifax and was ready to quit hockey. But then another prep school called, they needed a guy to carry a championship-caliber team and they asked me if I wanted to give it one more try.

After my senior season, I left school early to go play professionally in the Calgary Flames farm system – the Utah Grizzlies, the ECHL… then I ended up getting called up to the AHL with our affiliates, the Norfolk Admirals. I was in Anaheim’s farm system – the Ducks. Following that, I went back to Utah, and then got traded to Fort Wayne, Indiana. I helped the team make the playoffs, had a lot of fun, great hockey town there.

After that, I signed with the San Jose Sharks and then I went to training camp. The path that was laid out for me didn’t go as planned, so I took a step back and thought it might be time to make the jump overseas… and that’s where I am today.

What did you hate about the experience you had on the West Coast?

I went out there and they just treated me like shit. There were some times when I couldn’t even get anyone to drive me home to my billet’s house. One night I had to sleep on the floor of the locker room because there was just no one. I felt really uncared for… I needed a bit of extra help and they didn’t seem to want to give it… so it wasn’t a good fit. I was fed up.

How old were you at the time?

I would have been 18.

Wow. That’s too young to be left sleeping on the locker room floor. I read your article – can you walk me up to your breakdown and what pushed you to that point in your life and to the writing of that article?

(Ben’s very amiable tone shifts here, becoming heavy with the memories.) Yeah. It had been a long time coming. I’d been miserable for a long time and I’d just kind of kept pushing through. I felt at one time I had a little bit of support, but then I felt like I was just becoming more and more of a burden, a problem, for everybody. I was getting worse as a goalie, too. When you’re not having any success and you’re not doing what you know you can do and you know that you’re in your own way but you don’t know how to get out of it – you really feel down on yourself. You think if you are your own problem then normally you should be able to fix that, but I just couldn’t…

My pain became greater than my ability to cope. Going to the rink every day and seeing the team was just torture because I felt like I was always having to hide what was going on for me inside…It was such a lonely existence.

 

Your article was so well written and made it really clear how disposable and vulnerable you are at that level.

Exactly. It’s a “What have you done for me lately” type of approach to the players. Either you get results or you don’t. And if you don’t, there’s always going to be somebody else. That was hard to deal with when you’re a very anxious individual, but now that I’m healthy again, it doesn’t bother me. I’m not scared for the day I have to walk away from the game. My only hope is that I get to do it on my own terms.

Since getting healthy again, I can see that there’s more to life than just hockey. I can honestly say I would have a hard time if my career ended tomorrow, but I don’t fear it like I used to. There’s a difference between having a hard time adjusting to a change and living in an absolutely fear-driven petrified state that your life is over.

I realize that I have a lot more to offer the world than just hockey, and doing mental health advocacy stuff now is really giving me a bigger sense of purpose and helping people…I know I have things to look forward to after the game which is something I never knew before.

 

You’re not a one trick pony in your own mind anymore.

[Laughing] Yeah, I’ve got some other skills.

 

I know you’re in a good place and you say that you’re healthy again – I can hear it in your voice. How did you get healthy again?

I found a psychologist, well, actually one was found for me and luckily it was a really good fit. And that’s the most important thing. You have to have a connection; you have to feel like who you’re talking to can relate to what you’re saying and can understand and is a quick learner and willing to grasp things that they’re never heard of before and accept them as valid and real. I was lucky enough to find one in my area of need – which was OCD and Anxiety – especially the OCD. Going frequently was another attributor, I stuck with it, and the other big one was taking medication.

Medication was huge because I had gone a long way with just the skills that I was learning, but I kinda hit the wall with what I could do myself. I resisted meds for a long time, but I eventually gave in because I’d come 85% and I couldn’t get over that last little hill… and it was the best decision I’ve ever made by far.

Good for you. I know there is still such a stigma about reaching out for help, but also for taking medication.

For sure, and a lot of people have really bad experiences with medication. And I am aware that sometimes you have to keep trying to get the right one, and it’s not a smooth road, but if you’re dedicated and you keep trying, you find the things that can really change your life.

What does your advocacy work look like now?

I’ve got a lot of speaking dates in the works [and] I’m hoping to figure something out with Hockey Canada. I’m also going to be visiting a Major League baseball team to meet with their general manager and some owners to talk and see what the programs are that they have in place.

What’s your main message?

That hope is real. The way you feel right now doesn’t have to be permanent. I talk about the importance of reaching out to people and letting them know what’s going on and how you feel so you can get support. And that you’ll be okay once you do reach out. You’ll have more people give you love and support than you ever thought. So many people are scared about speaking up for fear of judgment or being labeled as crazy, but I’ve got thousands of emails to show it isn’t always like that and you’ll never receive more love and support than you will if you don’t speak up.

 

Did you ever regret speaking up?

Nope. Never. I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received and I was worried that people were going to look at me funny, but I got so many hugs and handshakes from teammates and emails from former friends and people I’d never known… It’s been unbelievable.

But it is a scary thing. The night before I knew the article was going to come out, I was definitely a little tense, but it was a big relief not having to hide anymore. To just say, “Yeah, that’s what I went through and I’m good now. Whatever.”

I made the decision that yes, that’s what I was going to do and that this is bigger than me and it needs to be said; and someone like me – who’s not in the NHL – needs to say it.

 

Has speaking up cost you?

Not really. I mean, I guarantee there are some teams out there who won’t touch me because they think I’m a liability. And every time I step out on the ice, I try to remember I’m proving people wrong and that mental health challenges don’t have to be a career killer… The group that has come to the table this season view me and what I’ve been through as a selling point, they view it as a strength and quality of character and I couldn’t be happier to be playing with them.

Honestly? It hurts when I say to my agent, “I really wanna go here, what’s this team have to say?” and he says, “I don’t think it’s a good fit because of the whole mental health thing and your article.” But it’s out of my control and I don’t regret doing it because a few dinosaurs out there can’t get with it.

 

It sounds like the price you were going to pay for staying silent would have been far greater than any fallout from speaking out has been.

I would have lost more playing opportunities from staying silent because I would have been half the player I’m capable of being and that’s not good enough to make a living at this sport. I wasn’t able to give [my best] so it would have hurt me anyways.

[It’s] going to take a lot of people to really change this, and it’s going to take a lot of people stepping up and doing things they’ve never done before. There’s a lot of work to be done.

It’s a shame not everybody gets it, and that not everybody respects it… but they just need to get out of the way.

Mental health issues do not make you weaker than a shoulder injury or a blown out knee would. You hurt your shoulder and there’s a protocol in place. Right now there’s absolutely nothing in place for mental health. And there needs to be. Athletes have real life problems, too… there are a lot of things that come with doing such a pressure-packed job for a living.

 

I’m so glad to hear that your new team sees what you’ve been through as an asset to your character.

Absolutely. The idea that mental health challenges make you weak couldn’t be further from the truth. People with mental health problems are some of the strongest, mentally tough individuals that you will ever meet. Partly because when they feel like they can’t get out of bed, they find a way to not only get out of bed. And I don’t know why anyone would think that an athlete with a mental health problem is weak because they’re performing at the same level – sometimes higher – than their peers and they are just dying on the inside.

I played at a high level… and if anybody wants to say that I’m mentally weak: NO. No chance. I was dying the whole time and somehow I still managed to go out there and perform.

So don’t tell me that [people with mental health challenges] are not mentally strong. No. Don’t even try. I won’t ever listen to you.

If someone reading this happens to be in a period of struggle with mental health in their life, what would you say to them? What do you want people to know?

I want them to know that… a better tomorrow is always waiting for you if you decide to reach out and get help. It’s never too late. It’s never too late.

I want people to know that they’re worth it; they can get better. You can struggle for decades, but if you’re willing to work at it and try things and go outside your comfort zone, you can get better; you can live a better life.

 

Thank you, Ben, for your words of insight, hope, and support. Good luck with your new team – EHC Freiburg – and we wish you a fantastic season ahead.

Jody Carrow