Survivors Guilt, Resilience, and Choosing Love

The events that took place on December 30th, 1986 changed my life forever. My name is Bob Wilkie and I am a survivor.

Being a Canadian, I shared a dream with millions of kids: to play in the NHL. From as young as I can remember, all I wanted to do was be on the ice. I have fond memories of watching Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night with my family cheering on the Montreal Canadiens. I was big Guy Lafleur fan. The hair flowing, the quick slap shot for another goal which lead to another Stanley Cup…how could you not love them?!

As I climbed the ladder of success as an athlete, my dream of being an NHL hockey player was showing signs of promise. At 16, I was playing in the Western Hockey League for the Calgary Wranglers. An exciting yet nerve-wracking time for me.

My first year was a success. At the end of the season, I was ranked by Central Scouting to be a potential first round draft pick in the 1987 NHL draft. I was over the moon happy and I could feel my goals slowly becoming a reality for the first time in my life.

In October of 1986, I was traded from Calgary to the new Swift Current Broncos. I was devastated to be moved. I could not believe that even though I was ranked to be a first rounder I was being moved. How could they do this? The process of being traded was something I would come to experience several times throughout my hockey career.

I was very anxious to be getting dropped off in Swift Current at my new billet home. The Harrimans – Janine, Bob, and Cari (5) and Susie (3) – were going to be my new family. I was thankful to have them and loved living with the young girls who proved to be a welcome distraction from the stresses of hockey. Although I was adjusting to my new life, I was homesick. I missed my life in Calgary but I was having success and holding in the rankings.

After Christmas, we returned from a short break and set off on the final push of achieving my dream of being recognized as a potential NHL player. We boarded the bus with our minds set on having a great start to the second half of the season. The roads were bad. It was going to be a slow ride, but this was not unusual for Canadian roads in the winter. Five minutes into the drive things took a turn for the worse. The bus had just crossed the train bridge and began to slide off the road. I had my Walkman on and out of the corner of my eye I could see my teammate, Trent Kresse, stand up and shout, “Hold on, it will be OK!” It wasn’t.

When the bus came to a stop, I heard one of my teammates yelling, “Wilks, Wilks, are you OK?” I woke up and could feel the sting of the cold snow. I slowly began to get up and realized I was in terrible pain. My ears were ringing, my head was pounding, my body was aching. I managed to stand and began to look for my coat. As I moved the scattered luggage and seats around, I saw a pair of legs coming out from under the bus. I began screaming for everyone to get off the bus. That someone was trapped under it. As I was screaming, I heard another sound. I turned to see what it was, and I saw Chris Mantyka gasping for air. He was trapped, reaching out for help. It was the last thing I remembered and it was a vision that haunted me for 20+ years.

The next thing I remember was waking up to chaos in the hospital. My billet mom, Janine, arrived and I was so relieved. We cried together. My billet dad, Bob, who was an RCMP officer, was on scene and had been searching through the wreckage, unsure if I survived or not.

The next ten days were a blur and the only memories I have were of the funeral for one of my teammates, Scott Kruger. He and Trent were my close friends on the team. I remember seeing Scott in the casket and being in a state of disbelief. It did not look like him. I could not stay for the funeral. Instead, I found myself back at the crash site, crying and screaming, “Why God, why would you do this?”

I returned home and could not be around anyone. I was in shock. As a team we all agreed to continue the season. I had no idea how hard that was going to be.

We ended up making the playoffs that year, and I’m still unsure of how we did it. I think most of it was because of Joe Sakic. He was unreal: scoring 3-4 points a game. Me, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat; I was absent most of the time. My play suffered terribly.

Our coach was Graham James and his behaviour only added to the chaos. He was ranting and raving, he was angry and that anger was directed to those of us who were not playing well. I took a lot of his anger. But I did not care.

I did not want to be there. I did not want to play. I did not know where I wanted to be. I could not focus on anything. Everyone was worried about me. Bob helped with the conversations. Being RCMP, he had seen things like this before. He told me I had survivor’s guilt. I was always asking the question Why them and not me?

In June, I flew to Detroit with my Dad. The draft was happening and I had several meetings with NHL teams. I struggled to feel excitement. Actually, I wasn’t excited at all. I didn’t care if I ever played again. As I sat and heard name after name being called ahead of me, I got lower and lower. My name was called 41st. I was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings. I walked down, put my jersey on to take pictures with the owner (Mike Illitch) and the staff. I could barely muster up a smile. All my life I had been dreaming of this moment and all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there. I still have the picture.

I played until the year 2000. I was a part of winning the Memorial Cup, The Calder Cup (American Hockey League) and The Turner Cup (International Hockey League) all before 23 years old. I could not stick in the NHL. I never felt like I belonged. I was tired of being told that I had to do this, or do that. I wanted nothing to do with any of it. I was happiest when people left me to my own devices. As soon as I was told what to do, I checked out.

I was drinking more and more. I was having anxiety attacks and ended up in the hospital several times thinking I was having a heart attack. I never wanted to get close to anyone and I sure as hell was not letting anybody get near me. I lied, I emotionally abused myself and those around me. I was severally depressed and several times put a plan together to end it all.

It was always dark and I always felt alone.

Love Is All You Need

I was playing in Hershey, PA, for the Philadelphia Flyers farm team in the American Hockey League. I had been a pro for 4 years. I had a label as a partier, as being lazy and a troubled player. It was true, but no one ever really knew why. In the game of hockey you can’t have weaknesses, even today. I thought I had learned how to hide it. Turns out I was only fooling myself.

I was playing well, and got recalled to play for the Flyers. I actually got a little bit excited about it. I thought Here is a chance to maybe get through this. I had some friends from Hershey come and watch me play.

They brought a girl with them; her name was Micheaelynn Wert. There was something about her that made me feel something I had not felt anything in a long time. I was sent back to Hershey after 10 games. I was OK with that, though, because it meant I could be closer to her. I felt alive when we were together.

The more time we spent together, the more I opened up. I was still drinking way too much; I still was not confident enough to tell her everything. But my time with her made me feel, and it felt good to feel. Over the next few months I had this growing feeling inside. I did not feel good when I wasn’t with her and felt so good when I was. I asked her to marry me after only 6 months, and she said yes!

Over the next several years we traveled the world as I played hockey. I played because it provided a living. I did not care if I did, as long as she was with me I would do whatever I had to. The depression still came and went. In 1996, I injured my back and had to have surgery. The doctors told me I would never play again. My world again collapsed. I spent the next 18 months in a severe depression. I regressed, I went back inside and it took a toll on me and my marriage. I again found myself planning my end.

We have events in our lives that come and change us. In 1997, after 18 months of darkness, I was awakened. The Hershey Bears had won the Calder Cup. I was bartending and had some of the younger players snapping their fingers at me to get them drinks. I made the decision that night to try and play again.

The doctors said I was healed and that I could play. I found a job and played three more years of pro hockey. Mikey got pregnant and we had Sadie. And Sadie changed everything.

I knew from that moment that I had to get it together. I wanted to be there for her. I wanted to help her, I wanted to experience that love everyday, and so my healing began.

The Answer is…

I retired in 2000 and struggled to find a new occupation. I had no schooling and it was very hard to try to find my new purpose in life. I was still not in a great space, I was still sabotaging and drinking too much. I did not know what to do.

That’s when I began coaching kids. I started to observe that they shared many of the same struggles that I did as a kid. This sparked my interest and I became very interested in researching and learning as much as I could about how I could help these kids avoid going down the same path that I had. I felt my life had a purpose again which was how I could help others by telling my story.

My mom had given me a movie that had made me extremely curious as to how we work, how our mind works. That’s what led me to discover a program called Life Success, guided by a man named Bob Proctor. I needed $20,000.00 to enroll in the program but did not have the funds. A good friend of mine, John Rickards, strongly believed in what I was doing. I went to John and told him that I needed his help. Without hesitation, he opened his desk and wrote a cheque for the full amount. I will always be eternally grateful to John for that.

I went through the training and began writing curriculum based on what I had been through and what I had learned. I gained so much knowledge and was eager to share this new-found knowledge with as many people as possible.

I started travelling back home to Calgary from Hershey to work on my new endeavour, which was hard on my family: Mikey, Sadie and now Cy. But they supported me through it all.

In 2011, we moved back to Canada and started I Got Mind. Today, it has helped thousands of people from athletes and parents to coaches, students and businesses. I have had the honour of sharing my life experiences with so many and provide people with insight on why our brain works the way it does.

On April 7th 2018, the tragedy with the Humboldt hockey team struck and the memories came flooding back. My old teammate, Sheldon Kennedy, called me and a couple of other former teammates, Peter Soberlak and Daren Kruger, saying we had to go and help. We got organized as quickly as possible and headed to Humboldt. Another former teammate, Pat Nogier, who is with the Saskatoon Police arranged for us to visit and meet with the families.

My old billet family was in Saskatoon and the cute little three-year-old Suzie was now the doctor who treated the players as they were flown into Saskatoon. Bob arranged for us to meet with the first responders and it was the most powerful three days of my life.

An old friend of mine, Chris Joseph, lost his son that day. He told me about the last conversation he had with Jaxon. One that stressed the importance of mental health. It was then that I decided that I Got Mind needed to begin touring the country, targeting as many people as possible.

I called my good friend, Kelly Hrudey, who is a big mental health advocate. Then a mental health specialist, Shawn O’Grady, and finally Lesley Plumley, a friend who organizes events and before we knew it we have rooms full of people listening to our Stories.

The events are designed to shed light on the mental health issues we are seeing, to help the attendees to understand what they feel or have experienced is all a part of striving for success. We talk about developing strategies to manage stress levels; we share the challenges of the power differential between coaches and athletes and how to manage that relationship. Our attendees walk away feeling more hopeful and inspired. Our goal is to help everyone find the path to understanding and becoming mentally healthy in sport, so they can live a happy and productive life.

If you are struggling with your mental health I want you to know that it is OK. If you start to open up, if you start to find answers, you can find your way back. We are not meant to become ill, we are meant to live a healthy and fulfilling life. You can do it and you can have that life.

My life is filled with love and support all because I was willing and able to save my life. Because I wanted to be better, to feel the way I had as a kid. Life is enjoyable again. It is because I made a choice, it is because I allowed love into my life, it is because I was willing to do whatever I had to. I finally felt like I was worth it, and so are you!