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Meisner’s confession took guts, well said

August 28, 2018

Being a hockey goaltender is the most pressure-filled job in professional sports. With apologies to football quarterbacks and baseball pitchers, you’ll never convince me otherwise, that anything matches the moment-to-moment, day-after-day stress of knowing that pucks are being shot at your head at frightening velocities and one botched play could define your career.

It takes a person with a certain brand of courage to take on that job. And for a pro goalie to acknowledge : as Ben Meisner did this month : that he’s done so while battling anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, well, I can’t even fathom that.

Meisner, 28, who played sparklingly well for the Komets in 2013-14, went public with his story in a self-written article for The Players’ Tribune. I can’t do it justice here, just read it at www.theplayerstribune.com.

But there are a few things you should know: a) he details coming close to committing suicide, so close that he had tied a noose to a banister, looped it around his neck and was one step away; b) he writes about the time period just before he joined the Komets because he was a rung or two off the depth chart of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, and that caused him to be “afraid of anything and everything” with panic setting in daily; c) he wants to help others, even offering his personal email (benmhockey37@gmail.com) for those struggling to get in touch.

Meisner is now beginning his fifth straight season of play in Germany : his first with Tölzer Löwen : and he gave me this message for young fans of the Komets who might have problems similar to his: “Please talk to someone. I wish I would have as a child, before I grew older and was in situations I didn’t have the skills to handle. If you have strep throat, you see a doctor. If you break your leg, you see a surgeon. If you are depressed, you should see a psychologist or psychiatrist. That is the perception we are fighting for.”

Meisner had a 14-6-2 record with a 2.39 goals-against average, a .919 save percentage and two shutouts with the Komets, and was maybe the biggest reason they made the playoffs that season.

I recalled a game against the Orlando Solar Bears in which Meisner collapsed in the second period and had to be replaced. I assumed he would tell me that had been a moment of anxiety in front of 5,870 Memorial Coliseum fans.

“Nope, it wasn’t,” Meisner said of the 5-4 loss March 19, 2014. “I have a heart condition that is very, very minor and not life-threatening. I was diagnosed in college. I saw a leader in this field, not just anyone. Every once and a while it can cause me to feel lightheaded or dizzy. To give you an idea, it happened once while getting groceries and once on the ice. Twice in my life so far. It is unfortunate, but it is what it is. We all have something.”

But it’s not far-fetched, in my opinion, to wonder what that season must have been like for Meisner in what was a tumultuous season, Gary Graham’s first as head coach here and one in which there was much finger-pointing, several trades and a whopping nine netminders used, though the Komets upset the Reading Royals in the first round of the playoffs. Or, what any other season for any other person dealing with mental health issues must be like in hockey, particularly the minors, where contracts are usually not guaranteed and there’s always someone nearby who’s willing and probably able to take your job.

The mentality in hockey locker rooms are old school; the pain had better be significant to go to the coach and tell him you can’t play. And for a goalie ... to go to the coach ... and say you cannot play because you “don’t feel right,” well, how would that go over : even in 2018?

Teams in the major leagues can : and should : have mental health professionals available. Having them on staff isn’t necessarily feasible, cost-wise, in the minors, where there are often just one trainer and one equipment manager per team.

But, as Meisner said: “They don’t need to employ (a mental-health professional), just have an affiliation with one. Just like the team has an orthopedic surgeon, or a medical practitioner. The team would cover the cost or insurance would, depending, and just knowing that no matter where you went, a team had a psychologist to talk to would be huge. Teams would only benefit in the end. Whether (players) have mental illness or not, life brings stress, and professional athletes have real problems like everyone else.”

So true.

The irony is that players who are known for being bad teammates, disruptive in the locker room, get job after job at all levels of hockey. But someone like Meisner might be branded more of a headache than he’s worth, just for admitting to something that hundreds of millions of people deal with every day. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 4 people deal with a mental-health or neurological disorder sometime in their life.

“I learned a long time ago that hockey is two things: Fun and not fair,” Meisner said. “I am not concerned about anything other than winning games for the team I am on, and how my performance can better help my team.”

Hopefully, teams judge Meisner only on his ability to stop pucks. And, hopefully, he’s made it little easier for those in hockey : the old-school personalities : to realize that an injured spirit can be just as debilitating as an injured leg.

Justin A. Cohn, senior writer for The Journal Gazette, has covered Fort Wayne sports since 1997. He can be reached by email at jcohn@jg.net; phone, 461-8429; or fax, 461-8648.

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