This weeks story comes from a contributor that read the first few stories of this series and reached out to me wanting to share his own. I don’t know Brett well at all, but that is one of the main reasons I started this forum, to bring our small hockey community a little closer together each week. As you read Brett’s story yourself, those of you who think you know him may learn a few things you would have never guessed were a big part of his life. Those of you who do not know Brett are in for a soul baring and well written piece. Everyone is struggling, dealing or battling with something. I respect Brett a ton for opening up about what he is dealing with in hopes that it reaches others going through similar situations. The following is the story of Brett Epstein in his own words, enjoy.
I have loved the game of hockey for as long as I can remember. And although I’m getting older and the days of NHL dreams have passed me by (although I still most definitely have hockey goals), hockey has probably never been more important in my life than it is now….
Like so many of you who would come to the Revision Website and have interest in reading these posts, my youth isn’t filled with stories about family beach vacations, time watching television after school or spending Friday and Saturday nights hanging out and drinking beer with my high school buddies. No – I have hockey memories – Of crazy teammates, strange kids from other towns and states that I played with and against that have become my brothers; coaches (good and bad) that have influenced the young man that I am; knee hockey and security guards in mostly dumpy hotels (most definitely excluding that awesome Hyatt Regency at NARCH!); snack bar nachos; gallons of Powerade (at 3 bucks a bottle); the feeling of walking through an airport with my bag and sticks and feeling the eyes on me; those early morning car rides with my father, music blasting on the way to a 6 a.m. skate or racing from rink to rink, half dressed, sometimes even changing my skates to blades in the back seat more than once in a day; the agony of an overtime loss and the ecstasy of being crushed by my teammates after a shootout win.
I’ve been on the winning and losing sides of games, tournaments and national championships…. and have had the privilege of playing with and against some of the greatest players in the world. I had the honor of playing for Team USA just a year ago in Argentina. But I’m not here to toot my hockey horn.
I’m here to tell you about my personal struggle with anxiety and depression. How’s that for a curve ball? It might be hard for my hockey friends to imagine that the level headed, easy going guy they know on and off the rink faces bouts of uncertainty, anxiety, panic and hopelessness that come right out of nowhere and knock me on my ass like getting run when I’m in the splits. And while that presents certain obvious challenges for a goalie whose success is based significantly on his confidence, I’m not here to tell you how that has stopped me from reaching my potential. No – quite the contrary – I’m here to explain the role that hockey has played to help me overcome the issues that I face, with the hope that it might inspire, but more importantly, encourage my hockey family to understand that anxiety and depression are nothing to be ashamed of – but can and need to be dealt with. And that pouring yourself into something that is your passion – whether its hockey or something else you choose and dedicate yourself to – can provide you with an oasis that becomes your happy place. I started playing hockey for fun, exercise and because I love to compete. But the rink has become the very best therapy I have from the mental health issues that I now know I’ve battled ever since I can remember.
I’m not sure there is anybody that has had a happier, luckier hockey life than I have. Like many of you, I sometimes think that a different path or the right set of eyes (okay – maybe 6 inches and another hundred pounds) might have taken me further than I have gone. But playing college ice hockey in the most beautiful city in the United States, traveling each summer to renew friendships and rivalries with the best roller hockey players in the world and now, getting the opportunity to work with young players as goalie coach for the Carolina Stingrays Youth Hockey Organization is about all that I could have ever hoped for from the game I love. Yes, I have my share of hard hockey stories like most of us do, but in general, I am definitely hockey blessed.
I started playing late and let just say that my rise to becoming a goalie ready to compete at the national/international level was less than meteoric. Because I was late to the game, I had to break to the ranks of accomplished goalies already filling just about every tryout. It didn’t frustrate me when 10 showed up – I knew the odds and was ready and willing to compete. But I was a little more disappointed when only 2 showed up and after feeling pretty sure that I’d actually be the starter, later got the call that they had kept the other kid and given the second slot to a player that did not show up for the “mandatory” tryout. Guess I learned about hockey politics at a very early stage of my career.
Looking back, it was some unsung, special people who believed in me who gave me the opportunity to get to the level that I eventually did. Once I passed a driveway tryout with my brother Casey, who peppered me with shots in the dark – and pronounced me “ready” to make the move from skater to the nets, I first made the transition at the local rinks in Lynbrook and Valley Stream. I learned to do whatever was needed to stop the puck and lived by one, simple rule imposed by my father: “if I see one tear, with no anger whatsoever involved, we jump in the car and go right to Play It Again Sports and sell all of the goalie equipment”. From local rinks, I graduated to Vio’s Army and the rinks at Skate Safe and the 495ers organization (to the whole gang there – and especially Sean Slomin, who still calls me at 10 p.m. from time to time to ask if I can fill in, although I keep reminding him that I’m in South Carolina) – my most sincere thanks
Ah Vio – he certainly didn’t make it easy for me. He had a superstar 96 Roadrunner Black team backstopped by a terrific young goalie (and great kid) Dom Lamanna….. It took me a couple of games against him where my team was thoroughly dominated but I stood on my head and kept us in the game for him to realize that I was ready… But Vio was loyal to the people that had been with him from the start and my real opportunity didn’t take place until Dom chose to play more ice – finally giving me the opportunity that I was looking for. Now after many years, I’m the beneficiary of his loyalty and I always return the favor by doing my best to get to whatever I can so I don’t let him or my teammates down…. I’ve come to really enjoy skating off the rink after an exceptionally good game to Vio saying “well at least you don’t suck anymore” with that deadpan look on his face- One of the highlights of my career was playing for Vio and Jason at State Wars – we played way up and didn’t win much, but it gave me a chance to bond at a different level with two really good guys that I greatly respect and are among the legends of our sport. Although Vio jostled me from time to time in my youth, I can never thank him enough for the opportunities that he has given me. With all the hockey bullshit going on around him, I’m not sure that he realizes the incredible opportunity that he gives so many young kids to build their skills, confidence and to chase their hockey dreams. He certainly does not know that his support and the opportunities he’s given me have been a huge factor in my own health and well-being.
I only recently decided to take my long struggle with anxiety and depression public. Like the others who have written in this series, I am doing this to try and change someone else’s life. If you look at me, you would think I have it all. In most ways, I sure do. I have a family support system that has not only stood right by me through everything I’ve done, but has also afforded me every possible opportunity for happiness. Unfortunately for someone who struggles with their own, internal demons, it doesn’t matter how great you have things – it may never be enough.
Yes, my greatest ally is sometimes my greatest challenge. When you think “Goalie”, you better be thinking “Confidence”. The greatest in the game will tell you that a goalie is only as good as his ability to be positive, focused and to have a short memory. Now toss anxiety and depression into the mix – makes me even more proud that I have been able to achieve what I have.
I skated off after our NY ’96 Team won State Wars in 2015 to all other eyes, triumphant following an MVP performance in the playoffs (actually deservedly won by my friend and roller/ice teammate Chris Johnson who netted both goals in the final), beating the perennial champion Team Missouri (and Brycon Johnson) 1-0 in the semis and a stacked Team PA (with my good friend Joey Dangelantonio) 2-1 in the final. Would seem it couldn’t get much better than that…., but I skated off the ice with my brain racing – I had let in the first goal (not a “bad” goal at all) and all I could think of was what the my teammates, the coaches and fans watching thought about it. That’s right, we were national champions….. I had just put down the heaviest trophy I’ve ever held (what the heck is that made of Tim?) – but there was my mind, wandering to “that place”….
When things aren’t going right it makes my struggle even more difficult. I remember recently being in Michigan, traveling on my own, playing out of my element for a new team and coach I did not know. I was definitely not at the top of my game in the early games. I hadn’t been on a rink in almost a year and although I wasn’t satisfied, felt pretty good that I would be tuned in by playoffs. But every look toward the bench showed me a Coach with body language and facial expressions that said “you suck”….. And maybe I did. But anybody around this game knows that a goalie’s psyche is all that there is. And I came to the rink with some issues of my own. That interaction gave me one of the darkest times I’ve had around the sport. On the road by myself in the middle of who-knows-where Michigan, for the first time ever, I thought that maybe I was done playing hockey (that is where my mind sometime takes me). Luckily, my teammates, far less troubled by my play than the coach, rallied around me, and I had a call with my Father, who had a few choice thoughts about the “coach” and reminded me of who I am, what I’ve achieved and just how important that “short term memory” is for a goalie – and I was squarely back on my feet.
Fast forward just a few weeks later…. Back in Florida at NARCH at Germain-One of my very favorite places to play, with the core of the Roadrunners teams.
Back in my comfort zone with the people I truly love. I’m not comfortable with them because they know of my issues (because none of them do – until now) but because they genuinely care for me. Note to self – be careful who you play with and play for- SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE WHO TRULY CARE FOR YOU. These teammates and their families would do anything for me – whether it is buying you water after a game to giving you a hug in the lobby after a tough loss and telling you that you played great – even sometime when you really didn’t. To my hockey family, especially my Roadrunner 96’s, you have made a huge, positive impact on my life…. You are my escape when times have been tough. Looking ahead to our summer escapades is sometime the ray of sunshine I need to no matter how tough school or life becomes. I know that there will be a week or two or three out of my year where I can shake everything else and just ENJOY.
The rink is my sanctuary. There’s no better feeling than taking my first stride onto the rink and my first breathe of hockey air. Anyone who has ever felt that knows exactly what I am talking about. What makes me unique is that my mind can usually not stop itself from worrying and having overwhelming feelings. Hockey takes me away from those thoughts and brings me to focus every bit of me on stopping that little black biscuit. I mean imagine someone who has all these complex feelings and thoughts running around their head all day being able to shut all of that out and make the sole purpose of your life to get hit with a 6 oz. circle.
And the time between games I love so much. Old friendships, the younger kids now coming over cautiously to me to chat me up. The people and places that I have been so fortunate to be – From my friends in Toronto and Montreal to the Swiss and Czechs that we played in Argentina – From the Roadrunners to Pama- To the Black Ice team that keeps letting us get close before they turn it up a notch and… You would never know it, but you all keep me going. You get me through the toughest days knowing that at some point, I will be walking through the doors of those rinks once again to see you faces. To be part of a world that very few experience and that those outside just don’t really understand.
To every single one of you I thank you, more than I can ever express, for being there. And to anybody who may read this or come across me out on the street – not just the players or parents that I know personally but anyone this may be shared with – I am not going to give you the bullshit “everything is going to be great”, and “there is hope for everyone approach”. Although those things may be true, I can tell you that those answers are not enough for those who struggle with anxiety and depression.
You need to be the change in your own life and surround yourself with family and people who lift you up. No one is able to do it alone and no one should have to do it alone. If you are going through this by yourself I will personally pledge to you to be there. But I’m telling you – find something that becomes your release. Your happy place. Your sanctuary. For me, it has always been hockey and that space in between the pipes. And for that I am eternally grateful.