June 23, 2024

The NHL Player Assistance Program: What is it and why is it so important?

The National Hockey League (NHL) player assistance program was created in 1996 as a joint program between the NHL and the NHL Players Association to combat substance abuse and mental health issues. 

The program is a prime example of sports leagues reaching out to help their athletes. Life after COVID-19 has shown people can be more open about their mental health, including celebrities and athletes. 

Earlier in the 2023-2024 season, Colorado Avalanche defenseman Sam Girard took a step back to enter the player assistance program. Girard, a 25-year-old from Canada, opened up about struggles with mental health and alcohol abuse. 

Laine has missed almost 90 games since coming to Columbus in 2021. Laine entered the Player assistance program in late January 2024. via the Columbus Dispatch.

“I have made a proactive decision to take care of my mental health, and will be entering treatment for severe anxiety and depression that has gone untreated for too long and led to alcohol abuse,” Girard said. “Taking care of your mental health is of the utmost importance, and I encourage everyone to speak up and seek help should you feel like you need it.”

This may feel cut-and-dry, but, by Girard encouraging other NHL players to speak out about their mental health struggles and receive help, a movement has begun.

In the months since, Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov entered the program, as well as the Columbus Blue Jackets player Patrik Laine

Laine is the second Blue Jacket in the last two years to enter the program, following center Alexandre Texier, who entered during the 2021-2022 season. Texier had expressed mental health concerns after two family members close to him passed away.

Laine, who joined the Blue Jackets in 2021, has missed almost 90 games due to injuries and personal reasons. Since transferring from the Winnipeg Jets in a blockbuster trade for Pierre-Luc Dubois, Laine has been criticized by fans for poor play. 

“Hockey has been my passion and my life, but I have come to realize that in order to perform at my best, I need to take this time to focus on myself,” Laine said in a statement on Instagram.

Ellis, pictured middle, is a Blue Jackets season ticket holder. Picture via Nick Ellis.

Although the program is aimed to help players, there is a catch. Teams are not required to pay these players when they are in the program. Texier played hockey in a Swiss league so he could make extra money and be close to his family. 

Former NHL goalie Scott Darling disapproved of this practice. 

“They are trying to make you break your contract. If you walk out the door, then the NHL can break your contract,” Darling said.

A student at the university, first-year psychology major Nick Ellis, is a Blue Jackets superfan and season ticket holder who is familiar with Laine’s situation. 

“I believe he is going through a lot with his dad passing away last summer,” Ellis said. “It’s hard to say [if he lived up to his potential] because he was out with injury for a long time last season and this season.”

Ellis said the program seems to work because of the fact it is quite mysterious and enigmatic.

“It is hard to say if the player assistance program works because it is very closed to the public,” Ellis said. “I think it’s effective because of how secretive it is, it gives the player privacy and time to recover from whatever their problem may be.”

For Laine, the Columbus community is rallying behind him to wish him the best. 

“I wish nothing but the best for him and his mental health,” Ellis said. “I hope to see him back at 100 percent.”

Author

  • Clayton Hines

    Clayton is a first-year Criminology and Spanish Major. He is a Videographer for Capital and is an avid moviegoer. In his free time, he likes to watch sports and help his community by volunteering.

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