Addiction and a bipolar diagnosis: The Robin Lehner comeback fairy tale

By Alasdair Hooper

“March 29, 2018 was the day my life would change forever.

“It all started the night before. I made a phone call to my goalie coach with the Sabres, Andrew Allen.

“I told him that I was personally in a bad place and was not sure that I would be able to play in the game we had the next day.

“I was having trouble making up my mind if I could suit up. I was mentally and physically battling a lot of things.

“The conversation ended with him telling me we could talk about it in person at the rink in the morning. When I arrived, I said I was good to go… as I always did.

“I was not good to go.”

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Back in September, NHL goalie Robin Lehner revealed to the ice hockey world the torture going on in his head.

In an article he penned for The Athletic, the 27-year Swedish goaltender explained how he was drinking a case of beer every single day.

He would take sleeping pills, he contemplated suicide, and on March 29, 2018 – the day he refers to at the top of this piece – he had a full-blown panic attack during a game as he was playing for the Buffalo Sabres.

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Along with his addiction problems Lehner also revealed he had been diagnosed as bipolar and ADHD with PTSD and trauma in that ground-breaking piece of writing for The Athletic.

But here we are in January at the All-Star weekend – the halfway point in this current NHL season – and Lehner hasn’t just turned things around, he is writing a fairy tale.

“The thoughts of ending it all…it was real and close”

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Lehner’s panic attack during that game whilst playing for the Buffalo Sabres was arguably the wake-up call he needed.

“The second period began and everything started to get worse,” he wrote in The Athletic.

“That pain in my chest now felt more like pressure. Towards the end of the period, things started to get blurry and I couldn’t focus.

“I felt very fuzzy, but I battled like I always did. The scoreboard clock was ticking down so slowly. I just wanted to get back to the locker room.

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“When zero finally hit, I walked back and sat in the trainer’s room. I could barely get my gear off. I broke down. I was having a major, full-blown panic attack.

“I thought I was suffering a heart attack. I had no idea what was happening. I could not go back on the ice.”

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The 27-year-old never did make it back onto the ice that night. He was sent home after being checked over by doctors and the Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill.

But on his way home he grabbed something that was very familiar to him – a drink.

After drinking that evening, he eventually told his wife that he had to go away in order to seek help and treatment.

Hardly anyone knew exactly just how close Lehner had come to trying to take his own life.

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“I’ll go back to that dark place I talked about in the first part of this story,” Lehner continued.

“This dark place is full of self-medication and thoughts of suicide. The phone call I made to Andrew the night before? I was drunk. I wanted to kill myself.

“I was extremely close multiple times. The battle playing hockey was nothing compared to the battle inside my brain. It was at its worst.

“Since the new year began I had been feeling severely depressed and my drinking increased.

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“I was heavily drinking a case of beer a day just to settle the demons in my mind and then took pills to sleep.

“I was self-treating myself because I could not be inside my own head by myself. The thoughts of ending it all … it was real and close.

“So close that weeks before that game in March, I met with my lawyer Frank.

“He had suggested we sit down and go through some things I needed to do to get my life back on track.

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“Frank mentioned life insurance to me at one time and it came to me I needed to have a larger policy. It was then that he asked if I had a drinking problem.

“I had clarity for a moment to ask myself where I was. I haven’t been there for my wife and kids nor for myself. I finally realized I needed help and would come to find out I had no clue what I needed.

“But I know one thing: If it wasn’t for Frank I probably wouldn’t have gone to rehab. He gave me that last push.”

The crucial off-season

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Not long after the events of that fateful game on the ice, Lehner checked himself into one of the NHL’s substance abuse recovery programs in Arizona.

Whilst there he was told that his detox was one of the worst seen, he hadn’t slept properly without pills for almost seven years after all.

Lehner then spent most of the NHL off-season trying to sort himself out before penning that honest and open article.

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He wasn’t retained by the Buffalo Sabres during the summer after his contract expired on July 1 and he ended up hitting the open market.

In came the New York Islanders, who had been having problems of their own after their star and captain John Tavares left for nothing after allowing his contract to run down.

On July 3 the team offered Lehner a one-year contract worth $1.5million, essentially a ‘show me what you can do’ deal.

The Swede is now 10 months sober and he is showing the Islanders – and the entire league – exactly what he can do and more.

In the running for the Vezina?

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The Islanders were written off by many at the start of the season because of what happened over the summer, particularly the loss of Tavares.

However, they did manage to pull of a coup by luring Barry Trotz to the franchise as Head Coach after he had just led the Washington Capitals to the 2018 Stanley Cup.

By the halfway point of the season the Islanders have stunned everyone thus far, sitting top of their division.

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A large part of that success is down to Lehner who is posting some extraordinary numbers in goal.

Such are his performances he is in the running for the Vezina Trophy at the end of the season – the award given to the league’s best goaltender.

At this stage he is currently top of the pile out of all the NHL’s goalies for save percentage at .931.

For those not in the know that means he has saved 93.1 per cent of the shots he has faced this season, in the 27 games he has played.

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What’s more, as mentioned by Jared Clinton at The Hockey News, his goals saved above average — a measure of stops made on shots that would have beat a keeper who has posted league-average totals — is fourth-best in the NHL.

That is despite the fact he has played at least seven games and 500 minutes fewer than John Gibson, Frederik Andersen and Jimmy Howard, the three other goalies ahead of him in that category.

While Lehner is undoubtedly benefitting from having one of the NHL’s best goaltender coaches at the Islanders (Mitch Korn followed Barry Trotz from Washington to New York) there is a lot to be said for the determination the 27-year-old has shown.

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By opening himself up and highlighting his problems – before tackling them head on – Lehner is now playing like a man who has had the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders.

If the Islanders continue to stun and have a run at the Stanley Cup, or if Lehner does come away with the Vezina, this season is proving to be a glorious fairy-tale ending to the demons that plagued the goaltender in the past.

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