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'This is a massive change in the culture of hockey': How the Coquitlam Express is taking care of players' well-being

After witnessing players' struggles through a 2020/'21 season disrupted by COVID-19 public health restrictions, Coquitlam Express general manager has brought aboard a new coach to look after their mental and emotional well-being.
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Coquitlam Express general manager Tali Campbell says the junior hockey team learned a lot about caring for players' well-being as it navigated a season disrupted by COVID-19 public health restrictions.

When the Coquitlam Express opens its training camp Sept. 17, dozens of young players will be competing for a position on the BC Hockey League team’s roster.

Many will also be navigating the early days of the school year, some will be away from home for the first time, others might be juggling relationships, finances, even just the logistics of getting around.

To help these young men, aged 16 to 20, negotiate some of the challenges they might face away from the rink, the Express is one of the first teams in junior hockey in Canada to bring aboard a director of team assistance.

Danny Shepard has been charged with taking care of the players’ well-being off the ice.

A former coach at the youth level, the 30-year-old has a bachelor’s degree in physical education and a master’s in kinesiology, but it’s players’ mental and emotional wellness he’ll be tending remotely from his base in Victoria through regular check-ins as well as whenever a need or crisis comes up.

Express general manager Tali Campbell said the necessity for such a role amongst the team’s coaching contingent became apparent during last season when players’ schedules, routines and expectations were turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic opened a new Pandora’s box of emotions and feelings,” Campbell said of a regular season that was torn apart by public health restrictions and limited what games were able to be played with no playoff competition to bring finality. “There was a mental health switch going on.”

Campbell said the months-long period when tougher public health rules put the BCHL on hiatus after a five-week exhibition schedule through October and before play was able to resume in five regional pods in the spring was especially difficult.

He said some players struggled to stay motivated through weeks of socially-distanced practising, some worried about their opportunities to land scholarships to post-secondary programs and others just missed home and normalcy.

And, while Campbell said his door was always open to the players to discuss their anxieties, “in their eyes, we’re still their bosses, there’s still a fear to have these conversations.”

Shepard, who’s also worked with high-performance athletes at the University of British Columbia (UBC), said the paradigm of athletes opening up about their mental and emotional well-being has been shifting in recent years — and the pandemic has accelerated that.

“It’s a new generation of athletes,” he said. “The mental health component and other factors of their lives are way more talked about.”

Those conversations really broke out into the open at the recent Tokyo Olympics after American star gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of several of her competitions following a near crash on the vault that left her rattled.

Shepard said it’s important for everyone to remember athletes are human beings first.

“During the pandemic, we all saw the imbalances of life, felt feelings of isolation,” he said. “With athletes, there’s no difference.”

Campbell said the Express organization will rely heavily on the players’ leadership group to initiate difficult discussions that will hopefully strengthen everyone in the dressing room.

“It breaks down barriers,” he said. “Big, tough guys can have issues too.”

Shepard said while sports have always tended to athletes’ physical needs to ensure they can perform their best, they’re often left to manage the rest of their lives on their own.

A more holistic approach to their overall well-being can pay dividends, Campbell believes.

“If you help people feel supported, when it comes to their sport, those other pressures go away, their performance gets better,” he said.

Campbell added the initiative is about creating a full-package experience for anyone brought into the Express’ fold that will turn out solid citizens as well as top hockey players.

“This is a massive change in the culture of hockey.”