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Another Day in Quicksand: Why Refusing Help is Only for the Weak

by Jonathan Iilahti with Cat Silverman

Jonathan Iilahti is a 27 year old goalie from Vaasa, Finland. Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in 2010, he represented the Finnish Junior National teams and won a U-18 WC bronze medal in 2010. Has played for Espoo Blues, Vaasa Sport and KalPa Kuopio in the Finnish top league.

During the last few years we’ve seen a huge amount of progress in goaltending. A lot of it is thanks to the improvements in the physical: goalie specific off-ice training, gear, vision training, etc.

But I honestly think that the biggest and most important improvement still has a long way to go, because it will be to raise awareness about mental health.

The #LiftTheMask initiative and goalies like Ben Meisner, Scott Darling and Robin Lehner have all done an awesome job by opening up about their struggles, and this will hopefully be the beginning of a paradigm shift within the hockey and goalie community.

My story is a little different. It all traces back to some words from my childhood – and one very important decision I made in the summer of 2013. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would turn out to be the best decision I’ve ever made.

I was 21 at the time. My life had been really good up until that point. I was healthy, I had friends, and I’d had the best childhood a person could’ve asked for. For me, there was absolutely nothing to complain about.

But still, I had a deep underlying feeling that something was missing. There had been a feeling nagging in my head for a few years.

I was mentally weak. Well, at least that’s what I was told. 

I remember being around 14-15 years old and some of my “buddies” started chirping me for being mentally soft, weak-minded and etc. That doesn’t even sound that bad. And honestly, it wasn’t. It was just some teenagers joking around. But somehow, that still left some scars in me. And you don’t really question things when you’re 15 years old. If more than five people say something about you, it’s a fact, right?

This made me realize that if I, indeed, was mentally weak, I had to do something about it. I started reading all kinds of sports psychology books.

photo courtesy of Jonathan Iilahti

I did that for a few years, but it just didn’t feel like enough. There was still something missing. I could feel that.

Then, I stumbled across this one name. I found success stories after success stories. There were articles and interviews of goalies that had managed to go from rock bottom, overcoming all kind of obstacles and beating the odds to reach the absolute top. Every goalie’s “Cinderella story” was different, but they all had one thing in common.

And that was Andy.

Andy Swärd.

He was a mental coach based in Malmö, Sweden, who was working with a lot of hockey players, especially goalies. And up to that point, he had obviously been extremely successful doing it. I got really interested.

There was only one problem, though. While growing up and playing hockey in Finland, I had never heard about a Finnish hockey player working with a mental coach before. If someone did, at least, they made sure to never talk about it. Taking psychological/mental help was a big taboo within the Finnish hockey community, and in the Finnish culture as well.

So what would people think about me? Will they think I’ve gone totally crazy? My friends would probably think I’m mentally insane, put me in a straitjacket and lock me up, right?

I hesitated for a couple weeks before I finally called Andy. But if I would’ve been able to foresee the future, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a single second to pick up the phone.

Working with him, from the very start, was a real life-changer and a big eye-opener. I got a totally new understanding on how the mind and thoughts works, how stress affects your body, the importance of breathing etc. But most importantly, he made me realize one thing. I wasn’t weak. And the following years taught me that learning to move on after getting pulled or letting in a couple softies from center ice were a piece of cake compared to the challenges that were waiting around the corner.

If there was one particular point in life where I really needed mental coaching, this was definitely it. The following years of my career could, metaphorically speaking, be resembled as drowning in quicksand. 

Wait…? Quicksand?

Well, you’ve all probably seen some old school movies where people get sucked into quicksand. It’s an unpleasant sight; just imagine what it would feel like. 

Once you’re stuck in it, it doesn’t really matter what you do. You can struggle and fight it all you want, but you will only keep sinking deeper and deeper. The deeper you sink, the harder it will be to get back up to the surface. You’ll start to panic, you’ll start fearing for your life, because you just can’t stop the sinking. Inch by inch you’re going deeper and deeper, and your thought gets darker and darker.

And that explains pretty much how I felt.

Luckily I didn’t have to fight for my life, literally. I only had to fight to keep my hockey career alive. But hockey was my life.

From 2014 to 2018, I sank to depths I didn’t previously know even existed.

While all the other hockey players played games, practiced and went on road trips, my routine was a bit different. I spent my time literally driving around my home province, just looking for ice time. If I was lucky, I got to join some amateur teams that needed a replacement goalie for their late night practices — and if not, I drove 70 km to this small cold rink with moldy locker rooms, in the middle of nowhere, just so I could go out on the ice to do some skating drills all by myself. If I wasn’t able to find ice time, I went out to my mom’s garage to do some off-ice training.

When I wasn’t driving, doing T-pushes or juggling tennis balls, I was constantly checking Twitter and eliteprospects.com, just to see if there was a goalie that had been traded, fired or injured. If I saw even the smallest opportunity opening up, I grabbed my phone and called that team.

The success rate on those calls wasn’t high, but every now and then I actually got a short-term or try-out deal. It could be a one, two or four month deal — and I didn’t ask for more, because the only thing I wanted was to live a life like a normal hockey player, even if it would just be for a short while.  

 You might be thinking that I was a beer leaguer or beginner level hockey player. Both options would make total sense. But that wasn’t really the case — not even close.

By the age of 22, I had already played three seasons of professional hockey. I had been drafted to the NHL by the Vancouver Canucks, and played for the Finnish Junior National teams. At the age of 19 I had debuted in the Finnish Elite League, or Liiga as it’s officially called. Oh man, even one of my biggest childhood idols, Patrick Roy himself, had shown interest in me at one point when he was coaching in the North American juniors.

My career had been well above average, to say the least. I had achieved more than I ever could’ve dreamed about when I strapped on the pads for the first time at the age of 7. And still, I almost screwed up everything. From being fairly high on the hockey ladder, I fell to a point where I was barely touching the ladder.   

If someone would’ve told 8-year-old me, whose dream was to play for the Dallas Stars because he admired Ed Belfour’s awesome eagle mask, this would be waiting for him in the future, there’s a possibility that hockey cards would have been replaced by Pokemon cards really quick. And the worst part, really, is that I truly wish I would have a ridiculous and dark story to tell. A story about how some agent, GM or coach was the main reason to my downfall.

But I don’t.

photo courtesy of Jonathan Iilahti

I wasn’t injured, I didn’t have any personal issues, I never caused any trouble on or off the ice. Sure, I could’ve blamed agents, coaches or GM’s for letting me down, for not doing their job or ruining my career. It would have been totally understandable, because that was still part of the truth. I have a few stories I could share that are so absurd, you guys wouldn’t even believe me if I told you.

But putting all the blame on them would’ve been taking the easy way out. And for a while, I did. But these incidents were just side effects, not the cause.

I almost ruined my career, everything I had been working for for my whole life, because I let my deep rooted, self-destructive, unconscious beliefs control me.  

We’re all ruled by our beliefs, fears, demons, or whatever you want to call it. They shape our behavior, actions and thoughts. They have the power to make or break us, while we don’t even know it. 

The thing, though, that usually we don’t even want to know. Because that scares the crap out of us. Instead of dealing with the fears thats hide deep inside our minds, we make the choice to live in ignorance and letting our beliefs rule our lives — and after four years of doing that, it took everything in me to finally turn things around.
 

As the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said, ”Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” 

It took a lot of introspection, or facing the shadow, as Jung would’ve said, before I became aware of what had been holding me back. It was a belief, a voice in my head, telling me: “If I succeed in hockey, I will be liked and respected. If I don’t. Well, then I’m worthless piece of sh*t.”

As absurd and dumb as it sounds, I actually measured my own self-worth, as a human being, based on my achievements in this human invented thing we call ice hockey. And this drive to earn respect as a person by being a hockey player was the underlying cause that led to some really bad career choices, which became the starting point of a downward spiral that went on for years.

In just a couple of years I had gone from getting calls from top pro teams to not being able to even sign with a semi-pro/minor league team. I actually reached a point where I didn’t even exist as a hockey player anymore – because, really I wasn’t even actually playing hockey.

Looking back, the worst choice I made was that I didn’t take one step back when I really should have. 

The thought of going down to what I thought of as “bush leagues” made me extremely anxious and uncomfortable. I didn’t want that. Why would I? In my mind, that would indicate that I wasn’t succeeding in hockey, which would then mean that I wouldn’t be liked and respected by people anymore.

There’s no correlation between the performances in sports and the worth of a person, but what are you gonna do when your own mind tells you otherwise? 

I really wish I’d have faced that fact much earlier. Instead, I let it get to a point where the minor league teams I had rejected a couple years earlier were now rejecting my calls. It actually went so far that I had only two options left — either I could keep skating on my own and wait for a call from some pro team, or then I go down one or two levels to actually play hockey.

You don’t need a PhD in Astrophysics or something to guess which option was better.

photo courtesy of Jonathan Iilahti

I took one step back, signing with a Tier 3 semi-pro team in Sweden. It was the lowest level I had ever played, but I had to start somewhere.

That “one step back, two steps forward” thing didn’t go as perfectly as I had planned. Around February, that first coach told me that I wasn’t allowed to practice with the team anymore. I was taking away valuable practice time from the two other goalies; if I wanted to keep skating, I had to find ice time on my own. 

So I got basically kicked out. F*ck.

Here I was, a former NHL prospect who basically had been thrown out from a tier 3 semi-pro team. That’s not really something you’ll want on your resume if you want to make it in hockey — trust me. Players are easily put into “boxes,” getting labeled as a player with a certain kind of status, in the minds of coaches and GM’s. And breaking out of that “box,” where you’re the former prospect getting kicked out of tier 3 rinks, isn’t easy.

In hindsight, I’m pretty happy that I was too dumb, naive or ignorant to realize just how deep I had actually sunk. If I’d have really understood how bad my situation was, and how far away I was from getting a shot at playing professional hockey again, I’d probably never even had made an effort to try to make it back. 

But ignorance is bliss…at least sometimes. 

I can tell from experience, you’ll really start questioning your life choices when you’re watching your former teammates from juniors on the NHL highlights, while you find yourself getting pathetically laughed at when you’re doing skating drills at some public skating session, while some dad is teaching his kid to skate, and a group of 7-year old kids are working on their sick spin-o-rama shootout moves.

It’s safe to say that my work ethic got tested during these years. But trying to cope with the self-esteem issues was even more demanding. If I unconsciously measured my self-worth based on my hockey career, and I was barely playing hockey, what did that make me? 

Worthless. As a goalie, and especially as a human being.

I had moments when I felt so much shame, that I didn’t even want to leave my house, and especially not to show up to public events, because I was afraid that people would judge me as a “failure,” “loser” and “bust.”

Those are the times when some people use alcohol and other substances, trying to forget the anxiety and make the quicksand feel like solid ground. And I’m not gonna lie, I totally understand what they’re trying to achieve with that, I really do. But I’m beyond grateful that I never fell on that path.

During the darkest times — when I felt like I had reached the maximum limit of how much frustration and anxiety my mind could take, when I just wanted to take a break from my current reality and thoughts — I had something else to help. I had Andy. 

I’m not sure how he does it, but no matter how bad, depressed or frustrated I’ve been feeling when I have called him, I always felt much better after talking to him. It was thanks to him, in my eyes, that I managed to overcome arguably the darkest thoughts of my entire career. 

It was January of 2017. 

I hadn’t played a game in months. I had almost missed three seasons of hockey, playing only about 15 games for 5 different teams during that span. I wasn’t stupid: I was well aware that no GM in the world had my number on speed dial. And the trading deadline was just over a month away — which meant that if I didn’t find a team before that, I wasn’t allowed to play anymore that season. And there was no chance, not in a million years, that a team would sign me the following season after almost being out for three years.

And that’s when the thought struck me for the first time:

It’s over.

I had devoted my whole life to hockey. I didn’t have a backup plan. I was broke. I had no college degree. I had nothing to fall back on. And now at the age of 24, the dream was over. 

And just like that, boom. A total breakdown.

All the negative feelings and emotions I had repressed for years came up to the surface. I don’t remember much from those couple of days; I don’t know if it was panic attack, mental breakdown or something else. But it was without a doubt two of the darkest days I’ve ever experienced.

So I called Andy and told him what had happened. I told him that I can’t take it anymore. 

Andy listened, but didn’t say much. He then told me that he will call me back. 

And that never happens. I’ll tell you one thing. If you have a problem, he will come up with a solution in 10 seconds. Max. 

Oh shit…this can’t be good.  

He called me back and said:

Can you promise me one thing? Promise me that you keep going for one more month, no matter how hard it might feel. Just one month.

I agreed, even if the only thing I wanted to do at that point was to soak my hockey gear in gas, put it on fire and let it burn — which, given that the only thing left that said I was a hockey goalie was the fact that I owned a set of equipment, probably would have been a pretty bad idea. 

But I’m happy that I listened to Andy, and that I didn’t light the match.

Because a few weeks later, only a couple of days before the deadline, I finally got the miraculous call I had been waiting for. A team in the Finnish 2nd league offered me an opportunity. 

They were out of money, so they could only offer me an apartment for me to stay in. It was a really, really bad deal. But also the best deal of my life. Because it worked. Nine months later, my career came full circle. 

I caught a couple lucky breaks in the minors, which led up to getting a call — something that seemed so unrealistic just a year earlier — from a team in Liiga. And to make it even better, it wasn’t just any team; it was the team I grew up watching and rooting for as a kid.

One of my childhood dreams came true when I got the opportunity to play for my hometown team at the highest level. Finally. Hard work seems to pay off after all, I guess. 

It was Andy’s words that got me through the highs and the lows in that following year. It got me to the highest point, where my coaches in Vaasa told me they wanted to re-sign me and made me feel for the first time like I’d truly made it. 

And it got me through the lowest point, when the GM called me and told me that they weren’t going to sign me for the next year. F*ck. Back to square one. 

I almost gave up after getting cut loose that time, too. I had finally achieved my dream, and it was already being cut short? But I remembered Andy’s words. “Just one more month.” So once again, I set that deadline; one month, find a new team. One month, four weeks, 31 days. 

And that gave me enough perspective not to do anything rash. Which was good—because five days later, I got a call. And I signed with a team in Liiga.

After I got that deal, I finally got up the courage to start counting. I added up when all of my try-outs were, when all of my short-term deals had started and when they had ended. 0,1,2,3111,112,113…456,457,458…664,665,666…

…998,999, 1000.

1,000.

Are you kidding me? 

One f*****g thousand?

photo via Atte Rissanen Photography

I double checked it a few times. But it was correct. Since the day my contract ended after the 2013-2014 season, and the “Quicksand era” began, until the exact day I signed this Liiga deal in October of 2018, I had spent 1000 days without a team. 143 weeks without a coach telling me what to do or when to do it. 33 months working out by myself. And waking up every morning for 2.7 years, trying to find a reason to why I should keep moving forward and not to give up on my dream.

Life was good again. 

Until…

1001, 1002, 1003….

Wait..No. F*ck…

I really—and I mean really – wished that I would never have to fight the quicksand anymore. I thought I had faced enough of setbacks already. 

But here I was. I had barely made it back up before I slipped back into it – and this time, it was for a different reason entirely.

Late last season, I suffered my career’s first major injury. I’ve played this sport for 20 years, and the human body is definitely not designed to play goalie, so I’ve still been extremely lucky – but it still sucks. Big time.

I know that through this story I’ve made it sound like that doing t-pushes and working on your RVH by yourself in a cold rink is a struggle. But let me tell you one thing: It’s not.

Not being able to walk is a struggle. 

If you can drive a car, if you’re able to put on your skates, pads and mask, and if you can go out to the rink, all alone, while no one’s watching, and your toes are freezing, and feeling the blades of your skates hitting the ice? That is not a struggle. That’s pure joy.

When I was lying in the ambulance that day the injury happened, I honestly wasn’t sure if I would be able to handle any more setbacks. And I’m 100% sure I wouldn’t, if it wasn’t for…well. You already probably know. 

As I’m writing this, I’m already starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. After hundreds and hundreds of hours of rehab, I’m finally back to doing the thing I love the most, which I thought I’d never be able to do just a few months ago.

To this day, I still sometimes have no idea how I didn’t quit hockey during these years. It’s a mystery. But somehow, Andy helped me keep my inner fire burning, “trusting the process” and “seek the higher reason,” as he would say.

Almost more important than my career, though, is how he helped me as a person. I don’t even want to know what would have happened, for me as a human being, if it wasn’t for all the help I got from him. And speaking of help… 

Let’s go back to the quicksand metaphor for a second.

Imagine that you’ve sunk so deep that only your head is above the surface. When you’re that deep, when you’re just a few inches from drowning, it doesn’t matter anymore how “tough”, “mentally strong” or “determined” you are. 

At that point there’s only one way you can survive. And that is if you get some help.

Which is exactly what happened for me. 

During these years, I’ve had a lot of hands reaching out to help pull me back up to the surface. 

The list of these people is long, but to name a few: my trainer Sami Karjalainen, Coach Pierre Mocka, Coaches Andre and Freddi Smulter, the great staff at that cold (but yet so awesome) rink in the middle of nowhere – and last but not least, Justin Goldman, the founder of  #LiftTheMask himself.

When my path crossed with theirs, I was at the bottom of the hockey hierarchy. I wasn’t worth much as a goalie. There weren’t any prestigious or financial benefits for helping me out. But they didn’t care – because that’s not how they work. They don’t care if you’re a two time Vezina winner or a beer leaguer, they will treat you the same way. And that’s what I admire the most in these people.

Only the future will tell if this story will end up with all the other “Cinderella stories”, with a trophy or an award as a symbol back home that acts as representation for all perseverance and hard work that one day finally paid off.

But no matter what happens, there’s nothing I regret. The lessons I’ve learned during this journey have made me a much better person, which is something I’ll bring with me for the rest of my life. On and off the ice.

Moral of the story? You don’t really know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have. And it certainly helps if you surround yourself with good people.

If it wasn’t for all these people, the last two years might have consisted of nothing more than waking up every morning, going to a job I hate, and living a life of enormous regret.

A regret that I gave up on my dream, rather than living it for however long I could. And no matter how long this dream lasts, the important part is that I learned how to keep it alive. I learned that the dream isn’t just about playing for a certain level, or being the best compared to everyone, but about playing because I love the game. It’s about believing in myself and my effort, about being in a head space of positivity and looking to the future – not about stressing over what could have been or what I’ve missed.

Without them, I might not be able to look back at what got me here, with a future ahead of me and the game I love still within reach. I might still believe I’m mentally weak.

And I still be asking myself:  “What if?”

What if I would only had kept going for just one more month? ”

~ Jonathan Iilahti

About The Author

Cat Silverman

Catherine is the first American in a long line of Canadians, making her the black sheep before she even decided she wasn't going to be a Leafs fan. Writer for Today's Slapshot, InGoal Magazine, and Coyotes.NHL.com, coach in the Arizona Coyotes Department of Hockey Development. Goalies are not voodoo.

2 Comments

  1. Jordie Oberg

    This is absolutely amazing, thank you for sharing the insight & openness. These stories need to be told more and Jon and Cat did an amazing job. Well done!

    Reply
  2. BIg John Bates

    What a terrific read – with positive takeaways for for people in hockey, music, or almost any alternative road in life 🙂

    Reply

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