Orginally Published on May 12, 2019
Preface to a Dark Time
I didn’t know the full story. I was on the outside looking in. I wasn’t fully informed. From afar, I’d heard rumblings and the buzz on the player and witnessed his struggles on the ice. I didn’t know the full story.
Being part of the media as a color analyst, I was often critical of the player’s performance, compete level and conviction. I witnessed the player’s talent, and on most occasions was in awe.
Everyone was searching for answers as to why the player was struggling. On Bell Let’s Talk Day 2019, that all changed.
In two heart felt tweets on a day that we all share our personal struggles, Anderson MacDonald courageously shed light on his dark times.
I felt compelled to reach out to him to share his story, what follows is his candid responses during several interviews. From the darkness to the light,
A Dark Time
We all experience dark times. In the moment we doubt that will we ever see the light. The struggle is real. It becomes uncontrollable.
The solitude of our thoughts in the darkest of times becomes our greatest adversary. The struggle is within. There is no light. The darkness surrounds us, it engulfs us, it’s inescapable. We find ourselves in a dark hole with no way out.
The struggle is private, personal. Many keep it buried in silence. The last place Anderson MacDonald ever thought he would end up was a dark hole. The darkness was crippling.
The Active Side
Anderson MacDonald was a fun-loving, rambunctious kid. He enjoyed school and always loved the game of hockey. The dream of making it to hockey’s highest stage was alive and well. Nevertheless, it became apparent by the time MacDonald entered middle school something just wasn’t right.
“In middle school, my teachers advised my parents that I should be checked for ADHD,” MacDonald said.
“I was always talking and moving around and I found it very difficult to focus on the task at hand and as a result my grades plummeted.”
It’s commonplace at the middle school level for many students to be identified by teachers for potentially having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
MacDonald’s parents were obviously concerned and took the necessary steps to get their son properly assessed.
“A local specialist decided that although I was on the active side, I definitely did not have ADHD, so I guess it was case closed.”
Case closed, but at what cost?
“I was normal,” MacDonald remembered telling himself.
Undiagnosed at that point, MacDonald forged on. School took an entirely different role in his life. “During the next three years, I lost all interest in school.”
Hockey had always been his life, an oasis, but the game he loved and excelled at would also become affected by his condition.
On the Surface
On the surface everything was going great for MacDonald. By 15, the sky was the limit. He was getting noticed by Quebec Major Junior Hockey League scouts and projected to be a first rounder.
His Midget AAA team, the Saint John Vitos, hosted and finished second at the TELUS Cup, but the internal struggle and impulsive behavior was lurking.
MacDonald was selected 10th overall in the 2016 QMJHL Entry Draft by the Sherbrooke Phoenix.
At that point, there was some buzz in the hockey world surrounding the Quispamsis, New Brunswick product. With the draft in his rear-view mirror, MacDonald focused on proving he could be an impact player in the Q. (Photo Credit QMJHL)
The highly skilled scoring winger didn’t disappoint.
MacDonald scored 29 goals and added 12 assists in 50 games.
A star was in the making, but things were beginning to unravel.
MacDonald, his parents and agent asked for a trade at the end of the season.
Perception often leads to labelling and in the hockey world that often means one thing; black listed. Anderson MacDonald couldn’t escape being labelled; the perception of others always weighed heavy on his mind.
The buzz surrounding the highly skilled sniper became more apparent after word got out that he asked for a trade out of Sherbrooke.
There was no escaping the perception, it’s part of the game, it comes with the territory. But for un-expecting and unprepared players, perception can drastically affect their performance.
MacDonald realized he couldn’t control what others thought of him, but it was taking a toll on his psyche nonetheless.
The Moncton Wildcats acquired MacDonald from the Phoenix in a blockbuster trade on August 17th, 2017. The Wildcats thought they had landed their dynamic first line scoring winger. It was a homecoming for MacDonald, who would be much closer to his friends and family. It was a move that everyone thought would be good for the player and the organization.
In the biggest year of his life, his NHL draft year, things clearly didn’t work out.
MacDonald put up fairly decent offensive numbers, scoring 27 goals and 18 assists, but there was something missing and no one could put their finger on it.
Was it the pressure to perform?
Was it the pressure of the NHL Draft?
MacDonald was starting to internalize everything. The darkness was upon him. It was starting to take a toll on every facet of his life, he had no idea why or how to control it.
“I was living in a different city with new people, very few friends and basically very little contact with my friends and family at home. I found it hard to accept.”
“I struggled to find things that made me happy and started alienating my teammates.”
“I couldn’t wake up in the morning, I barely wanted to go to school. I went to practice, where I felt was the only happy time I had during this period.”
“I would go home after practice and sit in my room and either watch movies all afternoon or go to bed and sleep.”
MacDonald tried everything he could to quiet his thoughts. The young, highly touted winger would sleep close to sixteen hours a day during that time. “I was always thinking about how people looked at me or viewed me.”
“I would always look online and read what people were saying about me on the boards and forums.”
“All I could do was sit there and cry.”
At 17-years-old, MacDonald was having success on the ice, but off the ice his personal life was spiraling out of control.
From the outside looking in MacDonald appeared to be disengaged, disheartened and uninspired.
From successful Team Canada experiences in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge to the Hlinka-Gretzky Tournament to NHL Draft eligible prospect, MacDonald saw his ultimate dream begin to fade into the darkness.
“Coaches and Scouts labelled me as a loner and a non-team player.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth, but looking back at it all now, I completely understand it.”
“At the time I didn’t know what was happening, but I do now.”
MacDonald’s undiagnosed illness and mental health issues were starting to affect not only his behavior, but his personality.
“I couldn’t concentrate or keep eye contact with coaches and others when they were speaking to me. I was always fiddling with something.”
“They assumed that I was ignoring them, but I wasn’t.”
Everything should have been aligned for MacDonald to have optimal success. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Impulsive, uncontrollable and unintentional, three words that Anderson MacDonald now fully comprehends, but at the time were the farthest from his vernacular.
“I started sitting at the end of the bench and not with my line mates. I started to withdraw the more I offended.”
“I couldn’t help it,” confessed MacDonald.
“I knew I was playing hockey, but I wasn’t playing my brand of hockey.”
The perception of others was like an acid eating away at MacDonald’s self-concept, confidence and hockey playing soul.
“I knew I was ruining my life and my dreams.”
“I couldn’t figure out what the hell I was doing.”
“I was lost, my family was lost.”
“Everyone would ask me, ‘do you even want to play anymore,’ that would make me cry, because I really did.”
MacDonald had hit rock bottom. His thoughts had betrayed him. His talent, personality and dreams were now hidden in the shadow of darkness. Severe anxiety and depression had taken a hold of MacDonald’s life.
Out of Control
Anderson MacDonald’s life was out of control. The gifted scorer felt isolated and misunderstood. His NHL Draft ranking plummeted. The one thing that had always set his mind at ease was slipping away. Nothing made sense anymore. Everything was just slipping away. He was getting deeper and deeper in the dark hole.
MacDonald was passed over in June’s NHL Draft.
The childhood dream that once seemed a reality had now turned into a nightmare.
The Minnesota Wild did extend him an invite to their Rookie Camp, but add insult to injury MacDonald suffered an injury during a workout only weeks before the camp.
“Devastated,” MacDonald said when asked about his emotions during that time.
“You have no idea.”
“My childhood dream was going up in smoke. I had failed myself, my family and my friends.”
The highs and lows from his first season with the Moncton Wildcats spilled over into the offseason. “During that time, I suffered from tremendous highs and lows.”
“It scared my family and coaches.”
During that summer, MacDonald realized he needed help. The private struggle with the stigma surrounding his mental health and impulsive behaviors was finally too much for him to handle.
He hadn’t shared his struggle with anyone, for obvious reasons; the stigma, the code and the fear that it could ruin his chances of potentially getting drafted.
“I visited my mom’s doctor, after fifteen minutes she called my mom and asked why I was not receiving treatment for ADHD, anxiety and depression.”
“The doctor was shocked and bewildered as to why I had not been previously diagnosed,” MacDonald said.
“She and a psychiatrist started me on various meds. They struggled to find the right combination.”
The darkness that had taken over his life was starting to subside, but the rollercoaster of emotions continued. “From June to Christmas of 2018 I was an emotional roller coaster ride. One minute I could be laughing, the next I might be crying or very angry, I was in emotional hell.”
Dealing with an agonizing injury MacDonald was away from the team and not able to skate or workout with his teammates.
From the outside looking MacDonald felt secluded. “By that time the Wildcats had jelled as a team, I felt like and was treated as an outsider, I completely understand now why I felt that way,” MacDonald confessed.
The Moncton Wildcats traded the highly skilled goal scorer to the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
A New Beginning
By the end of 2018 Anderson MacDonald was more than ready to put the past year and all his personal struggles behind him; it was time for a new beginning.
“I started a new set of meds and the positive results came quickly. For the first time in years, I felt normal.”
MacDonald’s friends and family quickly noticed a drastic change in his personality.
The “Anderson” they all knew and loved was finally starting to level out and come out of the darkness.
“I suspect an increase in my maturity level also helped,” admitted MacDonald.
MacDonald points to his new billet family and long-time friend Ian Smallwood as a pillar of strength during his transition to Bathurst.
“I completely levelled out. The Titan organization and management responded with great understanding, support and transparency regarding my illness,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald took a holistic approach to his treatment, meeting regularly with his family doctor and meeting with a psychologist.
His new hockey family was also incredibly supportive. “The coaches and medical staff came up with ways to make this work and battle through it. They pledged to help me cope and get me to the ultimate objective of one day reaching the NHL.”
“I’m finally happy.”
“My confidence has started to return. I’m not going to hide any longer. I’m in control now, not the ADHD, the anxiety or the depression. I’m in control.”
MacDonald is excited at the prospect of finally playing the game in the light rather than in the darkness.
MacDonald isn’t pointing fingers or laying blame for what he has experienced and that’s certainly not his intention coming forward and sharing his story. MacDonald came forward in hopes of helping others potentially struggling and suffering in silence.
The soon to be nineteen-year-old is trying to put everything from his past in perspective so he can learn and grow as a player and person.
So, what’s the best piece of advice he would offer to other young players struggling with mental illness?
“Confide in your parents as quick as possible, so you can receive professional help so you can incorporate coping skills right away.”
“Ask for a parent, coach, GM and agent meeting and don’t hold back during that meeting. Be one hundred percent honest regarding your illness.”
MacDonald and his family wanted to clear the air, make a fresh start; that’s exactly what happened when he was acquired by the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
MacDonald no longer feels alone; the weight of the potential burden of his condition is now shared.
MacDonald believes a meeting should also take place between the teacher or educational consultant of the organizations and everyone involved to ensure the player is taking the proper steps away from the game from an educational standpoint.
Nevertheless, the most significant and telling piece of advice that Anderson MacDonald would offer really says it all about his journey out of the darkness.
“You have to realize that you don’t have the plague and that other players and young people have or are experiencing mental illness or a disorder. Reach out to them and fight back for the right to have a normal life and play the game you love.”
“Remember that you have done nothing wrong and that you should be proud of what you have done to battle your illness.”
“Don’t fight the battle alone. Like hockey it takes a true team effort to win the day.”
MacDonald is already putting in the work during the off-season and is very excited to see what the future may hold. “I’m really looking forward to actually getting back on the ice. I just need to go into Training Camp, play some exhibition games and get back on track and find my consistency.”
“I need to get into the zone, play hockey the way that I know I’m capable of, and find a grove.”
Deep down MacDonald is already starting to regain his swagger and confidence.
From the darkness to the light.
In 6 games with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan this season MacDonald has 3 goals and 3 assists.