With the departure of Jaroslav Halak to the Boston Bruins, the Islanders had to sign a starting goalie in free agency. The Isles were able to land Robin Lehner, who could have been an RFA this offseason, but was not tendered a qualifying offer by his former team, the Buffalo Sabres. Buffalo’s decision struck some analysts as odd. Here is a young goaltender entering what should be his prime, and who has proven at times that he can be a solid NHL goalie. Why would a team let him walk for nothing? What was also odd was how long it took for Lehner to be signed, getting a contract after Carter Hutton (Buffalo), Cam Ward (Chicago), and Anton Khudobin (Dallas), the two latter arguably worse than Lehner. It took about an extra day for Lehner to be signed by the Islanders, and at a relatively cheap price tag. Now, about two and a half months into his time on Long Island, the goalie published a piece in the Athletic which might explain the oddities of his free agent experience.
After the regular season ended, Robin Lehner knew he was in a bad place. He wrote in the piece that for years, he had been self medicating and drinking before and after games. “I was heavily drinking a case of beer a day just to settle the demons in my mind” he writes “and then took pills to sleep.” It took a meeting with his lawyer and a mental breakdown after a March 29th game against the Red Wings to finally get him to go to rehab, where he was diagnosed with bipolar 1 and ADHD with PTSD and trauma.
Lehner briefly described what it’s like to be a bipolar NHL goalie. Someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder tends to go through manic and despressed phases. This was no different for the Swedish goalie. “When I am manic I usually feel great, but I make a lot of impulse decisions and dangerous mistakes” Lehner explained. During these phases, Lehner thrives as a goalie, mostly due to having plenty of energy and confidence. But when depressed, Lehner describes himself as living in a state of “hell.” Nothing mattered to him, not family, not hockey. It even hurt him physically, like during his game against the Red Wings. Watching the highlights from that game, one can see that he lacks energy in his movements and struggles as he allows three goals on 20 shots. He couldn’t finish the game, as he writes that he was having pains in his chest, and was relieved by backup Chad Johnson.
The condition, along with ADHD, made it difficult for Lehner to focus. He therefore turned to pills and alcohol as a way to “even [himself] out.” It was the only thing that made him feel better.
It was a lengthy and difficult detox for Lehner, one of the worst his doctors had ever seen. For three long weeks, his doctors began to realize that Lehner had more problems than just addiction. After he became sober, he was put in a group of mostly former soldiers whom Lehner befriended. It was a trauma group, as Lehner revealed that he had dealt with abuse, addiction, and mental illness in the past. Lehner stayed in his treatment facility in Arizona an extra four weeks to make sure he was ready to return to society and continue on with his life. He was baptized there and found comfort in religion. His family visited him towards the end of his treatment, and it made him realize that he had acquired the tools to be a real husband and father.
Sabres general manager Jason Botterill was extremely supportive in Lehner’s recovery process. He was in touch with Lehner throughout his recovery. The two had a meeting to discuss his future and it was then that the two decided that it would be best to move on and start fresh with a new team. Now with some executives aware of his past, he was scrutinized and questioned during interviews prior to July 1st. It almost made him want to drink again and re-enter the deadly routine of drinking and self medicating.
Finally, he was approached by Lou Lamiorello and the Islanders. He said he had two great meetings with the Islanders’ new GM, talking a lot about family and life.
The Islanders are taking a chance on Robin Lehner. His ability and desire to open up and tell his story is a testament to the courage he has as a person. It’s that kind of character that will benefit any team in any sport, and the Isles are lucky to have the goaltender on their side. He’s signed to a one year contract, and if he proves himself this year, he should be in line for a great remainder of his career.
This article was written based off of a piece written by Robin Lehner and published in the Athletic. That original piece can be accessed here.