There has been much discussion surrounding Zack Kassian and his recent incident. As of yesterday afternoon, the league announced that Kassian had been suspended without pay and would be attending the NHL/NHLPA joint Substance and Behavioural Health Program.
I wrote an article regarding how general manager Marc Bergevin and the club had handled the situation prior to the news of Kassian's suspension and rehabilitation coming out. Now that we know what the next steps are for Kassian, I want to highlight why his return to elite sport is marked by so much more than what some people refer to as a 'stint in rehab.'
Substance abuse in elite-level athletes is not a new phenomena. Anabolic steroids to promote weight gain, tranquilizers to lower heart rates in marksmen, even blood doping (which is increasing one's red blood cell count to promote greater oxygen exchange prior to endurance matches) are just some of the substances athletes turn to in order to improve their performance. But what about athletes who turn to other substances in order to remove themselves from the pressures of elite sport?
It may surprise you that the most common reason athletes cite for turning to certain substances is psychological and/or emotional. As mentioned, these substances can provide a means of escaping the often stressful and pressure-packed lifestyle that an elite athlete faces. Of course, social pressures also arise with young, successful athletes. Interestingly, athletes who are extrinsically motivated (fame, money) are more likely to turn to substance abuse.
What I love about the Montreal Canadiens and their reaction to the Kassian situation is that they are not taking the 'boys will be boys' mentality and letting this issue slide. They are actively trying to help Kassian become the athlete, but more importantly, the person, that he is meant to be. My hope is that the NHL/NHLPA program also identifies one very important thing:
Athletes who have been removed from their team and their sport often deal with isolation, frustration, anxiety, and depression.
Because Kassian is dealing with substance abuse and athletic injury during his rehabilitation, his return to elite sport becomes a bit more complicated. Personality factors, Kassian's personal history, and his coping mechanisms will all play an important role in how he is able to rehabilitate both physically and mentally. If the NHL/NHLPA program identifies and works with Kassian on these issues, his recovery will still be difficult, but will provide him with the necessary tools to help prevent such incidents in the future.
I applaud the Montreal Canadiens organization, and all the other organizations in play, for taking a stand against substance abuse and poor decision making on behalf of their athletes, as well as for identifying the necessity in bringing in outside help for such situations.
Weinberg, R.S., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations for Sport and Exercise Psychology. (5th). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
White, J.P. (1986). Athletes' Substance Abuse Involves More Than Cocaine. Drug Topics, 21. Health Reference Centre Academic.