Kraken forward Riley Sheahan has learned plenty about the ups and downs of winning jobs and handling pressure during a decade spent around professional hockey training camps.
Moreover, the 29-year-old veteran of five previous NHL teams now feels better equipped to handle the occasional depression, anxiety and mood swings that previously impacted his life and others around him. That’s why, when Sheahan isn’t trying to land a job on one of the Kraken’s bottom two forward lines, he can be found hosting a new “Speak Your Mind” podcast that addresses mental health.
“I was looking to do something where I could kind of get uncomfortable and get out of my comfort zone a bit,” Sheahan said.
Much of that discomfort is from being behind a microphone, never mind the deeply personal subject matter. Sheahan had never done radio or television work, so researching his guests and chatting them up on air with “good conversation” about sensitive topics “is sort of weird and uncomfortable and hard to do. But it’s just been fun. You get to meet new people and talk with people who’ve had similar experiences.”
The podcast, produced by the TorchPro sports media company co-founded by Dallas Stars forward Joe Pavelski, primarily gave Sheahan a break from his daily NHL regimen of workouts, skates and nutrition monitoring.
Sheahan’s co-host is Tyler Smith, a mental-health advocate and survivor of the April 2018 Humboldt Broncos junior team bus crash that killed 16 people and injured 13 — most of them players and coaches — in Saskatchewan.
Smith had been the podcast’s second guest before becoming a co-host shortly thereafter. After debuting July 21 — coincidentally, the day of the NHL expansion draft for Sheahan’s future team — “Speak Your Mind” has aired five episodes with guests that included Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner and country music artist JoJo Mason discussing their mental-health struggles.
“You see more and more athletes and people speaking up about it,” Sheahan said. “So I’m just trying to jump on that bandwagon and help as much as I can.”
Sheahan also felt that shaking things up a bit — getting “uncomfortable” as he puts it — would keep his mind engaged and prevent him from falling into a routine-generated rut. Sheahan has worked years to gain better control over his state of mind.
He began experiencing anxiety during his childhood in Ontario and through his teens, when, playing junior hockey away from home at 15, he began drinking alcohol. After the Detroit Red Wings drafted Sheahan 21st overall in 2010, he was playing for the team’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2012 when he was pulled over by police for driving with a blood-alcohol content of .30 — nearly four times the legal limit.
Sheahan, then 20, also was charged with providing police with false information by handing them the driver’s license of a Grand Rapids teammate.
“Everybody makes dumb mistakes,” he said. “But I was just underneath the spotlight and making some bad decisions I wasn’t very happy with.”
He figures the pressures from hockey contributed to his anxiety and increased drinking.
At the time of his arrest, Sheahan happened to be wearing a Halloween costume of a purple Teletubby named Tinky Winky from the children’s TV show. That detail drew plenty of media mirth, but it was no laughing matter to Sheahan, who later was diagnosed with depression — worried he had torpedoed a possible NHL career and hurt his parents by positioning them to having to explain his arrest to others.
“There were a couple of points during my first two years as a pro when I really started to feel these things,” Sheahan said. “And I was a little confused. I didn’t know what it was. So I started to reach out for help. Since then it’s been an ongoing process of figuring out what works best. Now I’ve got a great grasp on it and feel like I can maybe tell my story and guide people during their tough times.”
The Red Wings stuck with Sheahan for four-plus seasons, seeing him top out at 36 points in 2014-15. He was dealt to Pittsburgh, then Florida and spent the past two campaigns with Edmonton and Buffalo, scoring four goals and adding nine assists in 53 games for the Sabres last season.
He signed a one-year, $850,000 deal last month with the Kraken, which likes his ability to play center as well as wing. In the team’s preseason opener in Spokane, he scored the franchise’s first goal of any kind against the Vancouver Canucks.
The competition for spots on the bottom two forward lines is intense. But Sheahan says he feels more able to cope than he would have years ago.
“The biggest thing for me now is that hockey isn’t the end-all, be-all,” he said. “I used to look at it so much as a job, and I had to be good. I wound up putting a lot more pressure on myself that way. Now I’m just coming out here and having fun with the guys. Being in a new city with a new team, I’m taking advantage of this opportunity.”
Among Sheahan’s coping tools: Regular talks with his family, therapists who coach him through situations and a journal he maintains to remind himself of things he’s grateful for.
His support system includes his aunt’s husband, Rocky DiPietro, a 65-year-old Canadian Football League Hall of Fame slotback with the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the 1980s. DiPietro — whose cousin, Paul, won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1993 — lived near Sheahan’s family home in St. Catharines, Ontario, and was close to them.
“He’s been a huge, huge piece of my life,” Sheahan said. “To have a guy that’s been through that athletic limelight like he was, it’s helped so much for me to ask questions about the pressure, the consistency and battling through some tough times.”
DiPietro’s son, Daniel, will serve as Sheahan’s best man at his upcoming wedding to Kecia Morway, a retired National Women’s Soccer League player. The pair officially married at Joshua Tree National Park in California last summer but plan a much-larger ceremony with guests next July.
By that point, Sheahan hopes his podcast will be nearing its one-year anniversary. And that it will have helped others avoid some of his mistakes.
“It’s just an ongoing learning process,” he said. “Every day is not going to be a good day. I just try to work my way out of them and through the rough patches.”