The trademark of any Lou Lamoriello administration is the litany of things that players can’t do: Grow facial hair during the season, wear high numbered-jerseys, say anything remotely controversial. The real hallmark, though, is the unspoken wealth of things players can do.
They can be who they are. They can be honest about their struggles. As Robin Lehner of the Islanders can attest, they can publicly acknowledge a bipolar condition, admit addiction, become comfortable and be named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the National Hockey League’s best goalie.
Kudos to general manager Lamoriello and his staff. Congratulations to coach Barry Trotz and his assistants. Compliments to the rest of the Islanders players. All of them had a part in the honor that was announced Saturday afternoon. All of them gave to Lehner the only two things he needed: a clean slate and a chance.
“I’ve said this — Lou, Barry, this organization have been more than great,” Lehner said. “It’s not like I’ve been a special case, that I need someone holding my hand. They’ve been incredibly supportive and open-minded and non-judgmental with all that stuff.”
It is cliché, when any individual honor is announced in a team sport, for the honoree to say it really was a team award. If that ever were actually close to being literally true, it is this case. We never will know if the Islanders were purely open-minded or just so desperate for goaltending help that they considered Lehner worth a flyer. Fact is, they enabled the goalie to restore a life that was in pieces this time last year.
Lehner said that nine teams originally expressed interest after he became a free agent. Then two were actually willing to meet with him. One meeting, he said, “did not go so well.” Then there was one team left.
That was the organization trying to regroup on the fly with a new general manager, new coach and new headaches after superstar captain John Tavares left as a free agent. The goalie and the organization were honest with each other from the start and now look at them. Lehner has been named a finalist for two major awards in two days (the Masterton Trophy for perseverance on Friday). And the team is preparing for the second round of the playoffs, having swept the Penguins, in large part because of goaltending.
How interesting that Trotz said on Saturday that the Islanders’ success this season has been because they have been so consistent. He meant their level of play, but he might just as well have been talking about their measure of compassion.
Back on the first day of training camp, when Lehner went public with his burdens, Trotz said, “To me, it shows strength.” Defenseman Thomas Hickey said back then, “Hockey is a safe place, once you get in the [locker] room. It’s going to help him to have all of us on his side.”
Speaking in the same practice facility Saturday, Trotz said, “His teammates [should] get a lot of credit. They allowed him to feel very comfortable. We talk about creating a family atmosphere, well, one of our family members was dealing with personal stuff and all that. That’s part of life.”
It speaks well of the Islanders “family” because they didn’t know Lehner at all before he made his revelation. A special tip of the cap to fellow goalie Thomas Greiss, who never once whined about Lehner getting more playing time even though the two were just about even statistically.
Lehner described an organizational situation that was supportive, not patronizing. “They help me with my meds,” he said, adding that his condition has been handled professionally, the way an injured player is treated. “Like Johnny [Boychuk], he injured himself. He’s got to rehab. Same with me. Before, I didn’t know how to do that because I didn’t know what I had. It was my ‘normal.’ Now I don’t have deep valleys.”
He still has bad days, and probably always will. But the Islanders allowed him to regain his livelihood and, really, his life. They let him show what he could do.