Nathan MacMaster offers himself up as a cautionary tale, hoping his story can change lives for junior hockey players.
The former major junior player visited six BCHL teams this week, including the Chilliwack Chiefs to talk about addiction, addiction recovery and the pitfalls of playing high-level hockey.
If his name sounds familiar, it’s because Nathan’s major junior career overlapped with the brief existence of the Western Hockey League’s Chilliwack Bruins.
He would have faced the Bruins as a member of the Moose Jaw Warriors and later played for the Calgary Hitmen and Tri-City Americans.
“I was a highly-touted athlete from a very young age, and I was drafted very high into the WHL,” MacMaster said, beginning his tale. “I already liked to party and experiment before I moved away at 15 years old, and by the time I was 17 I was a daily drinker.”
There are many lessons the Chiefs could learn from Nathan and the first may be about setting expectations.
“I went from being a highly-touted athlete in local hockey to the WHL where every one of those guys was a highly-touted prospect,” Nathan explained. “I started to realize the chances of making millions of dollars was very very low.
“I could see that very few people can make a living out of this game, and that can be hard to deal with when that’s what you’ve been shooting for your whole life.”
For Nathan, on-ice struggles contributed to off-ice issues as he dealt with overwhelming pressure to perform. And off-ice issues only made the on-ice struggles worse. As it snowballed, drinking became more and more of a problem.
“I could tell early on that I didn’t drink like the rest of my teammates,” he recalled. “I had a very hard time moderating the amount I put into my body, and there were consequences for that.”
“I had teammates who could party with me until three or four in the morning and get on with their day the next day, where I didn’t get on with anything. I just kept going.
“They had an off switch and I did not.”
Nathan earned the ‘bad apple’ label, and he never shook it.
That’s why he was traded twice near the end of his WHL run by teams happy to get rid of the problem.
Looking back, Nathan wishes he’d had someone to talk to. He wishes he’d been open with someone and gotten the help he needed, but in the moment he felt helpless.
“I recognized I had a problem, but did I want to address it then? No.” he said. “I was working hard just to stay in the lineup, and the last thing I wanted to do was go up to the coach and tell him I was a daily drinker and substance abuser.
“I think there was a stigma then and there’s probably still a stigma now where a guy reaching out for help is thought of as weak or soft.
“But that’s definitely not the case because I would have saved a lot of people hurt and pain if I’d just reached out for help earlier.”
After playing his final hockey game in 2013 as a member of the Mount Royal University Cougars, MacMaster fell completely over the cliff.
“For some time the structure of hockey and school kept me somewhat on the straight-and-narrow,” he said. “When that ended I felt I’d lost my purpose in life, and that just led to more alcohol and drug abuse.”
Nathan ended up at his first treatment centre when he was 21.
It didn’t stick.
It took meeting Steve Bull and the team at the Together We Can Addiction Recovery and Education Society to finally turn his life around.
Though they’ve separated by more than two decades in age, Steve (54) had a lot in common with Nathan (25) as a hockey player with addiction issues during and after (long after) his career was done.
Bull, a major junior player in the early 80’s, joined Nathan at Prospera Centre for Tuesday’s talk with the Chiefs.
“One thing Steve said when we met was that I had a gift to change my life at a young age and he wishes he’d been able to do that,” Nathan said.
Which sums up concisely their mission in BCHL rinks.
The Chiefs are a rung below the WHL, but the pressures are no less intense. They’re away from home feeling urgency to play well and get an NCAA scholarship.
“I’ve been on the other side of these talks and I think what carries the most weight is our experiences and how we came through it,” Nathan said. “If you look at the statistics, odds are one or two of the guys in that dressing room are going to struggle, and you just hope they remember those two guys who’ve been through it and know that recovery is possible.
“If you’re feeling down and alone, know that you’re not alone. There’s millions of people who deal with mental health and addiction who can live long, healthy lives if they get the proper help they need.”
Together We Can has operated since 1993 and has become one of Canada’s leading treatment centers for men.