First Line bringing important dialogue to NHL locker rooms

Strengthening mental health knowledge and player-to-player support, First Line is a program delivered by NHLPA consulting psychologist and former NHL player, Dr. Jay Harrison.

First Line bringing important dialogue to NHL locker rooms

What would Dr. Jay Harrison’s life have been like if he knew what his older self has come to know about mental health and its impact on overall well-being?

What would Jay Harrison, the NHL defenceman, have thought?

Would such knowledge have changed Harrison’s life, on the ice and off?

“I do think it would have changed it in two ways,” said Harrison, the NHLPA wellness, transition and performance specialist.

“It would have made me more willing to engage my own mental health inexperience,” Harrison explained. “As I matured as a player, I became painfully aware of how unwell I was willing to live and deprioritize my mental health, and physical health for that matter, in order to maintain my athletic opportunities.”

It is a dynamic many NHL players have and continue to wrestle with, and it is a dynamic that has informed much of the work Harrison has done over the years with the NHLPA, including First Line a peer-to-peer mental health initiative specifically for NHL players, which was announced in January 2024 and developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Opening Minds and the NHLPA’s Health and Wellness Team.

If Harrison had possessed the knowledge he has since acquired, which also contributed to the launch of the NHLPA’s innovative First Line program, he believes he might have become a leader in mental health while still playing.

“I could have been in a position to be more forthcoming, to seek support, and also I feel like I may have been empowered to being a more effective leader,” said Harrison. “I think it could have potentially helped me help someone as well.”

The fact of the matter is that NHL players will no longer have to wonder what might have been when it comes to their mental well-being after their careers are over, or wish they knew how speak with their teammates about their mental health challenges. That’s in large part because First Line has helped provide a template to address those very issues.

Because Harrison couldn’t imagine such a landscape as a player, he has spent much of his time since his NHL retirement digging into the world of mental health, especially as it relates to elite athletes. As a result, he has been at the forefront of groundbreaking strategies to improve mental health among NHL players. 

Harrison, who is also a clinical mental health counsellor in North Carolina, was selected 82nd overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2001 NHL Draft. He completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology and followed up with a master’s degree in clinical psychology before retiring from the game in 2016.

Long-time NHL defenceman Justin Faulk recalled in a recent conversation how he was surprised to find Harrison, his first road roommate, traveling with heavy textbooks and notebooks and talking about academic topics related to psychology and the like.

Now working full-time in mental health, Harrison completed his residency in clinical counselling with a specialization in post-traumatic stress disorder and a doctorate in performance psychology.

Although there was never an ‘aha’ moment or epiphany that set Harrison on his current path to address the mental health of the professional hockey community, early conversations with the NHLPA suggested there was something important to be discovered at the intersection of his old and new careers.

“I think a lot of these things are the result of a confluence of preparation, intention and then opportunity coming together sometimes even spontaneously,” Harrison said.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” Harrison added. Although, he knew there was an opportunity to make an impact and he was determined to follow that idea wherever it might take him.

“I like to say it’s a path made by walking,” Harrison said.

Harrison’s impact on the NHL community is multi-layered. First Line speaks to the heart of the mental health question as it relates to NHL players by generating important discussions about players’ mental health that have previously been stigmatized.

The voluntary course, through its four-hour curriculum, helps prepare interested players to be leaders in speaking on a peer-to-peer basis about mental health issues.

Those who complete the course act as a first point of contact for other players and those within their sphere who may need help. The course helps First Line graduates identify potential warning signs of mental health issues like depression, suicidal thoughts and anxiety while also giving them the tools to open a dialogue about those issues with their peers.

The program has taken off in a way that Harrison could not have imagined.

“It’s been incredibly positive. The engagement has been much higher than we thought,” Harrison said.

More than 80 players have completed the course from different clubs around the league.

“That’s more than 10% of our membership, which is incredible,” Harrison said.

Sometimes with new programs there is a certain amount of manufactured momentum required before things catch on.

Not with First Line.

“We’re starting to see that buy-in,” Harrison said. “There’s not a lot of convincing that needs to be done and I think that speaks to how important this is to our players and their experiences.”

Marcus Foligno, a veteran forward with the Minnesota Wild, first knew Harrison as a hard-nosed defender on opposing teams.

“You didn’t really want to look at him twice the wrong way,” Foligno said with a laugh.

Through Foligno’s time as an NHLPA player representative, however, he came to realize that Harrison was in fact someone determined to help NHL players be at their best, starting with their mental well-being.

“I think the biggest thing I noticed about Jay is that he wanted to help other guys in our position as hockey players,” Foligno said.

“We’ve heard a lot of stories about guys that don’t do well when hockey’s done. Jay just seems to be a guy that gets it. He gets both sides and we’re lucky to have a guy like that that wants to spearhead it and better the PA and better the players that are in the NHL today.”

When the Wild were travelling through Harrison’s homebase of Carolina, Harrison invited Foligno and a group of his teammates to dinner to discuss First Line.

“We talked about all the things that you go through throughout the course of a year. Jay just kind of said it as it is,” Foligno said. “I was in that conversation with him at dinner and you could see the other guys’ faces light up a little bit because their feelings were being a little exposed in a good way.”

“Everyone’s got issues,” Foligno added. “You want to stay in the lineup. You’ve got things off-ice. You’ve got things on ice. You’re thinking about what this coach is saying, what that coach is saying, or what the GM is thinking about at trade deadline. Everything pops in your head, and it becomes a mental kind of race and some people don’t know how to handle it. And this is what it’s all about.”

Foligno feels that First Line has equipped him to navigate moments of initiating a conversation about something as personal as mental well-being with a teammate.

“How do I talk to someone that’s going through a hard time? That’s something that I bet you 95% of the league doesn’t know. How to first start a conversation with someone who’s struggling maybe and that’s what First Line, the thing that Jay started, really helps with,” Foligno said.

“Because you never want to piss someone off,” Foligno explained. “You never want to make them go more into a hole. So, how do I bring it up? And there’s points and there’s ways of communicating or ways of making a sentence a little more proper or a little bit more sensitive towards that person, where they can open up, and I think that was the biggest thing I took out of it.”

Not only has First Line made inroads at the team level in a way that has exceeded expectations for Harrison and the rest of the NHLPA’s Health and Wellness Team, the feedback from players has opened up opportunities for the program to grow in different, somewhat unexpected ways.

“We are starting to see or recognize how many different layers of engagement our players have with each other,” Harrison said.

While there is an obvious connection between teammates on the same team, players from different teams may train at the same facility in the offseason. Some gather together because they live in the same communities or vacation in the same places. Some players have a connection through a shared agent.

These points of contact are fertile ground for peer-to-peer discussions about important topics, including mental health. All are places where First Line can be effective in helping players share dialogue about how they are feeling about their lives and careers or how their families may be dealing with various mental health challenges.

“I think that’s the special part,” said Harrison. “It’s almost like catching fire for our players. And absolutely this is enhancing their experience and contributing to their global development, performance, their ability to live their best lives through the game.”

It’s been a busy time for Harrison and those connected with First Line.

Recently, Harrison and Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson met for a roundtable discussion with representatives from other professional sports unions and the U.S. Congressional Mental Health Caucus.

The discussion focused on the various programs and initiatives these organizations have undertaken to address the topic of mental health within their constituents.

Harrison shared details of First Line with the group, and his own story of ignoring his own mental health as a player because he believed it was the best way to remain in the NHL.

“That solidarity [with other sports unions and players from other sports] is really, really important,” Harrison said. “I think it’s a really valuable opportunity to affect the global landscape of sport.”

To examine Harrison’s path, and by extension the path that the NHLPA is charting in trying to create a better, safer place for its players, is to understand there’s no finish line. There is no end point at which Harrison and his colleagues will wipe their hands and walk away.

The work being done today will form the foundation for the next step forward.

“We can see the opportunity we may have to influence and impact the game at a broader level,” Harrison said. “Certainly, reaching a broader community of hockey players.

We see the broader scope of the hockey community and how we may be able to indirectly influence those who we interact with every day. ... We want to be able to share that empowerment of all those who experience our games and be a positive influence in the lives of all people who use our game as a tool for development.”