SUN Hockey Pool

Ellis couldn't check depression

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:46 AM ET

He won a Memorial Cup, a Stanley Cup and was a part of the greatest hockey series ever played.

He faced some of the best players in the history of the game, played under intense media scrutiny and mind-numbing pressure. He emerged a big success.

But the thing Ron Ellis couldn't handle, couldn't check and couldn't skate into the ice was his own dark secret -- his battle with depression.

Ellis played for 15 years in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He won a Stanley Cup in 1967.

He was one of the best two-way players the Maple Leafs ever developed and played a key role in the now revered 1972 Canada-Soviet Union Summit Series.

Yet as he sat in his car in an underground garage in Toronto for an hour, two hours, sometimes three hours at a time, unable to find the strength to move from that car, none of his accomplishments mattered. Depression had stopped Ellis cold.

"It was just before I went into the hospital for the third time," Ellis said. "It gets so difficult, so bad. You lose your self-esteem, you lose your self-respect, you lose your self-confidence. You become very paranoid about everything around you and very negative. It got to the point where I couldn't stay in my office. I would go to the below-ground parking and sit in my car and I would do it for hours, an hour, sometimes two, sometimes three hours before I could go back to my office. That's when I knew I had a problem and I knew I had to address it."

The former NHL star had tried to battle depression before. Twice before he had gone to hospital. But this time it was different. As Ellis says in his book Over the Boards, "it was almost as if God said, 'Ellis, if you're not going to get help, I'm going to shut you down.' And he did. It was almost like a computer that crashes, but I couldn't reboot Ron Ellis."

Ellis was eventually rebooted. He is now director of public affairs and assistant to the president of the Hockey Hall of Fame. He went public with his battle against depression. It's not an easy thing to do, especially for someone who has always been seen as a strong, athletic, almost heroic hockey figure.

He makes public appearances urging people to recognize the symptoms and deal with them. He'll be in London tonight to speak at the Wolf Performance Hall in the central library.

"I do spread them out a little bit," Ellis said, "mainly because when you are sharing that experience the whole process of recovery does bring back some memories, some difficult times. It's a little bit emotional. It doesn't get any easier. The other side of the coin, every time I do prepare to share my experience, it's a check for me. Am I doing what I'm asking these people to do?"

Ellis's depression took on its darkest side after his playing days. He was under stress running a business. His daughter was battling an eating disorder and his mother was dying from cancer. But he looks back when he was playing and depression was with him even then.

"I didn't know what I was dealing with. Back in 1975, I retired for two years and then made a comeback. I know now that depression was a part of that," he said.

"I was coming off probably the best season of my career and (the Maple Leafs) didn't even suggest I go see the team doctor. That's the way it was then. A lack of knowledge.

"I had depression even in my teens. But you are young, strong, you work through things. A lot of people, especially in the executive world and the working world, get hit between the ages of 35 to 50. That was the age group that was in the hospital when I was hospitalized."

U.S. broadcaster Mike Wallace acknowledged his battle with depression. So did comedian Drew Carey. Some three million Canadians suffer depression.

The stigma of the illness is being lifted. But it remains difficult admitting sitting for hours in a dark room, sitting at a desk just shuffling papers or lacking energy to get out of bed.

"It took me time to get the help," Ellis said. "Manly pride was an issue. Most men feel we can just work through things. When we had challenges, just work harder, work longer and you'll resolve them. But not with depression. It just makes things worse.

"That's why I decided to write the book . . . to encourage people with my story to get through tough times and come out the other side to make a better life."

IF YOU GO

What: Ron Ellis: One Man's Journey, surviving clinical depression

When: Tonight, 7 p.m.

Where: Wolf Performance Hall, London Central Library

Tickets: Free from all library branches, limited walk-in space available


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