Sens' captain courageous

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:36 AM ET

There is no doubting the passion of Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson as it is revealed between the walls of an NHL rink. That is how most in our community know him: Revered, strong, imposing.

But what's ticking inside him doesn't often come close to revealing itself through his cool, opaque Scandanavian exterior.

Until yesterday.

When Alfredsson took to the podium in a jammed gymnasium at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, he opened the door to the people there, allowed some light to shine in a corner that has been dark and sad, the same kind of place in which many in the room have learned to live.

"I don't get nervous a whole lot, but I'm really nervous about being here today. I really care about this and I want to do this right. I'm not ashamed to talk about it because I know I'm not alone," said Alfredsson.

Alfredsson stood in the soft light that bathed the podium and reached out to the people in that gym yesterday, gave something of himself in the telling of his experience with mental illness, how it can strain the relationships within a family, the frustration, the shame and the fear.

Cecilia Alfredsson, his 33-year-old sister, has struggled with a generalized anxiety disorder for the last eight years.

She is unable to work.

Alfredsson has spent most of his life here in Ottawa since Cecilia has had to struggle with her illness and he admitted yesterday to some guilt in being removed from the daily challenges his parents must face in helping Cecilia deal with her mental illness.

"It has affected our relationship. I'd say it's strained our relationship," he said. "I still don't know a lot about mental health -- this is another maybe a little bit of a selfish reason I'm joining this -- is to show support to her as well, that I care about you. I know that she is struggling with a generalized anxiety disorder. She struggles, it's really tough sometimes. I can't be there to help her out, but by doing this it can give her a little bit of a boost, as well."

Alfredsson spoke with his sister yesterday morning before taking to the stage. He said she is on disability and must constantly deal with the skepticism directed at her.

"In Sweden, being on disability leave from work, the tough thing is justifying that. She has to go to meetings to justify it. She can't go in there with crutches. You can't see it. She has to justify her disability. That's tough," he said.

That is another reason why he stood there yesterday and opened the door into that room in their lives.

He will be the face of the Royal Ottawa Hospital Foundation for Mental Health's "youknowwhoiam.com" campaign to raise awareness of the need to help people and their families dealing with mental illness, which will affect one in five people.

ELIMINATE STIGMA

"My No. 1 goal is to help eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness," said Alfredsson. "People with mental illness and their families suffer enough -- I know this first hand. They don't need the added burden that society places upon them because of fear or ignorance."

Alfredsson said he particularly wanted to reach out to young people and their families who might feel too ashamed to ask for the kind of high-quality help, support and treatment they can get at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.

Alfredsson did some speaking last year for the cause, telling people "don't be ashamed or afraid about it," and received good feedback.

"Through a friend of mine, we've been talking about how I can use my status in this community to help the cause more," he said. "When I met the people here at the Royal Ottawa foundation it was good to see their plan, where they were going and how I could fit into it. I'm really excited about being part of their team.

"It's about raising awareness, talking about the stigma. You hear about people with kids who struggle with mental illness, but they don't seek help because it might be a bad thing to be associated with a mental health problem at that age or later in life. It is a disease, like anything else. You can't see it like you can with a lot of others."

For many of the people who were there yesterday to be invited in to share Alfredsson's story, it will be a goal more important than any he scores within the walls of an NHL rink.


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