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Finding best mental health practices can be challenging for NHL players

An 82-game schedule in the National Hockey League can wreak havoc on a player's body. Even the lucky ones who don't miss time with an injury are battling some physical ailments – bumps, bruises, exhausted muscles that need time to recover.

But the season also takes a toll mentally. It's a grind, even if you're on a winning team. And just like learning how to take care of themselves physically to recover from games and practices, players have to learn their own best practices to take care of themselves mentally.

"Some years are more trying than others and trying in a different sense, too," said Sabres forward Kyle Okposo. "It's different when you're winning. When you're winning a lot you have to stay sharp all the time and that's a different kind of grind. When things aren't going well, you're trying to get sharp. You're trying to find a different type of motivation every game and that's a different kind of grind. The long and the short of it is any time you play an 82-game season it's a grind mentally. We have to find a way to try and be at our best every night."

One of the most popular strategies is to find something away from the rink, away from hockey, to entertain the mind. For many guys, that means family time with girlfriends, wives and children. But anything that gets the mind away from work has beneficial results.

"When you're not at the rink you have to really not be at the rink," said Sabres forward Ryan O'Reilly. "There's so many games that you can't be occupied by everything. You can't hold on to everything. You have to find an escape and a way to get away from the game so that hopefully next game you can get right back into it and have that hunger. It's managing it the right way. It's using that time properly. When you're at the rink, you're here, you're focused, you get it done. Then you leave here and you're not thinking of it anymore."

Most things are better against the backdrop of winning. That includes finding ways to mentally relax.

"It's tough. When you're winning hockey games, it's easy. You enjoy everything more," O'Reilly said. "When things aren't going well, it's unfortunate. You do think about it. At night, you're struggling to sleep because of what's going on."

Over his 10-year NHL year career, Okposo has learned what helps him mentally. He's noticed that when he's dialed in to the season, playing at his best and enjoying the game the most, he's also watching hockey at home.

That wasn't the case when this season started.

"I find that when I'm engaged and feeling good, I like to watch a lot more hockey and stay in it," Okposo said. "This year, the first couple months of the season I barely watched any. The last few months I've been watching a lot and just keeping tabs on the league. I enjoy that part of it. I enjoy during the season to stay in that hockey mindset."

Still, Okposo has learned to balance hockey and family time.

"When I leave the rink, it's about my family and hanging out with my kids and my wife. That part of it really helps keep me grounded," Okposo said. "Once the kids go to bed I'll throw on a hockey game and watch it."

But it's not just poor results and the length of the season that can grind on a player.

It's all the chatter that goes on around them.

After all, what do NHL players have to complain about? They play hockey and get paid millions of dollars. It's pretty simple, right?

Not so fast.

"There's a lot of people that just kind of think that you have it easy because you play in the National Hockey League and we make a great living," Okposo said. "There is a lot of stress put on people financially that aren't in the position that we are. I completely understand that. That's a stressor that many of the guys don't have to worry about.

"In saying that, there's a lot of things that go into the job, like public scrutiny, that a lot of people don't deal with either. People aren't showing up to their work and criticizing the things that they do, telling them that they suck at their jobs. It takes a toll mentally. It doesn't matter. You're still a human being at the end of the day. It's not like you're some piece of meat. So it definitely takes a toll on some guys mentally. You just have to really stay in your own lane and just try and do the things that keep your mind sharp and keep your mind focused on playing well every night."

His experiences with mental health issues led Okposo to work with the Western New York organization JustTellOne.org. Its mission is to give youth and young adults the tools and confidence to start conversations about their mental health.

"I've been thinking about what I want to do for kind of a foundation and what I want to get involved with and mental health has been close to my heart," Okposo said. "It's something I have some experience with myself personally and some family members also. I think that the more that we talk about the issues associated with mental health, the better off everyone's going to be.

"There's a big conversation that needs to be had and people need to really understand that it is an illness and it's not just something you can say 'Oh he's not feeling that goo , he's depressed, and 'Oh, whatever, he'll get over it.' That affects a lot of people and can really take a toll on their lives. We need to start helping people and be able to talk about it, be able to listen. We all need to become better listeners."

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