Ex-Red Wing Bob Wilkie helps athletes tackle mental health issues

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Bob Wilkie, now 50, was drafted by the Red Wings in the second round in 1987.

Detroit — It had not been an easy life. And then, the dream unraveled.

Bob Wilkie, once a top draft choice of the Red Wings, stared across an abyss of anguish. 

Sitting in the Detroit Plaza Hotel in February 1994, he thought no one would care, or much notice, if he ended his life.

How, he thought, could he have let so many people down?

“That was the place I found myself,” said Wilkie, whom the Wings selected in the second round, 41st overall, in the 1987 draft. Despite being so highly touted, he who played only eight games with the Wings and 10 a few seasons later with the Philadelphia Flyers.

“You’re in a hotel,” he said, recalling the moment 25 years later. “No one knows where you are. Nobody knows how you are feeling. And, you know what, not really sure anyone would care if you did it. And that was the place I found myself.”

These days, Wilkie, 50, said he is in a much better place, helping other athletes cope with their own emotional problems.

For 15 years, he has counseled athletes about depression and mental health issues and is touring Canada with a psychologist and occasionally another former NHL player as part of his I Got Mind program (igotmind.ca). 

“I always wanted to be a hockey player and thought that is what I was meant to be,” he said. “But, I know this feels more like my purpose. It really started with my own healing.

“I wasn’t quite sure what happened, and why I did the things I did, and I wasn’t able to achieve the things that I wanted to achieve in my career,” he said. “The depression, the anxiety, the substance abuse. 

“The thing that I find is that because I was where I was, I have the credibility that people are going to listen to.”

Wilkie said he has attracted about 1,000 people to sign up on his website to receive information about mental health, counseling services or referrals to providers.

Wilkie says his life and hockey career are the stories of a young man ill-equipped to handle the crushing pressure of expectations.

At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, he skated well, could defend as well and was selected by the Red Wings in 1987, at a time when the franchise was building what would become a Stanley Cup winner a decade later.

'One of the biggest regrets'

Before Wilkie was drafted, he starred in junior hockey in western Canada for the Calgary Wranglers and the Swift Current Broncos.

Playing for the Broncos, he saw things no one, let alone an impressionable young man, should have to see.

On Dec. 30, 1986, the bus carrying to Broncos to a game in Regina, Saskatchewan, went airborne and off the side of the Trans-Canadian Highway.

Wilkie sat nearest to the four players who died.

Bob Wilkie, left, and his team at "I Got Mind" tours Canadian towns, striving to raise awareness of mental health issues in the sports world.

“I watched one of my teammates take his last breath, and that was something that just haunted me for 20 some years,” he said.

Despite some players crying in warmups, he said, the team simply played on.

And, not only was their coach tough, Graham James later served a prison term for sexually abusing one of his players and was accused of emotionally abusing others.

“There was a lot of things going on there, and after the bus accident all of a sudden I realized I wasn’t invincible,” Wilkie said. “I didn’t know how to deal with it.

“That’s when the drugs and alcohol started with me. And you know what? It just got to be worse.”

Things did not go well in 1990-91, and the Wings quickly sent him to its minor-league affiliate Adirondack in the American Hockey League. Anxiety over disappointing the team, his family, friends and himself led to a spiral of self-medication and emotional problems, Wilkie said.

“You know, as an athlete, we never share that we have a weakness. So, you’re trying to deal with it yourself, and you’re never quite honest.”

Wilkie said the Wings organization tried desperately to help.

General Manager Jim Devellano, director of amateur scouting Ken Holland and Neil Smith, the general manager in Adirondack, flew Wilkie to Detroit and pleaded with him to drink less and improve his work habits.

“You know, that was my opportunity to kind of tell them,” he said. “But, I didn’t want to let anyone know that there was something wrong.

“That was one of the biggest regrets that I have, for sure.”

A big part of Wilkie’s outreach is showing how emotional and mental difficulties are shared experiences, easing the stigma attached to emotional problems and helping troubled athletes find some answers, and ultimately, build better lives.

Wilkie said that after his hopes for a hockey career ebbed, he got counseling and had a great experience with a life coach.

He trained to be a life coach himself, joined forces with a psychologist and started visiting teams and players.

Earlier this month at The Palace Theatre in Calgary, about 150 people attended an I Got Mind session, Wilkie said.

Making an impact 

In a given year, about 20 percent of U.S. adults experience mental health issues, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The actual occurrence of problems is higher, mental health providers say.

“And our athletes are at an even higher level because of the pressure system that they are experiencing: The outcome-oriented mentality, the need to win and all these people and expectations,” said Hillary Cauthen, a certified clinical and sports psychologist in Austin, Texas, and an Association for Applied Psychology board member. 

Bob Wilkie

That's especially true in hockey, in which teenagers often leave their families early to play far from home, she said.

“I think we forget with the youth athletes, even going up to 25, there are still developmental factors going on with the brain and our relationships, and you’re still developing as a human,” Cauthen said.

Having someone like Wilkie share his experiences with young athletes, parents, mentors and coaches can be empowering, she said.

“Especially with the stigmatization we have about mental health that it is a sign of weakness, if you can have someone who has been in that environment who can relate to them and normalize that experience, they’re going to listen a little better,” Cauthen said. “It’s a great entryway into the next level of support they might need.”

Kelly Hrudey, a former NHL goalie, said he attended some of Wilkie’s sessions after reading the former Red Wing's book “Sudden Death.”

“I was blown away by the impact he’s having on these young people,” said Hrudey, who's an on-air analyst on “Hockey Night in Canada” for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “He’s changing them in a positive way.

“Sports can be a place of bullying and not much compassion and not much empathy for what someone might be going through with mental health issues, and he spoke clearly about it.”

Wilkie said he is content, and he hopes to bring one of his I Got Mind sessions to Detroit.

He said he still watches a lot of hockey.

“It’s always on in my house, and I’m still a huge fan,” Wilkie said. “And, you know what? The great people that I got to meet in Detroit, I’m so thankful that I had them around at that time because it helped me more than they ever knew.

“And I just wish I could have been better to everybody who was around at that time.”