They took Motte’s vitals, conducted measurements, made sure all of his limbs worked correctly. Everything looked fine. Then the doctor asked: “Is there anything else you have going on, anything else we should be concerned about before camp?”
Motte, now 25, paused for a moment. “Actually,” he said. “There is one thing.” Then the words started flowing out of his mouth before he could consider the significance.
“Earlier in the summer, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression,” Motte said. “Do we have somebody for that?”
At that moment, Motte no longer held on to a secret. It wasn’t just him, his close family and his girlfriend who knew what he was going through. His employer knew as well. Although the conversation with the doctor was in confidence, Motte made himself vulnerable. Although the stigma surrounding mental health in professional sports is slowly eroding, there’s still a reason that many athletes don’t come forward with their experiences. It could trickle up to coaches and management, those who determine Motte’s playing time, contract and status with the team. It could make someone view Motte in a different light.
But Motte trusted the Canucks. He needed to create a support system for himself. Because that support system became so strong, he eventually realized that he could help others.
“It was an interesting feeling, to ask someone else for help,” Motte said. “But I’m very glad I did.”
Hockey has come a long way when it comes to understanding and accepting mental health disorders, but as with the rest of society, there is still a way to go. For the past decade, every January, the Canadian #BellLetsTalk campaign sweeps social media, with hundreds of players and coaches in the league sharing the hashtag intended to normalize conversations about mental health. In 2018 came a landmark moment for the NHL: Goalie Robin Lehner came forward with his story after being diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder, as well as ADHD and post-traumatic stress. As his disorders went undiagnosed for years, Lehner became addicted to prescription sleeping pills and alcohol, and he eventually entered the NHL and NHLPA’s substance abuse and behavioral health program.
As Lehner has noted, the program is confidential and designed for athletes to hide. Lehner wanted to be upfront and public about his experiences, knowing that he would have to interact with teammates, trainers and coaches on a daily basis and needed their support.
“I think we are living in a time where transparency and authenticity is valued,” commissioner Gary Bettman said of Lehner in 2019. “But I can’t remember another player in my time in the NHL who has been this open about such issues.”
That leads to Motte, who in many ways is a very typical player in the NHL. For years, dating to when he was a teenager with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, Motte Tweeted #BellLetsTalk along with teammates. “Then, I might not have truly understood what I was doing,” Motte said. “I just knew what the cause was and the purpose. But now, going through my experiences, I understand how important it is.”
When Lehner came forward with his story, Motte took notice, despite not knowing the goalie. “I remember feeling empowered,” Motte said. “Feeling like it takes courage to just share what’s going on on such a personal deep level. I respected it, but I think at that time, I didn’t fully understand what I was going through either.”
It’s sometimes hard for Motte to find the words to talk about his mental health disorders, mostly because they are nuanced. There was no “aha” moment, no breaking point, no blow-up that led to a diagnosis. There were, however, gradual signs.
Motte grew up in a small town of about 5,000 called St. Clair, Michigan, which is along the Canadian border just south of Sarnia, Ontario. He picked up hockey because his older brother, C.J., played goalie. Motte wanted to follow C.J.’s footsteps. “Luckily, my parents talked me out of being a goalie,” he said.
Motte has long been on a strong trajectory. He committed to the University of Michigan his sophomore year of high school. He played for the National Team Development Program for two years alongside plenty of future NHLers, including JT Compher, Seth Jones, Jack Eichel and Dylan Larkin. In 2013, Motte was drafted in the fourth round (No. 121 overall) by the Chicago Blackhawks, and he signed a pro contract after three years at Michigan.
Motte’s professional career hit a few early roadblocks. As he toggled between the Blackhawks’ NHL and AHL rosters, he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2017, as a part of the Artemi Panarin deal. “It was a bit of a shock,” Motte said. “It’s an interesting feeling being a young player, trying to find your way in the league, then you get the script flipped on you, and you have to go to a completely new situation and adjust.”
Eight months later, Motte was traded again, this time to Vancouver along with Jussi Jokinen in exchange for Thomas Vanek. “It’s a little uneasy,” Motte said. “I was just a piece of those trades a few times, but the feedback I was given from the teams I was heading to was always positive. Of course, it could just be a way to justify the trade, but you have to believe in it to an extent. You have to be open-minded to what is going on.”
In 2018-19, Motte had his first full season with the Canucks organization; it was a turning point, as he was on the cusp of becoming a regular NHL player. But he had a hard time separating his hockey career from how he was feeling.
Motte didn’t have the appetite to be social, often turning down invitations to go out and missing out on experiences. He fell back on a variety of excuses. Motte knew he was an introvert by nature, but it got past the point of wanting to enjoy time by himself. “It came down to my life feeling dull and boring,” he said.
His mood fluctuated. He felt like there were few things in life that could bring him enjoyment.
Motte’s girlfriend took notice. She told Motte that he needed to seek help. “It was hard to hear at first,” he said. “It’s hard to hear that from someone you love and care about. But after a few conversations, I realized it was worth talking to someone. But just getting to the point where I could sit down and talk to someone — that was a massive step, a massive obstacle for me.”
Motte made an appointment with a therapist in Michigan early last summer. “Honestly, the first experience wasn’t great,” he said. “I don’t enjoy talking about myself, generally, so to go in there and talk for an hour about things going on inside me that I don’t understand, that’s not an easy thing to do.”
Even though it was uncomfortable, Motte went back the next week. Then he went back again and again, and he was eventually diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
“Everyone wants to go in and lay out their problems and figure out how to get rid of them,” Motte said. “Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.”
As Motte began to develop a relationship and trust with his therapist, he knew it wouldn’t be easy when the offseason was over and he had to travel back to Vancouver.
He decided to disclose his experience to the Canucks doctors so they could help ease the transition. Team doctors recommended another therapist in Vancouver, whom Motte began seeing this season. He also began working more closely with the Canucks’ mental skills coach. Both mental health professionals have helped Motte learn to engage with his inner self “and counteract some of the things that were going on,” he said.
“I found that I could take some of the sting, some of the strain, some of the stress off my mental health by introducing some of those conversations into a hockey or performance conversation as well,” Motte said. “So that was a really good step and a really good balance for me.”
The mental health professionals also helped Motte identify tools to cope, which was helpful during the uncertainty of the NHL pause and life in the bubble, which at times felt isolating.
Motte has learned to approach situations or feelings from multiple angles. He has focused on forcing himself to go outside and be active, even when he doesn’t want to be. This was especially useful on off days in the Edmonton bubble, where because of the hotel setup, some players went days without going outside and breathing fresh air.
Motte also began talking to people more, whether it was a therapist or a friend, “sometimes to blow off steam,” he said. “Sometimes just using words to try to describe what’s going on.”
Lastly, Motte began celebrating small victories. “Sometimes that meant reading a chapter of a book,” he said. “I’m not a big reader, but I enjoyed this book I was reading, and sometimes I would feel better if I just read a chapter.” Sometimes that meant making a cup of coffee in the morning, realizing it tasted great and enjoying it. Sometimes it meant being proud of picking up the phone and having a tough conversation with a friend or family member.
“Those little things add up over time,” Motte said. “And those are things I noticed in my life that helped me turn a corner.”
In January, the Canucks hosted a Hockey Talks game night, dedicated to mental health awareness; this season was the seventh annual event for the Canucks, who began them in 2013 in honor of Rick Rypien. Organizers asked Motte and a few other players if they would share a message of support to promote the event.
“I actually might have a little bit more to offer to that conversation,” Motte remembers saying.
He knew he wanted to come forward with his diagnosis, but he didn’t know what that would look like. On a road trip in Florida, team videographers arranged a shoot for Motte. “It kind of just hit me that, yes, it was about telling my story and sharing a few experiences,” he said. “But the bottom line wasn’t to do that. The reason I wanted to do it was to help somebody. Even if I could just reach one person, if just one person could go see someone earlier than I did or if some person could talk to their family about it or ask themselves some tough questions, then it was worth it for me to have a 10-, 15-minute awkward conversation.”
At the time, Motte said none of his teammates knew of his diagnosis. Neither did many of his friends back home. He knew some of the information that he was sharing might have been more than some of his closest friends and family even knew, so he called them to give them a heads-up. “Being able to do it on my own terms brought enough peace to me that what people thought now or then means much less,” he said.
Once the video was released, Motte realized that with his platform as a professional athlete, he is able to reach many more. “You realize how powerful your words can be,” he said. He heard from teammates, strangers, fans and other players around the league.
“It was a big thing for me knowing that it’s not just on me to deal with things I deal with on a day-to-day basis,” Motte said. “It’s also on me to help others. And that can go for everybody. I think as a society we need that, now more than ever.”
Although he had some tough luck with injuries — he was injured to begin the season and then broke his foot blocking a shot, which limited him to 34 regular-season games — Motte had a breakout postseason with four goals in 17 games. He continued to endear himself to fans with his physicality (he has recorded 318 hits in his past 108 regular-season games) and his prowess on the penalty kill. He is a restricted free agent this offseason and should figure into the Canucks’ long-term plans.
After the Canucks were eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights in a seven-game, second-round series, Lehner stopped Motte in the handshake line, and the two shared a moment.
“He basically said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,'” Motte said. “‘It’s helping. And you’re not alone.'”