There is no doubt Ryan “Straz” Straschnitzki has become a hero to many in this country.
He survived a horrific bus crash that killed 16 of his friends two and a half years ago now. He showed incredible mental fortitude in the weeks and months that followed.
Despite suffering a life-changing spinal cord injury, the former Humboldt Broncos player was back on the ice training in sledge hockey, four months after the crash.
He spends six hours a week in physiotherapy and up to four days a week on the ice.
His determination seemed unshakable, but Straz said something changed when the pandemic started to sweep across the world last March, and he was forced to finally just sit with it all.
“I had a lot of time to think and I ended up not feeling too good,” he said.
“I didn’t know what to do and I started talking to people, and realized this is probably the way to go — to keep talking and journaling.
“And every time I did that, each day got better and better.”
One in five men suffer from depression according to the Calgary Counselling Centre, which has seen a 17.5 per cent increase in sessions from Jan. to Oct. 2020, and about 40 per cent of all sessions are with men.
November is men’s health awareness month. Global News is taking a deeper look at the well-being and mental health of men in our series Strong but not silent. Ryan is eagerly lending his voice to the cause.
Counsellor Stephen Walker said the pandemic is adding strain on men who are already reluctant to open up.
“There’s even less opportunity for some of these men to talk in the way that they would at beer leagues or hockey games,” Walker said, highlighting that vulnerability is a form of resilience.
According to the 2015 men’s survey, 63 per cent of men said they would be embarrassed if others knew they were seeking help; the Calgary Counselling Centre said those numbers are consistent today.
Walker said it stems from a deep societal, expectation and conditioning but he’s hopeful the stigma is slowly starting to crack.
Straz spoke to Global News on the pavement of an outdoor rink, just a few blocks from his home. It’s where he carved out the beginnings of his dream on ice, a place where he only has fond memories. He admits the accident has made him a more outgoing and emotional person.
“Before I kind of kept to myself and didn’t talk about anything because I thought you had to be tough, you’re not allowed to show emotion to be tough,” he said, while sitting in front of an empty goalie net.
“Talking to certain Bronco players like Tyler Smith and Kale Dahlgren, I mean they are mental health advocates and emotional guys and there’s nothing wrong with that. And they are teaching me about that.”
“I think the thing that haunts me the most is that regret feeling — you know, stuff I could have done in my past that I didn’t do and not being able to go back and change things. There’s a lot of things that stay on my mind sometimes, but again, I like to keep active and try to get my mind off that stuff.”
Ryan’s dad Tom has had his share of challenges as well. The former oil and gas employee is out of work like so many in Alberta.
“If they saw me cry they’d probably have a heart attack,” Tom said when talking about matters of the heart.
But he said his son has helped him open up a little more and has been an inspiration to the entire family.
“He’s taught me to be stronger … and to look at the outside world and say, yeah, it’s crappy, but let’s see what we can do to make it better,” Tom said.
Both father and son admitted living in the same house during the lockdown can be “tense” and add “stress.”
Looking ahead to the future
Last November, the pair travelled to Thailand and had an epidural stimulator implanted in Ryan’s spine. He can now take up to 50 steps a session with some support from his physiotherapy team, double what he could do about eight months ago.
“It’s an odd feeling. I mean, I haven’t walked like that in since the accident so to be able to do that just brings more hope to me to think it’s only going to get better,” said Ryan who is a glass-half-full type of guy.
His sights are on a new dream: to win a Paralympic medal in sledge hockey one day and to fully walk again. He has many quotes that help propel him forward but said there is one from a coach he keeps close to his heart.
“The coach I had growing up, his quote was always, ‘The difference between the possible and impossible lies in one’s determination,’ it kind of resonates with me and I live by that every day,” said Ryan.
He hopes other men will feel the courage to speak out whenever life gets heavy, admitting he wishes he knew the importance of mental health when he was still playing for the Broncos.