The Golden Knights announced Saturday that they had signed netminder Robin Lehner to a five-year, $25 million contract. The deal comes after he posted not only a 1.67 goals-against average and .940 save percentage in three regular-season games following a trade deadline deal, but also a downright impressive 1.99 GAA, .917 save percentage and four shutouts in 16 postseason games.
“I think he proved himself,” general manager Kelly McCrimmon told reporters afterward. “I think he played extremely well for our team. That’s what we need. It’s his age, it’s where he’s at in his career, it’s the length of the contract, it’s the fact that it solidifies that position for our organization. It’s the most important position on the team.”
While it had long been speculated he’d return to the desert, the journeyman and 2019 Vezina Trophy finalist not only got the payday he has deserved, but also stability. After five years with the Senators and three with the Sabres, the Golden Knights are his third club in the past two seasons.
And the signing also holds a much higher level of importance off the ice.
“My initial reaction is: That’s what happens when you go and get help and heal yourself and become a better player and a better person. You get rewarded for it,” said former NHL goalie Corey Hirsch, who is now a Canucks analyst on Sportsnet 650 and a mental health advocate.
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Hirsch is referring to how Lehner has been open about his mental health struggles. In the latter stages of the 2017-18 season, he was diagnosed as being bipolar and having both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma. After signing his new deal, Lehner tweeted a thread in which he talked about his anxiety, how he takes medicine and sees a pyschiatrist. He also thanked the Golden Knights for believing in him.
As he wrote in an essay for The Athletic in 2018, “The one thing that was still making me nervous was that bipolar stigma. I didn’t understand why I was so ashamed to say anything. Would I lose my job?”
That’s the question that also haunted Hirsch during his tenure as an NHL goaltender and why he didn’t disclose his struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, as he described to Sporting News in January 2019.
“The stigma, that there’s still some mentality out there that a coach can’t win with with a player that has a mental health issue and that, it’s all garbage,” Hirsch said Sunday night in a phone interview with Sporting News. “[Olympic swimmer] Michael Phelps won 23 gold medals. He’s come out publicly saying he suffered from depression. . . . I’d take Michael Phelps on my team. So my point is, that it’s a BS excuse.
“People are scared of what what they don’t know about and I think with players like Robin, we’re blowing the doors off of seeing that just mental illness doesn’t mean you’re mentally weak.”
As Hirsch noted, 20 percent of adults experience a mental health illness. So the likelihood that Lehner is the only one in the NHL, let alone on his team, is simply not true. In fact, the Canucks’ Tyler Motte has been open about his anxiety and depression as well.
While his disclosure may or may not have caused the Sabres to part ways with Lehner in the summer of 2018 (the why has never been disclosed), the 2019 Masterton Trophy winner signed back-to-back one-year deals with the Islanders and Blackhawks.
As McCrimmon noted on the call with reporters, Lehner was anxious to gain the stability he now has.
“I’d love to have a five-year deal to take away my anxiety,” Hirsch said with a laugh. “But, you know, what it says about about about the Vegas Golden Knights is that they get it, like it’s not a big deal. It really isn’t. He’s actually a better player for having gone and got help. That makes him a better player.
“Mental health and mental illness are no different than a physical injury and Vegas has seen that in Robin and they’ve seen the work that he does to keep his mind fit. [It’s] no different than a player would show to keep their shoulder fit or their knee fit, or to keep themselves on track. So they see that, and they see that the stigma is garbage, that there’s [no] reason why Robin Lehner doesn’t deserve a five-year deal.”
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