SEATTLE — Gabriella Smith said hockey has changed her life in more than one way.
"I saw it live and was like, this is incredible," said the Tacoma native. "I was in love after the first day."
The learn-to-skate classes at Sprinker Recreation Center quickly evolved into playing on club teams and settling in a role as a team goalie. But she said, there was also a feeling of dread. Gabriella explained she would have panic attacks in the crease, and couldn't understand why.
"I felt like I wasn't good enough, it's kind of that my anxiety will startup," she said.
Then she read about National Hockey League goalie Robin Lehner, now a Vegas Golden Knights star, who famously accepted an award in 2019 and talked about his struggles with his health. "I am mentally ill, but not mentally weak," said Lehner at the event.
"I had really honestly never heard an athlete talk about that before," said Gabriella, back in Pierce County.
"Up until that point, I was still kind of embarrassed to talk about anything related to mental health, just because I figured no, I'm the weird one kind of thing. I shouldn't be feeling like this. But hearing him talk about that, and just how open he was, I was like, wow, this is a good conversation to have," said Gabriella, who would later meet Lehner at practice one day and share how he impacted her.
It is a trend across the league itself, and one that now includes the Seattle Kraken.
On Saturday, the franchise will roll out a series of 'Hockey Talks' conversations between players about mental health. The NHL has traditionally highlighted the issue in January. The talks include Kraken forward Riley Sheahan, who has gone public with his past issues.
"I think a lot of people struggle by keeping things internal and not allowing themselves to open up because they think they'll be a burden on others, or they think it's weak in some sort of way. I guess I'm just trying to make people understand that it's okay to reach out, it's okay to be vulnerable," said Sheahan from a hotel room in Dallas this week, recounting the tipping point many years ago. "I just had a weekend where I couldn't really function the way I wanted to. I was really unhappy. We're supposed to go play three games and travel and I just couldn't do it. I was not there, mentally."
Sheahan was later diagnosed with depression. He's since started a podcast on the topic, and said he was more than willing to be a part of the Kraken-led effort.
"It used to be just sort of like an old boys club where you would shake things off by having a few beers and forget about it. I think for me, that was just a band-aid and abusing myself that way just wasn't working," he said. "I've gotten older, and as I've matured and learned what really works for me, and started to realize that when I was kind of figuring these different things out that my relationships started to get stronger. I started to think more clearly. Even my body started functioning a little healthier."
"I think just understanding that when things are good, you still got to put in work to maintain those, those feelings. I think when things are bad, it's easy to really like search to be healthier and search to work out and search to treat your body better," added Sheahan.
Back in Tacoma, Gabriella says she applauds the Kraken effort and that it is another example of how sports can transcend culture and society.
"Everybody's dealing with something, the degree and what it is, differs, but ultimately, that doesn't make a difference," she said. "The more mainstream conversations like this can be, the better it is."