By Nick Krewen
There is no denying that Ron Ellis is one of the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs to ever don the uniform.
The stats speak for themselves: a four-time NHL all-star with one Stanley Cup to his credit; one of five players to clock in more than 1000 games with the team; their number four all-time scorer with 332 goals; 11th in assists with 640; 6th in points with 640, a member of the 1972 Summit Series national team against Russia and on the roster of the Canadian team for the 1977 Ice Hockey World Championships.
And the right winger, playing in the pre-helmet era of the NHL, accomplished all this despite missing two seasons of semi-retirement.
But accompanying Ellis’ numerous successes was an unwelcome visitor whose identity he didn’t fully figure out until his playing days were done: depression.
“Physically I was fine, but mentally I was having some issues,” Ellis recalls. “It wasn’t so much that I was upset with the game – I just wasn’t well and I didn’t realize what in the heck was going on. Later – after recovery – I certainly could define it as depression at the time.”
Life as a pro and being in the public eye had its advantages and disadvantages. Professional athletes live under a different fishbowl than most: the elite are under constant pressure to perform at the top of their game – and their career choice is a finite one due to several factors: age, ability and potentially injury, not to mention the stress that naturally resides in competition. These factors contribute to the difficulty and stigma athletes face when it comes to admitting they have a mental health diagnosis, seeking counselling, or therapy, or working with a therapist.
“There’s that old saying, ‘you’re only as good as your last game,’ Ellis chuckles. “So, there’s always stress to play the role that you’re supposed to play on the team. If that means scoring goals, then yeah, there’s a bit of stress there.”
MEDIA STRESS AND EARLY RETIREMENT
When you play for the Toronto Maples Leafs, perhaps the most celebrated franchise of the National Hockey League (along with their lifelong rivals, the Montreal Canadiens), there’s the added intensity of the media spotlight.
“The stress of the media – we always had three or four newspaper reporters traveling with us, Ellis recalls. “Definitely, Toronto is a great place to play the game, particularly if you want to make your home in Toronto after you retire, but it is a tough place to play.”
And then there’s the well-meaning autograph seekers who selfishly invade and interrupt one’s privacy.
“If you play in Toronto, you can’t take your wife out to dinner anywhere,” Ellis admits. “It’s not like that if you play for teams in Florida or California – once you leave the rink, you have a life.
“And I’m a very private person – it took its toll on me as well.”
But Ellis harbours no regrets.
“I wouldn’t change that part in my life.”
So what happened to Ellis to cause him to retire in 1975?
Ellis said he became anti-social during the off-season.
“I withdrew from so many things,” he admits. “I stopped playing golf, for example, in the off-season and didn’t want to get together with friends. And didn’t want to socialize and everything just became very, very dark.
“Again, I didn’t know what I was dealing with – that was 1975 and there wasn’t a lot of information about mental health issues back then – we have come so far.
It got so bad that he ended up leaving the game in 1975 – albeit temporarily.
“Basically what happened was that after 11 years in the league, I had just finished my most productive season with the Leafs, playing alongside Daryl Sittler and Tiger Williams,” recalls the Lindsay, ON-born Ellis, who wore No. 6 on his jersey.
“I was at the height of my career – your most productive years occur when you’re in your late 20s – and even though I was trying to work out and prepare myself for the upcoming training camp, there was a black cloud following me around everywhere – and everything became negative.
“Despite these feelings, I decided to go to training camp because I certainly didn’t want to retire and I was physically in shape.
“But after playing all the exhibition games, the day before the season started, we were doing some stretching before hitting the ice and I said to my long-time roommate, ‘I’m going to retire today.’”
Ellis spent the next two years away from the game.
“I just didn’t feel that I could play the way I wanted to play,” he explained.
“And I didn’t want to be a problem for the team – being a player that’s in and out of the line-up. I just felt it was best for myself and the team if I stepped down – still not knowing what I was dealing with.”
Once removed from the spotlight, though, Ellis flourished, finding gainful employment separate from the arena.
“I took some time off – probably the better part of a year – and tried to take care of myself,” Ellis remembers. “Then I started working for a company in Toronto and felt like things were going fairly well there. I started to think of a comeback because I never closed the door completely. The Leafs were in touch with me throughout those two years, wondering how I was feeling about everything.”
Before he resumed his life with the Leafs, however, Ellis was cajoled to lace up the skates by noted NHL lawyer and hockey agent Alan Eagleson for the round-robin 1977 Ice Hockey World Championships that April.
“It just so happened that 1977 was the first year that the International Ice Hockey Federation allowed teams like Team Canada to use professionals at the World Championships,” Ellis remembers. “So I was tootin’ along and I got a phone call from Alan Eagleson, who I got to know well during the early ‘70s. He was responsible for putting this team together that was going to compete in the world championships.
“He called me and asked if I was considering a comeback, was there any possible way that I could get ready to play in this series. After some thought, I said, ‘I’m going to try.’ So, I trained on my own for six months, made the team and it went well for me.
“At the World Championships I played on a line with Phil Esposito and we enjoyed some success. The only team we couldn’t beat were the Russians, basically the same team we played in ’72.”
Following the tourney, the Maple Leafs invited Ellis to rejoin the team.
“I came back and played four more seasons,” Ellis said. “They were quite enjoyable seasons and then, in 1980 at age 35, it was time to retire as the Leafs decided to go with a youth movement.”
However, Ellis’ anxieties seemed to manifest themselves more so during post-hockey life.
After trying his hand at teaching and opening an insurance office, Ellis entered the sporting goods business with a couple of friends.
“It just wasn’t a good fit for me,” he admits. “We struggled as a business; the stress started building. Then I was hit very hard with depression: to the point where I had to take time off work and I had to be hospitalized and finally had to admit that I needed help.”
CONCUSSIONS AND CLINICAL DEPRESSION
Ellis suffered through a decade of struggle.
“Between 1985 and 1995 were the most difficult years for me and I was diagnosed, finally, by my doctors, that it was clinical depression.
To this day, Ellis, who engages in public speaking regarding mental health on the corporate circuit, is still uncertain of the damage a couple of concussions may have affected him.
“I remember one particular night I was caught with my head down and was kayoed. My head hit the ice and I was out cold before I even hit the ice. They delayed the game about 15 minutes and they got me into the dressing room, put some sniffers under my nose and finally woke me up. I sat up and swung my legs over in the upright position. The trainer said, ‘Do you want to go back?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ I went back and finished that game.”
His next one occurred in less than a week.
“About four games later, I got hit and down I went again – even though I saw the check. It moved the brain again and then I missed about 10 games.”
Ellis said no one who had suffered similar head injuries was treated differently – it was just the nature of the game in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“There was just lack of knowledge back then,” he concurs. “There were few in the league that hadn’t had a concussion, either playing minor hockey, a junior hockey, pro hockey: it was just part of the territory.”
Regardless of whether concussions were a contributing factor to his ailment, his post-hockey life outlook wasn’t improving.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t function in the workplace in my own business,” Ellis recalls. “And I saw what I was doing to my family. My wife was doing her best to support me but she was frustrated because, for a long time, I said, ‘I can get through this. I can do it on my own – I don’t need any help.’
“That you’ve got to be strong – that whole concept of men being strong and not showing weakness: all those things were playing a role in this, until finally I thought, ‘I need to get some help, you can’t hurt your family anymore.’”
THE TIPPING POINT
Like many men who resist therapy or counselling or working with a mental health professional, Ellis remained stubborn about seeking treatment until, at the urging of his wife and his family doctor, he attended a lecture at the University of Toronto by 60 Minutes host and journalist Mike Wallace.
The topic? Depression.
“Mike Wallace shared his story with depression – a very similar story to my own – and how he had to eventually get help,” Ellis said. “That’s when I realized, maybe I’m not the only one going through this…if someone like Mike Wallace can get help, Ron Ellis can get help, too. That was my tipping point.”
Recovery wasn’t overnight. Hospitalization was required and Ellis figures it took an extended period of healing before he truly started recuperating.
“My hospital visits were so important, “ Ellis explains.
“It is in those environments where you learn to identify the triggers and you learn some coping skills and that was all very, very beneficial to my recovery.
“It took time.”
He also credits a four-tier support system for helping him heal.
“There were four key factors that helped me in my recovery process,” says Ellis. “First of all, I have a supportive family. Secondly, I had a family doctor that understands mental health issues. My family doctor was outstanding and he finally got to a point where he said, ‘Ron, I can’t help you anymore, and I want to refer you to this hospital where I really think you could receive the proper care.’
“You need a doctor like that. You also need an understanding employer and hopefully the company has the proper insurance in place that will help you get that help.
“Because with some of these hospitals, there are costs involved. “
CURED, BUT THE BATTLE CONTINUES
Today, Ron Ellis, who will celebrate his 75th birthday in January 2020, is the director of public affairs for the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, and in 2002, co-authored Over The Boards: The Ron Ellis Story with noted hockey historian Kevin Shea that chronicled his battle with depression.
He’s also involved with a company developing a new anti-depression medication with a couple of business associates.
“We believe we have potentially a new drug that can help people with depression, but we’re still in the process of working all that through,” Ellis explains. “We’ve made some great strides in the last couple of years with human trials, but we still have a ways to go.”
While he may have his demons under control, Ellis admits that he’s remains on constant vigil regarding his condition.
“It’s something that I’m always aware of,” he notes. “To be honest with you, it’s still something that I have to be careful with and I’m still on medication and will be for the rest of my life.
“And it’s something that I’m always checking and making sure that I’m not getting overloaded or too busy with things. That’s very important for me.”
“Quite early, the doctors always wanted to see my day timer – and they always wanted to see what my schedule was like – they couldn’t believe it. I always had trouble saying no to people. You felt that you were doing it for the right reasons but it always had its impact.”
Although he doesn’t get out on the corporate circuit as much as he used to, Ellis still engages in public speaking about diagnosing and treating clinical depression.
“When I get on the circuit and talk to corporations about the impact of depression in the workplace, one of the points I make is if you get diagnosed early and you get help early, you can return to the workplace and be quite productive in a short period of time.
“With an understanding employer, the employee – if given the chance to get the help – can return to the workplace and be a very effective employee. They don’t have to lose their star performer.”
How does Depression affect your life?