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What Stephen Johns hopes to perform along with his cross-continent #MentalMiles journey

Stephen Johns sat out the 2021 NHL season, and he knew his profession was over. It isn’t that the 29-year-old did not need to play hockey anymore; he merely could not.

The Dallas Stars defenseman as soon as spent 22 months sidelined coping with post-concussion syndrome. Although he had been cleared to return to the ice, he had by no means actually recovered. Johns nonetheless has a lingering headache always. Over the past NHL recreation by which he performed — Recreation 1 of a first-round playoff collection in opposition to the Calgary Flames in the 2020 postseason bubble — he regarded up on the clock and noticed that it was the second interval, however did not bear in mind a single shift earlier within the recreation. He knew he was accomplished.

Johns stayed in Dallas final season, sitting out the final yr of his contract, then returned to his childhood dwelling in Pennsylvania in early April.

“I form of simply sat in my home, and simply drank, self-isolated and actually did not do something,” he says. “I wasn’t {golfing}, I wasn’t hanging out with my associates. I began getting suicidal ideas. I used to be simply in a extremely, actually darkish place.”

Someday, he got here throughout the music video for “Reside Earlier than I Die” by Mike Posner and Naughty Boy on YouTube. The video particulars Posner’s six-month journey strolling throughout America.

“Why?” an early title card on the video reads. “I walked to grow to be somebody I am truly happy with.”

It turned out to be the inspiration Johns wanted. He known as up a pal. He broke out his rollerblades. And he, too, determined to journey throughout the nation.

He had no thought the journey it will be.


Johns wrapped up his trek in Oregon this week, after round 2,500 miles traveled, and tons of of latest connections made. Perhaps 1000’s. His direct message inbox is flooded with notes from all all over the world, and every day he’s tagged in dozens of movies of individuals sharing their very own #MentalMiles, a time period that Johns coined to unfold his message in regards to the significance of psychological well being.

He first posted about the journey on Instagram on June 13. “I form of did not notice I used to be asserting my retirement in that put up, however I did,” Johns mentioned. “However I did not assume it will blow up prefer it did. Even earlier than we began the journey, it was like, ‘Wow, that is going to be one thing loopy. This might be one thing enormous.'”

The pal touring together with Johns is Jeff Toates, who labored for the Stars as a videographer. This season was additionally Toates’ final with the group, as he moved on to a brand new job. “It was one of the best textual content I’ve ever acquired, as a result of it was out of the blue, it was a Thursday afternoon and he was like: ‘I feel I will rollerblade throughout America.'” Toates mentioned. “That was it. That was the textual content. It was one of the best. I used to be like, ‘I am so down.'”

Two days later, Toates booked a flight to Pittsburgh. They left a couple of week later. Toates filmed the journey for a documentary the 2 want to produce, and he is aware of Johns’ uncooked vulnerability has potential for large influence — and to transcend hockey.

“In comparison with what the league norm is, that is shattering some expectations and requirements for typical media availability,” Toates mentioned. “I have never considered Stephen a lot within the context of being a hockey participant, however the way in which he has opened up, the story he has to inform, it is positively completely different from what persons are used to seeing from hockey gamers.”

Johns and Toates had a tough define for his or her journey, and that was about it. For the primary few days, they’d get up at 7 or 8 a.m., and Johns would blade for 3 or 4 hours with Toates trailing in a automotive. “Then I might hop within the automotive, make up some floor for an hour or two, discover actually good roads, blade one other three or 4 hours, arrange camp, have some beers, speak about life, then go to mattress,” Johns mentioned.

Throughout the first few days, lace chew — irritation on the entrance of his ankle — was tough. The tan line from his hat was even rougher. Aside from that, Johns mentioned he feels remarkably good, particularly contemplating he hadn’t laced up skates since his final NHL recreation. What’s extra, he hadn’t damaged a sweat since then, both.

Johns and Toates have solid new friendships and rekindled previous ones. In Chicago, Johns met a 21-year-old video creator, Jack-a-Trades, who travels by bus across the nation chasing experiences. “He is the one which advised me, power follows good power,” Johns mentioned. “He noticed what we had been doing, requested if he might be part of and rip a couple of miles with us, and principally drove from Washington D.C. to Chicago in a day simply to skate with us.”

In Idaho, they met up with Bobby Ryan, who in 2020 gained the NHL’s Masterton Trophy after publicly sharing his expertise with alcohol abuse.

They’ve stayed in every single place from five-star accommodations in Chicago to former teammate Joe Pavelski‘s home in Wisconsin to Airbnb’s and campsites.

“In Yellowstone, we arrange camp and stayed in a resort,” Johns mentioned laughing.

“However that is the purpose about what number of random folks we have met in these cities and the connections that we have made,” Toates added. “Our resort that evening was arrange by somebody we had met on the bar the evening earlier than, who simply cherished our story. We talked for some time, heard their story they usually helped us out.”

Johns has been humbled by the response, but additionally overwhelmed by how many individuals have discovered his story relatable, as a result of it exhibits simply how many individuals on this world are struggling.

Simply six hours into the journey in Ohio, they had been pulling out of a gasoline station after they heard somebody shout: “Stephen!”

“I skate as much as this child and he asks, ‘Are you Stephen Johns?’ and I mentioned, ‘Yeah,'” Johns recalled. “And he mentioned, ‘I simply wished to let you recognize, I am having a tough morning and I used to be simply scrolling by means of Instagram and got here throughout your posts. I do not know who you’re, however I simply wished to say it is unimaginable what you’re doing, and your story put me in a very good temper.'”

Johns was a second-round decide of the Blackhawks in 2010, and was traded to Dallas as a part of the Patrick Sharp deal in 2015. He performed 167 profession NHL video games over the course of 4 seasons, which has led him to consider: “I am extra well-known for being a rollerblader than ever taking part in within the NHL.”


When Johns is on the highway, his first thought is: “S—, my ft actually harm.”

“However actually, I have been excited about every thing,” he mentioned. “I’ve had some loopy, life-altering moments on the blades. Tears of pleasure. Overcome with feelings, however it’s so completely different as a result of it is good feelings. I had been trapped with unhealthy feelings for years.”

For some time, Johns was indignant — at hockey, at himself, for not with the ability to get again on the ice. “The lead physician on IMPACT testing we’ve got to take yearly to play, I went to him after the concussion that ended me,” Johns mentioned. “He mentioned my complications had been from anxiousness and melancholy, and I ought to return to dwelling my life and have beers with my buddies. And he despatched me on my means.

“That was after like a six-hour work up. I wished to do a full [work up], see how I am doing, observe how I am doing year-to-year — and that is what he mentioned to me. And what do I do? I take heed to docs. So I went about my life not doing something to attempt to get wholesome as a result of he mentioned it will get higher, it was simply time.”

Johns went proper from the docs workplace to the on line casino to have a beer.

“I misplaced $500 in like 10 minutes,” he mentioned. “I used to be like, ‘I do not know if that is it, however right here we go.'”

When Johns confirmed up at coaching camp previous to the 2021 season, he mentioned he bodily could not do something. Then the months began flying by, and the waves of hysteria and melancholy received worse and worse.

“I have been to fifteen neurologists,” he mentioned. “I have been to mind clinics. I’ve acquired minor surgical procedures the place blood is pumped into my spinal canal. Like, I have been by means of all of it. I’ve tried each frickin’ antidepressant, I’ve tried every thing. Every part made every thing worse. It simply haunts me that I spent 4, 5 months within the time the place I felt like I ought to have been getting higher — I used to be listening to my physician — and I went by means of an everyday summer season completely simply grinding by means of exercises. The perfect factor for me would have been to see a neurologist that cared about me.”

Johns would not look again on his hockey profession bitterly. Truly, it is the other. “Lots of the height time in my hockey profession was within the minors, and I feel the minor-league system in hockey is so enjoyable and so distinctive,” Johns mentioned. “I performed in a terrific metropolis in Austin. I additionally performed in a terrific metropolis in Rockford [Illinois]. Individuals do not converse too extremely of Rockford, however I had one of the best teammates and the followers had been so passionate. I really like the sport a lot.”

Whereas he loves the sport, he typically feels let down by the sport. By way of the 2021 playoffs, Johns mentioned he is tuned into video games when his associates are taking part in, and that is about it.

“It is robust to be in my scenario,” Johns mentioned. “The entire subject of CTE is not even acknowledged in our league. That makes it fairly laborious for me to look at hockey now. I am fairly optimistic I will get [CTE] in some unspecified time in the future, if I do not have already got it now. Dementia and Alzheimer’s runs deep in my household. Just about each neurologist I’ve talked to says I am on the quick observe to that. It is fairly taxing on the soul proper there.”


Requested what he hopes folks take away from his story, Johns mentioned the “apparent reply is the significance of speaking.”

“Head accidents are insanely vital to speak about, and the restoration course of and never speeding youngsters again — particularly youngsters,” Johns mentioned. “As an grownup, you may make your individual selections, however as a child you’ll be able to’t. That is the scary half about it. I can not even inform you what number of instances in my profession I performed with a headache, as a result of it was ‘only a headache.’ It is an damage that may result in a illness, and a illness that may lead you to so many various paths of life you could by no means think about. I imply, I by no means actually understood anxiousness or melancholy as a result of I by no means had it. I simply thought it was a standard factor when you misplaced a cherished one, or broke up with somebody, the usual stuff. I did not actually grasp how deep the roots go, how tousled it’s, and the way laborious it’s to get out of that gap.”

As he wrapped up his journey, he is determining methods to hold the #MentalMiles momentum going.

“I am fortunate as a result of I’ve the means to have the ability to do that journey and never fear,” Johns mentioned. “There’s lots of people who work nine-to-five and solely have the weekends to do one thing. So I am attempting to navigate methods to bridge the hole, and assist folks in that means.”

Johns and Toates introduced a partnership with the Dallas Stars basis and Psychological Well being America. They’re encouraging folks to make donations for each psychological mile that somebody rides, and Johns will donate for each mile he logged on the journey.

“My complete purpose with this mission was to encourage one individual,” Johns mentioned. “I hope folks watch our documentary and do not get something out of it as a result of they’re doing nice. However my complete focus is, if I can save one individual, that is sufficient for me. I do not actually care what folks consider me, in the event that they assume I am silly for doing this or reckless. As a result of it is not about me anymore, it is a lot larger. And that is simply superior.”



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