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‘It’s all in his head’: On A.J. Greer and the mental stress that comes with pursuing an NHL dream

The fourth-year Avalanche pro has been candid about his struggle with — and advocacy for — mental health

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In the game of hockey — much like in life — players and people tend to develop at their own pace. Not just physically, but probably even more so mentally.

It takes a special sort of skill level to play the sport. While the physical capability can be developed and honed on the ice and in the gym, training the mental development is a little bit trickier. The physical bumps, bruises and the general soreness that come with playing the game can all be healed. What the game does to a player’s psyche, however, is often much harder to rehab.

The mental stresses of the game can be more than trying on one’s wellness — from fighting for a job day-in and day-out in the minor leagues to the physical pain and strain of everyday practices and games, to teetering on the precipice of achieving one’s life-long dream of reaching the NHL and the fear of failing to do so.

Take, for example, Colorado Avalanche prospect A.J. Greer.

The 22-year-old forward for the AHL’s Colorado Eagles is in the midst of his fourth year as a pro, in what many may call his “make-or-break” year.

Throughout his career, Greer has been candid about his mental health. Pinned on his Twitter profile page is a heart-warming message about knowing that there’s always someone there for you with the subsequent hashtags “MentalHealthMatters” and “BellLetsTalk,” the latter of which is a social media initiative by Bell Telecommunications in which money is donated by the corporation to aid in various mental health programs in Canada.

Greer would be the first to admit that he’s a passionate and emotional guy, and he’s not afraid to show it. As the saying goes: “he wears his heart on his sleeve.” And for Greer, that’s not just a figure of speech, he very literally does.

Covering Greer’s left arm is a sleeve of tattoos, one of which portrays the greek god Atlas. For those unfamiliar with grecian mythology, Atlas was punished by Zeus for attempting to lead a rebellion against him. As his punishment, Atlas was to bear the weight of the world and the heavens on his shoulders for the rest of eternity.

Greer shows off his tattoo sleeve
Colorado Avalanche Twitter Account (@Avalanche)

At times in Greer’s life and career, he too has probably felt the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Drafted by Colorado in the second round of the 2015 NHL draft, big things were expected of Greer. Now four years removed from turning pro, he finds himself becoming buried beneath an ever-deepening Avalanche depth chart, struggling to find his place within the organization. Dealing with the frustration and the stress that comes with that is something Greer is trying to learn to do.

To help facilitate in dealing with the internal stresses that grapple with Greer’s mental state, the 22-year old started seeing a sports psychologist last offseason. He felt that the catharsis of talking with his psychologist really helped him deal with his emotions, and better equipped him to handle the stresses of pursuing his dream. It made such a difference for him that he’s seeing the same guy again this season.

“I did that [again] this summer,” Greer told me. “Just seeing a sports psychologist helps you get stuff off your mind. In the summer you don’t get to dial in as much, so whenever I see him it’s to refresh and kind of work my mind a bit. I think it’s important...For me, I like it.”

For those around A.J. — that is to say, Colorado as an organization — most would agree that physically and talent-wise, Greer is where he needs to be. After all, entering the 2019-20 season, he’s played 37 games in the NHL with the Avs over the past three seasons, among the most call-up time of anyone currently on the Colorado Eagles roster. Mentally, however, there is development that still needs to be done.

“The whole thing with A.J. is it’s all in his head,” said Eagles head coach Greg Cronin. “You know, he needs to decide who he’s going to be as a hockey player, and who he wants to be as a person, who he wants to be as a teammate, who he wants to be as a human being. Those are the things that he’s got to make a decision. He’s totally invested in hockey, he’s totally committed to play in the NHL and he’s taken action in his life to do that.

“For me it all boils down to him making a decision that he’s going to play hockey this way, and that he’s going to play this way that reinforces that hockey playing on the ice. For me, that’s all it boils down to. Some guys mature quicker than others and I think that he is physically a mature guy and once his mental maturity matches his physical maturity, there won’t be some of these things that I think prevent him from reaching his potential.”

Despite some offseason, off-ice drama, Colorado still re-signed the embattled prospect to a one-year deal this past summer. Some of that offseason drama, it appears, has followed Greer on to the ice this season.

In the most recent example, Greer’s tempers flared during a matchup against the Eagles and the Milwaukee Admirals. After receiving a five-minute major for fighting, Greer was sent to the penalty box. When things began escalating on the ice again, Greer left the box to fight another Admirals skater. The result of his ill-advised reaction totaled two fighting penalties and three game misconducts for the Eagles’ feisty forward. In total, Greer earned himself 40 minutes of penalties, just two minutes shy of the franchise one-game record.

Days later, the AHL announced he’d be suspended for six games for his injudiciousness.

Greer’s actions that night are a microcosm for the 22-year-old winger’s career thus far. It’s a view into the edge of his game that he plays with night-in and night-out. But it’s also a revelation into Greer’s oft-inability to control his emotions and frustrations.

“You’re going to get frustrated at times and people are going to get more vocal and emotional than others. I’m a vocal and emotional person,” Greer admitted of his game.

His head coach concurred.

“He gets frustrated and he wants it so bad, he’s so competitive, sometimes those are roadblocks,” Cronin said. “I think once he matures mentally, he’s not going to see them as roadblocks, he’s going to see them as opportunities to overcome it.”

I spoke with Eagles general manager and Avs assistant GM Craig Billington about Greer’s ongoing work being done to better handle frustration, emotions and how the team handles overall mental health in the game. Billington recognized that it’s a big part of the sport and that the organization is making moves to help players handle the “game” that takes place within their brains.

“I think when you look at mental awareness it’s a very significant part of our business and our lives and how we manage our emotions,” said Billington. “We all to different degrees could use help at different times in our lives with what we’re going through...So that’s another aspect of development that we’re trying to tap into.

“We recognize how significant and important it is. It can evolve as well...Once you start hammering through the ‘why,’ it’s typically stems back to that mental aspect and coping with those expectations and those stresses of that position and putting them in perspective and what are the coping skills for that. I think there’s really good professional people that can help, certainly as a coaching staff and as a managing staff. We’re there to help and support it and get people that will help them find those necessary skills. No different than what we’re looking at in the gym for conditioning, the mind needs to have its focus as well.”

Colorado Avalanche take on the Winnipeg Jets Photo by Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Part of the mental stresses that occur within Greer likely stem back to where he sees himself within the organization. Now in his fourth year as a pro and earning just a one-year qualifying contract this past offseason for all of his efforts in the years prior, it’s clear Greer and Colorado are struggling to find a full-time fit. I asked Greer about his training camp with the Avs this summer and he told me he thought he did enough and couldn’t help but be a little disappointed to be back in Loveland to start the season.

“It was definitely my best one,” said Greer of his fourth camp with Colorado. “I did what I had to do, did my job and worked as hard as I could..It was good, I had a good time, I did well.”

Then he shrugged, “but now I’m back here.”

It’s a frustrating business. With only a 21 skater spots open on an NHL roster, the odds of staying in the NHL are more than stacked against a given player. And oftentimes a player knows how good they are. After all, they were drafted into the NHL and that’s an impressive enough accolade in and of itself.

“Some guys are harder to manage than other guys. He’s had probably one of the more interesting journeys because he’ll go up [to the NHL] and play really well and then it might fade a little bit,” Cronin added of Greer’s development. “In those positions, where say, there’s a 100 guys for every three fourth-line guys and there’s only like six guys for the top-three positions — so there’s competition constantly on people’s backs. So he’s in that environment where you got to be consistent with it.”

That consistency is key in both staying in the NHL full-time and earning a longer-term contract, something Greer has yet to do.

“I’m on a qualifying deal, so I don’t know,” Greer added of whether or not he sees himself getting a contract extension after this season. “I’m going to keep doing my thing. I know how good I am.”

As frustrating as the sport can be, Greer is learning to handle how he vents those frustrations. And not helping with that is the fact that he is on this one-year “prove-it” deal. That is to say, every little detail of his game within this one year will be meticulously looked at and combed over with a fine-tooth comb. That’s a lot of pressure.

“I can’t say specific to him. I would say specific to all players. That given year you’re in is a really important year,” said Billington about Greer playing in a contract year this season. “This year is a growth year, ideally for your game. Where’s it going to evolve? What did you learn from the previous year? What areas were identified both as a coaching standpoint or a managing standpoint or fitness and conditioning standpoint that you’d like to work on?

“It’s not just ‘well, we’ll see where you’re at in three months,’” Billington added. “A.J. I would say is no different than any of the other players. It’s ‘what have your goals been’; ‘what have you worked at for those goals in the offseason’; and ‘what are you doing currently to have those goals come to fruition’.”

Greer (far right) watches on at Colorado Eagles practice at Budweiser Events Center
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

It’s a lot of pressure, and for A.J., he’s not bottling up those emotions that come with it. Quite the opposite. He lets them fly — sometimes on the ice, sometimes in his therapist’s office. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

“I got to kind of calibrate what I go through and my emotions and I think the people around me help me do that, whether it’s the hockey team or the people back home. Just being in a good state of mind, and like I said, [my sports psychologist] can help me a lot whenever I’m going through something or whatever,” Greer said. “I can pick up the phone or see them in the offseason and they help me a lot just because they don’t have direct relationship to my life, so they kind of just have [me as another] person who just comes into their office.”

Everyone in the organization wants Greer to succeed. They’re doing everything they can to help him achieve his NHL dreams. But the biggest fight lies within A.J. himself. It’s his journey, and while he’s not on it alone, he must forge his own path.

“It’s easy to talk about but it’s a difficult journey to travel on if you are that person,” Cronin concluded. “He’s in an environment here where our big thing is about transparency, making people aware of things and then helping them along that journey. This is like tribal existence. We’re trying to promote growth from everybody. And I think the consistency thing for him is all mental and it’s going to be a really rewarding year for him when he figures it out.”

Greer’s struggles with the frustration that comes with chasing a dream is a reminder that it’s OK to be stressed out — life is not easy and dreams are hard to attain. That’s just a fact of life. No matter if you’re playing a game for a living or whatever it is you choose to do on this earth, there is no easy journey through it. Like the pinned Tweet on Greer’s account, it’s important to remember that no one goes through their journey alone. There will always be someone to talk to, whether it’s a family member or friend, a psychologist of sorts or an entire “team.”

“Mental health is huge nowadays,” Greer added. “And I think not even just hockey, just being able to have a third party that is not involved in your life and kind of just talk about that aspects of what you’re going through or if anything is wrong or good. You kind of just let it out and it feels better.”