“There’s a huge fear about being able to become vulnerable and have these conversations”
Really, it’s incredible that Tyler Smith (Radio and Television – TV '20) ever went back to play for the Broncos, considering that the accident occurred just six or seven months earlier.
Before Smith’s return to the ice in fall, 2018 as a forward in Humboldt, Sask., doctors had told him he wouldn’t play again for at least a year, maybe two. Given what he’d been through, even that prognosis could have been considered to be optimistic.
The previous April, on a clear afternoon a couple of hundred kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, the Humboldt Broncos team bus was struck at a highway intersection by a transport truck that had failed to stop.
The force of the collision sheared off the front of the bus, and both vehicles skidded off the road on their sides. Ten players and six staff members lost their lives. Smith suffered a broken collarbone and shoulder, as well as nerve damage in his left arm.
“The driving force for me to go back was playing for everyone that we lost,” he says now. “I wanted to play for every single person that was involved, for every single family.”
But it wasn’t long before he realized that he wasn’t completely healed. His body may have been ready for gameday, but his mental health wasn’t. His heart and mind remained mired in the aftermath at the side of that highway, struggling with the incomprehensible why of it all.
Smith would leave the Broncos after just 10 games in the 2018-19 season to focus on a more holistic recovery.
“One of the toughest things in life is getting over that hurdle of understanding that you can do something for yourself sometimes,” he says.
That philosophy emerged out of the necessity of self-preservation but, because of where it led, its impact has been more widely felt. Today, Smith’s difficult choice has him as one of hockey’s – and perhaps Alberta’s – strongest advocates for mental health and, in a sense, once again able to play for others.
Permission to be vulnerable
At 24 years old, Smith has a well-developed sense of maturity and self-awareness regarding his own well-being. He references his therapist in casual conversation the way others might mention an accountant. It’s a relationship that helps him take stock, stay focused, move forward, and he seems proud of having welcomed it into his life. Statistically, this might make him unique.
Few athletes, for example, come forward about struggles despite data emerging about the strain induced on many by elite competition, a situation poignantly illustrated when gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics citing mental health concerns. More broadly, Smith is bucking outdated expectations. Without blame, he describes his dad as “the epitome of a man,” putting the feelings and needs of others before his own.
But Smith doesn’t set out to be unique; he actively seeks to build a community around being vulnerable. Combining that with his love of talking is what brought him to NAIT, where he learned the methods and mechanics of broadcasting his message. He does so on the Speak Your Mind podcast with co-host and NHLer Riley Sheahan, as well as through public speaking engagements, around 50 of them to date.
As a self-confessed clothes horse, Smith has also found a way to reach out through fashion. “I have about a hundred hats, a hundred pairs of shoes, a hundred hoodies,” he says with a laugh. “I wanted to add to the collection and make something that I felt good wearing, because now I was taking care of my mental health and before I wasn’t.”
That addition came in fall 2021 with Not Alone, a growing brand of attire (lots of hats and hoodies, but T-shirts, too) inscribed with messages and images that signal to others that their mental health struggles are shared. In partnership with an embroidery company in Smith’s hometown of Leduc, the venture donates a portion of proceeds to mental health organizations and initiatives, such as the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Mostly, though, Smith hopes the clothing gets people talking to one another.
“I think there’s a huge fear, especially among males, about being able to become vulnerable and have these conversations [about mental health] with the people around you,” says Smith. He’s pleased to report that strangers have thanked him for wearing phrases such as “It’s okay not to be okay” and “Check in with your friends.”
“Be proud of the fact that you’re allowed to open up and take care of yourself.”
“Be proud of the fact that you’re allowed to open up and take care of yourself,” says Smith. “This is your journey. This is your life.”
Dr. Tanya Spencer sees such a statement, and Smith’s efforts generally, as “permission” for audiences to reframe how they might see their own well-being.
“When you think about [addressing] stigma and mental health problems, we’ve come so far in the last five or 10 years,” says the NAIT student counselling and mental health lead. Smith’s background as a Prairie-born hockey player, Spencer adds, could have the added benefit of accessing audiences who may not be typically exposed to the idea of self-care as a means of recovering from trauma – or, for that matter, that their trauma in fact requires recovery.
“His story reaches people in a way that conventional health promotion just can’t,” says Spencer. What’s more, it promotes expressing a need as a virtue.
“Vulnerability, if anything, conveys strength,” she says. “It takes a lot more guts to be honest about where we’re at, rather than avoiding what we don’t want to talk about.”
An ongoing conversation
The day Smith left the Broncos – guided by having said aloud “I need help,” three words he’d been previously frightened of – could be seen as a kind of breakthrough, an act of moving forward rather than of leaving behind.
His fight against showing what he’d once have considered “weakness” was affecting relationships with the people who loved him, and he realized this aspect of his healing wasn’t “a battle to be won.”
“Once I understood that, I was able to come to terms with those words,” says Smith. “After I said them, I think I allowed myself to find time and space to actually grieve and understand that, wow, we did go through a lot.”
As a result, his relationships have grown deeper. Tears shed around a campfire, he says, no longer make for awkward moments, but treasured memories – ones that contribute to a journey of healing that he now accepts will last a lifetime.
Tears shed around a campfire no longer make for awkward moments, but treasured memories.
Today, Smith knows he’ll never have an answer to that incomprehensible why. He knows that not every day will be easy. But he also knows that “getting to a place where we can embrace the good and embrace the bad is a vital piece of your individual healing journey.”
Perhaps most importantly, he knows that he’s not alone, and that he can reach out for support when he needs it. He’s made it so that family and friends have come to expect that of him. Sometimes, those friends are gone but not forgotten.
“I’m allowed to talk to the people we lost,” says Smith. “I’m allowed to look up through the sunroof [of my car] and have a conversation. As much as I might look crazy to a person walking by, that’s just something I need to do for myself.”