Crunch using platform to fight stigma around mental health

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Patrick Williams, Features Writer

The Syracuse Crunch have a platform. It’s one they want to use. It’s one they feel compelled to use.

Vinny Lobdell and his family have a cause: mental health. When Lobdell, a Central New York entrepreneur, was still a teenager, his brother Rusty died by suicide at 19 years old in 1995.

Lobdell speaks bluntly and openly, and the family’s goal is simple – bring mental health out into the open. Make care more accessible. To that end, the Lobdell family has already donated $1 million to Oswego Health, a nonprofit healthcare system in nearby Oswego, N.Y., to benefit the Lakeview Center for Mental Health & Wellness. It brings increased care to a smaller community that has not always had easy access to the same resources as a larger center like Syracuse.

But there was still even more to do, and it goes beyond money. It means having a voice, and that is where the partnership with the Crunch began to develop. Crunch owner and president Howard Dolgon and Lobdell have run in some of the same circles and have known each other casually for years. But as Dolgon learned more about the work that Lobdell and his family had been doing, he reached out.

“I said, ‘Listen, I love what you’re doing,’” Dolgon recounted.

The pair quickly hit it off and began working to explore how each side could work together on the issue of mental health.

“These players are role models,” Lobdell said. “What we want people to know is that a fair amount of the general public suffers from mental health issues. The more we talk about it, the more we look at it like it’s cancer, like it’s heart disease, like it’s anything that we treat without the stigma. That’s exactly what it is. When we start looking at it that way, I think people will get the help they need.

“Having people from the Crunch speak about this really resonates with a broader range of people. Any time we can bridge popularity and exposure – whether it’s Hollywood, whether it’s the music industry, whether it’s professional sports, and they openly talk about struggles that they’ve had with their mental health – it creates a huge gateway to mainstream America to help people that look up to these people.”

Lodbell continued, “I think if a role model struggling with mental health or struggling with anxiety shares that openly and shows that vulnerability, all the people that look up to them say, ‘Hey, if they’re vulnerable and share that they struggled, it’s okay that I do.’ This is something that everyone struggles with… Mental health does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter how much money is in your pocket. It doesn’t matter how good-looking you are. If we get together as a society and really talk about these issues openly, there’s huge, huge movement in a positive direction we can make.”

And so they are. The Crunch announced in November plans for a season-long initiative that will highlight mental health as well as the local resources available to address the issue. To launch the program, the Crunch teamed up with Lobdell and his family as well as local corporate partners, and there are also plans for a home game that will spotlight mental health later this season.

Targeting mental health had already been made a priority for the Crunch. Last summer the organization brought in Ulrika Eriksson, a life coach and certified yoga instructor whose knowledge base also includes mindfulness and meditation, to work with the team’s front office. Eriksson and Ryan Hamilton, the mental performance coach for the parent Tampa Bay Lightning, speak to local schools, minor hockey organizations, and parents on the issue, and involve Crunch players and coaches as well.

“We’ve always believed that as a team with a platform in our community, it was important to have a positive impact on the people who live in Syracuse and surrounding areas,” Dolgon said.

Their position is something that the Crunch have long used to benefit the Syracuse community, be it expanding minor hockey programs, addressing school bullying, or combating the issue of opioid abuse.

Mental wellness seemingly affects everybody, whether it’s family, friends, co-workers or themselves, Dolgon said.

“It’s always been a topic that people have been very leery about publicly discussing. What is the purpose of having a team if we’re not going to do something that’s going to hopefully have a positive impact in the community where we play?”

Crunch veteran Daniel Walcott attended the announcement along with head coach Joel Bouchard and Eriksson. Lobdell’s teenage son, Noah, spoke at the news conference and made an immediate impression at the announcement.

“To listen to this young man speak from the heart about how important this was,” Dolgon said, “it meant so much because he can speak to his peers, his friends in high school.”

Said Eriksson, “My hope, and I think the hope of this whole program, is that it will make people hopefully think to make a change. There are three things – the timing, the message, and the messenger. Sometimes you’ll hear something over and over but it doesn’t stick until the timing is right.”

The Crunch hope that their program could expand across the AHL and pro sports, and they are more than willing to share their blueprint to expand that message.

“We realize that it isn’t that a season-long issue,” Dolgon said. “This is something that as an organization we plan on being involved with year after year after year because the issue of mental wellness is not going away. We’ve got to be a part of this just like we’ve got to be part of the war on drugs, just like we have to be active in equality for all people.

“Our organization has always believed that there is more to what we do than playing hockey games. If we can make an impact with one person or hopefully a lot more than that, then we’re on to something here. It’s too important not to participate.”

Player involvement is key as well. With the Crunch in their 30th season and a fixture in Central New York, the team’s players and the Crunch brand have a lot of sway within the community.

“When you’ve got athletes that are respected by people in the community, when you have qualified spokespeople like we do, you have families like the Lobdell family that can communicate their story, hopefully that will have an impact in a real positive way, both in the short-term and in the long-term,” Dolgon said.

Certainly society hesitated much more in the past to bring mental health out into the open, to make it something that could become a focal point of a pro hockey team’s community outreach. But society is changing.

“I think that’s one of the key leadership traits right now – vulnerability and being able to share a story,” Lobdell explained. “I’ve seen so many more people open up and be open with their communication, talk, and just listen authentically and sincerely to people.”

It may be an individual who is dealing with a mental health issue. Or that person’s family. Or friends. Or co-workers. Everyone has a stake in this issue.

Said Dolgon, “It crosses all boundaries.”

“What we hope people understand is times have changed, and this isn’t something where you’re alone,” Lobdell said. “It doesn’t have to end the same way my brother’s story ended.

“We want to open people’s eyes. There are resources, and we can help you.”

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