They spent an hour catching up. Hockey, as it often does during conversations with Clint Malarchuk, was discussed. Drew Ryan, a goalie like Malarchuk, explained how a stretching regimen has added seven inches to the butterfly motion he plans to utilize.
Ryan treats tending goal for the USA Warriors Ice Hockey team so passionately he recently started developing a new, more composed style. He’s 57.
The retired Army colonel likes to say he’ll do anything – “A lot of folks say I play a game akin to (legendary Buffalo Sabres goalie) Dominik Hasek,” he said – to stop the puck.
“He does these diving pokechecks, and I’m going, ‘Man, don’t you have to go to work tomorrow?’” said Malarchuk, a former Sabres goalie who has served as a guest coach for the Warriors. “You could get hurt doing that.”
Ryan said speaking on the phone with Malarchuk one day in April felt “cathartic.” At times, their conversation became serious.
In recent years, Malarchuk has become a visible mental health advocate, traveling throughout North America and discussing his battle with the post-traumatic stress disorder he developed after a skate blade sliced his jugular vein in 1989. He nearly bled to death on the Memorial Auditorium ice.
Malarchuk asked Ryan, who served in the Persian Gulf and Iraq Wars, if he has PTSD. Ryan replied no, but talking with Malarchuk helped him realize he had severed the bonds of friends with whom he shared common experiences.
Very few people understand what it’s like to have served in war beside someone. While Ryan hadn’t thought much about it before their chat, he realized he needed those people from his past back in his life.
“Talking to Clint kind of helped me get my hands and head wrapped around that and understand that for what it is and appreciate it,” Ryan said. “(It) drives me even more to make sure I maintain communication, contact.”
After talking to Malarchuk, Ryan began reaching out to friends he had lost contact with.
“Clint’s relationship to people in uniform, and especially the wounded, disabled veterans, makes him understand, and he’s been through that with his PTSD,” Ryan said. “And so you’re coming from speaking the same language. There’s an understanding and appreciation of what and where you have been, and that makes the conversation that much more enriching and fulfilling.”
Malarchuk, 59, has become a proud supporter of the Warriors and veterans everywhere. The Warriors program started in 2008, in conjunction with Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, to provide clinics and a sport for disabled veterans.
“Kind of get them out there, introduce them to the sport, see if they liked it,” said Lori Mezzanotte, the Warriors’ vice president of community affairs. “And then over time, it kind of grew into more of a team atmosphere where they wanted to compete.”
To participate, you must have a disability rating. Men and women can play. There are standing and sled teams. The program is open to any age and skill level. The teams play around 25 games a year.
“It doesn’t matter what’s your level of hockey, you could have never skated before in your life,” Ryan said. “If you are willing to put the time and effort in, they will teach you, which is phenomenal, and it’s done a great job for a great deal of individuals.”
Other affiliated teams have popped up all over the country. Buffalo and Rochester have Warrior teams, although they’re not directly tied to the USA program.
“What draws them to the game is, No. 1, the love of the game they discover, but also the camaraderie,” Malarchuk said.
A mutual friend introduced Mezzanotte to Malarchuk, who played for the Capitals, in 2018. Before Mezzanotte could finish asking him, she said he committed to flying from his Nevada home to Washington to speak to the Warriors.
“He’s like, ‘I’m there, like, what do you want me to do?’” she said.
After skating with the Warriors at the Capitals’ practice facility in Arlington, Virginia, Malarchuk and his wife, Joanie, shared their emotional story at a team dinner.
“He had people in tears,” Ryan said.
Malarchuk detailed his harrowing battle with PTSD and his struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder, alcoholism and anxiety.
The toxic mix led to brushes with death, including a 2008 suicide attempt in which he shot himself in front of Joanie. The bullet is still lodged in his skull.
The Malarchuks’ story resonated with the veterans.
“That’s where guys started to go, ‘Holy (crap), this guy really gets the PTSD that we’re going through,’” said Malarchuk, whose gritty memoir, “A Matter of Inches: How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond,” was released in 2014.
He added: “For the first time, somebody’s been able to go, ‘Wow, this guy did it and struggled in silence and there’s no reason to.’ I guess the message is it’s not a weakness, it’s a sickness.”
Ryan said Malarchuk speaks like he’s talking directly to you.
“What Clint does is he … lets you know it’s OK to not only have a challenge or have a problem, but it’s also OK to ask for help,” he said.
The Malarchuks made lasting connections that weekend in Washington. Many Warriors have kept in contact. Malarchuk always makes himself available.
“To see a guy who played in the NHL, suffered this horrific accident and went right back and started playing again and had mental health issues, (they can) say, ‘Hey, if he can get help, so could I,’” Mezzanotte said. “And so that was kind of like the beginning of a beautiful friendship, not only with the Warriors, but personally with Clint and Joanie.”
Malarchuk’s interest in the veterans’ lives – “It goes both ways, for sure,” Mezzanotte said – has also endeared him to them.
“They respect him because he’s just a real down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy,” Ryan said. “He’s going to tell you the way it is. He’ll make some comment that just makes you crack up. A lot of times that’s really important to loosen that tension.”
Malarchuk said: “They want to hear my story … and, of course, I want to hear theirs. So that’s where the bond really began.”
During his visits with the Warriors, Malarchuk kept seeing Gen. Mark A. Milley, who would become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Milley, a former hockey player at Princeton, told Malarchuk to check his mailbox.
“He said, ‘You know, Clint, you know you’re going to get an invitation to something but I can’t tell you what it is,’” Malarchuk said. “It’s military (stuff), right?”
Malarchuk ended up having a front row seat for Milley’s change of command. During a barbecue at his house, Milley saluted Malarchuk’s work with the veterans in front of 300 people.
Milley’s kind words stunned the 10-year NHL veteran.
“I was really embarrassed, because this is military, and he went on,” Malarchuk said he became choked up. “Where is this coming from? I was … just blown away, humbled, embarrassed. There’s way more important people here at this barbecue. So through my travels I’ve had some really cool opportunities.”