Former Leaf Ron Ellis in position to help people

"For many years, I thought I was a self-made guy. There wasn't much that I couldn't handle and couldn't defeat … I told myself real men don't get depressed." But he did. "Unfortunately, the pride, that manly pride … and my lack of knowledge about depression prevented me from seeking help for … years."

The Toronto Star
October 23, 2003

Former Leaf Ron Ellis in position to help people
Jim Coyle

There was a time when heroes in this town didn't come much bigger than Ron Ellis.

He was a Toronto Maple Leaf back in the 1960s when such status often carried with it NHL bragging rights. On top of that, he gave expression to most of the manly virtues then in vogue, right down to his brush-cut.

He was stalwart, sturdy and stoic, ideal, in fact, for the still WASPy Toronto of the day. On the ice, he was fast without being too flashy, as diligent on defence as on offence, almost always in position on the right wing, as dependable as a streetcar in its trolley tracks.

Even Punch Imlach, the late Leaf coach who would later do much to drive Ellis from hockey, once said "anything I asked of Ronnie, I got." So much, in fact, did Ron Ellis, the pride of Lindsay, Ont., embody gritty, old-fashioned values that the legendary Ace Bailey asked that his retired No. 6 be put back in service for Ellis to wear.

And wear it he did, with the Leafs, then for the team that has been voted this country's best of the century for beating the Soviets in the fabled 1972 Summit Series.

With a resumé like that, you might have thought Ron Ellis would be the last guy to find he couldn't cope.

With a resumé like that, it was a huge step for him to acknowledge a problem, then to ask for help when depression laid him low in the 1980s.

At a World Mental Health Day forum yesterday at George Brown College, Ellis, now 58, told of how he grew up in a culture and worked in an arena where men did not show weakness — not to opponents, not to teammates. When injured, you got off the ice without letting anyone know they'd hurt you.

"People know me as a strong, goal-oriented type of person, a little bit of a perfectionist. That's how I attacked my professional hockey career.

"For many years, I thought I was a self-made guy. There wasn't much that I couldn't handle and couldn't defeat … I told myself real men don't get depressed."

But he did.

"Unfortunately, the pride, that manly pride … and my lack of knowledge about depression prevented me from seeking help for … years."

In 1986, five years after retiring from hockey, Ellis had opened his own business, a sporting goods store. Everything he owned was on the line, he said. The banks were calling every day. His mother was dying of cancer. And emotionally, he was going down.

He said he couldn't perform routine tasks and had difficulty making decisions. He'd lost interest in things he enjoyed, golfing with pals, playing pick-up hockey, reading. His family was bewildered.

"It wasn't a happy time."

At first, he thought time would cure things.

"Well, it didn't."

He would tell himself to "Snap out of it, man!" or "Pull up your socks!" But there was a problem. "I couldn't find my socks. And I really didn't much care."

"My life was falling apart and I couldn't keep it a secret anymore."

In 1987, he was hospitalized. Afterward, he returned to work, but started sliding again and sold his stake in the store. He was to be hospitalized twice again after joining the staff of the Hockey Hall of Fame in downtown Toronto.

He recalled how he withdrew from friends, how there was a glass wall in his office and how he would pretend to be on the phone when colleagues walked by so he wouldn't have to talk.

"At its worst, I went down to the below ground parking at BCE Place and sat in my car for hours."

Finally, he broke down "with a mighty crash."

"I was in my office one day and everything fell apart … I needed help."

What provided the foundation for his recovery, he said yesterday, was the love and support of his family, especially Jan, his wife of 36 years. Other crucial factors, the rest of what he called the four pillars of recovery, were a knowledgeable family doctor, access to specialized hospital care, and a supportive employer at the Hall of Fame.

"They made me feel safe to get help," he said. Though a smallish operation, they also "had the proper insurance in place so I could get help because I couldn't afford it … I played in the '60s."

Three years ago, Ellis received a Courage-to-Come-Back Award from the Centres for Addiction and Mental Health. Last year, he published a book about his battles on and off the ice. Nowadays, he gives seminars on depression, and was off to Atlanta yesterday after his talk at George Brown.

"You never conquer it," he said. "But it can be controlled."

Ron Ellis does not seem nearly so stoic anymore. But he sounds just as determined.

And, after all these years, still looks a lot like a hero.

Jim Coyle usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.


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