He starts with a joke. "That's the thing with headaches," Gino Odjick says. "At least you know you still have a head."
And during a 30-minute phone conversation, there are long stretches when he's funny and coherent and to the point. At these moments, it's hard to reconcile the man you're talking to with the man who's fighting mental illness; the man so many people care for and so many are worried about.
But isn't that the way with this disease? Isn't that its nature? There are no easy answers, no cut-and-dried symptoms and cures. Odjick knows there's something wrong. He just doesn't know how to treat it, and that is the source of anguish for the man, his family and his friends.
"I don't care what medicine heals me," he says. "I just want to heal. I don't want to be in pain. I don't want to be angry."
On that everyone agrees. The problem is how to get there.
"He thinks it's our objective to throw him in the hospital and leave him there," says a member of his inner circle, who requested anonymity. "We just want him to get the best care possible. I love the man to death. I truly do. It hurts. We're all waiting for the shoe to drop."
What does that mean? "Honestly, we don't know," the Odjick confidante says. "Mental illness goes 100 different ways." And it's never in a straight line. On this day, Odjick says he's calling from Edmonton, where he's getting some tests done. Why he chose this day to answer a text that was sent two weeks ago is unclear but, generally, he seemed to be in good spirits and willing to talk about a story that broke nationally in early December when he checked into the psychiatric unit of a hospital in Gatineau, Que.
"I've been having the headaches since I retired (from the NHL in 2002)," he says. "It's like getting hit over the head with an axe. You learn to suppress the pain and you try to live a healthy life.
"I'm not going to function as a normal human being. There will be times when I have to go and rest. But I'll focus, eat healthy, live healthy and stay in shape."
And that's the way he thinks he can beat this thing.
Others aren't as sure. "Is it manageable?" the Odjick source says. "Yes. But it's not manageable until he gets some help, and it has to be serious help."
That, however, would mean slowing down, and Odjick says he has too much work to do to take a break. A great deal of the phone conversation, in fact, revolves around his involvement with First Nations causes and businesses.
He said he was put on Earth to "eradicate poverty among aboriginals." To that end, he's involved in land deals with Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini.
"When I see people on Hastings Street (in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside) I know how they got there. There's no opportunity. That's why I'm in a rush to get things done, to help my people. It's expensive to keep people poor."
Odjick says his mental-health issues date back to his hockey career and are the by-product of post-concussion syndrome. He says it wasn't the fighting that injured his brain but the "cheap shots, the high sticks, the elbows." Through the NHL, he began seeing a recognized expert in this field in Toronto. But he didn't stick with the program and that's part of a frustrating pattern to his family and friends.
"What's the difference between depression and concussions?" Odjick asks. "It is what it is, but I'm not going to lie down and die. I'm going to make a difference. They're telling me one thing, but I'm going to fight with what I have. I believe I'll live until I'm 150."
"I think his intentions are pure, but he needs to look after himself first," the Odjick friend says.
Still, the fighter remains. Odjick vows his condition won't defeat him, and he's never backed down from anything in his life or his hockey career. And maybe that's the problem. Sometimes a different kind of toughness is needed; sometimes it has to start with the admission you're vulnerable and need help. Serious help.
That would be the first step of a journey. You just hope he takes that step.
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