Braden McKenzie was a relative latecomer to hockey but he was quick to start officiating. He certified for the first time as soon as he was eligible, just two months after his twelfth birthday. His initial motivation to start officiating was that he was a weak skater and he figured that if he could spend more time on the ice, his skating would improve. Hailing from the small town of Campbell River on Vancouver Island, Braden was quickly presented with opportunities to move up the ranks and he took them. Towards the end of his first year as an official, Braden worked his first PeeWee A game as a linesman. Meanwhile, most of his peers were still working Atom hockey.
From there, Braden was hooked. He was enjoying it, he was making money, and he figured that he would push this as far as he could. Braden finally stopped playing hockey in 2013 and was selected to attend the U16 BC Cup that same year; the first stage of BC’s Male High Performance Officiating Program. In 2014, Braden moved to Kamloops to attend Thompson Rivers University. That’s when he started refereeing Midget A and working as a linesman in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League.
The first time mental health pushed itself to the front of Braden’s consciousness was September 2016; the final semester of undergraduate degree. Braden had gone home to Campbell River over the summer, expecting to work on a tugboat, as he had in previous years. This year, it didn’t work out and Braden ended spending the summer just hanging out and not doing much of anything. In September, Braden tried to go back to school and jump right back into his busy life; juggling school, officiating, and the army. That’s when his mental health began to suffer.
“I tried get back to go-go-go all the time, basically no days off, and my body just shut down.”
As Braden describes it, his body just shut down. He was trying to get back to doing what he thought was ‘normal’ but he physically wasn’t able to keep up. He felt light-headed and “not normal”. Thing came to a head when Braden passed out during his pre-season fitness testing. It wasn’t for lack of fitness. He prepared for the testing by completing several practice runs with no issue. Braden immediately scheduled a doctor’s appointment to make sure there was nothing physically wrong with his body. However, Braden correctly suspected that this was something different and also made an appointment with a counsellor.
“In hindsight, I can see where this had popped up before… [but in September 2016] it became something I just couldn’t deal with it on my own anymore”
Braden’s suspicions were confirmed by both the counsellor and doctor. He had passed out because of an anxiety attack. He was pushing himself too hard and it was negatively impacting both his mental and physical health. In hindsight, Braden could think of previous instances where he had bee able to push through less severe bouts of anxiety. He had always been an anxious person; an overthinker. Braden’s father had suffered from anxiety and depression at the same age. But prior to that year, Braden never saw his anxious tendencies as a real problem, just something that had to be dealt with.
“I hadn’t been around that much so I didn’t know [my fellow officials in Kamloops] too well… so I didn’t want to drag anyone else into it. I wanted to deal with it myself.”
After his diagnosis, Braden made the decision to take a break from officiating. He was enrolled in school full-time with an intensive course load and he was committed to the Canadian Forces reserves. He couldn’t step away from either of those, so while officiating was important, it was optional. It wasn’t Braden’s first choice but it was clear that something had to give. If anyone had asked Braden what was going on, he was just busy and this was a voluntary choice. His then-girlfriend was aware of what was happening but there was only one other person in the officiating community who knew about Braden’s anxiety. It wasn’t that he was necessarily afraid of being judged. Braden didn’t have a lot of close friends in the local officiating community and he didn’t want to seem like he was putting his burden on other people or for them to think he was making excuses for not being able to perform on the ice.
“[In September 2017], there were maybe one or two games where my anxiety became a factor but [this time] I was in a good enough state that I could work through it.”
Braden returned to the ice ahead of the 2017-18 season. He was feeling better and more in control but he still eased back in by officiating training camp scrimmages and minor exhibition games. It felt good to be back on the ice but Braden was still nervous for his return to the Junior B level. There were definitely moments where his anxiety bubbled up and tried to throw him off his game. But unlike the previous September, he felt solid enough that he was able to deal with it and move on from there.
“I would definitely support anyone who is going through something like this to be open… there are people like me who want to help in any way we can”
Braden isn’t actively sharing his mental health journey but if someone asks or it comes up in conversation, he is willing to talk about it. These days he isn’t actively seeing a counsellor but will touch base from time to time just to ensure he maintains his mental health. Like many people, he will have his good days and bad days but he’s trying to manage it as proactively as possible by going to the gym and being on the ice as much as possible.
Braden’s friends and people in the officiating community know that they can always call or text him if they need someone to talk to. The conversation is slowly but surely moving away from stigmatizing mental health and encouraging people to be more open. Similarly, Braden has several friends who have been deployed overseas and have recently been discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder. He still finds it easier to talk with people outside the army but even in that community, the mentality is shifting. Braden understands that not everyone is ready to talk. Even when Braden’s mental health was at its most challenging, he wanted to handle it by himself. But he wants others to know that when they’re ready to reach out, there are people waiting to support them.
On-Side Mental Health is proud to publish and share Joel’s story in the hope that it will encourage other officials to speak out and find support when they experience challenges with their mental health.