Chris Van Deventer
Chris Van Deventer is a product of Cowichan Valley Minor Hockey and although he always played hockey, he started officiating minor hockey at the age of thirteen and never looked back. When Chris began officiating, his older brother was already an official in the BC Hockey High Performance Program. This meant that Chris took officiating seriously right from the beginning. He saw the career potential of officiating and was focused on catching up to his brother. Chris got his first opportunity to work Junior B at the age of eighteen and quickly moved up to Junior A. From there, he was hired to the WHL in 2017 and was selected for Telus Cup (national Midget AAA championship) and Cyclone Taylor Cup (provincial Junior B championship) in that same year.
“The most difficult thing for me was learning that every time I show up at the rink, I’ve got to leave my baggage at the door.”
Chris’ first experience with mental health occurred when he was eighteen years old, around the same time he was breaking into the High Performance Officiating Program. At first, Chris thought it was normal nerves that came along with taking this step up to the next level of hockey. However, it became clear that it was something else. He was coming to games physically and mentally unprepared. It was extremely difficult for Chris to get into the mindset required to officiate at the Junior hockey level. In hindsight, Chris admits that put in some pretty poor performances in his first year in the High Performance Program and he knew that needed to change.
“At times, I had so much going on… with mental health and if I didn’t push it aside, I would have no confidence out on the ice.”
In the short-term, Chris addressed this issue by teaching himself to be a different person when he stepped on the ice. He would visualize what a good referee looked like: someone who is calm, patient, and doesn’t take things personally. When he put on his jersey, that version of himself would take over. Chris likens it to having an alter-ego who refereed his games for him. His alter-ego was the model of what an official should be, especially when Chris didn’t feel like he was capable of being that person.
“Whenever I’d break off that persona at the end of a game, it would all hit me like a giant wave.”
This strategy was successful in the superficial sense. Chris’ performances improved and he quickly began to advance through the officiating ranks. His alter-ego not only “fooled” players and coaches but it also fooled Chris into thinking that he was capable of handling the stresses of life and officiating at an elite level. However, this did not eliminate the underlying problems. In a tough game, Chris’ alter-ego would keep his composure as long as he was on the ice. Once Chris left the rink, it would hit him hard, particularly if he had a long, solo drive home. A large part of his improvement as an official was down to his gradual improvement with his mental health. Chris eventually developed the ability to truly “leave [his] baggage at the door”, which was huge for him.
Chris was dealing with all the normal things that a young man deals with: questions about his career and his future, relationship issues, with a demanding High Performance officiating schedule. His mental health hung like over all of that like a dark cloud. This was something he had to deal with away from the rink.
“I felt that I couldn’t show any weakness, not only to players and coaches… at the time, I felt like I couldn’t show weakness to my teammates or supervisors because I didn’t want my mental health to make them think I wasn’t capable of reffing at that level.”
The process to improve Chris’ mental health was lengthy. When his mental health began to suffer, he wasn’t talking to anyone. He had to fight through some of the worst periods of his mental health journey on his own. During this time, officiating was a positive force in his life, despite also causing him a measure of stress. Officiating helped Chris recognize where he was currently and where he wanted to end up. He wanted his on-ice persona to be his true self. In that sense, his officiating career was the impetus to dedicate his time to self-improvement: working out, studying rules, watching game tape. Chris’ “obsession” (his word) with officiating pushed him build lifestyle habits that ultimately helped improve his mental health. He admits that he likely wouldn’t have been able to build these habits if officiating hadn’t been a part of his life. But this was a years-long process.
“Even when I started talking about how I was feeling in my personal world, I was still terrified of the hockey world getting a glimpse of my weakness.”
The first time Chris sought help with his mental health, he was twenty years old. It was a slow process. In order to receive treatment, he had to learn how to talk about things and express himself. This began with accepting parts of himself that others might take for granted, like the notion that it is okay to feel down without an external trigger. Even as Chris was learning these emotional literacies, he was still going to the rink and allowing his alter-ego to take over. It was challenging to straddle these two worlds: in one, he was working to become an emotionally intelligent young man but in the other, he was supressing these emotions to achieve peak performance. Chris certainly wasn’t ready to feel vulnerable in that hockey world. He had worked so hard to protect his hockey reputation from the stigma of mental illness and he didn’t want to lose all of that progress.
“Now people know, I’ve put it out there… and I’m not going to be ashamed of it… because this is something that I’m overcoming.”
Chris first shared his mental health journey openly in 2017, at the age of twenty-one. He was prompted by Bell Let’s Talk day. Chris was up late and typed out a post but went back and forth with himself for hours about whether or not to share it. Eventually, he posted it and fell asleep. When he woke up, he was flooded with messages of support from both close friends and officiating colleagues. Now it was out there for anyone to see and he wasn’t going to be ashamed of it any longer.
Today, when Chris goes to the rink, he still makes a conscious effort to leave his mental health at the door. Officiating a hockey game requires absolute concentration, regardless of level. Unlike when he was eighteen years old, Chris isn’t leaving his mental health at the door because he’s trying to hide his journey. The removal of this pressure has been huge, if not complete. Chris’ worst nightmare is still a player or coach calling him out for his mental health struggles. There is still a kernel of fear that doesn’t go away. However, Chris feels like he has moved in a positive direction over the last few years and learned that he can be the same person in these two different worlds.
“Just acknowledging it makes me feel like I have way less weight on my shoulders and that I’m free to ref a good hockey game and enjoy myself at the same time, which before I didn’t think was possible.”
There is a lot of cross-over within the elite officiating on Vancouver Island between the officiating world and the personal world. A few years ago, before he was open about his mental health journey, Chris moved in with a fellow official in Nanaimo. They were already good friends but living with someone day-to-day is another level. Chris admits that he made it difficult to hide his mental health struggles.
Ultimately, Chris felt that his roommate cared about him and because they were living together, Chris could open up to him when he needed to. Most of Chris’ best friends are colleagues and Chris knows that they have his back. Through social media, Chris is in touch with officials from across the province and this creates a platform for a conversation to occur. So while it’s still tough to talk about, it’s not a secret and when people go through tough times happens, it helps to have that pre-existing conversation in place.
“Every person who talks about their struggles can increase the chance that another person struggling in silence feels like they can speak up.”
Chris has an active social media presence both on Instagram and his personal blog because he believes starting and maintaining a conversation should be our top priority. One feature of his social media is his honesty about the ups and downs of mental health. Chris wants to acknowledge that mental health is truly a journey. Every time he feels better, he wants to feel that way forever. When life isn’t going well, he has to remind himself that it’s only temporary. It’s no different than the life of a referee; some days you just have a bad game and have to recover for the next one.
Chris' mom has supported him since Day 1 of his journey. It has been a long road and she is still trying to fully understand how Chris' mental health affects him. But most importantly, she has always let Chris know that he isn't alone. Chris was diagnosed with bipolar 2 disorder after trying different types of medications over the last two and a half years. He is finally on the proper medication but even that hasn't "fixed" his mental health. For Chris, his experience with diagnoses and medications goes to show that mental health is a journey.
The conversation is important because at eighteen, when Chris was first beginning to struggle, someone saw that and reached out to Chris. But Chris blew them off. He wasn’t ready to accept and show that side of himself yet. It is important for people to act as role models and reach out where possible but ultimately, mental health is a personal journey. Having said that, if there had been people around Chris, who were talking about their own experiences with mental health, that might have helped Chris come to that realization sooner. Chris views the increase in people sharing stories and messages of support as a sign that we have come a long way.
Chris acknowledges that starting and maintaining the conversation is challenging. There are no easy answers because it requires ongoing compassion and emotional labour. Every time you interact with someone, it requires energy to ask an actual question of “how are you doing?” as opposed to a superficial “what’s up?”. A conversation about mental health is not a one-and-done. Especially where hockey can be such a masculine culture, Chris feels that we need to actively work to promote compassion and that caring for one another and expressing that care is not a weakness.
"Today the teammates that I made on the ice support me more than anyone else. Five years ago, I feared them finding out about my other side more than anything else. That shows just what talking about things can accomplish. There are people out there that truly care about you.
On-Side Mental Health is proud to publish and share Chris’ story in the hope that it will encourage other officials to speak out and find support when they experience challenges with their mental health.