Dan Knight Hanoomansingh

The dream begins…

 

I always wanted to be a referee. My love affair with officiating began long before I certified for the first time in 2005. Like many young hockey players in the 1990s, I purchased the annual Hockey Superstars books by Paul Romanuk. But I was more interested in studying the referee’s signals in the back of the book than I was in recording the stats of my favourite players. At the age of ten, I picked up Dick Irvin’s book Tough Calls and I was hooked. I’d never worn a striped jersey or taken a course but I was enthralled by the stories of the great officials in NHL history. For my eleventh birthday, I received the 2003-04 NHL rulebook/casebook and studied it religiously. In the pre-Amazon age, I’m not even sure how my parents got their hands on it in the first place. When I finally stepped onto the ice for my first novice game in the fall of 2005, I already knew that officiating was my future.

 

I moved up the ranks of my local minor hockey association fairly quickly and by my third year as an official, I was doing as many games as I could get my hands on. From novice up to PeeWee AAA, it didn’t matter. I wanted to be on the ice as much as possible. I would hitch a ride with my parents when I could but most afternoons, I would catch the bus to and from games all over the city. At one point, I was working twelve to fifteen games per week and I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend my teenage years. At the end of the 2010-11 season, I was invited to officiate the Bantam AAA Provincial Championship. This was my first opportunity to work outside of my local association and in that same year I was invited to the U16 BC Cup and the BC Officiating Program of Excellence camp.

 

In hindsight, I was always an anxious kid. I worried about doing well in school and about whether people liked me. To this day, I can vividly remember my first ever PeeWee AAA game where I missed two checking from behind infractions in the first period. For months afterward, I was so nervous anytime I worked a game at that level, I would arrive at the rink an hour early and sit alone in the dressing room trying to psyche myself up for the game; terrified of making another mistake. But that’s just who I was; it never occurred to me that it was a problem.

 

The dream dies…

 

That problem became more pronounced when, after a spring full of success, I hit a rough patch during the 2011-12 season. It was a year of major changes for me: I started university, moved out of my parents’ house, and started officiating in the High Performance Program. Just as everything had gone perfectly in the first half of that year, things started to go sideways in the second half. Just as I was becoming established at the Major Midget AAA level, I was assigned my first Junior B game. I wasn’t ready for that level. The game was an unmitigated disaster and it shattered my confidence in my officiating ability. It would be years before I felt capable of officiating at that level again. Then in December, I received my grades from my first term of university. I had always been academically strong but these grades were barely passable. That shook my confidence in my ability to keep up with university-level academics. Finally, in January of 2012, my three-year relationship ended and that was the final straw. I probably could have handled one or two of those events but all having to deal with all three within two months of one another deeply damaged my confidence in the most important areas of my life.

 

From there, it became difficult to cope with everyday life. Even the simplest of tasks appeared insurmountable. I struggled to get out of bed in the morning. If I did get out of bed, I struggled to go to class. It sounds absurd but I would sit, fully dressed, at my desk with my bag packed and I was physically unable to stand up and walk out the door. When I made it to class, I would come home exhausted and unable to focus on my work. When my Term 2 grades came in, I had failed a class for the first time ever and barely passed two others.  I went back to school in September 2013 but nothing had changed and I continued to struggle. I worked a handful of Junior B games but it was clear to anyone watching that I had zero confidence in my ability to referee at that level and so I had limited opportunities. At the end of my second year of university, I was in danger of failing out of school and something had to change.

 

That summer, I adopted the strategy of being as busy as humanly possible. I worked two full-time jobs and spent my free time training for the next season. If I wasn’t working or training, I was partying and drinking. The only time I felt really comfortable being social was when I was partying. This didn’t fix any of my underlying problems but it helped me stay level and I was starting to feel like maybe I was safe enough to take the next step. But in August 2013, I suffered a severe concussion, which totally derailed any progress I had made. I missed the first eight weeks of the hockey season and then had a further setback that saw me sit out an additional four weeks. During this time, I was fighting depression and ate a lot, which resulted in me gaining weight that I couldn’t afford to gain. When I did get back on the ice, my performances were mediocre at best. I continued to perform poorly and any confidence that I might’ve gained over the summer was gone. At the end of the 2013-14 season, I was cut from High Performance Program. For all intents and purposes, my dream was dead.

 

Like many people who struggle with depression and anxiety, I was my own worst enemy. There were many people in my life who were prepared to be supportive and I either ignored them or actively pushed them away. I was embarrassed about failing and I was even more embarrassed about the reasons why. The only people I knew about who suffered from mental health challenges were famous actors or musicians or people suffering from debilitating mental illnesses like schizophrenia. I didn’t have any role models for “normal” people who also suffered from depression.

 

More than anything, I didn’t want to be pitied. When I had to tell people that I had been cut from the High Performance Program, their sympathy made me burn with shame. I blamed myself for being weak and letting things get this far. I had so many opportunities to get help. People had asked if everything was okay and my determination to “fix” myself had only allowed things to become worse. I was totally lost.

I spent the years of 2014 and 2015 feeling like I had no direction and no idea what to do next. But there were some good moments that set me up for the next phase of my life: I ran a successful minor development with the Vancouver Thunderbird MHA, I had a brief opportunity to referee at the Junior A level, I was trusted with leadership at the Branch level, and I was developing a pretty robust social circle. Despite all of these positives, I would come home and as soon as I was alone, I would collapse. I was doing better in school but I still lacked clear direction and motivation so when the workload became tough, I buckled under the pressure. It was at the end of 2015 that I decided enough was enough. I was so deeply unsatisfied with my life that I (secretly) started therapy. I also started dating my now-wife and those two things provided me the springboard to improve my fitness and put myself in a position where I could compete again. 

 

The dream lives on…

 

I was given a final opportunity in the High Performance Program in 2016-17 and for the first time in years, it was an unqualified success. I had a strong season in 2016-17 and followed it up with a 2017-18 season that saw me referee the PJHL (Junior B) league finals and be one of 4 referees selected for Cyclone Taylor Cup, the BC provincial Junior B championship. Throughout all this time, the depression and anxiety never went away but I felt like I could manage it. Occasionally, I still have periods where I feel the weight literally pushing on my chest, keeping me from getting up. Sometimes I’ll have one day like that in a month. Sometimes, I’ll have two days like that in a week. It never goes away. But I have the support around me to help me when I’m feeling this way and that allows me to push myself. Nobody would say that living with depression and anxiety is their ideal situation. But during my worst periods, I would dream about the stability and the joy that comes with the life I am living now. I am truly living out my dreams.

 

I still struggle with the prioritizing my own mental health. Especially because often times, my mental health makes me want to do things that aren’t good for my mental health. For example, when I’m feeling depressed, I want to eat an entire pizza and lay on the couch all day. But I know, intellectually, that will only make me feel worse; both physically and emotionally. At the same time, I will feel incapable of putting on my shoes and going for a run or to the gym, which would make me feel better. It’s about creating balance; some days that is easy and some days it is extremely challenging. On some days, it’s successful and on others it is not.

 

The only way that we can hope to de-stigmatize mental injury and illness is for people who have struggled with their mental health to be open about their experiences. Supportive comments are important but it’s still not the same as having people say, “I have personally experienced this so I can appreciate how you are feeling”. I would have been far more likely to share my feelings with someone if I know they’ve been through something similar. It feels safer. Ultimately, this will allow us to have genuine conversations with people about how they're doing and feeling, not just what is happening in their lives. When you’re struggling with your mental health, everything feels unsafe. But I believe that slowly, conversation-by-conversation, we are making the world a safer, more secure place for people struggling with their mental health.

 

I am proud to publish and share my story as part of the On Side Mental Health project in the hope that it will encourage other officials to speak out and find support when they experience challenges with their mental health.