Danika Kroeker

 

Danika started officiating at the age of 12 after she tried out and was cut from the local PeeWee AAA team. He dad wanted her to try refereeing and since she had the time, she gave it a shot. After two years of officiating novice and atom levels, her Referee-in-Chief began supervising her and assigning her to PeeWee AAA games. At that point, officiating at a level that she hadn’t been able to make as a player, she decided that officiating was for her. When Danika attended the BC Hockey Summer Officiating School in Osoyoos in the summer of 2014, she knew that she wanted to take officiating as far as possible. 

 

From that point onwards, Danika’s career appeared to be on a solid upward trajectory. In March 2016, she was invited to the Bantam Female Championship in Kamloops and worked the lines in the gold medal game. In October of that year, she travelled to Vancouver for her first Canada West University Women’s Hockey games. A few months later, she returned to Vancouver to work the Junior Women’s Hockey League showcase. Danika finished her 2016-17 season by refereeing the gold medal game at the Midget Female Championship in Parksville. Her season ended on a high note and so many were surprised when she sat out the entire 2017-18 season with injury. At that point, only a few people knew that Danika had been suffering for over a year and a half. She had achieved so much during this period but that was in spite of challenges with her physical and mental health. There was no question she had hit a wall and her body needed a break.

 

“There would be days where I thought the physical pain were getting better… and then the next day, I’d be back to zero again… those were tough days”

 

Danika first began experiencing issues with her mental health after suffering a concussion playing rec league hockey in November 2015. She was slew-footed and hit her head on the ice, sidelining her for two months. The combination of recovering from a traumatic brain injury and not being able to officiate triggered Danika’s first depressive episode. People knew she had a concussion but Danika was good at hiding her depression. There was one teacher who noticed that something was wrong; something more than a concussion. He asked her what was going on and, at the time, he was one of only two people (the other, a close family friend) with whom Danika felt close enough to share how she was feeling. He suggested that she might be experiencing depression and asked her to consider talking to a counsellor. Danika ultimately decided not to because she didn’t feel comfortable talking to a total stranger about something so personal. But that connection would prove to be important to her mental health journey.

 

“I kinda just dealt with it… but I ended up in probably the darkest place I’ve been in mentally”

 

Danika recovered enough from her concussion symptoms to return to officiating in late January 2016. But her depression didn’t subside, despite being back on the ice. If anything, it became worse. Danika began experiencing anxiety, caused by a combination of her depression and the pressure of officiating. Instead of being excited to be back on the ice, Danika was dreading it. Despite having panic attacks before and after games, Danika pushed through. She was invited to her first provincial championship in Kamloops that spring and worked the lines in the gold medal game.  But Danika knew that she was just papering over the cracks. She was in real trouble.

 

During the offseason, Danika’s depression hit its worst point yet. She didn’t want to get out of bed, she didn’t want to leave the house, and she was miserable at school. Moreover, she wasn’t enjoying hockey, despite her recent success at the provincial championships. She forced herself to officiate spring hockey games but by the time each game was over, she was an anxious wreck. She would go home and collapse, unable to do function.

 

“I just didn’t find joy in anything I did… I was miserable.”

 

During this time, the only person with whom Danika was able to share her daily struggles was the one teacher. To this day, Danika doesn’t feel especially comfortable talking about her feelings and she was concerned about how people, particularly in the hockey community, might respond to her admission of struggling with her mental health. But that ongoing relationship with her teacher allowed Danika to have an outlet to share how she was feeling.

 

“I’d been having some pretty dark thoughts for a while… just about ending it and not having to deal with it anymore”

 

Danika’s mental health continued to deteriorate throughout the spring and she began to have suicidal thoughts. She disclosed that to her teacher, who told her that if she ever felt unsafe, she should call him. A few weeks later, she suffered a severe panic attack after refereeing a spring hockey game. Danika can’t even remember what happened during the game. The only thing she remembers is phoning her teacher and going with him to the hospital for emergency counselling. At this point, it was no longer be a secret. Her parents were brought in and she was, as she says, “forced to deal with it.”

 

“I hated having somebody check on me like every day… that really bothered me.”

 

Danika wasn’t denying that she needed help but she also hated having people check on her and treat her like she was fragile. If anything, it made her more anxious and frustrated to have people constantly asking if she was feeling okay. This drove her to take ownership of her mental health and to recover as quickly and effectively as possible. She stopped seeing a counsellor as soon as she felt safe doing so.

 

Danika mental health continued to progress and it never hit that low again. Having said that, it was far from smooth sailing. Just prior to the 2017 Midget Provincial Championship in Parksville, Danika suffered a severe neck injury and her third concussion in a game she was refereeing. With only a week to go before the Championship, she powered through the injury and refereed the gold medal game, her second in two years. But Danika knew something was wrong and went to her doctor as soon as she got home. Despite Danika’s concern, her doctor said that she was physically fine and that her headaches were stress-related. As a result, Danika’s physical injuries went un-diagnosed and her inability to recover contributed to her ongoing depression through the summer of 2017.

 

“People cared but I just wanted to be back on the ice instead of explaining why I wasn’t out there.”

 

In late August 2017, Danika took to the ice for a Major Midget League exhibition game. This was a great opportunity for a female official in a relatively small hockey community but it wasn’t a positive experience. Danika had to leave midway through the game because her headache was too intense to continue. She went back to her family doctor who continued to insist that there was no physical cause to her pain. This time, Danika wouldn’t take no for an answer and, through the team’s trainer, was recommended to two specialists who finally diagnosed her headaches and neck pain as post-concussion syndrome. They recommended a treatment plan and the diagnosis confirmed what Danika already knew: she would have to sit out the 2017-18 season.

 

“It sucked, obviously, I wasn’t happy… but I think because of what I went through the spring before, I was ready for what could happen next.”

 

Danika had been to some dark places in the previous eighteen months and she wasn’t willing to go back there. She knew that if she wasn’t going to be refereeing or playing, she had to keep herself busy. If anything, she increased her commitment to hockey: volunteering as a coach for both secondary and elementary hockey teams as well as supervising young officials for Prince George Minor Hockey. While she wasn’t able to officiate or play, she was involved in the game she loved. More importantly, she wasn’t sitting at home feeling sorry for herself; there were definitely days where she wanted to.

 

“I had to find people that I could trust… that wouldn’t judge me for having the thoughts that I did”

 

Danika also had a wider support network this time around. She was able to talk to some of the officials that she had met through her travels to various events across the province. Danika’s expanded network of officials was critical to supporting her mental health during this period. Because she didn’t feel safe sharing with strangers, including a counsellor, having that personal connection with individuals in the officiating community made her feel safe sharing what her frustrations with recovery and struggles with depression. As Danika traveled around the province, she had been introduced officials who were going through similar problems and knew that she wouldn’t be judged for disclosing her own struggles. This helped her stay even and grounded throughout her recovery. There were challenging moments over the course of that season, particularly when her physical recovery was stalled. But no matter the struggles Danika faced, she never ended up in the same dark place that she did in the spring of 2016.

 

“After the three concussions… I’ve never really felt like the same person I did before. It’s been a daily struggle but being back on the ice has helped.”

 

As the summer of 2018 came to an end, Danika’s physical health had finally improved to the point that she was ready to start officiating again. Although she is excited to be back on the ice, the transition has not been seamless. Danika is constantly aware that while her mental health has improved, she doesn’t feel like the same person she was before that first concussion in November 2015. This apprehension and lack of trust in her body, combined with her enforced layoff, and the anxiety that lingers in the back of her mind, has made getting back on the ice more challenging.

 

“Missing a full season definitely changed my confidence level but also having the concussions change a bit of how I feel mentally is definitely part of it.”  

 

Danika’s officiating ability is one thing that did not suffer during her absence. She has continued to perform at an elite level, returning to Vancouver in November 2018 to work the lines in Canada West University Women’s Hockey, as well as officiating in the Junior Women’s Hockey League, Major Midget League, Female Midget AAA league, and Canadian Sports School Hockey League. Her performance has remained a level, which earned her a selection for Canada Winter Games in February 2019. But she acknowledges that every game brings a fresh wave of anxiety. Eighteen months ago, when Danika received her assignment to referee the gold medal game at the Midget Female Championships in Parksville, she was totally confident in her ability to successfully officiate that game. Now, she wouldn’t be so confident. But Danika’s self-awareness and support network have helped her tackle this problem head-on.

 

While Danika is grateful for the support she received from people within and outside the hockey and officiating communities, she has also encountered people who are not so understanding. It would be nice to be able to change people’s views about mental health, but Danika feels that is something that individuals have to understand on their own terms. For her, the priority is having a platform that allows officials to share stories so that other people might feel more comfortable sharing their own.

 

On-Side Mental Health is proud to publish and share Danika’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.