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On hockey fandom, safe spaces, and the Troll Toll

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Hockey fandom should be a safe space for all. Right now it isn't. That needs to change.

2017 NHL Winter Classic Alumni Game Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I went to see a doctor today - and walked out with pills that will hopefully stop me from ever harming myself or others in a fit of rage and fury. I've reached the end of my ability to cope with life without assistance. And hockey, or at least a subset of “trolling” hockey fans, helped bring me to that point.

This may seem like a strange way to start an article on an NHL blog. Stay with me, though.

But first-a warning. There will be abusive language in this article, distressing subjects and frank discussion of mental illness and its effects. I say this so that any one of you out there currently suffering the same who will be negatively affected or triggered by such talk can stop reading now, with no hard feelings. After all, if you were talking about mental illness you'd do the same thing, right? Solidarity is important.

I have clinical depression. Some days are good, some are bad. Depression manifests itself differently for everyone - for me it's very cyclic, sometimes up and down several times a day. When I'm happy, I'm fine. When I'm on the up days, I'm happy, outgoing, full of energy. You genuinely do feel like you can take on the world. These are the creative periods - the fruitful ones. The summer days of your mind. They are...glorious.

When I'm not...well, let's not dwell on the "not" parts, except to say that my mind during what I like to call "the downswing" is often not a place you'd particularly want to be. One of chaotic thoughts, and restlessness, and the kind of indefinable sadness that hits you like a wave and then simply sits, pressing down on your chest like a cartoon thousand-pound anvil. It’s exhausting beyond belief.

Often, the hardest thing about mental illness is fighting the constant fight to simply get through each and every day. Couple that with being on the autistic spectrum and living with my mind from day to day is an experience I wouldn't wish on anyone else. Yet you learn to live with it. Because you have to.

I've written before about what it's like to be a hockey fan with a mental illness, and argued that the game, for people like us, is often an escape. It's the way we deal with the very real struggles of living with this capricious, sadistic demon. It lies quietly in wait as you go about your daily life, watching for the moment it can get its teeth into you and rip your sense of self-worth apart once again. And every time this happens, you have to re-build said sense of self, piece by piece, with a rickety construction of emotional scotch tape, coping strategies like baling wire for your soul and a whole ton of hard work.

For many people, including me, writing and talking about hockey silences that demon, keeps it at bay. It's a chance to be in a mental safe place around like-minded people, relate to them on a level that may be hard any other way; and, in the most basic sense, to find joy and elation that may not come to your mind through any other channel.

The best place to do that is often on social media. It's where you find friends and like minded people - the wide world of hockey fandom. It's where you can joke, laugh, and have fun with people across the world. One big hockey family, as hockey fandom itself likes to describe it. It's where you can share your longform thoughts, like this one. If you're lucky, you can even get an audience, and that brings more people to share hockey with and help keep the demons away.

Except hockey fandom increasingly has a dark side. One that has nearly killed me on several occasions; one that has seen me suffer suicidal thoughts, sleepless nights, and affect my relationships and sanity. Dealing with hockey fandom takes a literal toll on peoples’ well being.

One that social media makes all too easy to flourish.

Some back-story here. Before I came to Chowder, I wrote a blog about British hockey. UK hockey fandom is a small, insular group...one that likes to present itself as charming, cheerful and happy. One that boasts about its charity efforts, willingness to support those in need, and general family atmosphere. A lot like the NHL.

Here is the thing. That blog attracted criticism. Now, no sports writer, on this site or anywhere else, expects everyone to agree with what they write. It's sports. It's passionate, and in a crowd of 17,000 you'll get 17,000 different views of a situation.

It started with people disagreeing...you know, the usual "oh, you don't know what you're talking about" stuff that every one expects. The kind of questioning disagreement and debate you often see in the comments below articles on Chowder.

That's fine.

But then things went beyond disagreeing. They turned to attacking. Attacks that still go on today. Every time I tweet about British hockey, I know that someone, somewhere will be licking their lips waiting to fire off abuse. There's the simple yelling like this:

Or this-the "oh so hilarious" photoshopping:

Or there's the people who decide to turn up in your mentions and throw personal insults at you when you back "unpopular" stuff like...I don't know, voting for a girl to commentate on a hockey game:

Then it escalates, to stuff like this from people who decide to spend their Saturday evening behind a sustained period of abuse...

Or maybe, if you don't respond, going after people who defend you, like your fiancee (this, btw, is from the person behind the photoshop above. This is a time honored tactic:

that's still going on today:

Or if not your fiancée, imply your mum is guilty of bestiality:

Or, finally, simply fantasize about murdering someone you don't like on Twitter for their hockey opinion.

These are examples of the kind of things that appear in your mentions when you talk about hockey in Britain. If they were just tweets, then fine, but look at the support they get through RT's and favorites. Also consider they're the kind of things that are often tweeted by team officials, too (I've received homophobic abuse from at least one current Sheffield and former Team GB official, for example, as well as consistent abuse from the official EIHL stats person).

Now imagine reading those, and hundreds like them, with a mental illness that already attacks your self esteem. Imagine what it's like.

I'll tell you. It's hellish. Eventually, your body decides "enough" and it begins to rebel. Your relationships suffer. You can't sleep. You become irritable. You trust nobody.

And slowly but surely, you're driven away from one of the things that enabled you to cope with your mental illness in the first place. The very thing that helped keep you sane and alive is now killing you.

That's what it was like for me. That is why I've sat barely able to hold back tears in a doctor's office today, at the figurative end of my rope.

That is a personal experience of what it's like to be on the "wrong" side of hockey fandom when you've got a mental illness.

And here is the thing. I'm a white man. Statistically I am a member of the most privileged, insulated demographic on the planet. You'll note that none of those tweets aimed at gender, or sexuality, or race. Or even my mental illness, despite me being open about it. You will also notice that they escalated to a level that could see the perpetrators arrested had they yelled them on the street.

And this, while vicious, and horrifying, and very nearly fatal to the person it's aimed at, is not a unique incident.

We've seen it countless times in hockey Twitter - and with the NHL having far more fans than British hockey, the potential and actual scope of abuse and numbers of perpetrators is proportionally higher.

Hockey fandom at a micro level is a wonderful thing. At a wider level, it is a cesspit. A toxic, vicious culture that excuses and allows things like this to become commonplace to anyone with an opinion. One that routinely sees female and LGBTQ fans abused by anonymous people on the internet over and over again at a level far worse than my experience, all throughout the hockey world.

This stuff has real consequences. It causes mental anguish, fear. The arguments of "block and report," “just ignore them,” and “don’t read the comments” are broken and ineffective, placing the blame at the feet of the victim for daring to poke their head into a place they hold so dear.

Even more hypocritical, this abuse is often perpetrated by people who like to claim hockey is the best sport in the world (the man behind the "CapsBanterArmy" account mentioned above, for example, has around 6,000 followers and has received widespread praise for charity work elsewhere by the same fans willing to overlook the level of abuse they throw at people). Again, this is not unique to British hockey - in North America sites like Barstool Sports simultaneously trumpet their charity work and praise fan culture while facilitating vicious abuse when they feel like it (this article is an excellent explanation of how they do so, one that has already provoked a sneering response.

Sports radio shows do the same - witness the example of Charlotte Wilder, an SBN NFL writer who saw her piece on the NE Patriots links to Donald Trump attract a ton of attacks online from both Twitter which WEEI in Boston, particularly Kirk and Callahan producers, seemed eager to attempt to fuel this week.

This is done seemingly with no thought for the consequences, often by the same people who will claim to support initiatives like "Bell Lets Talk" - and it's a problem that has only got worse.

It is a problem that needs to be confronted. Debate should be a part of the territory when writing about sports. Vile abuse shouldn't.

My experience is not unique; it is an example of what being on the receiving end is like. Think about those who are fighting their own battles before you attack; stick up for people you see being abused.

The experience has made me even more determined to fight for my safe space, and not allow abusive human fans like this to take it from me.

To those who would try to take the safe space of hockey from those who need and rely on it - I say this...you should not be allowed to. You will not be allowed to.

If sport is your safe space, then nobody has a right to take it away.

There are far too many people around the game of hockey that routinely choose to forget that.