Stephen Johns’ Heroic Journey to Raise Awareness for Mental Health

Dallas Stars player Stephen Johns recently announced his retirement from the NHL. Along with this announcement, he also shared that he would be rollerblading across the United States doing what he calls Mental Miles.

A Career Cut Short

After suffering the fourth concussion of his career and his third in a six-month span, Johns was off the ice for 22 months. Throughout those months, he faced unimaginable battles. He went to countless doctors trying to find a proper diagnosis for his post-concussion headaches. There was even a point where he underwent three blood patch treatments to treat what doctors thought was a cerebrospinal fluid leak.

“It was the most painful thing I’ve done in my life,” Johns said. “If I moved at all for two days afterward, I would give myself a CSF leak. That sucked.”

(from ‘‘Our son was gone’: How the Stars’ Stephen Johns found his way back to the NHL’ The Athletic 06/25/20)

Even the slightest noises would trigger debilitating headaches. This caused Johns to avoid any social events for 17 months. He reached a point where sleep was a rare occurrence, and he was losing hope. Eventually, he connected with a physiotherapist Terry Moore, an acupuncturist and physical therapist Lorenzo Gonzales, and a therapist who helped him recover.

He credits his family and girlfriend for the being the main reason he’s still here today as they put their lives on hold to be there for him in one of the darkest and scariest points of his life.

Stephen Johns Dallas Stars
Stephen Johns, former Dallas Star (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Johns, 29, eventually returned to the league for the 2019-20 season and, in August 2020, played what would be his final NHL game.

Mental Health Advocacy

Johns, a finalist for the 2020 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, has become an advocate for mental health awareness after sharing his personal struggles. After suffering the fourth concussion of his career in March of 2018, he has struggled with chronic pain and depression, and has battled suicidal thoughts while dealing with post-concussion headaches.

After sharing his story, many people reached out in support of Johns and shared their own stories. Since then, he has continued to openly talk about his personal battles in the hopes that he can make even just one person feel like they aren’t alone in their own struggles.

Mental Miles

While Johns only officially announced his retirement on June 13, he says he knew his career was over (from ‘‘Our son was gone’: How the Stars’ Stephen Johns found his way back to the NHL’ The Athletic 06/25/20) on Aug. 11, 2020. During a playoff game against the Calgary Flames, Johns was scared to go back on the ice for the first time in his life. After that game, he went to the locker room and called his mom, crying, as he knew his career was over.

He knew that he wanted to continue to inspire people even though he could no longer do so on the ice. That’s when he came upon a video that changed his life and sparked an idea that he hoped would change the lives of others. After watching the music video for Mike Posner’s song “Live Before I Die,” Johns was inspired to rollerblade across the United States with no prior preparation.

He called former Stars employee Jeff Toates and asked him to record the journey for the documentary that will be released after the trip. Johns hopes to inspire others and raise awareness for the importance of mental health through Mental Miles, and so far, he definitely has. So many fans have joined him in their own versions of Mental Miles. Stars’ forward Joe Pavelski even joined him for a day of his trip.

Johns never expected the response he’s gotten. People have taken to all forms of social media to participate and show their support. Due to the massive response, he’s working to partner with a mental health charity, so people can donate to support Mental Miles.

Johns has been skating around 40 miles a day and says that that number is just going to increase as he continues. The journey began on June 14 in his hometown of Wampum, Pennsylvania, and is set to end by mid-July in Oregon.

He hopes that through Mental Miles, he can inspire others to seek the help they need, even though it’s not always the easiest thing to do. In a society where talking about mental health is pretty taboo — especially in hockey culture — people like Johns who strive to change that are so important.

If you want to keep up to date on Johns (@stjohns28) and Toate’s (@Toates1) journey, you can follow along on their Twitters, and if you’d like to participate, you can tag either Toates or Johns, or use the hashtag #MentalMiles.