The Centennial Cup brought athletes, coaches, and fans from across the country to Portage, and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) used this as a way to spread their message to as many people as possible. 

The program manager for mental health promotion for CMHA Manitoba, Stephen Sutherland, says they have a great relationship with the Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL). He was thrilled they were able to set up a booth at the tournament.

"We were giving away little mini hockey sticks to kids and adults who were kids at heart. We had some really great conversations about the importance of their mental health and well-being," Sutherland explains. "I also heard so many people talking about how great it is that these young athletes are able to get the training and mental health literacy, with all the competing priorities that they have. I tip my cap to all of the athletes."

Sutherland describes the atmosphere at Stride Place as electric when he was there for the tournament. He adds, in a post-pandemic world, it's great to see so many different types of people come together to cheer on their hometown team.

The CMHA's main objective during its time at the Centennial Cup was to promote and discuss its Talk Today program. The initiative began in 2014 and has CMHA professionals sit down with teams for a training session that they call safeTALK.

Sutherland says the CMHA has partnered with eight of the nine leagues in the CJHL. Every team in all eight leagues has a designated CMHA Mental Health Coach to provide support for the players and people that surround them. Each team also has a designated player who takes on the role of the Mental Health Champion.

"I think being able to find a Mental Health Champion within a team that can work with one of our coaches is just great. It's awesome to have an avenue for those community-based resources that people can access. Half the problem is knowing where to go and who to talk to. This allows for a few hours of focused opportunity to talk about what mental health is and what mental illness is, and how to look for signs and symptoms that someone might be struggling with anxiety and depression."

Sutherland believes the stigma surrounding mental health awareness in sports has died down over the last decade or two, however, he says the 'tough it out' mentality hasn't completely gone by the wayside.

"With any sort of sport, there's this idea that being strong is what you have to do and showing any sort of weakness is wrong but we know that strength is also found in vulnerability," says Sutherland. "We've lost some hockey players close to home in Manitoba, dying by suicide. So, I think there's more curiosity about what we can do to prevent some of these things from happening. That's allowed for a greater discussion to reduce those barriers and help people know that it's not about fixing or advice-giving. It's about just listening. Finding a safe place to be heard and be seen. I think in amateur sport, and sport in general, people are coming forward and saying, 'Gosh, there's a lot of pressure on me.'"

He adds we've seen growth even on the biggest stages, with American gymnast Simone Biles publicly pulling out of the 2021 Summer Olympics to focus on her mental health. 

Sutherland says the Talk Today program helped a few members of the Brandon Wheat Kings have the tools to help a man in need.

"Back in January, members of the Brandon Wheat Kings were driving on a bridge and saw a man who was thinking about jumping off a bridge," Sutherland continues. "They got out of their car, all of those players were trained in Talk Today, and they saved this man's life because they didn't look at themselves as experts. They looked at themselves as human beings, who wanted to help another person that wasn't at their best on that day. It's just about helping people know that they can get through their worst days."

He notes over 9000 players, coaches, billets, and other members of various hockey teams across the country have received this training. Sutherland couldn't have been happier to promote this program in Portage in front of such receptive people.

The CMHA offers free resources for those struggling with their mental health or just need someone to talk to. For more details click here.