On March 22, 1989, Buffalo Sabres goalie Clint Malarchuk had his neck slashed by an opponent's skate, slicing open his carotid artery and jugular vein, and bringing him within minutes of his own death. (You can watch the video here, at your own risk.) In 2008, Malarchuk, who has a long history of depression, shot himself in the head while in his Nevada barn, an incident that local authorities declared "accidental under suspicious circumstances." He now works as a goalie coach for the Calgary Flames; he is also an equine dentist and an equine chiropractor. We spoke on April 25, 2011, just days before his 50th birthday on May 1.
I don't how much you know about my life, but I've faced death a few times and sometimes I think about that and go, Holy crap! I'm lucky to be 50 [laughs].
I turned pro when I was 19, 20, so I already felt like I was an adult, probably, before other people would. Thirty was a milestone in that respect, because I was playing in the NHL. Everybody at that time said, Man, if you can play till you're 30, everything after that is gravy. That's a milestone for an NHL player. Back in that day, anyway. So 30 was probably the last one where I felt kind of milestone-ish.
I always looked at it as: "Look what I've done. I'm still here. I'm still doing it. No one gave me the odds to make it, and now I'm 30." I didn't think of it as an athlete—"Yeah, you're getting old." I was proud.
At 35 I was getting to the end of my career, and the bones were sore, bad back, bad knees, and I was very proud. I guess maybe 35 was a little bit of a milestone, too, but a little bit sad, too, because that was the end of my playing days. But I was very proud that I made it that long.
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I woke up in intensive care, and I had a bullet in my head, and I was alive, and all that crap and grief and everything that made me put that bullet in my head made me think, Thank God, it didn't kill me. I'm here for a reason. And I don't know if I would say the best day of my life, but it was certainly a revealing day of my life, an emotional day. It really woke me up as far as I'm meant to be here. There's a reason we're here and you better find it.
I am writing a book. I've done a lot of interviews on different things: obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, my career, surviving, suicide. You know, I've been very open. The feedback that I've gotten from people over a long, long time—I've been very successful in a lot of ways, but I've also been very unsuccessful with a lot of life things. But I've survived. I've given these interviews, and I've talked to people, and I've given some public speaking engagements that have really helped people—because you get feedback, and people go, Oh, my God, thank you. And it's not always the individual that's thanking you; it's the wife of a husband who's struggling with something, and now the husband will go get help because the jock—the big, tough jock—can be honest and overcome. So that day that I woke up in the hospital, I knew I had to finish the book. I'm writing a book. I'm going to finish the book.
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I always read Norman Vincent Peale, and it was always about "think positive," and this and that, and as a professional athlete I was able to use those skills. It's such a big industry now, with positive thinking and self-improvement. It's all over the place. Back then it wasn't. But I was into it, and I think that may have helped me in my hockey, and then after hockey, to go forward and be positive and make the dream come true. I'm very motivated. You can do anything you want. It's all about how bad you want it.
I had a couple of goals, and one was to be an NHL hockey player, and another one was to be a veterinarian. Well, I wasn't very good in school, and I didn't like school. And, you know, because I work with veterinarians all the time now, you talk to them, for some of them school came easy. I know one guy in particular said school was a struggle, but he really wanted it and he worked his butt off. And hockey was what I really wanted and I really worked my butt off. I also wanted to be a veterinarian, but I was not willing to go to school—medical school and all that. I mean, eight years. I mean, it is a tough grind for these guys. And for me, I wanted to be a veterinarian but I wasn't willing to do that. I also wanted to be an NHL hockey player but I was willing to lift weights and run and train and do all that stuff. I wanted to be a veterinarian, but obviously I didn't want it bad enough. I wasn't going to do it. But I would do the things that I had to do to be a hockey player. That part I was totally willing. And I was channeled that way. I was an athletic guy. That came easier than books.
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I'd like to win a Stanley Cup as a goalie coach. That's a goal. I would like a Stanley Cup ring. I didn't get it as a player so I'd like to get it as a coach. I would say, just on a personal level, I'm in pretty good shape, when I'm 60 I want people to go, Holy crap. I can't believe you're 60. Now, people go, I can't believe you're 50, because I work out and I train hard. I go hard. I'm in better shape than a lot of 20, 25-year-olds. And that's something I want to continue.
I want to be a better husband. Not that I'm a bad one, but I want to be more attentive, and I think I'm pretty good at that already, but I want to be better. I want to be a better dad. I want to be a better coach. And when I say my prayers at night, that's what I ask God to help me to be is a better father, husband, and coach. There's a song; I think it's by Toby Keith. The next 30 years, not going to drink so much, not going to do this so much, not going to do that, I'm going to be better at this, this, and this. I kind of relate to that song. That's what I want to do, you know. I want to be better. I want to be remembered.
I do visualize myself sometimes as an old man, because I've met some old men who helped me, who helped others. I kind of visualize myself as that—an old cowboy who is kind and who people can come to. And I've been out there talking to people and helping people and that's what I was. I was a helpful person. That's what I want to be remembered as when I die—that I put people, I don't want to say before me, but I want to help people. I want to help people.
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The only regret would be that I've pissed away a lot of money on divorces. Twenty-five-year-old Clint would've been retired at 50, like most guys who played in the NHL, and had a big ranch. For me, a big ranch. For the other guy, a business or whatever. But for me, Clint, at 25, my dream was to probably retire in Montana and have a zillion acres, cows, horses, living the good life. That's what I dreamt of. That's why I was playing hockey. No, I played hockey to play hockey. But, you know, I was making a hundred thousand dollars. That was big money back then [laughs].
I'll tell you, right now, most guys I played with, financially they're way, way above me. I've been divorced three times. A lot of money has gone out that way. Made a few bad investments, you know. Yeah, 25-year-old Clint would be disappointed where 50 year-old Clint is. He's not on a million-acre ranch, retired and just raising cows. But 25-year-old Clint would be proud of where I am mentally, physically, and spiritually.
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I think about death every day.
I'll tell you. I want to live now more than I've ever wanted to live before, because I've struggled with depression most of my life, and sometimes death looked better than living. And now, where I'm at, I want to live. And it always scares me because sometimes you—it's like when you go, be careful what you ask for, be careful what you pray for. It's like sometimes in life, when you've finally got things figured out, things change. And I'm kind of afraid of that. I'm kind of figuring things out now. I'm getting everything under control, and that scares me because as soon as you do that, God's going to say, OK, come on [laughs]. But then I always think, no, God, you had me here. I'm walking around with a bullet in my head and a scar on my neck. There's a reason. I think you want me to grow old and help people and be a wise old man.
I look at my mother now. She's 75 and forgetful, but not bad-forgetful. I hope that I live till I'm 75, but I want to be sharp because I want to help people and I can't be forgetting stuff. And rambling. Not that my mom is that way, but maybe in two years she's going to be that way.
I want to die in a plane or [laughs] ... I don't want to die of old age. Well, I want to be old when I die, but I don't want to be shitting my pants and have somebody wiping my ass. That's not .. I made a pact with a buddy [laughs], a very, very close friend, and I know he would do it, and I know I would do it—that if we get like that, we're going to pull the plug or do whatever we have to do. And I know I would do it for him, and I know he would do it for me.
Maybe that's why I'm not so upset about being 50 because, shoot, I didn't even want to live at one time. At one time I was so depressed, and the scary part is that people don't understand depression and when you write this stuff, they go, "What a frickin' idiot." It's because they don't understand. And I'm OK with that, but chances are they might know somebody else ...
Some people get really turned off by it, like my brother. We don't even talk anymore because he just thinks I'm the weakest piece of shit that ever walked the face of the earth. And I'm OK with that because he doesn't understand. He's never dealt with it and he has no friends that have ever been that way, so God bless him. Carry on, bud.
He's got his own problems and he's in denial about them, and everything else and, you know, that's his deal. But he laid a big, big guilt trip on me about when I shot myself. And he thinks I'm just weak and cowardly and everything, yet I could kick his ass. He called me a coward. Cowardly? Cowardly? And he's 7 years older. He's my big brother. I could turn him inside out in two seconds. Now, am I a coward? He has no idea what I've struggled with. He has no idea about depression. He has no idea about OCD. He's a great guy. Don't get me wrong. But he's got shit he doesn't deal with.
I sometimes envy him. I wish I could just walk through life like him. I do. Sometimes I think, God, you could push everything aside and chug on. But then I go, Bullshit. If you got your throat cut, would you have got up and skated off? I'm not sure. If you shot yourself or got a bullet in the head, would you have been able to stand up and walk around? I'm not sure.
Like, I'm a tough sonofabitch.
Rob Trucks's interview with Clint Malarchuk is part of an oral history project with Americans turning 50, including Pulitzer Prize winners, Grammy Award winners, National Book Award winners, D-1 basketball coaches and All-Pro football players and former baseball players who barely made the majors, a MacArthur Award winner, a Tony Award winner, a Playboy Playmate of the Month, a woman who has flown on the space shuttle three times and a woman who flew on the space shuttle only twice, the lieutenant governors of Florida and Maryland, as well as Trucks's date to his senior high school prom. His last piece for Deadspin was his interview with the late Dave Duerson. His latest book, on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album for Continuum's 33 1/3 series, is available through Amazon and better bookstores everywhere. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Black-and-white Malarchuk photo via the New York Daily News.