Vancouver Canucks, B.C. government launch addiction awareness campaign to help fight overdose crisis

NHL players have supported teammates through substance use, and now it’s time for the Vancouver Canucks to acknowledge fans battling their own addiction issues, retired goalie Kirk McLean says.

McLean is the ambassador of an awareness campaign the Canucks announced Monday by placing two ads around Rogers Arena. They each feature a man and a woman and the tag line: “People who use drugs are real people. Get involved. Get informed. Get help.”  The campaign is in partnership with the province’s Mental Health and Addictions Ministry, which will also include messages on television, social media and billboards.

British Columbia declared a public health emergency in 2016 because of an unprecedented number of overdose deaths.  The BC Coroners Service recorded 1,208 fatal overdoses between January and October last year. The powerful opioid fentanyl was detected in 999 of the confirmed and suspected deaths during that time, an increase of 136 per cent from the same period in 2016.

McLean stood in the stands on Monday during a Canucks practice as players saluted first responders including paramedics and firefighters who are often on the front lines reviving people who have overdosed.  He said he’s hoping the ads will spark conversations among friends and families as they attend Canucks games so the stigma attached to illicit drug use is broken, among professional athletes too.

“Hopefully people take notice and we use this celebrityism, so to speak, to say: ‘Listen, athletes have issues too. They’re just like everybody else. Yes, we put them up on pedestal but some go home and have to deal with drug abuse and mental health issues and hibernate in their homes by themselves.’”

The message to fans is: “You’re not alone. We’re here to help you out,” McLean said in an interview.

Three of McLean’s former teammates suffered through mental health issues and addiction to drugs and alcohol, including one who was suicidal, said McLean, who retired in 2001.  “It was scary, it was hard core” he said. “Some days we weren’t sure if we were going to see them again.”  He noted former Calgary Flames player Theo Fleury, who became addicted to drugs and alcohol after surviving sexual abuse by his junior coach and then went on to help others struggling with addiction.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy said the campaign is meant to leave a powerful impression on people who could help others struggling in silence.  “Turning the tide on this overdose crisis will take each one of us,” she told a news conference at Rogers Arena.

Leslie McBain, whose son, 25-year-old Jordan Miller, died of an opioid overdose in 2014, said the campaign will reach an important segment of society that’s been hit hard by overdose deaths.  “A lot of fans, mostly men, are part of the cohort that is dying at home alone,” said McBain, who attended the news conference.  McBain called on other sports teams to get involved in spreading the message about drug use, especially to reach young fans who need to know it’s OK to talk about drug use.

Paramedic David Hilden was also in the stands as the Canucks paid tribute to first responders.  “It’s just an acknowledgment that addiction spans all walks of life,” Hilden said of the campaign.  “A lot of people look up to them as mentors in society, and certainly the young kids. That’s the people we need to get a hold of and educate.”  Hilden, who has been on the job for 33 years, said the number of overdoses has escalated sharply.

“We see it on a fairly regular basis daily, all day, all night. It’s everywhere in British Columbia.”

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